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The myth of the clean break

April 26, 2010

I waste a lot of time parsing my separation–assigning guilt, betrayal, necessary atonement. And though a wise elder friend told me that someday I’d come to see my divorce as an “historical inevitability”–he’s a bit pompous, this particular friend, but it’s not his fault–I have yet to find the peace of mind that comes from thinking one could not have handled a situation any differently.

So I’ve decided to switch tactics. Instead of endlessly turning the past couple of years over and over in my head, ruminating and brooding, let us all agree that there is no perfect way to accomplish anything. That phantom options will forever remain. Trying to find the magical, elusive moment that answers all one’s nagging questions is a pointless endeavor. It’s as silly as, oh, I don’t know, wondering what you’d have turned out like if your parents had had different foreplay the day they conceived you. In the end, who cares? You’d have been different, but what difference does that difference make?

There is never a good time to break someone’s heart, to leave your marriage behind. There’s no formula for disaster. There’s no story you can tell yourself afterwards that will make it all make sense–he did this, so of course I was justified in doing that! You shut your eyes and leap, then start flailing in the water, trying to stay afloat. It’s a strange thing–you’re purposeful, yet irrational. I have never been so driven and yet so uncertain as I was during the past few years.

I have a couple of friends who are presently perched on the edge of marital separation, hesitating. I don’t want to nudge them them one way or the other–I worry about being a Bad Influence, about urging them to jump. Divorce is, as I wrote last week, not for the faint of heart. One does come out the other side, but trust me–it’s like going through a mangle. And my mangled psyche has not managed, so far, to pick itself up and brush itself off and say, decisively, “Well, THAT was certainly unpleasant, but it was all for the best!” Who knows if leaving is ever necessary, or ever for the best? I can’t know that my life is better now, or be dead certain that leaving was justified, because staying married was a path I didn’t take. It would have been easier to have been left by my husband, in many ways, than to have been the one demanding that we separate. The decision to leave is the only decision I’ve ever made that I’ve regretted, tormented myself over, second-guessed.

For a long time, to make myself feel better, I played up everything bad about the marriage and my ex-husband in my head. And for a long time, it worked. These days, however, I’m unable to muster the necessary energy to hate the guy. For instance, when he comes to pick up the children, who still shriek with glee at the sight of him, I am struck, and shocked, by a bolt of the old feeling I used to have when he came home. “Daddy! Daddy!” the children cry, and run to him. He gets out of the car waving his familiar wave, smiling, and there I am, waiting for him to get home the way I always waited, and there are our children, jumping around us. I prop open the front door–our front door, the door of the house we lived in together–and hand over backpacks. Sometimes we smile and chat a little; sometimes we don’t. His clothes, these days, are different. But his body is still as familiar to me as my own.

Someday age will change things, I imagine, but for now I still recognize every gesture, every single movement he makes. I know what he’s going to say before he says it, know his jokes, his customary turns of phrase. I spent many years paying close attention, after all. I memorized him.

“You still LOVE him,” my mother says, with a hint of something that infuriates me in her voice. But you know, maybe she’s right. I did love him rather fiercely once, and I suppose it’s not inconceivable that I love him still. I’ve never understood why people go around hating their ex boy or girlfriends. I am friends with as many of my exes as will have me. It just seems short sighted not to stay friendly– why junk the whole relationship because the romance tanked?

For a long time I craved further estrangement. I wanted to believe my ex-husband was an alien–someone I had to leave, indeed, someone I couldn’t imagine ever having married. I greedily collected evidence proving he’d turned into a dreadful, incomprehensible fiend–and I longed for the day when I couldn’t even remember our marriage. I thought the divorce would sever us, neatly and efficiently, from the past we both shared. I thought it had to. I thought that was what divorce did.

Certainly the last few years have faded some, which is a huge relief. They blur together, those awful months of separation, and diminish. Seen from this distance, I can nearly dismiss them with a wave of the hand, the anni horribiles. However, I can also see past them now, whereas they used to eclipse everything that came before. The good years of the marriage are still there, waiting patiently beyond the tangled mess of the bad years. I haven’t thought about them in a while, but they’re still there.

Lately, my ex-husband and I have been getting along rather well. We chat amiably on the phone, discuss practicalities, politely enquire after each others’ lives. I brought my boyfriends’ kids to cheer for my youngest at a baseball game, and my ex-husband, who coaches the team, came over to be introduced to them. (My boyfriend, of course, stayed home.) I could not tell whether it unnerved my ex to shake hands, twice, with walking, breathing evidence that I have moved on without him. He did not seem undone or upset. He smiled at us, spoke to me in a friendly way. (The other parents standing around were clearly baffled. One woman (whom, for the record, we never liked) even seemed angry, and cut me dead when I tried to talk to her. My ex-husband rolled his eyes at her behind her back. He was on my side. Imagine!)

Last night my ex-husband wrote me an email explaining the dates he’s going to be abroad for a conference in June. He’s headed somewhere we spent a month hiking and camping, on leave from our life in Paris, the year after college. “It was twenty years ago we were there,” he wrote at the end of his email, and my god, it was. “We were barely twenty ourselves,” I wrote back.

Truth be told, I remember every single day of that trip. It was marvelous. And all of a sudden I can think about it without pain or rancor, without pretending the protagonists are anything but what they were–two kids in love, with no clue what lay before them.

Divorce cuts you off from the past, and then restores you to it. It gives you your future and it gives you back your past, if you’re patient enough. And you can still love your ex-husband, even as you know in your bones you could never have stayed married to him. You can even love him exactly as much as you did when you were married, knowing that that particular love, wonderful though it was, would never, ever sustain you now.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. Leslie permalink
    April 26, 2010 10:57 am

    I have been reading your blog for a while now, and as someone on the “other side” of a divorce, I definitely relate to you. This post was the most poignant to me. It seems that when you reach a certain point, post-divorce, after the pain fades somewhat, the good memories and feelings return. It’s a strange feeling and you described it perfectly in your last paragraph. “You can even love him exactly as much as you did when you were married, knowing that that particular love, wonderful though it was, would never, ever sustain you now.” Perfect.

  2. April 26, 2010 11:19 am

    What a beautiful piece. I can’t entirely relate, because my marriage was short-lived and there weren’t any “good old days,” but I admire your courage to admit that you still care for your ex. I would probably be too stubborn to even explore that possibility.

  3. April 26, 2010 11:31 am

    I could write a gigantic response to this, but I’m on deadline, so I will just say that if we are ever in the same place at the same time, I am so making you let me take you out for coffee!

    It’s the last sentence, the conclusion, that I like the most, because it is my own as well.

  4. April 26, 2010 11:41 am

    Another amazing piece of writing. Sometimes it feels like you’re inside my head. I related to so much of what you wrote here. Thank you.

  5. April 26, 2010 1:18 pm

    Perfect summation of how the bubling cauldron of sentiment eventually simmers down to a reduction you can live with. It was love, maybe is love, but not enough.

  6. jaruuds permalink
    April 26, 2010 1:20 pm

    Wonderful piece. You should write a book. Really!

  7. April 26, 2010 3:00 pm

    Stopping by from The Trephine’s link today. I’ve been divorced almost five years now, but I can totally relate to all of this. Reading it brought tears to my eyes.

  8. April 26, 2010 3:58 pm

    I’m the kind who junks the entire relationship. I loved so fiercely, and it’s not that I hate so fiercely, it’s that the love is still there – it lays there unsettled in my stomach. It jerks around when I recognize a familiar gesture or hear their voice. It’s just that even though sanely, I know I’ve made the right decision to move on with my life, without him… it still hurts. I don’t have children with my exes, so that’s probably the difference… but for me, it’s easier just to pretend like he really got hit by a bus. Easier to pretend there is no him so that I don’t have to hurt while our relationship loses romance. I still hurt, this is just far more private.

  9. April 26, 2010 4:17 pm

    This was perfectly timed; I needed to read it so badly. Thank you soooo much!! You have so much wisdom, so much insight. You are truly gifted.

  10. amanda permalink
    April 26, 2010 4:52 pm

    I personally am not divorced, newly married in fact, but I so very, very much appreciate what you are doing here. in your archives you have talked about searching for that resource you needed… someone who had been there and talked/written about it. Looking through these comments it is so clear that you are filling that great, great need yourself. Thank you for that. I feel encouraged reading and finding resources here to be able to help loved ones in a similar situations… and to point them here when needed. In fact, I appreciate this blog as much as I appreciate others writing about grief and loss in terms of death . It helps me put myself in someone else’s shoes. It helps me not to judge. It helps me to say to loved ones that no matter what they are feeling, it is ok… there are not any rules for this. Thank you for writing.

  11. April 26, 2010 5:58 pm

    I’ve been on my own just 18 months, but I identify with it, too. The anger is starting to pass and now I’m on to sadness over what couldn’t be. One day I hope to be able to forgive and really move on.

  12. April 26, 2010 9:00 pm

    This is a beautifully written description that can apply to almost any loss. My husband died two years ago, and one of my hallmarks of integrating the loss was to see the good and the bad from our relationship. He was a wonderful man, and he sometimes drive me crazy, and holding both in my heart has been difficult but critical for my ability to move forward.

    Thank you for sharing so articulately.

  13. April 27, 2010 5:19 pm

    I just had to comment on this entry. I am happily married, but I love your words and how you express yourself. Thank you for sharing.

  14. Heidi permalink
    April 28, 2010 8:46 am

    You’re so deeply insightful. Or schizophrenic.

  15. Ariella permalink
    April 28, 2010 9:49 am

    This entry really sings. I am married (happily now, but once not so happily – we were recently separated for almost eight months while my husband tried to determine if we could remain married), but I still appreciate your insight into the marital relationship. I really thought we were going to get a divorce when we were separated, especially in the beginning, so a lot of your feelings and thoughts are familiar to me for that reason. I’m so pleased you’re sharing with the world through this blog.

  16. Laurie permalink
    April 28, 2010 11:36 am

    I’m glad you’ve found peace. That peace is a lot harder to come by, I’ve found, when you’re the one who has been betrayed. And the bretrayal was so heinous I was wishing for some ‘standard’ infidelity, because that would have made sense. I still can’t forgive some of his actions, because they were so random and hurtful and just plain mean. I don’t think I will ever be friends with my ex, and that both saddens and relieves me. Then again, I don’t have kids with him, so there is no need to continue a relationship on any level.

  17. April 28, 2010 11:38 am

    My God, yes. Thank you for this. Thank you so much. YES. Yes. YES.

  18. san permalink
    April 29, 2010 4:53 pm

    As someone, who isn’t divorced but who broke up with a long term boyfriend before I married my husband, I know some of the feelings that you describe ALL TOO WELL.

    I am lucky to say that I am still friends with my Ex and even though I think it was right to break up with him, I remember the time that we had together very fondly. Sometimes, I even miss it… and though I moved on and married someone else, sometimes I also think I – in a way – still love my Ex, and what we had.

  19. May 27, 2010 8:16 pm

    I am in the middle of the process, headed towards the inevitable finale, and I have spent hours combing your archives. Your words give me hope and let me know I’m not alone. My marriage didn’t last as long, and we didn’t have kids, but the heartache is certainly the same.

    Thank you.

  20. December 1, 2010 10:34 am

    Spot on… You could be describing my actions to a T – I continue to revisit the past, trying to discern that exact moment at which divorce became inevitable.
    Yet I can’t let it go – somehow I am haunted, & imagine if I could untangle that skein, I would find some peace.
    It doesn’t help that my ex stole not just a few, but ALL of our photos: we were both amateur photographers of sorts so we had quite the record of our life together… not just ourselves, but our animals, the places we lived, our vacations, & family members.
    I know they’re only THINGS & I need to be more Zen about it, but to this day it still infuriates me.

  21. Alli permalink
    March 1, 2013 1:31 pm

    I’m going through a divorce and have a 9-month old that my husband wants nothing to do with because he doesn’t want any children. I want to get to that point where to think about him does not bring about such great feelings of disgust or anger. I don’t want to feel anything about him, as a matter of fact. I just want to sign the papers and move on. Most days, I actually forget about him, but sometimes I just wanna slap the bejesus out of him and tell him what I REALLY think about him. I want to let go of the stress that this is causing. Some days I’m fine, but some days with work, school, a baby, and divorce, it just gets a little too much and I start to feel like running away. I just need to cauterize this wound so that the real healing can begin.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      March 4, 2013 1:45 pm

      You’re in the shit right now, no question about it. The only way out is through, and I wish I could tell you something different. I will tell you that it will all be so much better than you can even imagine, that it will all be all right. I promise, I absolutely promise. Work, school, baby, divorce–my god. But you’ll be okay, you will be better than okay. You will move on and let go, and the best part is you don’t have to actually WORK to do those things…time accomplishes them for you, all you have to do is be patient. xxx

      • Alli permalink
        March 4, 2013 2:25 pm

        Thanks. Time needs to speed things along a bit lol. The good thing is, my son has LOTS of people who love him and he’ll never want for anything essential. I guess that will have to be good enough for me for now.

        • irretrievablybroken permalink*
          March 4, 2013 9:42 pm

          That’s a lot. I honestly think there’s a way to do things quickly that comes back to bite you on the ass, and there’s a way to muddle through slowly and carefully. You’re doing the right thing, and all will be well. Please take care. I honestly don’t know anyone who’s LESS happy five years out of a divorce. Not one person. And you will be okay, you will.


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