“The thing that bugs me,” my friend texted, “is that I don’t know if it’s really that bad. You know?”
I did know. I asked myself that same question daily, sometimes hourly, in the last year or so of my crappy marriage. It was something I tried to determine for myself while hiding in the bathroom, stomach clenching in anxious agony, doing furtive incognito-tab searches on my phone. And even though now, over a year since I left, I know that leaving was the right thing to do, I still can’t quite name the badness. My therapist calls what I experienced emotional abuse; a friend who was horribly abused as a child read one of the many emails my ex bombarded me with in the aftermath of our separation and was shaken, describing it as exactly the type of thing they used to receive from their abusive mother before cutting off contact. Me, though? I can’t quite bring myself to say the big A-word. I know it was bad, but it just doesn’t feel like it was THAT bad.
Hers, though? I reply with no hesitation that it’s that bad and worse. But is “Is it that bad” really even the right question to ask?
It is true that someone has it worse than you. This is always true. Humanity, it seems, is constantly perpetrating truly heinous acts on one another. If I were to say that what I went through — that anything I’ve ever been through — was as bad as being trafficked, being shot at a routine traffic stop, or dying alone in an apartment for want of medicine, I’d be an asshole. I’ve never been through anything close to those things, and perspective is good.
What doesn’t seem good, though, or at least doesn’t seem useful, is using that perspective as a weapon against yourself. I’ve watched so many people, including myself, treat themselves like a parent trying to convince their kid to eat their Brussels sprouts: there are people starving in the streets. Just get over it. This isn’t so bad. But just like the homeless person in the car across town never benefits from uneaten sprouts, neither do the victims of worldwide, mostly systemic atrocities benefit from someone failing to make their own life better.
Without getting too high on my soapbox, living within capitalism creates a false sense of scarcity. It’s not that there isn’t enough food or shelter in the U.S. to go around — it’s that a number of people’s jobs don’t make enough money for them to afford it, or that they don’t have a job and have fallen through the holes in our long-tattered safety net. The scarcity isn’t real, but it’s very tightly enforced, which creates a creeping, widespread obsession about having enough. If you’re a compassionate, progressive type — or even just a woman who’s been raised to know your place, don’t consume too much, don’t take up too much space — you worry just as much about taking too much. You become acutely aware that the slice you cut out of the pie leaves that much less for the next person, so you weigh very carefully exactly how much you believe you deserve.
But there is no actual scarcity of care. Care is not a finite resource. It is not a pie. Taking what you need to make your existence bearable does not leave less behind in the world. If anything, care multiplies: the same people who remain in bad situations or avoid measures to improve their lives because “it’s not that bad” don’t end up bettering someone else’s existence instead because, as so many therapists and counselors repeat, it’s impossible to pour from an empty pitcher.
In the case of my past struggles and my friend’s current one, the concept of “bad enough” carries a thousand extra burdens like cans tied to a car bumper. Leaving a marriage — or any relationship — doesn’t just affect the leaver, so it is an act of choosing yourself over the happiness or stability of another. This is hard for anyone, but it’s especially difficult as a woman who’s been raised to believe it’s her job to be the peacekeeper, the caretaker, to make sure everyone is okay. It’s difficult given the cultural weight of marriage as permanent; ending a marriage, especially at a relatively young age or short amount of time, feels so much like breaking a promise that you made to your partner, your God, and everyone you know. Our culture also dearly loves to tell people, especially women, that a relationship that ends has “failed.” And of course, if you’re the caretaker, the failure is yours.
So of course it only makes sense that before you wound people, break promises, and become a failure, you want to be damned sure that it’s “bad enough.” Leaving without that certainty feels like the most selfish act in the world. So you start comparing: It’s not as bad as someone who’s being beaten. It’s nothing compared to what my grandmother went through. When you think these things, though, you’re really ultimately asking Do I deserve to do this big thing that will stop guaranteeing my own misery? If you start comparing yourself to others, you’ll always find that the answer is no. So many people will always have it worse.
The last and hardest bridge to cross is convincing yourself that it doesn’t matter. Not that the suffering of others doesn’t matter — it does, to a horrifying degree. But it doesn’t apply to whether or not you help yourself. Is your situation standing between you and contentment? If you don’t change things, will it be a deathbed regret? Then it’s bad enough.
Saying “you deserve it” sounds like a pithy affirmation mass-produced to hang from suburban walls. It’s empty. What is full, though, is the idea that ending something bad isn’t a matter of “enough” or “deserving.” If you see that happiness in the world is in short supply, increasing your own can only add to it.