One of my guilty pleasures is the Real Housewives franchise. And the Real Housewives of Orange County Reunion wrapped up this week. Yes, the show is filled with ridiculousness and drama, some of which is certainly played up for TV through strategic editing and forced confrontations. But it has actually been very educational for me, which might sound strange coming from a college professor. But it has been educational in regards to interpersonal relationships and to understanding personality types.
When I first watched the Real Housewives of Orange County, life on my cul-de-sac suddenly made sense. We were a group of women with young children who found in each other confidents, supporters, travel companions, happy hour partners, and dancing fools. Those were years I am incredibly grateful for because that group of friends helped me survive the early years of my divorce.
It was also a group filled with drinking, drama, judgmental proclamations, and cruel gossip. But we didn’t have a TV production crew forcing us to continue to socialize for the cameras and for a paycheck. So not surprisingly, the whole thing fell apart.
Watching the first season of Orange County felt like watching my neighborhood. It fascinated me to see the women confront each other for slights, both imagined and real, both big and small. That was something we didn’t do. I am curious about whether we would have all remained friends had we actually confronted each other about what was bothering us, had we dealt with issues as they came up. I also watched amazed as women spoke in confessionals, summarizing conflicts and revealing heartfelt pain. In real life, we rarely have the opportunity to hear honest reactions from all the players involved in an “event.”
Most interesting is that oftentimes, the retellings bear little resemblance to what we have watched play out. Oftentimes, women insist they said one thing when the tape revealed they said something completely different. Oftentimes, those women are so certain that their recollection is correct that they are willing to die on that hill. It’s painful to watch. What’s worse is that the woman then spends the rest of the season interacting with the others based on her inaccurate memory, as the rest of the cast is confused. How often does this play out in our lives, with no ability to rewind and find out what actually happened? How often are we making decisions about people that are based on things that didn’t happen or weren’t said? How often do we hear what we want to hear or what we expect to hear rather than what was actually said? How often do we attribute malice when if we could look back at the context, it is clear there was no malice? If this show is any indication, it must happen all the time.
The other way I learn is that I come across people in my life who resemble women on the show. Observing how they respond to conflict and what they have to say about themselves and others is instructive. When I meet similar people, and the show gives me a chance to peak inside their heads, I have a chance to try to understand how they see things, even if just for a moment.
I also look for me, with the hope that by finding her I might gain some insight into myself. If I could find me and see how she interacts with others and how others respond to her, I could better understand my own interaction with the world.
And this season, I found someone. Someone who felt familiar. Someone I recognized.
For those who don’t watch, during her tenure on the show, Shannon’s husband cheated on her, promised it would never happen again, and surprised her with a vow renewal ceremony. Shannon gained quite a bit of weight from the stress. And ultimately, the two, who have three daughters, divorced after 17 years of marriage.
In short, Shannon has not dealt with the divorce very well. Off camera, the story is that she didn’t leave the house for months, and she called her friend and fellow Housewife Tamra multiple times a day in tears and in crisis. On camera, Shannon tried to put on a good face and continue life as normal. But new castmates judged her harshly and publicly for not taking enough interest in them and for not becoming instant friends. And old friends criticized her harshly and publicly for not supporting them in their own struggles over the season. The most striking example was with Tamra, whose husband was treated repeatedly and unsuccessfully for Afib. The show tracked Tamra’s genuine fear about her husband’s well being. It also tracked the hurt she felt that Shannon seemed indifferent to what she was going through. Tamra’s hurt is completely understandable, and her anger at Shannon for not being a good friend is justified.
Throughout the season, other Housewives confronted Shannon about the lopsided friendship she had with everyone. And they were sick of it.
The first time Tamra told Shannon she was hurt because she didn’t call when her husband was in the hospital, Shannon stared at her like a deer in headlights. And apologized, in shock. Later in the season, when confronted about being selfish and a bad friend, something people felt the need to bring up repeatedly, Shannon got defensive and fought back, explaining that she was going through a really tough time. But those explanations just reinforced the complaints – all she thinks about is herself.
My heart broke for Shannon. I finally found me.
I wasn’t married as long as Shannon. I was married only seven years. But we dated for five years before that. I have come to learn, however, that those years impacted me to a far greater extent than I could have ever imagined. And I have come to learn that healing took me longer than I was actually married (not that I will ever be completely healed – I have found I have some pretty deep scars.).
Before I left my husband, an acton I had contemplated for two years, I could feel myself slowly dying, disappearing, shutting down. When I left him, it felt like I had pulled myself up from the depths of the ocean, and when finally reaching the surface, gasped desperately for air. In contrast, I suddenly felt alive and ready to face the world. And I jumped in with two feet. However, I was no where near ready to face the world.
I was wounded and weak. Whenever I had the inevitable contact with my ex, his goal was to disrupt my life and destroy me, punish me. That is not an exaggeration. I had no armor to protect me or tools to deal with the onslaught. Recovery after each interaction was long and painful. At the same time, I was a single mom to my two very young children, raising them full time as my ex refused to spend even one night with them the first year post-divorce, and for the remainder of their childhood, saw them only a handful of times per year. I was working full time, as the meager child support was sporadic. But I quickly found a group of friends in my neighborhood who also had children. I found the support group and friends I had longed for. And boy did we have fun.
I was not a good friend during that time. I wasn’t capable. My thoughts were completely dominated by fear of my ex and by anger at myself for choosing him. I spent every spare mental moment trying to figure out how this had happened and beating myself up for the fact that it did. I needed to be strong for my kids and to keep them protected from the hatred my ex spit at me. I had nothing left over.
But I had friends! Yay!
Before I met my husband, I prided myself on being considerate of my friends. In the days before emails, texts, and Facebook posts, I consistently sent out Christmas cards to an ever-growing list and never missed getting a birthday card in the mail on time. Long distance calls were a big part of my budget. Friends were important to me. I kept this up for a while during my marriage, but once I got divorced, the thought of trying to keep track of my friends’ birthdays was completely beyond my capability. That is no exaggeration. I didn’t have the energy or the focus.
Unfortunately, only from a place of distance from my divorce could I see that during those years, I was a selfish friend. I’m sure it was all about me. I’m certain I showed little to no concern for the struggles of any of my friends. And if I did show concern, it wasn’t consistent or reliable concern. If it wasn’t thrown in my face, I would not have seen it. I was consumed with surviving a devastation that felt unconquerable and that I was ill-equipped to handle.
Eventually, long after our friendships were unsalvageable, I was told via email that I had not been a good friend. The complaints were exactly the same as Tamra’s were about Shannon. And I am sure my friend who sent the email was probably just as hurt as Tamra was.
I also know this. I was as shell-shocked as Shannon. Those around her accused her of lying, being selfish, being mentally ill, being full of bullshit, being a terrible friend, and as needing medication. She should get over the divorce already, the Housewives complained. It’s been long enough. I saw Shannon’s face. She thought she had been a great friend to Tamra and even asked Tamra to defend her, but Tamra told her she couldn’t defend her. Shannon was devastated. She had no idea.
My guess would be that Shannon had no ill will for any of these ladies. My guess would be that Shannon had been so consumed with survival that she failed to notice anything going on around her. She just simply didn’t have the resources available to notice.
I get it. That was me. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, that was me. Watching Shannon with her friends gave me a window into my own descent into hell after my divorce.
It pained me to watch the other woman fail to appreciate the depths of Shannon’s hole.
This isn’t something I could have or would have written about in the years recovering from my divorce. And it’s a bit scary putting it out there now. But maybe those who have a friend going through something that they are ill-equipped to handle will be a bit more understanding.
I am not saying that anyone should agree to be a doormat in the name of friendship. Nor am I saying someone should remain vested in a friendship only to be repeatedly ignored. Nor am I saying someone shouldn’t distance themselves from a friend insistent on marinating in the negative.
But maybe friends will have some compassion. Maybe they won’t take what someone is going through personally. Maybe they won’t lash out in anger, trying to retaliate for the hurt by inflicting more hurt. Maybe they will instead, in kindness, point out how how their friend is, however inadvertently, hurting people and pushing them away.
Shannon walked away from her friendship with Tamra before they were forced to sit across from each other at the Reunion. Which I understand. I walked away as well. It was just too much for me to handle. I had been teetering on the edge every day. I failed not only at marriage but also at friendship. Walking away was the only way I knew how to protect myself. I spent all day going over what was wrong with me, and I didn’t think I could survive anyone else telling me what was wrong with me too.
In perfect storytelling fashion, the Orange County Reunion, where much of the vitriol was launched at Shannon, ended with Tamra coming to a critical realization about her friend. In trying to explain an outburst she had during the season, Shannon told the ladies that at the time, all she could hear them saying was, “You can’t handle your life. Look at you. You’re a mess. And you need help.”
Tamra, with heartfelt concern, looked Shannon in the eye and asked if that was what her husband told her. The realization was visible across Shannon’s face, because yes, that is what she was told repeatedly. And Tamra’s heart immediately melted, spilling out love.
It’s too bad the rest of us aren’t forced to hash some of these things out in order to mend our relationships and open our hearts.