Updated: Nov 15, 2020
There’s a swear word that is often used by people who have just separated from their life partner. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t start with “F”. The word is “should”.
Conversations with our inner voice often follow this script: “I should have been a better wife/husband/partner”, “I should have tried harder/stayed longer/left earlier” and “I should just get over it/stop drinking/move on”.
But there are a number of problems with sending this message to yourself.
If you were in an abusive relationship, you were probably fed a lot of shoulds: “You should lose weight/be a better parent/nag less and then I’ll love you and be kind to you”. If you continue to use the "should" word, you are essentially continuing the abuse. Against yourself.
If your separation was amicable, the word is still destructive. “I should have been able to make my marriage work.” “I should have spent less time in the office and more time with my family”. Over and again, you’re reinforcing the idea that you’re a failure, because your marriage didn’t work, and it should have.
The reason "should" is so awful is because it involves judgement and shame.
Who decides what we should and shouldn’t do? In an abusive relationship, it’s fairly clear who’s making the decisions about appropriateness. But who decided that ending a relationship that doesn’t serve you should be considered failure, rather than success?
Could it be society’s celebration of long marriages? Perhaps it’s the religious aspect of the union or the traditional vows ("till death do us part", originally drafted when life expectancy was around 30). Or maybe we’ve all just accepted the white picket fence equation (that success = spouse + house + career + car + 2.4 children).
Most of us don’t turn up to our wedding believing the union will end in divorce. But often it does. For a number of reasons, including lack of intimacy, infidelity, abuse, lack of compatibility, inequality, loss of identity or getting married at an early age or for the wrong reasons.
Leaving a marriage or relationship in which you’ve invested emotional effort, for any reason, is difficult. At the very least, it involves grieving the loss of a shared vision for the future. It's rarely done lightly, particularly when children are involved. It’s traumatic and it's painful.
So if your marriage or relationship has fallen apart, accept you did everything you could. And if you didn’t, acknowledge that it’s over anyway. Accepting what happened, rather than focusing on what someone thought should have happened, is a kinder way to treat yourself in the raw post-separation period.
Accept the as is. Forget the "should".