It had only been 4 months since my ex-husband and I split up our eighteen-year marriage when I realized the learning curve had been a lot sharper than I anticipated. Even after all of the planning, all of the arranging, and all of the groundwork I laid to ensure a smooth process, there were still so many things I never saw coming. I had learned more than I wanted to in that short time and looking back over it, I’m pretty sure I can say with certainty that there is likely still a lot more coming. Man, life lessons are hard.
The dissolution of any relationship is much more complicated, complex, and detailed than can be explained in a social media post, but when these five lessons set in, I knew they were worth sharing…
1. Grieving was completely unexpected but totally necessary.
The picture I painted that depicted what my life was going to be immediately after the split couldn’t have been further from what the real picture looked like. I had daydreams of joy, laughter, precious alone time, freedom, excitement, and contentment. What I actually had was sadness, loneliness, and unforeseen heartache. It wasn’t that I was mourning him; I was mourning what once was that could no longer be. Damn, did it hurt.
Not ever having gone through a divorce before, I was under the impression that since I was the one that initiated this and wanted it, I would be instantly happy as soon as I left. The most significant divorce in my life that presented the example from which I could pull insight was my mother and father. They hated each other. They still hate each other and my mother isn’t even living anymore. It wasn’t a kind divorce, to put it mildly. Conversely, my ex and I not only parted on good terms, but we also parted as friends committed to raising our daughter without the emotional hiccups that typically accompany divorce.
I knew the example laid out by my mother and father wouldn’t represent my divorce, but I did assume I’d float right into my new life without a glitch. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I know in my heart that all the good is on its way, but I also now know I would seriously shortchange myself if I didn’t take the time and make the space to feel all the feelings, even the ones that aren’t so fun. The painful lessons are the most profound because we never forget the pain.
I think the most unexpected emotional crash I experienced was the day I moved out. I was pulling out of my driveway as a wife and inhabitant of our home for the very last time and out of nowhere my wedding day came smashing into my mind like a wrecking ball. Our joy, our intimacy, our commitment, all of our intense love and expectations for the future came at me like a movie reel that had no “off” switch. It was a deep level of agony that was so unexpected it hit me like a ton of bricks. The intense sadness that welled up inside of me and spilled over onto my cheeks for the rest of that day, and for the next two months, was almost unbearable. This may sound strange, but I’m grateful to have gone through that time. I now see that it was my way of honoring the parts of our relationship that were good, and there were far more of those than bad.
Lesson learned: rather than painting pictures in my mind, leave myself open to what needs to be acknowledged and released, even knowing a lot of it may include pain. But remember to leave just as much room for all the good things that will follow.
2. Hindsight really is the greatest teacher of all time.
Looking back, I now understand where the initial crack started in our marriage and I can follow that crack throughout the years as it grew, expanded, and eventually shattered our relationship. My ex was diagnosed with Neuromyelitis Optica when I was 7 months pregnant with our first and only child. If you don’t know what NMO is, look it up. It’s scary as fuck and has a 98% five-year survival rate. That means that 98% of people diagnosed with NMO will live for 5 years after diagnosis, and the other 2% will die within those 5 years. Sure, that didn’t mean that he wouldn’t live beyond those 5 years, but the prognosis wasn’t good. That, my friend, was what you would call “bad news” that we received on that day.
My ex became sick, and I mean really sick. He spent months in bed at a time and the stress that caused him, me, and our home in general, was grueling, to say the least. We had a brand new business (that we started when I was 2 months pregnant), a brand new house, and a brand new baby. This was all coupled with the constant fear that he was going to die at any moment. Because of this, he turned into a person I didn’t know, which turned me into a person I didn’t know. He became resentful and angry, and all of a sudden I couldn’t do anything right. I spent money wrong (or at all), I wasn’t thin enough, I didn’t exercise enough, and I ate all the wrong foods. Even my parenting became a target. In turn, I became distant, cold, and angry. I pushed him out of my life in every way I could because I always felt as if he was so disappointed in me with regard to, well…everything. It was painful.
Unfortunately, instead of getting the emotional and therapeutic help we so badly needed, we divided and conquered. We went into survival mode and for us that meant his health first, baby second, business/money third, house fourth, and I’d love to say our marriage was fifth but, honestly, it wasn’t. It didn’t even make the list. We thought we were doing the right thing by “unselfishly” putting everything before our marriage because we never even considered it wasn’t strong enough to hold all the pressure and consequences of his disease. We were wrong.
I did try to convince my ex that we desperately needed therapy. However, he strongly felt it was unnecessary and I know why: ego and money. Eventually, I gave up and stopped trying to talk him into it. That was my biggest mistake.
I can see now that we made a classic mistake that often happens when one spouse gets sick and the other becomes the caregiver: he was deemed the “sick one” and as such was permitted to behave in ways that would normally be unforgivable. But because of his illness, those behaviors were seen as understandable and even acceptable, all while I, as the caregiver, took all the hits like the punching bag I was expected to be.
Interesting fact: he lived. He still lives, 17 years after his diagnosis. I’m more grateful than you can imagine, but what I know now that I wish I knew then, huh??
Lesson learned: get the help, even if I’m not sure I/we need it. If we had gotten the help we needed we may still be together today. Now we’ll never know.
3. There will always be two different narratives and there’s nothing I can do about it.
I openly took three years to leave my husband. Meaning, he was fully aware for those three years that I was leaving as soon as I felt we were all prepared, and he was told why I was leaving. In fact, I think I explained to my husband, with complete transparency and in full detail, the reasons I was leaving at least fifty+ times in those three years and even about a dozen times after I left. And you know what? He is STILL asking me why I left.
If you ask him, he will tell you I divorced him for one of two reasons:
- He doesn’t know and doesn’t understand.
- I am “non-traditional” (whatever that means) and a person that desires to be alone more than with a partner or family.
This drove me crazy until I realized it was because we had two different narratives about what went wrong in our marriage and no matter how many times I explained my reasoning to him, he wasn’t and still isn’t ready for the truth.
And that’s OK.
However, the problem I ran into with these two different narratives is when I realized it wasn’t just that he wasn’t ready for the truth, it was that he fundamentally and simply did not believe me or my truth.
And that’s not OK.
I began to see this pattern that I could follow back through the early stages of our relationship. Whether it was the color of paint I chose for a room in our home, the kind of car I wanted to buy, a decision in our company, or absolutely any big or small thing, any idea I voiced would instantly receive a list of reasons why it wouldn’t work and would be forgotten. So, I began making decisions without him, furthering the distance between us.
This is also the same pattern that crept in when I told him I wanted a divorce. He chose not to believe my reasoning and not to believe that I would actually leave. It was infuriating.
His disbelief in my leaving was so strong that he actually convinced himself (and others) that I was leaving because I was either in the midst of a midlife crisis or that I was gay. Obviously, I wasn’t leaving because I knew that I was unhappy, knew I needed to make a change, and could trust my own head and heart. Clearly, my choice to leave had nothing to do with him or any of his behaviors or contributions to the breakdown of our marriage. Of course, it had to be because I was either losing my mind to an invasion of hormones or because, out of nowhere and for the first time in my life, I was no longer attracted to the opposite gender, and thereby now attracted to the same gender. I couldn’t even bother to discuss this with him it was so insulting.
Lesson learned: I will never be able to control anyone else’s opinion or narrative about me but I can control my own, and that is the only one I need to be concerned with. Trust and believe myself, always.
4. When I left, I took my patterns with me.
This is a recent revelation and one that I’m currently working pretty hard on. This was a tricky one because, as I said, my ex and I remained friends after our split. Though this is what we wanted, I now see that it makes it a lot harder to immediately lay down strong boundaries and keep the waters from getting murky, particularly if one of you still wants to stay together, which was the case with my ex.
During our marriage, I was the caregiver and problem-solver in our family. Daily life and all the ins-and-outs were in my bucket and I was the “fixer”. If anyone needed care, something needed to be solved, or a conundrum needed to be teased apart, I lept into action. In fact, I took it upon myself to fix things before it could even be established that something needed fixing.
After our split, I would stay on the phone with my ex for hours to “be there for him” when he needed to talk. When he wanted something from the grocery store, he’d ask me and I’d find myself running things right over to him (in all fairness, he did some of this for me as well). When he contracted Covid, I didn’t just drop off his prescriptions and make some extra soup for him; I ran right over and cleaned his bedroom, washed his sheets, remade his bed, cleaned his bathroom, and all kinds of extra stuff. Why? Because that’s what my role was in our marriage. It didn’t dawn on me until days later that I was continuing a role with responsibilities that weren’t mine anymore. Moreover, my ex saw my “extra” as proof that I still loved him. At least that’s what he said to me. I thought it was ridiculous for him to make that leap, but now I see that it was a logical jump. I hadn’t changed anything in my behavior since I left. What else would anyone think??
There were also less obvious situations that took me a while to catch onto, like when we would hang out at my new home on the front porch and have a few drinks and catch up. While this seemed harmless, the conversation would always veer into our split and my ex wanting to know, again, why we weren’t together anymore. What were, to me, innocent evenings with two friends taking time to meet up and relax were, to him, opportunities to reconcile. This was further confirmed in a recent phone call we shared when he stated, in so many words, that it was clear I still had one foot on the side of reconciliation because I engaged in these social moments with him. I was continuing the pattern of who we were together in our marriage without giving it a thought. Because we didn’t allow the old relationship to break down, we continually slid right back into the intimate partners we were previous to our split and this kept both of us from moving on in the ways we individually needed to.
Lesson learned: Give lots of space to allow the puzzle pieces time to form new, and hopefully healthy, patterns along with strong boundaries and clear roles. Also, while my nose is in someone else’s life, who’s living mine? Gotta love Byron Katie…
5. I was so busy preparing everyone else, I forgot to prepare myself.
Correction: I forgot to prepare myself for the unexpected, clearly. I know this seems redundant, as this is exactly what I have previously explained in the 4 lessons above, but it bears singling out by itself simply because learning this lesson is what led to this very article.
I was so concerned with making sure my ex was going to be OK, and my daughter would not only survive our split but thrive, I forgot to take the time I now know I needed to prepare myself for this ginormous life change. I prepared myself financially, but it never dawned on me that I would need to prepare myself emotionally. I can’t believe I thought I could endure this colossal shift with no more than a grin and a bottle of wine. There were, and still are, so many huge life lessons in all of this and even though they are seriously fucking painful, I don’t want to miss any of them. However, I wish I had expected and prepared myself a little better for the pain.
But then, how would I learn this very life lesson right now? What would I write about then?
Lesson learned: big changes = big emotions and both require time, space, respect, and lots of preparation, even if you don’t think they do. Simply put, expect the unexpected.
6. Bonus lesson learned: Doing it the right way was worth all the pain.
When I came to the very difficult decision that I needed to leave my marriage, I declared to myself that I would do it the “right way”. Now, let me be clear: the “right way” was the right way for me. This may not be the right way for anyone else, but I knew intuitively that this is what I needed to do so that I could leave with no regrets. I knew that I could do it this way because I had a partner that was willing to meet me in the middle, even with his stubborn lack of understanding. I know how lucky that makes me.
My goal was to inflict as little harm as possible. To me, that meant taking as much time as was necessary to prepare my ex emotionally, physically, and financially for our break, and that was three years. I wanted this because I couldn’t allow precious time that should be going to our daughter’s care throughout this big change to go to our unresolved issues. Because of this, we can look forward to a future of kindness, respect, and friendship. It was worth every bit of those three years to make this what I knew it could be.
Lastly, I’m more proud of myself than I could have ever imagined. I had a family that got along, supported, and loved each other. I had a husband that loved me and was devoted to me. I had (and still have, thankfully) a successful business, a house with no mortgage, cars with no loans, and no debt. I had a very safe and easy life ahead of me…and I left anyway. I knew I deserved more than a safe life. I knew I couldn’t settle for anything less than total bliss. I knew I was worth it.
I finally accepted that I wasn’t happy and when I considered sacrificing my happiness for the sake of the comfort of others, as most women have been taught to do, I knew I couldn’t. Instead, I bet on myself. I bet that if I left, I could begin the return to who I was before allowing all the rules and roles that someone else wrote and defined to take over my own good judgment. I bet that if I left, I could show my daughter what real strength looks like and, moreover, that when she needs to make tough decisions in her own life, she absolutely can. I wanted her to never doubt herself or her right to her own bliss. I bet that if I left, I could be a living, breathing example of a woman living on her own terms and knowing she is worth it. I’m happy to say that my daughter now lives part-time with a mother that is 90% less angry, stressed, and anxious, and 90% more available, happy, and open to her.
Turns out I was a safe bet.
I still have lessons to learn, pain to endure, and a wide-open future that is not just a little scary, but I have never doubted my decision, not even in the worst moments. I chose myself, and that is never, ever, the wrong decision.