Last week I went to a concert with a woman I have known for 5 years and not spent more than 5 minutes alone with. She emailed me, pretty much out of the blue, and asked if I’d like to go to this concert with her. Her daughter had told her how much I love music (I’m famous among my daughters’ friends for playing my music loud and often and encouraging sing-a-longs in the car), so she thought of me when she realized she had an extra ticket.
Turns out that was only half the story.
On the evening that we sat on the lawn, dining on Noodles & Co. prior to the show, she confided that she and her husband had just separated two weeks ago. She had been in full agreement on the separation, but he had now announced that he wanted a divorce, and fast. She was adjusting and processing all this information and her situation. A whole new life was in front of her and she had lots of questions. So, of course, since I was pretty much the first of our acquaintance to go through this (and therefore a veteran, right?), she called me.
I looked at my new friend (whom I’ll call “Gwen”), and was struck by the gulf of experience that lay between us. She was mildly frightened, tentatively hopeful, and completely unaware of the emotional war zone she was about to wade into. Gwen is a very intelligent, compassionate woman with two children and an 18-year marriage coming to a close. She is not patently naive nor foolish, but it is nearly impossibly to appreciate what awaits you in Divorceland before you enter it.
I listened as she explained how it had come about and what their circumstances are now. I saw her fervent hope that somehow this would be civil and they could still be friends, and I heard her enormous reluctance to do anything whatsoever that might anger her soon-to-be-ex-husband and threaten that future possibility of friendship. I gently shared some basic framework of the road ahead and reminded her that she cannot control him or his feelings, and to take care of herself.
I didn’t share the ugly details of how disappointing it is to see your former spouse morph into someone you neither know nor respect. I didn’t tell her how painful it can be to watch your children acclimate to their new normal. I didn’t dismay her with tales of dating woes. Because she didn’t need to hear all of that. She’ll find out soon enough. Perhaps hers will be the divorce that is truly and completely amicable. Maybe her children won’t struggle and dating won’t take the wind out of her. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Regardless, her future was not to be altered by my words, and I didn’t want it determined by them, either.
She relayed to me how someone close to her had cynically told her how horrible her separation and divorce were going to be and how foolish she was for thinking it could be otherwise. My heart went out to her and I assured her that her story would be hers and her husband’s alone. Not mine, not her other friend’s, not anyone else’s mattered. Because that’s the truth, isn’t it?
Yes, divorce sucks. There’s not much good to recommend the whole process. But this is where she is now and scaring her silly is only going to make her situation worse. None of us make our best decisions out of fear, so the longer she can avoid that particular zone, the better off she is. The other side — when she finally gets there — will be much better than where she is now. But, damn, is there a lot of muck between here and there. It’s kind of like having a baby: if you really knew the pain of labor without the joy of the newborn, you might not have gotten pregnant that first time. And the hard fact is that Gwen is already pregnant with her divorce proceedings. There’s no going back. Better to just hold her hand and remind her to breathe through it.
As the sun set and the opening act warmed up the audience, we talked about what her life might be like when it was all over. I made her laugh and kept her focused on the possibilities in front of her. She told me how much better she was feeling, and I was glad. We talked about the importance of female friendships and the need for community when going through something life-changing like this.
In the week since then, we’ve exchanged a few emails and I have noticed things that take me back to when I was newly separated. The plot is so much the same, even if the story is unique.
Sometimes I am still surprised to realize that I am divorced — “What?! When did that happen?!” — but then I look around me and the events of the last 3 1/2 years come rushing up to my consciousness and I remember that at some point, I joined this club. It’s a strange club. No one ever wants to join, or imagines that they will be a member someday. And yet here we are. Moving forward, glancing back, pushing on.
And reminding each other to breathe.