Grappling With My Role as the “Good Ex-Wife”
Deep down, I know that if my identity is hitched to my ex — or anyone — then I’m in trouble
My ex-husband is getting remarried.
I mean, he’s been dating her for a while now, so it shouldn’t be that shocking, and yet I’m still shocked.
Now there will be a new wife. Excuse me: a new and improved wife. I’m the old one. The one who failed at decorating and cooking. The one who hates shopping, spa days, and baby showers. The one who can’t have a glass of wine at dinner, the one who went to rehab.
The addict wife.
Now people who know us will whisper things to each other like, “Did you hear that he’s getting remarried?” And when they see me, they’ll say, “So, how are you, Laura?” Emphasis on you, their voices dripping with curiosity and pity. Once again, my life will make for good gossip.
The moment he said the words, “We’re getting married.” I felt like he’d slapped me across the face, and I had to remember to breathe. Despite the ego injury, I understood that it was imperative that I give him a timely, enthusiastic response. I knew that any hesitation on my part could be construed as sour grapes, or worse, jealousy. This was the moment I needed to pump golden sunshine into my voice and say, “Congratulations!” But I didn’t know if I was capable.
I was so relieved when I heard the right words come tumbling out of my mouth, seemingly on their own, complete with the right tone and right inflection.
“That’s wonderful. Congratulations to both of you! Do you have a date?”
I sounded like I meant it. I sounded like I was beyond caring whether or not he was married. I sounded sincere.
I couldn’t help but think about all the promises we’d made to our kids.
What about school recitals and birthdays? Does this mean we’ll turn into one of those families? Those separate-parent-teacher-conference divorced couples. Those two birthday parties and two Thanksgiving families?
Will we become like everyone else?
“I just heard. Are you okay?” asked my friend Nicole.
And so it begins.
I want to shoot back a text that says, “Of course I’m okay, why wouldn’t I be?”
But instead, I take a deep breath.
“I think so.” I typed back.
The words appear immediately. “Thank God you have a boyfriend, right? I mean, it’s not like you haven’t moved on.”
I don’t know how to explain that this has very little to do with my boyfriend, or the soon-to-be-new wife, or my ex-husband, for that matter. This is about the abrupt removal of another one of my dwindling and precious identities. I feel like I should have been consulted before I was stripped of this precious commodity. I feel robbed that I didn’t even get a say.
Thanks to my trip to rehab and the subsequent divorce two years ago, I’m no longer the model mother or wife. I am no longer a publicist, and I’m no longer PA president. But I feel like I’ve been rocking this new role of mine, the one I didn’t want and never saw coming: the good ex-wife.
My ex-in-laws still invite me to family celebrations. Instead of calling his office, our dentist still occasionally calls me to schedule or reschedule his cleaning appointments. For the past year, I’ve watched other parents marvel at us as we’ve sat next to each other at games and school recitals. Separated people seek me out for advice.
“How do you guys do it?” they’ll ask.
The truth is, I am pretty smug about our model divorce. But I know how delicate it is, and I don’t think it will withstand the addition of a third adult, one who will live in that home with him and take her rightful place next to him at the bimah for our older son’s Bar Mitzvah and our parent-teacher conferences.
The thought of messing with our enviable co-parenting structure makes me queasy. I’ve enjoyed the view from the pedestal on which I’ve been perched for the last couple of years, and I don’t want to lose that vantage point. But sometimes I feel like this “good ex-wife” status is the most admirable thing about me.
I know that I stayed in my marriage because I was afraid of being divorced. Not just getting a divorce but being divorced. Having to check that awful box, having to be a third wheel, having folks feeling sorry for me while they run around flaunting their marital statuses.
Two years ago, my fall from grace and into rehab was painful and messy, and everyone knew about it. I think people expected him to divorce me, or kick me to the curb afterward. When he and I kept showing up at school together as usual, folks must have wondered how he’d come to forgive me so quickly. And maybe because he’d set the example, people gave me the same respect they did when I was his wife. After I stopped questioning their motives, I began to enjoy it.
Maybe this was better than being married! I still have my co-parent, my kids feel safe and secure, and I can still enjoy a similar status as I did when we were married. Now, that role is in jeopardy. Now, they will be the couple who shows up at school events and birthday parties. Now, I will be the afterthought or the pity invite.
My therapist tells me that this isn’t so much about losing my status, as it is about finding my identity. I think she’s right. I know she’s right. This “good ex-wife” status I enjoy so much has strings and conditions. Strings attached directly to my ex-husband.
Deep down I know that if my identity is hitched to him, or anyone, then I’m in trouble, whether that be mom-of, daughter-of, wife-of, or ex-wife of.
I love being a mom (and a daughter and a girlfriend and sister) but I know how dangerous it can be to conflate those roles of mine with who I am, my identity.
Cutting these strings might hurt, but I’m no stranger to that heartache. They say that pain is the touchstone of growth, which means that I’ve done a lot of growing over the past few years.
I guess it’s time to grow a little more.
Laura Cathcart Robbins is the host of the popular podcast The Only One In The Room and author of the forthcoming Atria/Simon & Schuster memoir, Stash (spring 2023). She has been active for many years as a speaker and school trustee and is credited for creating The Buckley School’s nationally recognized committee on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice. Her articles in Huffington Post and The Temper on the subjects of race, recovery, and divorce have garnered her worldwide acclaim. She is a LA Moth StorySlam winner and currently sits on the advisory boards of the San Diego Writer’s Festival and the Outliers HQ podcast Festival.
Find out more about her on her website, or you can look for her on Facebook, on Instagram and follow her on Twitter.