Doing divorce differently for everyone's sake
When I was 11 years old, while my friends sat in front of their TVs playing Nintendo, I sat on a hard chair in a long, cold hallway waiting to be called into a courtroom.
I’d been called as a witness in my own parents’ divorce and had to testify in front of them, their lawyers and the judge.
It felt like I was being asked, in front of both my parents, which one I loved more.
All I so desperately wanted right then was to not say the wrong thing or hurt either of my parents’ feelings. It felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders and I didn’t want to choose.
Even as I write this, nearly 30 years later, my heart beats fast and tears burn in my eyes. The moment is almost too painful to remember - and for a long time, I hardly could.
I pushed the pain down, covered it up, tried hard to pretend it wasn’t there and focused instead on controlling everything I could.
That turned into a long battle with eating disorders, perfectionism, over-achieving, and making sure people liked me by becoming whoever and whatever someone else wanted me to be. I believed that, if I could just create the perfect life, I could outrun my pain.
As painful as that entire experience was, though even as a child I recognized that I got something so important out of it: two happy homes instead of one toxic household. I got my dad back, who’d avoided our house for most of my early childhood.
Many years later, I met the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. He was handsome, smart, successful; the whole package, and I couldn’t believe he’d chosen me.
The start of our relationship was straight out of a movie scene - strangers meeting in the grocery store - so I knew ours was going to be a love story with a happily ever after.
Our first years of marriage were a fairytale. Hardly any fighting and lots of love and laughter.
A few years in, though, things started feeling off. I hoped I could make it go away by trying harder to be the person I thought he wanted. I’d learned early on that an easy trade to avoid pain was to become whoever someone expected me to be, and by that point, it had become second nature.
When our second daughter was three months old, she had spinal neurosurgery for a tumor on her spinal cord. While I sat in the hospital with her, feeling sad, scared, angry and alone, I was finally able to admit to myself how unhappy I was in my marriage and in my life.
In the dark it hit me, as if for the first time: I have one life to live. There are no second chances, no do-overs. I get one go-round at this life.
I realized I was waiting: waiting for my husband to change, for situations to improve, for life to finally feel right. And in that moment, I realized that the only way I would ever feel happy was for me to change - for me.
Thankfully, my daughter was ok, and that became the turning point of my entire life.
I started therapy soon after and finally began to find my voice: the voice that had been muted since I was 11 in the quest for perfection and approval.
And, as I started to change, my marriage stopped working.
We fought, we avoided, we were disappointed by each other and let one another down.
We kept trying to change each other into who we needed the other person to be. We just couldn’t seem to accept one another for who we’d become.
Our marriage wasn’t horrible - there was no violence, abuse or cheating. But no matter what we did, I knew it was never going to be great. We no longer fit together.
We really tried to make it work, for our own sake, and for the sake of our children.
I knew I only had a few choices: I could keep trying to change him (which wouldn’t work); keep trying to turn myself into the person he wanted (which I’d done for many years but couldn’t sustain), or accept him for who he was.
The first two options would lead to a lot of resentment, anger and toxicity. And I couldn’t bear the thought of living that way - or more importantly having that be the model of marriage my children would grow up seeing and likely eventually emulate.
And the only way I could accept and love him for who he was, was to not be married to him.
The day I got up the courage to have ‘the talk’, we sat down at our kitchen table after having just put our 1- and 2 year-old kids to bed. My heart was beating out of my chest and my stomach was churning as I heard myself say that we needed to work on moving closer together or moving on.
I’ll never forget the out of body experience I had when, to my surprise, he agreed that we needed to move on. I felt like I’d been hit by a train. Even though I’d prepared myself for it, I really hadn’t seen it playing out that way. It hurt - a lot.
Somehow, despite that punch in the gut, it turned into one of the most vulnerable, intimate conversations we’d had in a long time. We talked about where we went wrong, what we were willing and able to do, whether we could salvage our marriage.
Unknowingly, in the conversation that began dissolving our marriage, we began building the foundation for the rest of our relationship.
I didn’t tell many people about the separation because I didn’t know how to. I felt like a failure and didn't know what to say.
But anyone I did talk to always had advice. And it was always the same: ‘Kick him out!’ ‘Get a good lawyer and protect yourself!’ ‘You have your kids to think of - be prepared for the worst.’
It would have been so easy to listen to everyone who encouraged me to be angry or to attack before being attacked. But I knew deep down if I did that, I'd punish not just my husband but also me, and more importantly, my kids. I’d experienced it first hand with my parents’ divorce and I didn’t want that for any of us. I wanted a life where we could all be happy.
Instead, I focused intently on what was really important to me: feeling at peace and creating a peaceful environment for my kids. So we did what felt right for us.
And for us, what felt right ended up looking a lot different from how most divorces play out. Our separation was 18 months long, and we lived in the same house, switching bedrooms every 2 weeks, the entire time.
Living like that for so long was hard. It felt like slogging through deep water in a dark cave and slowly, one step at a time, getting ever so slightly closer to a very distant, very dim light at the end of the long tunnel.
I had no idea when it would be over. I prayed I was making the right decision, and often questioned if I could just go back to the way it was; it wasn’t so bad. So many people had it so much worse.
But I didn’t want to live a life, or have a marriage, that wasn’t so bad. I didn’t want to stay unhappy, or live a muted version of my existence, just because other people had it worse.
The light at the end of that tunnel was the belief that I didn’t need to sacrifice: I could be happy and build a solid co-parenting relationship for our children. That belief is what kept me going.
Someone said to me once that I was lucky my divorce had gone so well and that most people don’t have that luxury. Luck had nothing to do with it.
Inner work, on the other hand, had everything to do with it: the hardest, most important thing I did (we both did), was to drop the ego.
There were so many times I just wanted to lash out and fight back. When we’re hurt, we hate, we fight, we get so caught up in winning that we lose sight of what’s more important: peace and happiness.
And, the more I was able to let go of needing to be in control of every little thing: the timeline, the process, the way we talked, what he thought about me, the more at peace I became.
Thankfully, where I did get lucky is that I had a willing partner. It’s much easier to drop the ego shield when you don’t immediately feel like you’ll be attacked. That said, someone had to take the first step: one of us had to be brave enough to risk the vulnerability in the first place.
We’ve now been divorced for 4 years. And while our relationship ebbs and flows, just like all of them, I can say confidently that we get along better now than we did for the second half of our marriage. We’re not what I’d call friends; we don’t call each other to talk or swap dating stories. But we are really good co-parents.
We come together for the sake of our kids. They see us talking, laughing and building two happy homes with them. They see us thriving in our lives and supporting each other and most importantly, them.
Our kids were 2 and 4 when we told them we were getting divorced. At that age, almost anything would have been hard to understand so, to make it as easy as possible, we told them we were getting unmarried.
And, in the end, what started as an easier way of describing it to our kids became the best description of all. Divorce has such a negative connotation to it; it breaks up families and builds up walls.
But that’s not what happened at all.
Instead, getting unmarried was just the end of a chapter, and it has enabled us to write a much more beautiful story where we all - him, me, our kids - get to be happy.
Originally published on Thrive Global, March 3, 2020