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Stymied

March 9, 2010

“After a divorce,” a friend who left her husband a decade ago told me, “you still have your old relationship. But it’s distilled, boiled down so that only the shitty parts are left.” And she’s right.

By the time you divorce, you’ll sign paper after paper agreeing how to divide your finances, yet you’ll still fight over money. “You owe me half of what I just paid for soccer,” your ex will email, and you’ll think, Fuck you, you petty fuck, I wrote checks for both sets of school pictures, and never asked you for a penny back. Keeping strict accounts feels absurd and uptight, but letting things slide feels sloppy and stupid. Whatever you decide to do–ignore small things, or keep frantic, obsessive track of them–will come back to bite you on the ass the minute your ex decides to adopt the opposite strategy. You’ll feel either like a jerk, or like a sucker. There is no middle ground.

You’ll come to an arrangement concerning the children, a schedule that (one hopes) suits everyone’s best purposes; however, there will be glitches, last minute switches, and all manner of little things that go on when your kids are in your ex’s custody that will infuriate you. But you’ll grit your teeth and tell yourself that none of it really matters–who cares that they go to bed at ten thirty on a school night? Except it does matter, and you’ll lie awake fuming, though you have absolutely no intention of bringing it up. Oh, but you should bring it up, your friends who’ve never been divorced earnestly tell you, since clearly it bothers you so much. Why are you so afraid to bring things up? And you’ll have to find a way to shrug your friends off, too, because they’ll stare at you in confusion when you try to explain that bringing up a small issue like bedtime is never worth the trouble–the most you’ll get is an eyeroll and a half-assed apology whose subtext infuriates you even more. “Gee, I’m sorry…sorry you’re such a controlling bitch,” is what your ex wants to say, what you end up hearing. It’s only worth going to the mat over things that endanger your children’s lives and limbs, or over crucial ideological matters. You need to choose your battles. Small things are not worth fighting for. Or about. Small fights are what you have when you’re still married.

When you’re divorced, a disagreement that looks like nothing at all, a mere seedling in the dirt, has, in fact, a massive tap root going through every argument you’ve ever had, reaching beyond the divorce to the heart of the marriage itself, piercing, on its way down, every fight, every insult, every evil thought, every horrid thing you said or did, right down to the core of blackness that sits at the center of the past you will forever share. This is why you bite your tongue. This is why you avoid confrontation, stay away from frail little two-leafed arguments, no matter how deceptively simple they look to pluck out. You can’t get a good enough grip, and soon you’re lost. You don’t want to start the whole wretched process–the digging, the sweating, the fruitless, terrible tugging–unless you absolutely have to.

You’re free, once you’re divorced, and yet you’ve never been less free. Your ex’s tentacles still wrap around your house, your friends, your kids, your wallet, your job, your schedule, your very being in a way that feels more urgent and oppressive than it ever did when you were struggling to separate. You are operating within a reduced perimeter, and to say you have a chance at a new start, a new lease on life, is absolutely incorrect. You are not free, for example, to take your children abroad for a year so that they’ll learn to speak French. This is something you’d always talked about doing while you were married; it was a tantalizing option, one that would actually be possible right about now, if the two of you were still together. Now you can’t take your children out of state without securing permission from your ex. You can’t even move from the town you uneasily inhabit–and neither can he. However, knowing your ex is as stuck as you are does nothing to mitigate your fury; you wish he’d go, just sever the ties and move, though you’d never truly wish that, because his absence would be bad for the children. Because of the children, you certainly can’t wish he were dead. You imagine if you could wish he were dead–could truly wish it, even for a second–you might come to your senses a little, step back from the abyss and begin to think more cogently about what you really want. Instead you fling yourself wildly against one impossible scenario after another, like a moth flapping crazily at the windowpane. You can’t move without leaving the children–unthinkable! And neither can he.

You hate the way he infects your speech, your thoughts, your dreams, your plans for the future. Your friends must be so tired of hearing about him by now, yet you are unable to stop talking. You dissect what you know of his personal life, ripping it apart and putting it back together, more interested in his comings and goings than you ever were when you were married, when the two of you trusted each other, and wished each other well. Your ears prickle when the children drop stray comments about their time with him. You dread running into him; you long to find out where he is.

You can’t imagine this state of mind will continue–how can it? Yet you have no idea what has to happen in order for everything to change. Right now, the salient fact seems to be this: Someone who actively despises you has control over your life. And will continue to, for as far into the future as you can possibly see. This is making you miserable, and seems untenable. You know plenty of divorced couples who have managed to move on, but most of them are older, and remarried; you’d like to imagine some kind of solution that doesn’t involve diving right back into matrimony. You want to let go, to be released. Or, let’s put it this way instead: you want to be released, but you know that’s beyond your control. Most of all, you just want to let go.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2010 11:43 pm

    Precious analogy, the deep root and the little leaves. I’ve never been there but somehow I know this is a very true description. Really beautifully written.

  2. anna permalink
    March 10, 2010 3:37 am

    your writing is amazingly good.

  3. MEP permalink
    March 10, 2010 12:47 pm

    This is true, early on, SO true. But I promise it gets better. The letting go happens within yourself, and involves a lot of rising above. If you have the confidence to cut the bullshit, he will follow your lead. That voice inside you that says you don’t deserve to be happy is HIS voice. And he’s only saying it to punish you for not being the person he wants you to be, instead of the person you are.

  4. KatieC permalink
    March 10, 2010 1:41 pm

    perfectly said.

  5. March 10, 2010 3:40 pm

    So unbelievably true and yet I could never have said it quite as good as you did. Like another commenter said, you’re an amazing writer. You were able to put words to the thoughts that tumble around in my head and make me crazy.

  6. Ms V. permalink
    March 10, 2010 4:36 pm

    Ha! Perfect timing. I gave my ex $10 last night to get project materials for our ten year old. I ask for the change later, and he says, “Well, I bought you baby powder last week, so I left the money at my house.” Really?

    Really.

  7. Melanie permalink
    March 10, 2010 5:54 pm

    “Someone who actively despises you has control over your life. And will continue to, for as far into the future as you can possibly see.”

    Truer words have never been spoken.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      March 11, 2010 8:30 am

      So there’s no hope, then? I weep.

  8. ColleenInIndiana permalink
    March 11, 2010 12:01 pm

    OMG. A mere thirty seconds before I read this entry I was expounding in the exact same vein, albeit far less eloquently, to a friend via FB. And then told her how guilty I felt for answering a question like “how are you?” with a four paragraph diatribe about how my entire existence revolves around a single mistake I made (i.e. looking twice at HIM) 27 years ago. MEP says it will get better, but I truly don’t believe that. I KNOW him now. I understand how ill he is, will always be, and it terrifies me that in four years my second son will no longer be present when my then-ten year old daughter visits daddy all by herself. All by herself with the kind of man who teaches his teenage sons that all women are bitches, who tells a girl with a short bob that he prefers women with long hair (I have never had long hair), who hands a girl a picture of mommy and says, “Here, I’m getting rid of all these old pictures of your mother.” Yes, I have often wished he would die, but for now he provides me with my only financial support. Yes, I wish very much that he would move away, perhaps even out of the country–in my case, that possibility is tantalizingly real. Will it hurt my kids? Yes, but they are already irreparably harmed having him as their father, and frankly the psychological harm he will likely cause them in future far outweighs the harm caused by having an absent father. I weep, too, IB. I wish it didn’t have to be this way. More than anything, I wish my whole self did not have to be defined by this all-consuming constant. Him. Him. HIM. Why will he not just GO AWAY?

    • MEP permalink
      March 11, 2010 1:19 pm

      When my ex and I were together, he told me that I was wrong because I blamed him for all my problems. And he was right — I had a convenient scapegoat for why I couldn’t go further in my career (he would not let me put in the extra time at work), why I didn’t have friends (I allowed him to isolate me rather than stand up for myself), why I was completely miserable in every way. Once I left to fix all that, I actually had to DO STUFF to fix all that. Leaving itself wasn’t the magical cure.

      You will NEVER, EVER change him. You have to change YOURSELF. Don’t spin your wheels helplessly resenting and hating and raging, rolling around in the leftover muck of your divorce — do whatever it takes to make your life happy. Empower yourself. Empower your children. Your ex is a misogynist bastard? Get your kids counseling. Your ex controls you with money? Make yourself financially independent. Stop blaming him for your horrible life, and make yourself a better one. I think that’s good advice for all humans, divorced or not — make yourself a happy life.

      • irretrievablybroken permalink*
        March 11, 2010 1:57 pm

        Brilliant advice. Wise counsel, that I’ll try to follow. Thank you.

  9. ColleenInIndiana permalink
    March 11, 2010 6:03 pm

    Oh yes, wise indeed, MEP. To clarify, I do not actually sit around lamenting the ex’s impact on my life. I live in another state, I have a nice home, the kids and I have a relatively peaceful life, and I am laboring (as yet without any luck) to attract an agent and become a published author. Guess what, though? Once I succeed, the ex will claim 50% of all I net from the first three books, which were written during the marriage (ironically, as an escape from its grindingly slow collapse), and as I proceed to finish my series he will probably attempt to attach a claim to all the rest of them. In short, the more successful I am in my career of choice, the more likely I am to end up in court with the ex. I try not to think of the paradox too often. 😉

  10. Katie permalink
    March 12, 2010 2:59 am

    I can totally relate to you post. But please don’t give up it does get better. I am there now and have been around once before. It takes time but after a while you start to untangle, disengage and lead your own life. You can’t avoid being tied up with the common bond of children but you do have control over your own emotions and reactions. I remember standing in the shower and visualising a balloon – I cut the rope and let it fly away. Cliched I know but I knew I couldn’t control him (and didn’t want to!) but I could control my reactions once I chose to (after time had passed).

    Now my first child is 20 and I have meals with my ex like nothing ever happened. Unbelievable! Meanwhile I butt heads with my second ex and imagine I will never forgive him. I know I will and what’s more.. I will forget. And that’s when it gets easy because you just eventually stop thinking about them. They are peripheral.

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