One of the things that enabled me to finally pull the trigger on my divorce and take the blind leap out of my marriage was the noble idea that someday, somehow, it would all be worth it – that me, my children, and even my ex-husband would someday, somehow be better off for my choice. It wasn’t just a hope, it was a certainty that I clung to fervently. Indeed, had I not convinced myself of its truth, I might never had taken that leap.
The question of whether the pain inflicted by my decision will ever be permanently offset by the benefits realized later, during and after the dust had settled, is one that I have mulled often and written about several times (for a look at those earlier posts, search “was it worth it?”). I realized fairly quickly that my own well-being had most definitely been improved by my choice, but that alone was not enough, because then I would be haunted by the pure selfishness of my decision. No, I needed to see that my children and my ex-husband had grown, improved, become better versions of themselves as a result of our family breakdown.
The question of my children remains to be seen, certainly, as they are still young and the full ramifications of our divorce have yet to have to manifest themselves. Later, when my daughters begin choosing and navigating relationships, then, perhaps, I will have a better sense of what they have actually learned from these experiences. For now I see only that they seem well-adjusted, with friends and decent grades and close bonds to both their dad and me. In fact, one recent morning, my 10-year-old informed me that she thinks our divorce has made her stronger and more compassionate. Huh. So, for now, I check that box as being as good and healthy as I could hope for and remind myself to wait and see what the future holds.
But then there is my ex-husband, Bryce. There have been many, many times since I first announced my intention to leave that I saw glimpses of remarkable personal growth in Bryce – self-awareness and openness I’d never witnessed previously in our 13 years together. Those glimpses offered me hope that our divorce would someday cease to be the worst thing that ever happened to him, and instead would be looked back upon as a fork in the road that led to a deeper happiness and peace in his life.
Have I mentioned that I’m a hopeless optimist sometimes?
Or at least that’s how I prefer to describe this part of myself. Others might label it naivete. Or foolishness. Or plain, old-fashioned stupidity. But I’m going to go with optimism. Faith in humankind. An overarching belief that most people genuinely do want to do and become better.
In one perfectly organized, perfectly courteous email sent to me at the end of October, Bryce revealed himself to me as the same man I stopped loving many years ago. The same man I left without much more than a glance over my shoulder. The same man who prioritized, above absolutely everything else, money. The same man who had tunnel vision on his own wants and needs to the extent that the girls and I simply didn’t factor in at all. At. All.
Ah, yes, I remember him.
When I read his email, with its passive-aggressive insinuations that I was not financially carrying my share of the water for our daughters, my first reaction was fear. Unemployed for 8 months at that point, with my savings running dangerously low and James’ slow season nearly upon us, I was already worrying – okay, beginning to panic – about money. But I hadn’t asked him for additional money during my unemployment, and had cut absolutely all fat from my budget (including decent health insurance for myself), in order to not have to cut back on the children’s expenses. I was doing absolutely everything I could to stay afloat, and he had to know that. So, his professorial tone and implied assumptions made my heart race. And that’s when the angel of Reality showed up and sat me down for a talk.
Alone in the house in the middle of the work day, I sat on the stairs, iPhone in hand, and re-read the email, seeing and absorbing each word carefully, allowing their full meaning to sink in, surrendering to the truth they carried.
“Okay,” I said out loud, “I get it now.” I saw what I had to do: First, I had to deal with the practical and logistical implications of the email. Then, later, I would sit down with the emotional truth within it.
The first part was easy. I called my attorney, discussed my legal obligations and options, and made arrangements for taking the necessary steps to stop the financial nonsense once and for all. They are steps that have been available to me for two years, but I have resisted taking out of my determination to maintain a solid, healthy, supportive relationship with Bryce for the benefit of my daughters. But his email helped me realize that he does not share my goal, or at least his commitment to it ends with financial considerations. I realized that I have been sacrificing my financial security for something that I value far more than he does, and while I would normally say that it’s healthy to follow my own values without reference to anyone else, there comes a point where one must accept that one is being taking advantage of. Being “nice” or “accommodating” can quickly be transformed into doormat status by those too self-absorbed to realize that they are on the receiving end of consideration. And just because he loathes paying child support does not decrease his obligation to do so. Knowing how much he hates it, I have tip-toed around the subject, to my own detriment, apparently. So, legal action may have to commence and I will deal with it as I would any other business arrangement. But, honestly, I have remarkably little anxiety about that.
After I hung up the phone with my attorney and gathered the necessary documents, I made myself a cup of hot tea and sat on my bedroom balcony, contemplating the Rockies spread out before me and wondering at the more subtle message in Bryce’s email.
I took a deep breath and willed myself to look back at our history. To honestly assess, as I might for a friend, the give and take in our relationship. I stared hard at the signs of his personal growth and at my own need to be assured of that growth. I examined the bias I had about which direction that growth should take and how it should manifest outwardly. I recognized the heaviness of the guilt that I carried about our divorce, and how desperately I still clung to the hope that Bryce would cease to be all the things that made me want to run away from him, as far and as fast as I could.
And then I realized that it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter if Bryce grows at all from the divorce, or if he grows in direction or manner that is not of my preference. It doesn’t matter if he always harbors anger and resentment toward me for ruining his life. It doesn’t matter if he blames every single unhappiness he experiences on me and the divorce. It doesn’t matter if he clings to his swollen bank account with the certainty that it will bring him peace and security. Not really. Not to me. What he does with the lessons available to him from our divorce is outside my control and responsibility. His choices, his life, and his truth are not mine. Not any longer. I do not need to reference his happiness or growth to justify my own. It is entirely his choice whether to rise above his pain and create authentic happiness, or not. I have no control or responsibility over that. At. All.
Possibly, that is the beauty of divorce. At its very core, it is about no longer being emotionally responsible for or to each other. Your life becomes, again, your very own. I did not do something to him that requires atonement or restitution; our marriage failed because we were badly suited to one another and lacked the love and commitment to last a lifetime. He is not a victim, any more than I am. It is time for me cease to measure the success of my choices by how they affect him. Time to put on my Big Girl panties and approach my relationship with Bryce with the detachment and guarded civility with which he has consistently dealt with me. Time to let go of childish fantasies of friendship and closeness, and time to realize that I don’t actually need any of that.
Letting go of needing that approval from Bryce might be the final step in our divorce. Letting go of feeling that my happiness is undeserved unless it somehow feeds the greater good is difficult for me, but might be the biggest lesson I will ultimately learn from this process.
On the whole, of course, only time will reveal all of the effects of our divorce, but time is a phenomenal teacher, if only you allow her teachings to gently rest within you. That week, she taught me that I no longer need Bryce’s approval or friendship or happiness to enjoy my own.
And that’s worth more than the contents of any bank account.