The Stories we Tell Ourselves

World War 2 medic Henry Beecher had a limited amount of morphine in his bag. He walked across a battlefield strewn with wounded soldiers, some rolling around or crying out in pain; others lying still, quietly bleeding into the earth. Trying to figure out which ones needed his limited supply most, he would walk up to each soldier and ask him, “Are you ok? Are you in pain? Do you need morphine?”

Lying on that battlefield, soldier after soldier would take stock internally, assess the damage, and say, “No, no I’m fine. Save the morphine for someone who needs it more.”

Years later when Dr. Beecher met gunshot wound victims in the hospital Emergency Room where he worked, he often noticed that civilians with less severe injuries would experience much greater pain than the soldiers he had known.

Dr. Beecher’s work led to his discovery of the placebo effect; which is still being explored and investigated by scientists, doctors, pharmacists, and even economists to continue unraveling the complexities of the human brain.

For me, though, it comes down to “the stories we tell ourselves.”  One description I have heard of Beecher’s work is that the soldiers on the battlefield, with their gunshot wounds, just got themselves a ticket home.  By being injured, but not killed, in battle, they would be able to return to their homes and families. For each of them the war was over, and their real lives could resume where they left off.  Sure, there would be surgery, transport, paperwork, and recovery – but it would all lead to the outcome every soldier dreams about the most – being home with family, friends, and decent work.  The gunshot in this story is almost a gift.

For the ER victims, however, the movie playing in their heads would be running in the opposite direction.   The victim of a hold-up in his drug store, for example, begins to think about the gunshot wound and picture hours of surgery, paperwork, increased insurance premiums, weeks of lost work during the recovery process; an inability to go back to work, provide for the family, or maybe even the loss of the family business.  The gunshot wound in this story is the beginning of the end of happiness

The stories we tell ourselves during the divorce are the same.  Are the papers that the lawyer draws a gunshot wound delivered on the battlefield – your ticket out of the war and into a peaceful world of your own choosing?  Or are these papers served to you like a thief come to empty your cash register – the end of the blissful life you have known and the beginning of loneliness and poverty?

I have represented people in both of these positions, sometimes within the same marriage.   There are the couples who are both tired of living on a battlefield and see divorce as their exit strategy.  They tend to have short, clean, amicable splits.  And there are those couples who both see the divorce as a terrible and necessary evil caused by the other spouse.  Those couples tend to have protracted litigation as the end of their marriages.

Most divorcing couples are a combination of the two.   There is the one who feels that the marriage has been a battle and is willing to brave pain, paperwork, and an extended recovery time, just to get out. Ironically, married to the person who thought everything was fine until now.  For that person, the daunting tasks of paperwork and beginning again feel like an injustice piled on top of an insult.

The truth, of course, is that neither story is an imperative truth.  Divorce is not a physical injury. It is a largely paperwork process designed by the legal system to protect the rights of individuals and their children.  The perception of whether it is painful or helpful, of whether it is a curse or a gift, lies strictly in the mind of the beholder.  It is the choice of each member of every divorcing couple to decide whether this is a moment of liberation or a moment of tragedy.

What we Love:  When we direct our own movies, we are more likely to enjoy the ending.

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Author: Sharon Oberst DeFala

Sharon Oberst DeFala has practiced low-impact safe divorce since 1992.

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