Announcing an End
I changed my name on a certificate of marriage. I changed it back on a form for summary dissolution of marriage.
I knew it from the get-go: marriage to Dear First Husband would be a challenge, a tough one. I rolled up my sleeves.
Four years later, I unrolled my sleeves and turned to face a new challenge: announcing an end.
Because of course I would tell people that something had ended. The option to not proactively alert people to my radical life change never crossed my mind.
I wound up in communications for a reason. I like to make sure target audiences are informed about the issues and events they care about. For this particular event, I identified three target audiences:
- The people who cared about me the most (my extended family)
- The people with whom I interacted the most frequently (my coworkers)
- The people with whom I talked about my inner life the least (both of the above)
I wanted to provide these people with the information they needed, at the time they needed it. Or to be precise, I wanted them to have only as much information as I was comfortable sharing with them, at the times it would serve me best for them to have it.
And rest of the people in my life? Well, I’d play that by ear.
Fall 2013: Separated
I sat in a twin bed, the one I’d occupied in high school. I read the text of my email one more time.
This is a note to let you know that, after deteriorating for over a year, my marriage is ending. God has richly blessed me with friends, family, and faith.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” said the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to hurt you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
I cried when I hit send. I cried when I read the first reply back from the cousin I talk to about gardening and making wine. I cried when I read the email from the cousin whose email address I didn’t have but who found out and told me I was being covered in prayers. I cried every time another family member sent an email of empathy.
I had time to cry. It was the weekend. I planned it that way.
I sent this email twice: once in November to my mom’s side of the family, before Thanksgiving when I would see most of them; and again in December to my dad’s side of the family, before Christmas when I would see some of them. I didn’t want to show up to holiday events, immobily writhing in hidden pain, and face the possibility of explaining the unexplainable.
Spring 2014: Dissolved
My heart raced, face flushed and body tingling. I was on the line with a handful of coworkers and I planned to disclose why my email signature had changed.
Moments before, the facilitator had announced the ice breaker. “April showers, they say, bring May flowers,” she said. “But not all of us have flower gardens. So tell us what April showers bring for you.”
I waited through this person for whom April showers brought piglets, that person who started beach volleyball in May, waited until most but not all people had shared. I didn’t want to throw a wet blanket over the May flowers; neither did I want to strew my shattered, healing heart all over the garden.
I picked the moment. I said my piece. Silence ensued, as it had after every other sheet of ice broken.
The next day, the May beach volleyball player thanked me for sharing and congratulated me. In the soaring wake of the longest 10 days of my life, those congratulations felt entirely appropriate.
Spring 2014, Continued: Married?
But not all congratulations after I resumed using my maiden name felt as appropriate. Take the coworker who joined me in the kitchenette as I waited for my lunch to heat. “I saw your name changed,” Alice chirped. “Congratulations!”
“Thanks!” I said. “But actually, my marriage ended.”
“Oooh! Oh. OK.” Alice hurried out of the kitchenette. I continued to watch the microwave’s countdown. Alice’s supervisor Helen walked in, came close. “Alice just told me you got divorced,” she said earnestly. “Are you OK?”
Some people were caught off guard for a different reason. Take the classmate at an informal one-year reunion. “How have you been?” Sally asked. Concern bent her brow and tinged her voice clearly enough for me to understand what she was asking. Sally and I had spent enough time together that she invited me to her wedding two year before. I told her true things.
Dani, with whom I had spent very little time, dropped in. “You were MARRIED?” Dani squawked.
Other people took a more cautious and curious approach. Take the coworker who came to my office one day. She too had noticed the change in my email signature. “Have you had a big change in your life?” she asked with care.
Or take my friend who met me outside on a sunny day to return the Russian textbooks I had lent her. We were catching up on the past several months and I raised my left hand to shade my face. “What does this mean?” she asked abruptly, pointing to my ringless finger.
Turning to face the new challenge of announcing an end, I had choices. In fact, I had more choices than I realized. I could have chosen to skip family holiday events. I could have chosen to let my changed Facebook display name and my email signature communicate for me. (There’s more than one way to peel a potato, after all. For another example, see #TBT to My Maiden Name: Personal Branding After Divorce.)
I chose communication: targeted and timely. That choice required courage, the courage to open myself to emails, comments, and questions I couldn’t control.
“I hope you’ll forgive me,” a sweet friend wrote in a letter about the name change, “but I’m glad they’re asking about it.”
I love the image you gave me of you and a co-worker standing in the shared kitchenette where you are not the one who is uncomfortable from the question. Instead, you get to be the super-gracious person who’s all, “Hey, don’t worry about it. High five!”
Not everyone responded in a way that was helpful in the moment or that made sense to me. And that’s OK. Communicating about uncomfortable ends and ambiguous events is hard. As often as I could, I chose compassion. And that’s a choice I continue to make to this day.
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