[Note: this originally appeared in a Facebook Note published on April 18, 2012 visible only to my friends. The vagueness is purposeful as this entire piece was written based on observing the experiences of family and friends as they went through divorce. I am publishing this after the encouragement of many]
When you get married you don’t see an end. You both see someone that you can love forever. That dream is everything. They are someone that captures every part of your identity in their own existence. They feel the same way. This person is someone you want to grow old loving, dying with a life that specifically includes you both. You both just want to be partners in life, ready to stand up against everything time throws at you. Ready to prove your commitments and adaptability in order to preserve the most important relationship in your lives.
But then, whether it be 5 years, 15 years, or 40 years later, something changes. Sometimes it’s a gentle mutual conclusion that for your future happinesses, and the committed love you have for eachother, the love that only wishes to see you both happy and fall in love again. In a world where marriage = monogamy, you set each other free. You try to remain friends, and you might succeed. You might drift apart, with the occasional post card or holiday party coincidental meeting. You might spend time later, a few years, or 20 years, recalling the wonderful times you had and sharing your new lives that brought you happiness — the lives you released each other to have.
Sometimes, it’s not gentle at all. It’s a terminal disease that doesn’t show symptoms until it’s already too late. It’s the break down of communication, or worse, the impact of communication that was never there. So the little things, a forgotten phone call to let you know they’re going to be home late, you being too tired all the time from your career (your life’s dream and passion), underlying tensions and insecurities about religion, politics, finance, and success occasionally break through the surface in your day to day lives, pile up; build pressure. This cancer just keeps growing, and if it’s not caught soon enough it metastasizes and starts to kill you. Even if it’s caught soon enough, the treatment may not work. Marital counseling, renewals of vows, couples support groups, dedicated nights to each other, 3 nice things a day for your spouse suggestions, self-help section marital guidebooks — the treatment can still fail.
Or worse yet — it seems like it’s working to you both. You’ve convinced yourself that it’s working. Everyone around you is convinced that it’s working. You are convinced that it’s working. And instead, in complete denial, you’re destroying yourself inside because it’s not working and a small, aching, growing, toxic part of you knows it. This person, this relationship, your love, is part of your identity and this existence on which your whole future has been planned, is killing you. You have a choice between two forms of death. The death of your life happiness, or the death of your old self, your identity, your relationship. You have to sacrifice something.
You have one life to live and one shot at happiness. You’ve both tried until you couldn’t anymore. You’re tired, worn down, wounded by your own defeat, and now you’re about to deliver that final blow that will destroy you both from the inside out.
It’s sudden, but it isn’t. You have that phone call; have that conversation over dinner; on the couch; in the bedroom; in the back yard; at your parents’ house. The conversation that sits in your stomach like molten lead or freshly mixed cement — you can’t decide. You both speak calmly. Your mind screams violently. You both knew, some small part knew.
You cry. They cry. Your parents cry. Your siblings cry. Your friends cry. Your in-laws cry. Your children cry. Massive collective wounds open and it feels like everyone is being swallowed whole. The world is out of control and things are happening so fast, but are taking so long. You lash out and blame them while they lash out and blame you right back. You’re filled with unfathomable pain as your life, your identity, your life commitment, collapses beneath you.
You’re suddenly alone during all the times you’ve become accustom to having someone around. You’re talking to yourself as though out of the shadows, the echoing emptiness, you’ll hear someone respond. You’re forgetting to eat because it seems useless to cook for only one person. You’re still buying foods you hated, but would buy out of habit, for someone, and watching it rot, uneaten. Your home can’t find the proper balance between too much stuff and too little. You can still hear the silence. You stop watching TV, cleaning the kitchen, folding the laundry, calculating the budget, listening to music, going out to eat, going out with friends. You stop functioning because for the first time in your recollection, “you” is just one person.
Your friends, your family, your coworkers approach you; they mourn you while you exist as a living ghost of who you once were. They ritualistically drag you out. They introduce you to “other single people”. They suggest you go on a vacation; go take care of yourself; go take a break. They greet you with hesitant smiles and overwhelm you with invitations. You’re overwhelmed with how alone you feel while surrounded by people and just how much you wish you didn’t feel this way. You want to take it all back. You want to wake up from this nightmare. They all eventually give up.
Someone you once knew, maybe even someone you call a friend, makes a snide or frustrated remark — “You need a therapist.” You consider it. The act of calling someone to talk about your “problem” — the one you blame yourself for because you created it by breaking your commitment — is too overwhelming. You instead decide to find a self-help book with the least assuming title and back cover that speaks to you… at least a little. You learn the adjective agoraphobic. You don’t return phone calls for two weeks.
Sometime later, you read the self-help book again. You start a journal. You make short term goals. You start volunteering. You pick up a new hobby. You get a new haircut. You make new friends that you fail to keep. You start spending time with old friends that waited for your call. You make new friends you succeed at keeping. Your friends start to fill your world again. You finish your book list. You smile randomly on the street because someone smiled at you. You get the letter in the mail that says your legal name’s been changed.
You start cleaning the kitchen, the bathroom, the attic, the closets, the pantry, the bedroom, the office. That leads to purging: old papers, old notebooks, old invitations, old greeting cards, old food, old magazines, old furniture, old photographs, old CDs, old perfumes, old toothpaste. The purging leads to overflowing boxes with everything you “don’t need”, defined as everything in your sight that feels heavy just by looking at it, or everything familiar. You give away everything that connected you to the time before “you” meant one person.
It feels so sudden — the daylight, the weather, the way a bird hops on the ground, the sound of wind against old windows, the flicker of lights in old buildings, the sounds of rush hour traffic beginning at 4AM — it all becomes real. Somehow, you didn’t notice it all, and if you did, you didn’t notice you noticed. You feel like you can do anything. You can do anything? You can do anything.
You learn that you’re not such a bad person to be alone around. You slowly start to take back activities you loved what seems like so long ago. You see old friends again. You choose not to see some old friends again. You buy yourself a new wardrobe. You apply to a new, better job in a new, better city. You accept the offer and smile graciously thanking those that remind you in their farewells that “you deserve this.”
Time goes by and you have a new home, a new phone number, a new fashion, a new car, a new job, new friends, and a new you. You’re asked one day how you ended up here. You think for a moment and respond,” after my marriage ended…” for the first time without feeling your eyes water; the first time without feeling your chest cave under the weight of those words. You don’t even notice the accomplishment.
It’s been years now. You’re seeing someone, or you’re happily alone. Perhaps you’re ready to make a life commitment to someone again. You remember select happy times from your first marriage with a bittersweet nostalgia and try to block out the time spent between the two definitions of “you”. Occasionally, you miss your old home, old city, old life and old “you”, even though you’ve rebuilt every part those people and places used to fill. You remind yourself when the sick guilt comes — usually late at night when you’re alone — that those things don’t exist anymore. You remind yourself that you had to sacrifice everything. You died to be reborn.