You’d never know something was broken. You’d never know about the tears because they fell behind the bathroom door, in the car, in the woods in the rain, and high upon a mountain trail. You’d never know about the sharp edges of anger, resentments, and crippling fear that were eventually smoothed by introspection, acceptance, and action. You’d never know this was years in the making. How would you know? I never said a word.
I am good at not telling people personal things, and I’m very good at compartmentalizing my life. Those tears I cried? Mopped up right quick before my children or anyone else saw me or before I got to work. Anger and resentment? Boxed up and stored neatly behind a wall of work, responsibilities, and friendships. I covered up my internal life by letting my external life continue to be the wonderful thing that it is. I covered it up with humor, my low-brow savior. I did things with my kids. I traveled. A lot. I dug into my work. I like to have fun and be positive, so I kept the negative out of the equation for years, even with those who know me well. I guess I wanted to shield them from what I thought would be messy conversations and from a messy me.
There finally came a time that not telling the truth was too much to bear. Not only did I become weary of being a liar by omission, but also it’s simply exhausting. I felt trapped by my self-imposed charade and stooped by the weight on my shoulders.
I had shied away from making announcements about my situation, in part, because it requires telling a story. Stories require details. The details are important to a listener, but had become beside the point to me. You say the words, “I’m getting a divorce,” and the reply is inevitably (of course) “Why? What happened?” Why? It doesn’t matter now. What happened? I just don’t have it in me to tell you. (Which is not a reflection on you.)
I think I also wanted to avoid pity, a natural response folks might have when you tell them you’re getting a divorce. Maybe not pity, perhaps sadness on my behalf. While I am sad at the breaking of (and reconstruction of the definition of) family, I am no longer sad. This is the right thing to do. It is a “good divorce” if there is such a thing.
It never occurred to me that I would have to find courage several times along this path. I had to gather enough courage to finally admit to myself that the marriage wasn’t healthy, but after that my courage quickly dissipated, so I became inert and unable to act on the knowledge. I obsessively asked myself for a very long time: How do I disassemble a family? What’s right for the kids? Is it better for them to have married parents or happy parents? Is this selfish? What about our shared history, our shared friends? Where will I live? Can I afford it? How the hell does one leave?
During this time of anxiety and inertia my best friend said to me, “I’ll tell you something that I think applies to you: ‘Be brave enough to break your own heart.'” Those were the words of Cheryl Strayed from her book Tiny Beautiful Things. Shortly after she said this to me, the book arrived in the mail from this amazingly insightful best friend. They were the words I desperately needed to hear, as were most of the words in the book – one that made we weep with every turn of the page, because it seemed to be written just for me. A more thoughtful gift I have never received.
So I broke my own heart. I scrounged around on the floor of my soul and gathered the shattered pieces of courage, packed them together and fashioned them into something resembling gumption. I told my husband I wasn’t happy and that I didn’t think he was happy either. His feelings and his reaction are his story to tell, not mine, but he understood. Later that day he texted me, “Let’s do this nicely.” I sat alone in my car in a parking lot and cried a river of relieved tears. It was going to be OK, even if perplexed passersby thought otherwise.
Perhaps not surprising to anyone was that as hard as it was to initiate a divorce, it was so much harder to tell my daughters. We waited several months to tell them (and thus everyone else) until the summer months, hoping it would be less stressful for them when school was out. Frankly, I think we were both also just chicken shit, so the delay was convenient. Once again I found myself struggling to find the courage to say the words out loud. I imagined their sweet faces scrunched in disbelief and nearly lost my resolve. I secretly scampered to the bathroom several times to cry on the day we decided to break the news to them. They wept and had a lot of logical questions, but they understood, too. My eldest eventually admitted that she had seen it coming a mile away. Kids are far more observant and resilient than we give them credit for. Remember that.
Then there came the hurdle of telling everyone else. I didn’t expect that to require courage, nor to be so difficult either. Wasn’t the hard part over? Not yet, because along with details, stories also need villains and heroes. In the Story of Divorce especially, people naturally want to take sides. They want to take your side, which feels great, but is also kind of uncomfortable when you know you share some responsibility. The Other Guy is the villain. As each of us tells any story about ourselves, we can’t help but make ourselves the hero. But the truth is that this story, any story has as many truths as there are people in it. I am heroine and villain and he is both villain and hero, too. I have no desire to vilify him, nor to gain allies. I’m not at war. So I found it difficult to explain, because the story I wanted to tell was one without details, without villains.
I don’t want to sugar coat it; this state of balance took a long time for me to achieve. Five years ago when the pain, sadness, and confusion were acute, my words would have been very different. There would have been a villain. I would have hoisted myself up on a rickety pedestal and I would have minimized my role in the breaking down of the relationship. I would have excoriated him and white-washed myself, which is another reason I kept my mouth shut for so long. It would have been my truth at the moment, but it wasn’t the forever truth, and somehow I knew that. You can’t unring a bell and all that.
Finally, and very slowly, I began to tell people. Aside from a few family members and very close friends, people were quite surprised, which is what happens when you don’t constantly whine about your relationship and make bad puns instead. It’s also hard to work into conversation. How do you say it? “This burrito is delicious. I’m getting a divorce.” But they were unfailingly supportive. When I told one friend at work that we were separating she calmly replied, “Are you happy about it?” I said that I was. She said, “Congratulations!” and hugged me. An unexpected and perfect response. In fact, as I have slowly made the rounds in telling people, they have been exceedingly kind, and they have allowed me the pleasantly vague we-grew-apart answer, which is only the tip of the iceberg of truth. I’m grateful for that beyond measure, and it makes me wonder what took me so damn long.
I told friends that they could spread the news. I desperately wanted them to so that I wouldn’t have keep repeating myself. But in a remarkable twist on human nature, the grapevine seemed to be broken. The news didn’t spread at work and among friends like it was supposed to. Isn’t this the stuff people live for? Gossip?! I suppose it’s a grand testament to my upstanding, grown-up friends that for the most part they treated the news as mine to share. God bless ’em, but I wish they would have flapped their lips a little more, because here I am after all this time struggling to tell everyone without actually personally telling everyone. (But thank you, Internet.)
After the pain of telling your spouse and your children, telling everyone else shouldn’t be a big deal. But it is a big deal in its own way. Each repetition to family, friends, and colleagues should make it easier but it doesn’t. I don’t think that divorce is necessarily failure, but it feels like one when you have to repeat it over and over. It’s like having to say “I flunked out of college” to every aunt, uncle, and cousin at a family party while you watch their faces contort as they try to think of the right thing to say. It’s awkward.
And then there’s social media. While it’s wonderful, valuable connective tissue for us, it’s also fraught with traps. I struggled with the truth there a great deal, as ridiculous as that sounds. What of the distant family members who don’t know yet? Would people who consider themselves good friends (and whom I consider good friends) resent that I hadn’t personally shared the news with them? Am I poser if I say nothing? Is it unseemly to say too much? What about the inability to convey tone and real emotion? “I’m getting a divorce!” Is that a good exclamation point or a bad one? Is there a this-sucks-but-I’m-OK-wanted-to-tell-you-but-don’t-want-questions emoji?
I have thought a lot about how we all fashion our online selves for public consumption. We can craft whatever kind of image of ourselves that we want, can’t we? It’s not that I wanted to craft the persona of a happily-married woman, it’s that I didn’t have the stomach for hanging out my soiled undergarments (nor his) for public viewing. My online life is not driven by personal posts, anyway. I tend to make inane observations and things that make me laugh. Nothing terribly close to my heart like, “I cried all day, couldn’t sleep, and ate two cheeseburgers because my marriage is falling apart.”
So I decided to write about it here instead, where I could explain myself just a little. The incremental relief I found in telling people one by one is magnified a thousand times by bearing the news publicly. It’s a virtual ripping off of a Band-Aid.
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
After all this hand wringing and navel gazing, I lifted my head to look outward. I don’t kid myself: what I’ve experienced in this phase of my life isn’t unique in the least. I think of all those who’ve experienced loss, illness, divorce, change and have found themselves stuck between the truth and a hard place. You may be there now. If you are, I will tell you that it’s OK to wait until the time is right for you; you own your timeline, but you should listen to that still small voice inside you. That when you finally do share yourself with others it’s a massive relief. That if you wait, you may be missing out on a valuable support system – people love you and want to stand by your side. And that, perhaps most importantly, you may also be missing out on valuable time to live differently.
If I have one regret apart from a failed marriage, it’s that I didn’t act soon enough. I was so afraid to grab on to what I knew was right that I cost myself years of a different kind of life (and tons of closet space). I hesitate to say that they were wasted years, because my kids were part of those years and, in spite of my glacially-slow decision-making process, I kept on learning important lessons about myself. But our time on the planet is not infinite and we simply must not be passive if we are to make the most of it. My decision to get a divorce is in the subtext of my Just Do It post and I’ll repeat the message once again because it bears repeating: do the things that scare you. You won’t regret it.
I appreciate now, too, that often we don’t have any idea of what people are going through behind closed doors and mouths. There is pain and suffering that isn’t worn on the sleeve nor cast in neon lights. Appreciate the untold stories of those around you. We all have them. If you have an untold story, tell it.
Now you know.