Tag Archives: divorce

always was

One cold January day in 2009, I sat in my therapist’s office and numbly contemplated the options before me.  I could leave my then-husband and break up my family.  I could stay and we could attempt couples’ counseling.  Or I could stay, not do couples counseling, and agree with my husband that it was all just a mid-life crisis that we could simply put behind us and resume life as (mostly) normal.  “Given our specific problems and their origins and duration,” I asked my therapist, “approximately how long will we have to do couples therapy before there would likely be any significant changes to our dynamic?”

She paused, obviously choosing her words carefully.  “Weekly intensive therapy with a real desire on both your parts’ to make progress… approximately 2 years… give or take.”

I think I just stared calmly at her at first.  My ears were ringing, my heart was pounding, and there was voice in my head screaming at the top of her lungs: “NOOOOO!!!  No way can I do this for 2 more years!  No way.  No how.  I won’t make it.  I swear I can’t do!”

Ultimately, I shook my head determinedly.  “No,” I said firmly.  “I don’t have enough left.  I just can’t do it anymore.”

The trouble with difficult relationship dynamics is that what we fear most is that things will be how they always were.  He will be who he always was.  I will be who I always was.  Nothing will change. What always was, will always be.

Always was is a powerful idea.

As a college advertising student, I was fascinated by the piles of psychological and sociological studies that confirmed, over and over again, in study after study after study, that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.  This applies as much to the way that we handle communication in a relationship as to the kind of toothpaste we buy.  We humans are amazingly predictable; at least from a scientific standpoint.  We are animals who fall into comfortable patterns that we cling to, even if those patterns no longer serve us.  Unlike other animals, who mostly have no psychological attachment to their pattern, we cling to ours, pulling in denial, projection, and blame to defend them.

Later, as a law student, I spent lots of time contemplating the various rules of evidence barring admission of most previous crimes and behaviors, unless they have a direct and immediate baring on the case at hand.  I sympathized with juries infuriated to learn, after issuing a Not Guilty verdict, that the defendant had been charged or convicted multiple times for similar or identical offenses.  Even some of our most poorly educated citizens know that “if he’s done it before, he’s more likely to do it again.”

But, of course, it’s not always true.  What always was does not have to always be.

I wrote a whole post not too long entitled “can people change?” and I am a firm believer in our human ability to arrest a behavior or pattern that we no longer like about ourselves and change it.  People overcome horrible childhoods, abusive relationship choices, and personal addictions everyday.  But the real tough part about change is when the pattern involves not just our own behavior, but our partner’s, as well.  That partner — and his behavior — is the uncontrolled variable in the equation.  As every successful rehab program knows, changing the addicted individual only gets you so far, if the people and influences around her remain toxic or undermine her attempts toward positive growth, she is most likely to fail in her attempts to affect real and substantial and lasting change.

Likewise, if the individual simply changes her surroundings, but not herself, the likelihood of repeating previous patterns is also high.  I think a good example of this is the woman who moves from abusive relationship to abusive relationship, always thinking that the next guy will be “different,” without ever examining her own role in those choices or that abusive dynamic.  The next guy might indeed be “different,” but if she is the same, the outcome might be eerily similar if not downright identical.

For most of us, these triggers and patterns are more nuanced than an addiction or an abusive relationship.  They manifest as small patterns in our relationships… the way we retreat or attack when hurt… how we approach conflict… what we expect in terms of attention or affection or affirmation…  how controlling or passive we are… the list goes on and on.

I recently had reason to consider my fear of what always was in the context of remarrying.  Since my divorce, I have sworn, without reservation, that I will not remarry.  Not because I am opposed to marriage as an institution, or because I don’t believe in commitment, or because of some feminist ideal, but because I came to fundamentally dislike who I was when I was married.  I see clearly the things I did wrong in my marriage, my contributions to its failing, and the woman I became during that time.  By the time I left my marriage, I didn’t really like her anymore.  She was scared and closed off and depressed and impatient and fatalistic about things.  She had sacrificed the best parts of herself to the altar of his criticisms and was left empty because of it, moving through a life that felt lonely and meaningless.  I don’t ever, ever, ever want to be that woman again.  But, I am afraid that what I always was then, is what I would always be the next time.

I watch with some degree of envy as other women assume that by trading out a mate, they are assured of creating a different outcome for their marital happiness.  I am not convinced that it is so easy.  True, the men I’ve dated since my divorce are almost complete opposites from my ex-husband in every way that matters, but that only accounts for half the equation, right?  What about me?  Have I changed enough to avoid all those old patterns?  Have I figured out alternative responses and behaviors for the triggers that made me so unhappy in my marriage?  Certainly a different partner will create a different environment and bring different trials and treasures to the table, but if I have not addressed my own dysfunctions, how will what always was no longer be?

And here’s what I realized:  I have done a ton of work on myself since my marriage ended.  I have no idea whether I would be the same person I used to be if I remarried, but if I’m really being honest with myself, I strongly doubt it. Not because of any particular partner I might someday share my life with, but because of me.  I have changed.  I’m no longer that woman I was and I can’t imagine letting her back in. Sure, I could hold onto that fear of what always was, and allow it choke away possibilities for my future, but that’s actually something that the old me would have done.  So freeing myself of that “always was” fear is yet another way to liberate myself from her influence. I have no idea if I’ll every marry again, but I guess it’s time to let go of that particular fear and acknowledge some of the progress I’ve made.  None of us gets any guarantees.  We can only do our best and keep trying to do better.

As for my ex-husband, we have now been separated for just over 3 years and he has been doing his own therapeutic work during that time.  He is also a different person than when we were married.  Could we be happily married to each other now, having both worked so hard on ourselves as individuals?  I don’t think so.  The fundamental differences in our personalities are still there and they grate in ways that are still so confounding and discouraging sometimes.  But we’re able to be pretty good friends to each other now, which might be all we ever should have been in the first place.  A few years ago, it was a friendship I might have wished for, but never really expected.

Yet another example that what always was doesn’t have to always be.

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Filed under dating, divorce, happy endings, love, marriage, personal growth, relationships

the dream house that nearly was

I spent the day today with a friend who is looking for a new home for himself and his kids.  The home he currently lives in is very beautiful and suits him perfectly, but he was forced to sell it in his divorce settlement, so at some point in the not distant future, he and his children will need a new home.

Property in our area is quite expensive, so our scouting expedition took us practically the entire length and breadth of our county, plus some short forays into neighboring counties.  We climbed roads accessible only by 4×4 vehicles.  We rode switchbacks that made me carsick.  We got out and walked through high prairie scrub to views that were truly breathtaking.   And then we’d get back in the truck and keep looking.

Last month he had a contract on a house that, almost as soon as I saw it, I pictured him comfortably in it.  He withdrew the contract because the house — once owned by the infamous “Marlboro Man” of advertising history —  is seriously dilapidated.  Too unique and perfect in some regards to simply scrape, it would require mountains of cash and construction expertise to rehabilitate.  Even so, there is something about the property — the  house, the barns, the trees, the views all the way to the Back Range of the Rockies — that makes me think he may yet wind up there.

The interesting thing about making these drives with him is that I have watched him building new dreams, post-divorce.  The house he lives in now was a boring, dark ranch-model home when he bought it for his then-new family.  He lovingly turned it into a dream house, complete with a man-made freshwater pond in the backyard for swimming and a giant deck for entertaining.  But that home is no longer his, and his family is no longer what it was.

Over the last year or so since we’ve been looking at properties together, I’ve watched him become increasingly comfortable with the idea of letting go of his current home and starting afresh.  I watch him survey a prospective piece of land or house, his arm arching the sky, describing what he’d build and how it would look.  I can see the memories he’s imagining that he and his children will make in each place.  I observe him moving forward, onward.

On our drive today, we passed a large farmhouse that is probably close to 100-years-old.  It sits solidly on its flat lot East of the foothills, facing the looming mountains across its fields.  The trees surrounding it are large, probably nearing the end of their lifespan, and the house itself has seen better days.  But it is solid.  It has, as we like to say, “good bones.”  As we motored past, I stared at it wistfully.  Renovating an old farmhouse was something I’d always dreamed of, and it was one of those dreams that seemed attainable, especially after I started my own interior design business.  I think I always kind of thought that someday my ex-husband and I would do that together, and then grow old in that mythical house, with grandchildren running about the yard.

But it turns out that Bryce never really liked home improvement projects much, and so that work fell to me.   And now, given my markedly different financial situation, the likelihood of my ever having a little farmhouse to renovate is decidely slim.  That dream  is yet another casualty of my divorce.

Rolling along today in the sunshine, I experienced a moment of deep melancholy.  Perhaps that is the most difficult part of divorce — relinquishing dreams that you held so dear, some of which were so close, but only just out of your grasp.  Some of those dreams are huge and profound — like the idea of celebrating a 50th anniversary with your partner for life — while others are simpler and smaller — like being able to sit together as one family at your daughter’s wedding.  But big or small, they are the dreams that we pin our hopes to, hitch our stars to, and throw ourselves headlong into life in order to —  just maybe! —  grasp them.

I think sometimes we don’t even realize that the dream is gone, until it suddenly hits us on a sunny spring afternoon, with the truck kicking up dust on the unpaved road.  As I craned my neck to look back at the farmhouse, I silently said goodbye to yet another small dream from my hope chest that slipped quietly away when I was wasn’t looking.

It’s easy to hold too tightly to those dreams that evaporate when we divorce.  We could spend years, or even a lifetime, looking back on what was lost.  But in doing so, we lose all possibility for creating new dreams and chasing those down. I had to remind myself of that as the road turned and I lost sight of that old farmhouse today.  There’s no use looking back and pining for what might have been.  Not when I could use that energy to manifest dreams that are possible on the road in front of me.

I asked my friend once if he was going to be sad to leave the house he’d built as his dream home for his family.  He was quiet for a just moment, and then he said, “Sure.  I’ll probably cry like a baby.  But then I’ll move on.  Because that’s over, isn’t it?”

Indeed.

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Filed under divorce, general musings, healing, relationships, sadness

was it worth it? (pt. 3)

Every once in a while, the universe delivers a message so powerful, so unambiguous, so affirming that it sends me spinning.  I got one of those loud-and-clear messages yesterday.

One of my first posts on this blog contemplated the question of whether my divorce was worth it.  Worth all the pain, all the disappointment, all the breaking down and rebuilding of the lives of the people I cared most about in the world.  Would I someday look back and know that I’d done what was truly best for all of us?

Last evening, I stopped at my ex-husband’s house on my way home from work to pick up some Girl Scout cookies I needed to deliver.  After hugs and kisses from my girls, I was just about to leave, when Sabrina told me that Bryce and his girlfriend, Debbie, had broken up after more than two years together.  I’m a caretaker, I can’t help it, so I headed to the kitchen, where I found Bryce opening the mail.  I asked him if he was okay and told him I was so sorry to hear about he and Debbie.  He offered the same condolences over my break-up with James, and the next thing I knew, we were engaged in a conversation that could only be described as surreal.

There we stood, in the kitchen I had designed and he had paid for when Sabrina was only a toddler, discussing the ends of our first loves after divorcing each other.  The children played in the living room as we traded, in broad brush strokes, the details of our break-ups.

I hesitated at first.  So used to his criticism, I braced myself for the possibility that he would insinuate that I was somehow to blame for James’ limitations.  But he didn’t.  He nodded sympathetically and agreed that I needed decent boundaries, and that I was teaching our girls the right thing by demonstrating those.  I told him how surprised I was at his relationship’s end; I had really thought that he and Debbie had staying power. He paused and then looked me in the eye and said, “You might be the only person that can actually appreciate this… but it was like dating me, the me before our divorce.  She was just like I used to be.  I could see it.  I could understand it.  But I couldn’t live with it.  I pulled the plug after two years.  I don’t know how you lasted 12.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I had liked Debbie, for sure, but I also know very well that it is impossible to know what people are like in a relationship until you are there with them, every single day.  And I also found myself feeling oddly loyal and protective of Bryce.  He is, after all, my daughters’ father.  I had his back, unequivocally, for more than a dozen years.  Funny how those old habits resurface.

More than anything, I was astounded at the ease and matter-of-fact delivery of his admission.  Where was the man who had almost never admitted he was wrong about anything?  Where was the man who had made me feel broken and crazy for even suggesting that he was flawed in any meaningful way?  Who was this self-effacing, authentic person in front of me, being vulnerable to his ex-wife??

In that moment, I was so proud of him.  I have known him long enough and well enough to know how much emotional work it must have taken him to get to such a place with me.  I know that he must have applied himself to his personal growth with the same intense focus he applies to his legal practice.  He is not perfect, but he is trying harder than I’ve ever seen him, and I can’t help but respect that.

I thanked him for sharing with me.  I told him I was proud of him for the strides in self-awareness he’d made since we divorced.  Then we laughed at our mutual inability to model even one really good, really healthy intimate relationship for our daughters.  But we agreed to keep trying.  I told him I was counting on him, and he laughed and warned me not to hold my breath.

Then I gathered my cookies, kissed my daughters, and departed my former home, knowing, again, that it was indeed worth it.

Absolutely worth it.

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Filed under divorce, friendships, healing, marriage, personal growth, relationships, single mom

for Lisa….

This morning I was introduced to a woman whose eyes took me back three years in time.  This post is dedicated to her and all the other “Lisas”….

“Lisa” and I met awkwardly and unexpectedly, in a waiting room, through a mutual friend.  Our friend wanted me to meet Lisa because she is struggling through the end of her marriage, and our friend thought my blog might help her.  I reached out my hand in hello and Lisa took it, but when she turned her eyes to me, my heart broke.

The tears were about to spill over, when she asked me, in a soft voice, “It does get better, right?”

Oh boy.

I remember those days.  I remember the fear and the helplessness.  The near desperation and the loneliness.  I knew no one my own age who was divorcing or had been divorced.  I felt like I was alone in a sea of people making different choices from me.  I didn’t have anyone to point to and say “THERE!  That’s what I want to have!  That’s what I’m aiming for, too!”  I remember saying to Annie, before she had left her marriage, “I need to see a divorced woman who has made it to the other side.  I need to see someone who is happy and content and past all of this.  I need to see it and I need to see it NOW because I am afraid that it doesn’t actually exist.”

When your marriage is falling apart — whether because you are leaving or he is — you’re awash in doubts and regrets and uncertainties.  It seems that every time you find something you feel certain about, another wave of doubt washes over you and you’re floating in ambivalence again.  The pain of the broken dreams and smashed hopes is palpable; it’s true:  depression hurts.  And the whole time, you’re grasping for a lifesaver that you can ride to the other side.

What has amazed me (and my friends who came through it after me) is how similar the process is for most of us.  No matter the reasons for the marriage’s failure, or the proportion of guilt assigned, the process of moving through those feelings and struggles is very, very similar.  True, some people stall at one point or another, and some are more extreme in the expression of their feelings at particular places along the way, but, overall, the journey is very similar.

And thank God for that.

Because, Lisa, there are lots and lots of us who have been where you are.  Who have had the same fears and sadness you are facing.  Who have had to pick up the pieces of lives blown apart and start anew.  Small steps…. little victories… until we begin to create a life that is whole and good and hopeful again.

In fact, hope might be the defining feature of these new lives.  Not the feigned or desperate or false hopes you’ve experienced time and again as your marriage has unraveled, but the true, buoyant hope of possibilities grounded in the certainty of your own strength and knowledge of your own needs and desires.  I have had my heart broken twice since my divorce, but it was an entirely different kind of pain.  It’s not the pain of being stuck or of being hopeless.  It’s the pain of being alive.  And that distinction is real and true and makes all the difference.

Moving through a divorce is not easy, and anyone who claims it was for them is either lying or delusional.  Building a new life is never easy, and when you’re weighed down by the guilt and fear and doubts that you carry out of a broken marriage, it’s doubly hard.  But nothing truly worth having has ever come easily.  Nothing.  And when you reach the other side and realize that, somewhere along the way, you have put the guilt aside, overcome the fear, and cast off the doubts, you’ll find yourself standing in the middle of a life you hardly recognize but can claim as your own.

I remember reading the book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” to my daughters when they were small.  It’s the whimsical, lyrical tale of a family that sets off on an imaginary bear hunt (only to, quite comically, encounter a real bear).  The part of the book that I loved, and stressed to my girls, was the refrain the family chanted every time they hit an obstacle  — “Can’t go over it.  Can’t go under it.  Guess we’ll have to go through it!”  And so the family does.

Divorce is like a bear hunt.  There is no easy way around it or over it or under it.  You’ve just got to square your shoulders, straighten your back, set your focus, and go through it.   That’s the only way to the other side.  Sitting in your misery and expecting it will change of its own accord won’t do it.  Neither will hoping that someday you’ll have the strength.  There’s never a “good time” to get a divorce.  It’s never going to hurt less.  It will suck.

But then, one day, it won’t.

One of the first men I dated after my separation told me about his divorce recovery from his first wife.  He spoke about how he had simply put one foot in front of another for what seemed an eternity but was probably about 6 months.  He told me how he’d begun to wonder if he’d ever be happy again….  And then, one day, he was running errands on an ordinary Saturday, and he went into the bank to make a deposit.  He came out and the sun was shining. He stopped for a moment and let its warmth touch his face, and as he did, it hit him.  He was okay again.  In fact, he was kind of happy again.  He said he stood in the bank parking lot and cried silent tears of gratitude.  He had made it.  He had made it to the other side.  Life was beginning again.

I think most of us have similar moments we could relate.  They are precious and they are sacred, and, if I could, I would box them up and deliver them to you, Lisa, to carry you through the days ahead.  But since I can’t, you’ll just have to have faith that yours are awaiting you.

One small step after another.  It’s the only way any of us got here.  It’s how you’ll get here, too.

And someday, you’ll feel the sun on your face and the hope in your heart.  Again.

P.S. — There is an email button on this website.  Feel free to use it.  🙂

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Filed under divorce, healing, marriage, relationships, sadness, single mom

meet the modern American family

I have been spending an inordinate amount of time lately with my ex-husband, Bryce.  No, we’re not grabbing beers together after work or hitting the tennis court for a doubles match.  We’re attending informational meetings, open houses, and promotional tours for local middle schools in the hopes of selecting the best fit for my elder daughter, Sabrina.  It is a choice we will make jointly.

Now, for those of you who are not from this area and are already scratching your head, our school district is somewhat unique in that you can “open enroll” your child in any school in the district.  You are guaranteed a place in your local, neighborhood school, but if you’d like to enroll in a different school, you may do so through the open enrollment system.  Essentially, with open enrollment, you toss your child’s name into a lottery system for that school, which determines their acceptance or not.   So, there is a lot of school shopping in my town.  Sabrina is a very bright kid with some special needs  at the talented and gifted end of the spectrum so we’re visiting four different schools, all of them more than once, to make this decision with her.

And tonight, quite unexpectedly, I found myself facing one of those surreal divorce moments that always seem to sneak up on me….

I was sitting in an auditorium, with Sabrina on one side and Bryce on the other, when one of the elementary school moms I’d once been friends with walked in.  Our eyes met briefly, then I saw them sweep and take in Bryce and Sabrina, and finally determinedly look elsewhere.  I couldn’t help but grin.

For this was one of a handful of women who stopped speaking to me altogether when word hit the grapevine that I was leaving Bryce.  She didn’t know Bryce — I’m pretty sure they’d never spoken before — but she was instantly judgmental and appalled at my gall.   She and her friends haughtily and publicly insisted that I was making a big mistake and would regret it in short order.

Except that I wasn’t and I haven’t.

And frankly, I’m not sure which aspect of my present life confounds and annoys them more…

  • Is it that I didn’t crumple under the weight of guilt and regret and become a frumpy and pathetic divorcee?
  • Is it that I have made a life — however modest and humble — of which I am proud and with which I am content?
  • Is it that my standing within our community has not been altered or affected in any appreciable way?
  • Is it that Bryce and I have (at least on the surface) a very congenial and mutually-supportive friendship?
  • Is it that we have both found happiness with others and have accepted those other partners?
  • Or is it that they were so damn wrong and can’t figure out how or why???

I know that after the divorce, I was supposed to slink around town looking guilt-ridden and glum, but I didn’t feel that way and wasn’t about to play that role for anyone’s benefit.  I know that my relationship with Bryce — the fact that we sit with each other at soccer games and school functions and community events — is surprising and confusing to those who don’t know us and our commitment to our daughters.  I know that my sincere acceptance and welcome of his girlfriend Debbie makes some people just plain uncomfortable.

But you know what?

They need to just get over it.

Because it’s actually pretty simple:  Bryce is not a terrible person; he just wasn’t the right partner for me, nor me for him.  Debbie is a very nice, sweet, friendly woman whom I have absolutely no reason to dislike.  We are all doing our mutual best to support and raise my daughters.  For the life of me, I will never understand what is wrong with this picture.

I had a phone conversation this week with a guy friend I’ve known for 27 years, during which he told me that he thinks it’s “unnatural” for Bryce and Debbie and me to attend the girls’ events together.  Now it was my turn to be confused.  “Unnatural”??  Seriously?  What exactly are we “supposed” to do — take turns loving them?  Maybe I should only love them on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that Bryce and Debbie can also get their days?  Or perhaps we should do the time-honored thing and shove them in the middle of some acrimony so that they can get the more traditional divorce experience?

So here we are now, reviewing and considering schools, discussing pros and cons for Sabrina and trying to make the best choices possible for her, and I am reminded — once again — that even in our attempts to do what is best by our girls, we are somehow different.

I have made my peace with different.  I am proud of where we are now and what it’s taken us to get here.  I am glad that my children are not embarrassed by our behavior, nor do they feel torn between us.  There will be arguments and hurt feelings and maybe even legal battles down the road, but we are establishing a good, strong precedent for working together for the sake of our children. We are integrating new partners and trying to support each other in our new lives.  We are the embodiment of the modern American family, for better or for worse.

And we’re not going anywhere.

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Filed under dating, divorce, marriage, parenthood, sadness

…but can you handle the truth?

A blogger friend recently wrote a poignant post about the examination of a marriage, as seen through the rear view mirror, receding into the distance.  Part of his post was about his on-going confusion and frustration stemming from his “runaway wife’s” refusal or inability to provide him with any solid reasons for her seemingly abrupt departure from the family.

Because I was suffering from terrible insomnia one evening, I posted a comment to his post that was so long that (as he later joked), I should have just written my own post and been done with it.  He was right, as he often is, and so I am now taking that comment and expanding  on it here.

If you read enough about divorce, you quickly discover that many left-behind spouses feel that they have been summarily abandoned by their former husbands or wives, with little or no explanation provided.  Even when reasons are offered, they are frequently labeled too mundane to have prompted such a grave move as divorce, and the abandoning spouse is seen as avoiding or withholding the “truth.”  The left-behind spouse feels certain that if he or she could simply get at the truth of why they have been left behind, somehow the whole predicament will make more sense and hurt much less.

I have watched friends and acquaintances who have filled the dismal role of the left-behind spouse grapple with their feelings and attempt to move on.  Indeed, I can see the obvious benefit attached to discovering a truth that suddenly removes the nagging uncertainty and deadens the raging imagination of horrors that plague the mind when it does not have a solid answer that screams “TRUTH!”

But there are a ton of assumptions built into that concept that the truth will set the mind free and ease the heart’s pain.   And not all of them hold up under closer examination….

Assumption #1.  Their truth will make sense and have value to me.

When I talk to people who feel that their spouses have suddenly and unjustly abandoned the relationship, I frequently hear them insist that they want to hear the “real reasons” for their spouse’s departure.  Digging a bit further, I usually discover that reasons have actually been provided, but they don’t seem serious enough to justify the departing spouse’s behavior or, most commonly, they “just don’t make sense.”

I would argue that most departing spouses likely have provided some or most of the truthful reasons for their leaving. I keep waiting to hear a left-behind spouse explicitly say, “I don’t want those reasons; I want the real reasons,” because I’ve heard so many variations on this theme.  The idea here is that the departing spouse likely has shared most of her reasons for leaving, but they aren’t good enough or grave enough to register with the left-behind spouse.

I, for one, can say with complete confidence and incredulity that I told my ex-husband as early as the first two years of our marriage that if he continued treating me the way he had begun to, I would be “gone in ten years.”  At the time, I was pulling that time frame out of thin air, but I did, in fact, end up leaving just before our 11th anniversary. Despite repeated warnings and tearful pleadings on my part throughout the years, he maintained his condescending nature and dismissive attitude, and then proclaimed loudly (and to anyone who would listen) that I had “left suddenly, and without warning or explanation.” I still cannot fathom how he has fashioned his truth from the reality we shared, but he has. So, I have to suspect that lots of other folks do something similar, too.  I suspect there are a plethora of marriages out there in which the departing spouse complained to the left-behind spouse of things over the years that the left-behind spouse dismissed or overlooked at the time.   Maybe she displayed patterns of disappointment over things in her life or their  marriage that seemed to the left-behind spouse (and probably to lots of others who knew her) to be trivial and therefore not something he need really worry about.  Meantime, her fatigue, disillusionment, and frustration was building.

I also do not doubt that most departing spouses hold something back.  I suspect that the biggest reason that they don’t ‘fess up to their complete and true list of reasons for leaving is that they are fully aware that those reasons will be judged, deemed insufficient, and the grounds for a debate with the spouse they have already decided to leave. This is probably a reasonable expectation on their part, as the party left behind usually does think that the reasons for the split are not valid or justifiable.  (Admittedly, it is the rare instance when one spouse comes home and says, “I think we should divorce and here are my reasons,” and the other spouse says, “Yes, you make some excellent points.  I agree.  Let’s get on with it.”)

It’s entirely understandable that the departing spouses aren’t eager to engage in a game of  To Tell the Truth with their left-behind spouse when it is likely to result in their reasons being diminished or mischaracterized.  After all, we all know that “truth is relative” in some regards.  I think it’s interesting how individuals — and sometimes even couples jointly — massage the truth to help it fit their personal constructs.  An interesting and obvious example of this is an affair:  when an affair has been discovered, but the couple is still working on the marriage, the truth of the affair is typically minimalized as “a symptom of a much bigger problem.”  But, when a marriage ends and an affair is part of it, the left-behind spouse frequently blames the affair (and the other adulterer) as the whole problem.  I don’t quite understand the logic:  why is it merely a symptom if you’re working on the marriage, but the “obvious” or “clear” (and presumably complete) reason  for the marriage’s collapse if you’re not?  But again, truth is relative…

In the age of no-fault divorce, a spouse can obtain a divorce over his or her partner’s objections, essentially making a unilateral decision to end the marriage. The other party has absolutely no say in the matter.  Given that I don’t believe that marriage should constitute ownership or control of another person, I find myself having to support this notion, despite its obvious pitfalls.

But here’s the crux of it:  the departing spouse does not have to prove his or her case.  He does not have to convince anyone that his reasons are good enough.  Indeed those very reasons — the entire truth of them, if known — might not be good enough for his left-behind spouse, his extended family, their mutual friends, or anyone else, but they don’t have to be. They only have to be good enough for him.  Is that sad and frustrating and bewildering to the left-behind spouse?  Yes, of course.  But in the end, that might be preferable to the whole truth…

Assumption #2:  I want the whole truth.

When a left-behind spouse imagines the reasons that her departing spouse is actually leaving, she usually focuses on things she can change and not things that are inherent in who she is.  I think this is a very natural way for our brain to protect us from potential pain.  It is so much easier to imagine that he is leaving because he hates that you leave your towel on the bathroom floor, than to think that it’s because he’s decided you’re not actually that smart.  So when left-behind spouses are aggressively seeking the truth, they are understandably doing so from a posture that the truth will be things they can work on and will want to change; most people do not imagine that it’s going to be some harsh truth that they cannot, in fact, change.

I think that sometimes the reasons, if provided in a forthright and honest fashion, would be so brutal, so painful to inflict, that common decency holds the departing spouse back. We all think we want the truth, but some truths are so terribly difficult to recover from that the damage caused would be arguably worse than the vague uncertainty.  For example, how many people would truly want to hear, “I realized that I married you for the wrong reasons” or “I was never physically attracted to you and was just a really, really good faker” or “I’ve completely lost respect for you as a person and can’t love someone I don’t respect”? I’ve heard these reasons from people who’ve left and who have chosen not to reveal them to their exes. Revelations such as these could positively devastate the left-behind spouse’s sense of self and self-worth, which seems a cruel parting shot.  They also could make the divorce proceedings far nastier than they need to be, and the irreparable damage could undermine any attempts at future co-parenting.

Indeed, it might be the long-term effects of those words that prompt the departing spouse to be so circumspect….

Assumption #3:  I can handle the truth.

So, let’s say that, for argument’s sake, the departing spouse chooses to ignore her therapist’s advice and reveal to the left-behind spouse that she is leaving because he is the world’s worst lover and she’s decided to finally have an orgasm after 40 years on this planet.

[Anyone who thinks he’s going to receive that truth with maturity and aplomb should contact me about some lovely Florida real estate I have to sell.  It’s not swamp.  Really.  I swear.]

Exes understandably believe and insist that they would ultimately benefit from the cold, hard truth, and I’m quite sure some (like my blogger friend who inspired this post) probably could.  But I don’t think most people could actually handle a truth such as these examples with any degree of grace or retention of self-confidence.  And it’s really not so surprising.  Divorce is gutting for so many reasons, but when you discover that the love of your life thinks something so terrible of you, it’s capable of smashing your self-confidence to levels from which it may never fully recover.

Take my parents, for instance:  In the face of her constant and abject pleas, my departing step-father had the fortitude to explain to my mother that he realized he’d married her hastily and based on lust more than love.  (This was, to be honest, a truth evident to all of us — including me, at age 13 — when they first married.) My mother repaid him for his honesty by hating him viciously for almost 15 years.  His words haunted her in ways that I’m sure he hadn’t expected, and he paid dearly for them.

Certainly there are some people who are mature enough and confident enough and objective enough to stomach even the worst realizations about their own marriage.  But I must argue that most people would not. Most people would be more like my mother — furious and hurt and determined to make the divorce even nastier than if the truth had not been revealed.   She wanted the truth, she was sure she could handle the truth, but it nearly destroyed her.  And the damage it did to me and our family is a whole post on its own.

No doubt the truth is a dicey thing.  Most of us have this tenuous love/hate relationship with it.  All of us like to think that we can handle it and benefit from it and be better for it.  But can we?  Really?

Being left with your heart shattered positively, absolutely sucks.  It feels horrible and unfair and devastating.  I have often said that during a divorce, people become their basest, worst selves, and some of those selves are pretty terrible.  Is it any wonder, under those circumstances, that some people faced with harsh truths handle them imperfectly?  And is it any wonder, under those circumstances, that some people guard them so carefully?  Very few people are at their best in the midst of pain at its worst.

I think the bottom line is that we all say we want the truth.  We all think we can handle the truth, but in actuality, not everyone who claims to want the truth really wants the actual truth.  Sometimes we only want a truth we can live with.

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{ping}

When my children are with me, I say good night to each of them by lying in bed with them, chatting about their days and saying prayers.  At the end, just before I get up to leave, I ask them to tell me one thing for which they are grateful.  I do this because I think it’s important to encourage a habit of gratitude and because I want them to close their day on a positive note.  When they were itty-bitties, I would refer to this time as me spending a minute with them before they sleep; it has since been shortened and is now simply called, by all of us, “Our Minute.”

My ex-husband has his own traditions with the girls, but they have both told me how much they miss Our Minute together at the end of the day when they are at their dad’s.  I hate that I cannot be there with them every night.  I miss their soft little cheeks and bubbling stories of their days.  I miss holding their hands or softly stroking their hair while we recite our prayers together.  I hate that the decisions that I made 2 1/2 years ago keep me from sharing Our Minute with them every single night.

My phone pinged 4 times in rapid succession, and I picked it up to discover multiple texts from my older daughter, Sabrina…

The texts contained, without preamble or explanation, her two prayers that we typically say together.  Then a separate text that simply read, “Here are our prayers.  I miss you sitting with me.”

Then, finally, a moment later, “P.S. I’m thankful for being able to text you.”

I was overcome by those simple, sweet messages.

Leave it to a 10-year-old, and the technology of her generation, to close the distance and space between us in an instant.   She is so much smarter than me.

And I am grateful for that.

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yowza.

Every once in a while, I have a Single Parent Moment that leaves my married parent friends shaking their heads in amazement and quiet relief that they are not in my boat. Last week, I had such a moment.

James and I have been on-again, off-again for just over a year now.  My daughters, aged 10 and 8, have known him for many years, became reacquainted with him before we started dating last September, and have been mostly unaware of our relationship ups and downs.  To them, he has been a constant over the last year.  They know him, they like him, they have vacationed with him, and for the last few months, they have known that we sometimes spend the night together.  But he has never stayed over at my house when my girls are also there.

Until last week.

I decided it was time, so I told the girls that James would be coming over, was going to spend the night, and that he’d be there when they awoke in the morning.  My youngest, Bryn, teased me about it with a grin.  Sabrina, my 10-year-old, shrugged.

James arrived as I was putting Sabrina to bed.  He let himself in the open front door and shouted up his hellos to us all.  And then it began:

Sabrina:  So, is James coming over to have a drink with you?

Me:  Yes, and remember I told you that he’s going to spend the night tonight?

Sabrina:  Uh-huh.  So…. are you guys gonna have sex?

YOWZA.

I wish I could report that I responded maturely and gracefully, but I’d be lying.  What I did instead… was laugh.  Yes, that’s right.  I laughed.  I giggled until I had tears squeezing from the corners of my eyes and I was clutching my tummy.  At first, Sabrina looked at me, puzzled, but then she started laughing, too.  We ended up lying on her bed, clutching each other amidst fits of giggles.  It was ridiculous.

Eventually I recovered, and, wiping my tears of silliness away, replied thusly:

Me:  Baby, I’m a grown-up and you’re a child, and so who I do or don’t have sex with isn’t something we are going to discuss.  In fact, who I do or don’t have sex with isn’t really anyone else’s business except for the man I’m involved with.  That’s not even a question that other grown-ups typically ask each other.  And, when you’re a grown-up, whether and with whom you’re having sex won’t be any of my business either.   Do you understand?

Sabrina:  Hmmm…. Yes, I think so.  I guess I feel like it should be my business if I’m going to end up with a little baby brother or sister.

This dramatically illustrated the fact that, while I have instructed her quite a bit about the biology of sex, I haven’t quite gotten around to the idea that adults have sex for reasons other than procreation of the species…  So I punted and went with what I had:

Me:  I can absolutely, positively assure you that you will not be gaining a little brother or sister.

Sabrina:  Phew.  Okay.  That’s really good news.   Thanks, Mom.

Me:  Sure, baby.  Anytime.

There is so much about single parenting that is surreal.  So many conversations that I never imagined having, so many events that I never pictured, so many moments altered by the simple, pivotal fact that their father and I no longer live together.  Parenting is always something of an exercise in Extreme Winging It, but single parenting throws in the extra curve balls.  Just for fun.

I am sure that there will be many more moments such as that one, many more conversations that leave me speechless or giggling at the absurdity of the situation.  But I feel quite certain that, even if I should live another 42 years, I will never, ever, ever forget the night my 10-year-old asked me if I was going to have sex.

Yowza.

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breaking up with his kids

When I was first divorced, I knew that I would likely end up dating men who had children.  I thought that I was prepared for this eventuality, even though the first few men that I was involved with did not actually have children.  I thought that I knew what I was in for.

Statistics tell us that step-children are the primary stressor on second marriages and the biggest reported contributor to the deterioration of those marriages.  I am not here to dispute that.  Between my kids and James’ kids, we accumulated some pretty good examples of children acting out against the interloper in their family.  And some of my worst arguments with James — including the last one — stemmed from disagreements about the children.

But that didn’t stop me from falling in love with his kids.

Sure, his son Jay’s teasing of me ventured into the disrespectful realm sometimes, and yes his teenage daughter, Taylor, once spent an hour pretending like I wasn’t in the room.   His two youngest girls, devoid of guile, would sometimes ask me directly what I was doing there and how long I was staying, with the clear implication being that I was somehow interrupting.  But the moments that stuck in my heart were preciously sweet..  Like how, when we were all lying on the sofa watching a movie, Jay would allow me to put my arm around him, and he would ever so subtly snuggle against me.  Or the times when 9-year-old Chelsea would beg me to stay and hang out with them.  Or how little 5-year-old Chloe  insisted on carrying my purse to the car for me, just to be “helpful.”  So many tender, small moments that I cherish.

I last saw them 10 days ago, when I went to his house to say goodbye.  I couldn’t believe how sad it made me, how many tears fell on my solitary drive home over children that are not even my own.

I knew, from my own childhood experience, that when you date a single parent, you also date their children.  What I hadn’t fully appreciated is that when you break up with that single parent, you also break up with those children.  And it hurts.  A lot.

I have spent some time recently remembering my own experience on the other side.  I remember many of the men my mom dated, but none so clearly or so fondly as Van.  Van and my mom dated off and on from the time I was roughly two until I was 12.  They had a passionate, tempestuous relationship, and I learned early on that when they broke up, it was never forever.   Other men didn’t get a second chance, but Van kept coming back.

Van was as much of a father as I had in those early years.  On Sunday mornings, I’d curl up on his lap and he’d read me the comics, changing his voice for each of the Peanuts characters.  He took me hiking in the Shenandoahs, and built me snowmen in the yard, and taught me to ride a two-wheel bike.  He was the one who told me that my grandfather had died.  He was tall and handsome and funny and one of my best friends.

But one day he was gone.  The last time they broke up, I remember asking my mom what had happened.  She pursed her lips and said tersely, “We broke up.” I shrugged, certain that it didn’t mean anything and certain that he’d be back. But I never saw him again.  The weeks melted into months and the months turned into a year and my mom met and married the man who became my stepfather.  I loved my stepfather, but I never forgot about Van.

When I was 27, I finally tracked Van down and wrote him a long letter, telling him of my educational and professional achievements, my budding relationship with my now ex-husband, and updating him on all my friends and family he’d known.  I enclosed a photo of myself and my boyfriend.  I had no idea what to expect when I mailed the letter, but what I got back was no less than wonderful:  a lengthy missive telling me how often he’d thought of me over the years and how much he’d missed me.   He told me how he’d always regretted not having the opportunity to say good-bye to me, but my mother wouldn’t allow it.  He’d remarried and later retired, and he sent me a photo of him and his wife.

How I wish I could talk to Van now.  Not only must I get over James (damn hard on its own), but I must also let go of his children.  I can still see Chelsea’s smile and feel Chloe’s small hand in my own and laugh at Jay’s constant tickling or rib-poking.  I was not in their lives long enough to have made more than a passing impression on them; but I’ll remember them, and the weeks we spent together, always.  I protected my heart mightily with regard to James — walls and buttresses surrounding it lest I should fall completely in love with him and end up broken beyond repair.  But I had no such ramparts in place to protect my sorry heart from his kids.

There is so much about dating this time around that surprises me…. so much for which I am woefully unprepared.  Breaking up is brutal.  Around every corner is another reminder of James that cuts me quickly and cleanly and makes me wonder again how we ended up here.   Then, just when I catch my breath again, I round another corner and smack squarely into a reminder of his kids.  It’s bruising, I tell you.

I have found myself sinking into my own children for solace.  Their hugs and kisses ease my sense of loss.  Like the jilted lover who takes a new partner to bed to forget the smell and taste and touch of the one just lost, I am burying myself in my own children to block out memories of time spent in that other family.

I wonder what will happen the next time I date a man with children…. I suspect that I will not be so unguarded, so open to his children.  I suspect that I will begin — maybe already have begun? — to construct the walls that protect us from future grief.

And I wonder if I will ever see them again.  Possibly, but probably not.  Maybe for me they will remain frozen in time… captured in my photos from this hot summer that we spent together.   Locked in my heart forever.

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withdrawals from the love bank

When I was going through my divorce, I heard about the concept of the “Love Bank,” and it really resonated with me.  The basic premise is that inside of us we each have a “love bank,” with accounts in the names of everyone we care about.  When someone treats us well, they are making a deposit into their account and we feel closer and more appreciative and more loving toward that person.  When someone treats us poorly or hurts us deeply, they make a withdrawal from their account and we feel less close to them, perhaps less trusting, less likely to try to connect with them at that moment.  If the withdrawals exceed the deposits, we ultimately fall out of love or stop caring for that person.  For the most part, once someone has overdrawn their account, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done to save the relationship.

It is an intriguing and thought-provoking concept that I wish I had been aware of at the beginning of my marriage.  I have watched it play out in romantic relationships, friendships, and familial relationships over and over again.  Just for the record, my personal belief is that only our children have overdraft protection.  Perhaps our parents, too, to a certain extent, but even then not to the same degree as our children.

I think love bank withdrawals may be the best explanation for marriages that “just grew apart” or ones that seemed fine until “suddenly” one partner was done and over it and not looking back.  I know that was definitely the case in my own marriage — it wasn’t one or two big hurts or betrayals that brought us down, but many, many years of small hurts and disappointments coupled with weak apologies and obligatory acts of kindness delivered grudgingly.  Some people think that small hurts are not reason enough for a love to die, but, just like your bank account, multiple small withdrawals add up just as quickly (or more so?) as large ones.

What I have noticed most is that a lot of people don’t want to have to make things right when they mess up.  They want to apologize and have it all go away.  To a certain extent, I can understand that:  admitting we’re wrong is uncomfortable, and it makes us uniquely vulnerable.  Add to that the fact that most of us have encountered people who will exploit our moment of guilt and vulnerability into an opportunity to emotionally blackmail us or gain a power dynamic advantage. Such behavior, in the face of a sincere and heartfelt effort to make things right, is horrible, plain and simple.  And it teaches the apologizer — very clearly and directly — not to bother next time.  No self-respecting person should be expected to grovel or otherwise self-mutilate, just to make up for a screw-up.  It’s mean and unfair to expect.

BUT if you make a $1,000 withdrawal from the love bank, a $200 deposit doesn’t bring you back into balance.  And that’s the part that I think a lot of people — especially otherwise smart, well-intentioned men — miss.  If I’m angry about something, a quick apology and some make-up sex will get me over it.  But if my feelings are hurt?  If I’m disappointed in you?  If I feel unspecial or taken for granted?  Then a simple “I’m really sorry” — no matter how sincere — on its own isn’t going to bring the love bank balance back up to pre-incident levels.  I’m going to need a little more reassurance than that.  Some tender TLC.  A little reminder that you hate the thought of me crying over you.  No groveling, no public humiliation, no expensive grand gestures.  No, I’m just talking about the simple, little things.  Call me a little more often the next day.  Hold my hand more.  Tell me, just once more when I least expect it, that you’re sorry for hurting my feelings.  Acknowledge, in some tiny way that I can’t miss, that hurting me was not what you meant to do and not what you’d ever want to do.

And watch your love bank account balance take off.

I think the most powerful thing, to me, about the love bank idea is how well it captures our capacity for forgiveness, alongside the plain fact that forgiveness does not come without a price of some sort.  A sincere, well-delivered apology can be a huge deposit in the love bank, as can some small thoughtful token given at just the right moment.   It is amazing to me how those gestures, those tenderhearted attempts to demonstrate our care and concern can bring a relationship back from the brink of eternal bankruptcy.

I have forgiven a lot in my life, and I have been forgiven a lot. I have had friends who slept with my boyfriends, a mother who ruined my wedding reception, and a boyfriend who threw me down a flight of stairs.  I have betrayed friends and let people down and been the worst version of myself.  And what I have learned is this:  sympathy is not the key to forgiveness, empathy is.

When I have hurt someone I genuinely care about, what I try to do is imagine how I would feel.  Sometimes this is really, really hard to do.  But when I do that, and I am filled with the same feelings that my hurt friend or lover or family member is likely feeling, then I am compelled to make it right.  I want to take that pain away and help them feel better.  That experience is empathy.

Likewise, when someone has hurt me, a sympathetic apology only goes so far.  What really touches my heart, what convinces me that they truly do care for me regardless of what error they have committed, what dissipates my sadness or resentment or sense of distrust faster than anything is a little empathy.

Take this example: Many months ago, my friend Annie and I had a really rough time in our friendship.  She was doing something that was hurting me, and she didn’t understand why I was hurt.  After some time and several difficult conversations, she apologized, sincerely and without reservation.  But there was still space between us…. mistrust on my part, resentment on hers.  Then one day, she experienced something similar and called to tell me about it.  At the end of that conversation, she said, “I’m really sorry.  Now I realize how it must have felt for you.”  And in that instant, we were okay again, love bank accounts restored to previous levels.

In my experience, the same is true for romantic relationships.  We all screw up.  We do things that hurt the people that we love.  But I honestly think that it’s what we do afterwards that matters most.  Do we diminish the other person and their feelings as ridiculous or unreasonable?  Or do we honor those feelings and try to help them let go of their hurt through empathy and caring?

I recognize, of course, that some people are truly unbalanced and so sensitive or over-reactive that there is no chance or possibility to make it right with them.  But I think those people are few and far between.  Most of us want to get over things.  We want to give people another chance.  We want to make our relationships better.

We want our love banks to be full.

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