On Divorce: Lessons from My Mother
This is what happens when you get divorced. You learn that good, loving, partners — people who you would have risked life and limb for, who you believed would do the same for you without question — can change their minds. You learn that sometimes going to therapy and doing the work just isn’t enough. You learn that the love you once shared couldn’t carry you through to the end. That maybe there isn’t anything really “forever.” You learn these things and then you mourn. You are forced to say goodbye to those once sacred vows of “to have and to hold” and “in sickness and in health.” You think about all the things you gave up for them. You forget about all the things they gave up for you. You have to change the emergency contact on all your forms, even though you still write their name down by habit. You still know their number by heart. And only theirs. You don’t even know your sister’s number. When something funny, sad, tragic or maybe nothing happens, you still want to share this with them. You had planned to share the rest of the days, hours, minutes of your life with them. And you think to yourself about all the times you went to bed, side by side, not touching anymore, wondering if this was all there was. You told yourself Yes, yes this is it. And you told yourself that you were okay with that. That life can’t always be fireworks and supernovas. You told yourself that the love was still there, that it just shifted into something else, something more grown up, more concrete. You told yourself these things as you fell asleep to the rhythm of their breath. You became used to their sounds, their smells. You reached out to touch them and your body was an extension of theirs. To you, they were home. But then days, weeks, months later, you wake up in a bed that’s empty. Or maybe it’s been filled by someone else, or something else. But more importantly, they’re not there anymore. Because they once had lain awake too, questioning where your love went. And when they couldn’t find it anymore, they gave up looking, let go of your hand, and walked away.
They found shelter elsewhere. And all of a sudden, you found yourself homeless.
Maybe you meet someone afterward. Maybe that person is everything your partner wasn’t. Maybe that person reminds you too much of the person who left you. It doesn’t matter who this person is. It matters that you’re still living, breathing. You’re still waking up every day, and at some point you realize, all the things you were so used to once before, all those things belonging to the person you thought you’d grow old with — pheromones, fingertips, bare feet — you’re forgetting them. Those details, they don’t matter anymore. Get up, keep moving. It’s over. You say this out loud every morning to yourself. And all your mornings are filled with feeling lonely. Believe this will pass. Believe that one day, you’ll just float along, free of all those memories. Unchained by regrets, which aren’t even regrets anymore. Just something that happened a long time ago, like when you got your first bicycle, and you fell down a lot. Skinned knees, bruised ego and all, you still got up.
So be good to that new person. Be honest to them. Be truthful to yourself. Let them go if you’re holding onto the past. And eventually, allow yourself to let go of it too. Realize that it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Nothing could have been done to prevent this dissolution. And never, ever call it a failure. Don’t let yourself forget that once long ago, you were kids and you fell in love, and it was good. Though as good as it was, it wasn’t right. Bravely face the fact that maybe you weren’t really that happy either — that it was easier to glide along on autopilot, believing the best you could hope for was a lifetime of routine complacency. You used to be so scared of being alone. Now you’re terrified of being let down.
But that doesn’t mean it will never be right with anyone ever again. This new person you’ve met — she is not the person who was clumsy with your heart. He is not the person who was reckless with your love. It’s okay if you’re not quite there yet. Maybe you’ve already laid down the bricks to the wall around your heart, tossed all your wishes into the sea, never to seek them out again. But like “forever,” “never” can be transitory.
So take all the time you need. Smash everything. Cry. Sit on the floor of your shower, let the hottest water you can stand wash over you. Burn photos until there is nothing left but ash. Be hateful until you are no longer hateful. And one day, when you least expect it (because you stopped keeping track), you find yourself no longer waiting, no longer angry, no longer hateful. It is then that you realize you can’t make a home out of someone else’s body. You expected too much, you accepted too little.
But if you can, remember to open up your heart, because, though it may be hard to believe, love can still happen again. And it could be better than before. That anything now will be better than what it had been. That divorced doesn’t mean damaged. That maybe, with all the pieces you have left of the past, you’re supposed to gather them up to form the foundation of the home you’ll forge together with someone else. And this new person will feel too familiar to be new. You will slip into each other’s life like one hand into another— warm, comforting.
Then it dawns on you that every single devastating second you endured from your marriage that didn’t last was all a harsh lesson you had to learn. That you wouldn’t have learned anything had it not catapulted you to the very deepest, darkest places at your core. You’re different now. You know what real love is. That it isn’t borne from a place of sacrifice and denial, nor nurtured by guilt or resentment. So when it happens, you are ready. You’ll know when you’ve found the one you’ve been looking for, because they’ve been looking for you too. The things you both want are the very same. And all you ever wanted was this— someone who will hold you with both hands and never let you go.
Author’s Note: Twenty years ago, my parents decided to separate and eventually divorced. The transition wasn’t easy but ultimately, their decision to end their marriage was the best thing they ever did for all of us.