7 THINGS I LEARNED FROM DIVORCE
1. Trust your gut.
This is not about regret or hindsight; it’s about understanding that sometimes fear and doubt are well-founded.
When I first met my ex-wife, I told her that I would be moving to San Diego the following year to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry, and that I was fundamentally opposed to marriage until it was available to every citizen. Within a year, I had rejected my offer from San Diego State University and proposed. Neither of these decisions felt right, yet I stood behind them and even defended them to family.
Fast-forward to the months before our wedding. We were committing to thousands of dollars in decorations and rental space, inviting family I didn’t particularly care for, and slowly maxing out credit cards. I was struggling to write my vows and unenthusiastic about the minutiae. And what did I tell myself? It’s just cold feet.
The irony is that I had been engaged once before, and I trusted the doubt that I felt during the engagement. The difference was that I could point to a very specific fear: I didn’t want to raise children with my first fiancee. During the second engagement, I couldn’t identify the source of my hesitation. I only knew that I wasn’t excited about getting married, so I dismissed it.
Intuition deserves your attention.
Yes, gut feelings can be wrong, but we owe it to ourselves to consider the source of our doubt.
2. You can do everything right and still fail.
This was a hard truth to swallow, but it is true nonetheless.
During my marriage, I set concrete goals and parameters for major decisions, and I genuinely believed that those things would guarantee success. The most obvious example is what I considered the Holy Trinity of children: I wouldn’t agree to having kids until I 1) had a salaried job, 2) carried medical insurance, and 3) owned a house. My reasoning was that the hardest parts of raising a family were affording the necessities and providing stability.
Here’s where everything went wrong: I had failed to consider that having children changes people, and that some of the most important elements of parenting are not nearly as concrete as nurseries and grocery baskets. That’s a lesson I learned within months of having twins, a decision that I thought was responsible and smart because we’d met the Holy Trinity. Unfortunately, my ex-wife and I didn’t have the same priorities and values, particularly in our definitions of stability, and we separated just weeks after the girls’ first birthday.
Another example: I thought that a hasty proposal required a lengthy engagement and cohabitation. Those two things would give us time to really assess whether or not marriage would work. So, we had a year-long engagement and lived together. Should have been perfect, right? Not so fast. Turns out, there’s plenty of strife and struggle that can’t be anticipated, and the way we approach those issues determines the outcome of our relationships.
Responsible decisions are not infallible.
One of the most difficult things to accept is that good decisions can have terrible results. Humanness is synonymous unpredictability, no matter how much we fight it.
3. The best relationship is a good partnership.
PSA: I’m a giver.
That should be a good thing, right? Turns out, sometimes it can put a real strain on relationships. See, I naturally push myself to make others happy, often going well beyond my capacity in my pursuit of selflessness. Those efforts are dangerous, though, as they make me bitter and make me feel like I’m putting the majority of the effort into relationships. This is magnified when you put two givers together or, as was the case with my ex-wife, a giver with a taker.
Mutual relationships are the most successful. That’s what I mean when I contrast relationships with partnerships. A partner is all-in, but the goal is to complement your counter-part and work in unison. When two people work together, they get more done, but they also avoid animosity because every effort is a shared effort.
Harmony leaves no room for resentment.
You simply don’t have space for discord in a dynamic duo.
4. Marriage doesn’t make one out of two.
Unity does not require that we abandon our individual identities.
During lunch today, I was discussing one of the more frustrating and pervasive mentalities surrounding marriage; namely, that marriage is two parts becoming one whole. Perhaps it’s the teacher in me, but I immediately went to metaphor to explain my point. The gist of it is this:
When you get married, it’s not two paths converging into one path. It’s two paths that move in the same direction. Inevitably, paths turn. Ideally, in a marriage your paths take the same turn. More often than not, divorce is the direct result of people who came to an impasse and chose different directions. The farther apart your paths take you, the greater the distance between. If the distance becomes too great, even shouting becomes impossible and communication breaks down.
Put another way, imagine you’re magnets. The closer you are, the stronger your bond. The more space between you and your spouse, the harder it is to connect. Instinctively, we know this. How can I be sure? Because cliches about magnetism and relationships abound, from “opposites attract” to “animal magnetism.”
I think it’s easy to lose sight of this because so many couples do seem to lose autonomy the longer they’re together. The strange thing is, those couples are often very unhappy and yearning for some semblance of their former selves. And we know this, yet we continue to refer to spouses as our “other halves” and dreamily recount the day we “felt complete.”
But that’s just not how humans work.
5. Reality is a myth.
Nothing is more clear when speaking with a divorced couple than the chasm between their stories of how the marriage ended.
From my perspective, my marriage ended when my ex-wife pushed for a polyamorous lifestyle. We didn’t have a strong understanding of polyamory, and what actually ensued was an open marriage. The boundaries we set weren’t respected, causing tension between us. Then, my ex-wife met a man who enticed her to run away with him, and she did.
From her perspective, our marriage ended because I was unreasonable, cold, and all-consuming. I was unwilling to move when she was discontent with our decision to move back to Texas, and I didn’t show her affection. For the span of our relationship, she had slowly given up everything about her to make me happy.
To borrow a phrase, it’s all relative. For me, my perspective is reality, from the memories to the emotional instability and betrayal. For my ex-wife, her perspective is reality. She genuinely feels like she gave up her individuality, and she adamantly rejects the idea that our marriage ended over another man. Neither of us is in denial. We just had fundamentally different experiences. Are we both at fault? Probably. Is either of our experiences objective and absolute? Probably not.
Gaining clarity about this has drastically improved several friendships, and I believe it’s made me a better partner. Rather than arguing about whether or not I said something offensive or did something inexcusable, I’m slowly gaining the ability to accept that it’s possible for my experience to exist simultaneously with my partner’s, even when those experiences seem at odds.
When two people don’t see eye to eye, it’s not always because one is blind.
Sometimes, we’ve just got different vantage points.
6. Love is not enough.
No, I’m not mired in cynicism.
I’m still a romantic, so sappy it drives my partner insane some days. What I am not is foolish. I believed, for much of my life, that love could overcome anything. What I know now is that it can’t. And the more we rely on love to heal the cracks in our relationships, the more we risk our own undoing. At some point, we have to pull the spackle and putty knife from the cabinet and go to work.
It’s easy to be entranced by Virgil’s infamous proclamation, omnia vincit amor, but it behooves us to remember that Virgil was not writing a treatise, and those words do not mean that through love we can overcome anything. Rather, they mean that love itself overcomes all things, including logic and reason. In essence, love is consuming (and blinding).
In order to survive the inevitable obstacles of marriage, couples must go to the mat and wrestle over the issues. Sometimes, this looks like fighting, but fighting isn’t always a negative thing. Sometimes, fighting is a sign that two people are wholly vested in resolving a conflict, rather than avoiding it. I’m not advocating for violent or abusive exchanges, of course, but I am in favor of having hard conversations when a relationship requires them.
Love is grand, but it is not effortless.
Relationships cannot thrive without love, but they also cannot improve without commitment and perseverance.
7. Marriage certificates do not equal commitment.
When someone wants to move on, they will find a way.
One of the most distinct and startling memories from my separation is my ex-wife’s unwillingness to fight for our marriage. Looking back, her resolve to move on shouldn’t have surprised me. She plotted to visit her best friends under the auspice of thinking through things, but she secretly packed extra clothes for her and our daughters in case she decided not to come home. I found out, and I gave her an ultimatum: come home when she said she would, or don’t come home at all.
While she was gone, I discovered that she had also planned to have a man she had begun dating come stay with her at her best friend’s house. I was furious, of course. I’d never met this man, yet he was interacting with my daughters. Determined to give her the space I had promised, though, I let her alone during her trip. On the day she was supposed to return, I texted simply, “So?”
Her response was passive. “I’m not ready to come home yet.”
I asked her point blank if she wanted a divorce. She was non-committal, but unwilling to return home.
Within a month, she had an apartment. A few weeks later, her new boyfriend moved in. I say these things not to demonize my ex-wife, but to illustrate exactly how easy it is to end a marriage. Many people view vows and certificates as binding. They’re not. And in my experience, it’s much harder to divide things than it is to divide hearts at the end of a marriage.
Nothing is so easy as leaving when your heart has already gone.