Deciding When to Divorce is Different for Everyone

No one can tell you how it will happen; suddenly you’ll just know it’s time to end it …

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

Shortly after I started writing this blog, I got a direct message from one of my followers on Twitter, someone who knew me from when I worked in higher education.

It caught me off guard at first, as it was just four words without any context, a tiny, pull-aside whisper in the noisy social media universe:

“How did you know?”

How did I know what?” I wrote back, cautious and curious at the same time.

“How did you know when it was time to end it?” the person responded.

We direct messaged a little, me confirming the person wasn’t a troll and actually someone I knew from a conference. She had been following my blog for a while and volunteered information about her life: She was deeply unhappy with her relationship and in counseling with her husband, but didn’t think she would stay with him. She wanted to know what all of us want to know when we’re slogging through that time: When do you decide to call it quits and end it?

My heart went out to her because I remembered having this same conversation — different versions of it, even — with my best friend Beth. Beth was my divorce whisperer; she’d been through one herself. I often sought out her company as I struggled to save my marriage. We’d be out at a bar somewhere, me telling her about my latest fight with my ex while she ordered us another glass of wine. I’d stop and look at her, searching, hoping for a green light. But she’d never give it to me. She’d never tell me to leave him. She’d simply say I’d do what I needed to do when the time was right. “One day you’ll just know, all of a sudden,” she said.

It was frustrating because I felt so lost and desperately wanted someone to tell me how to fix everything. That was part of my problem: always wanting people to figure things out for me, not yet knowing I could take ownership of my life. Beth wanted me to grow beyond that uncertainty. She listened with her heart, as my friend. She didn’t tell me what to do because she believed in my ability to figure it out for myself during that terrible time in my life.

I realize it’s not like this for everyone. If you show up with bruises because your spouse or partner is beating you, for example, hopefully someone will tell you that you need to end it, and hopefully you’ll hear them and find the courage to do so at some point. But if all your wounds are hidden, more psychological, or if your determination to leave is mixed with the on-again/off-again hope that things will get better, friends and loved ones may not say anything to you. You may not be ready to hear their advice if they do offer it, perhaps you’ll even dismiss their insights. That Before You Leave time is like walking through the fog. You have to keep going but can’t see yet what direction you’re taking.

During my last two years of my marriage I basically pretended to live in D.C. I made the two-and-a-half-hour trek there every few weeks to stay with friends for the weekend. It was my temporary respite from the small-town life I hated. I was so eager to escape on those Fridays after work that one time I managed to get two speeding tickets, one right after the other, from those hidden cameras while driving to the Shady Grove Metro station.

The moment I arrived in D.C., my heart was always lighter. My friends would take me out to the latest cocktail bars and restaurants, we’d whisk ourselves around in Ubers. During the day, I’d go see art exhibitions I had eagerly read about in the Washington Post. The city felt busy, anonymous, important, full of relentless possibility, culture and intelligence, all the things I yearned for but didn’t experience as much in my married life. It was like getting high on all things metropolitan. When Sunday afternoon arrived, I’d begrudgingly head home, feeling a little hungover and a lot of sadness because I was no longer in that world. My ex never cared when I was away, even encouraged me to go. I think both of us had entered survival mode to keep our fragile relationship from ending.

One weekend, a friend of mine from graduate school was traveling to D.C. for a conference and invited me to meet her and stay in her hotel so we could catch up. Her father had died unexpectedly, and I had been thinking about her. I was anxious to see her and bought us tickets to see a dance company at the Kennedy Center. We had a terrific time going out and talking for hours. The dance performance was amazing. She told me how during her father’s last conversation, he reminded her how short life was and to never compromise on living the way she wanted. His words comforted her.

That Sunday, during my usual ride home on the Metro to Shady Grove, I thought about what my friend’s father had said and something in me broke loose. I started weeping uncontrollably. The thought of returning to my bleak life in Western Maryland was unbearable. It was the tiny crack in my denial of my marriage ending that ultimately led to me leaving.

The following week, my then-husband and I had yet another screaming match that ended with him in the upstairs room and I in our lonely bedroom where I retreated to sleep. I begged him not to invite his friends over for their usual poker game because of the state we were in, but he did it anyway. I woke up to the sounds of their drunken yells and laughter, and suddenly I just knew. This was it.

Why are you all over here?” I shouted into the deafening noise of the room upstairs, standing there disheveled from tears and sleep, and wild with the truth of it all. “Don’t you know that (NAME OF MY EX) and I are breaking up?

Then I turned and left the room, crept back to bed. My then-husband, dazed by the whole situation, drank himself into a stupor.

And that was my moment. From that point, it was like a switch had been turned on and I was in functional survival mode, with the singular goal of getting out of there. I began packing my things and storing them at friends’ houses. I accepted a job in D.C., the first and only one I applied for that miraculously worked out. I made plans to crash at people’s apartments while I found my own. I took one final work trip overseas with my current job, ensuring I wouldn’t have to see my ex for two weeks so the finality of what I was doing could sink in. He was gone by the time I came back to pack up the last of my things, away visiting family and still not willing to accept I was leaving him. And that was that.

No one could have told me when that moment would arrive. I had to recognize its truth and act on it.

I didn’t tell this story to the woman sending me messages on Twitter. I told her I was glad she was talking things over with her husband, and then repeated what Beth had always said to me: if it was meant to end, one day she would just know.

I’m not a marriage counselor, and no one’s situation is the same. I sincerely hope people’s marriages work out. I have the deepest empathy for moms with kids who are trying to figure out what to do, when considering divorce.

Here’s what I tell anyone who is struggling: The first step to improving a relationship is learning how to hear your own voice and what your heart needs, and to be able to communicate those needs in an open, respectful way. And when I say relationship, I not only mean a relationship you have with someone else but the one you have with yourself. Sometimes it’s really hard, when you’re distracted by your own fears and insecurities, or surrounded by people who don’t support things that matter to you. Sometimes, you’re with the wrong person and a tiny part of you dies the longer you’re with them and you have no choice but to leave, no matter how much you try to fix things. Ultimately, it’s up to you to listen to yourself.

I’m still learning to hear my voice, to take charge of my autonomy. I write, I meditate, I spend time alone to hear it. I read books. I end bad relationships and start new ones that I hope are better. I try to love my friends and family in a humble and open way, accepting their thoughtful criticisms and their love with equal measure. And that’s all I can do, on this journey out of the fog and into a brighter place of peace and well-being.