Posts from APW moms are among my favorite (there is some wisdom there, y’all). But today’s post is extra special because it comes from my mom. My mother (who goes by Jennifer when it’s not me) often jokes that she doesn’t know where I learned about relationships, but that she thinks some of it might have to do with learning from her mistakes. But the reality is, what she calls mistakes actually look a lot like successes to me. Because if my mom has taught me anything about marriage and divorce, it’s that self-care is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your relationship. And sometimes self-care looks like getting out of a relationship that isn’t making you happy and never will. As I get older, I’ve witnessed many friends stay in unhappy marriages out of fear. Fear of failure, fear of being alone, you name it. And it kills me. So for today, I asked her to write a post about leaving a marriage when it’s just not working. Because sometimes all it takes is knowing you can do something to give you the courage to go ahead and do it. And now I’ll give the floor to my mom, with some of the smartest words I’ve ever seen grace these pages. Not that I’m biased.
Starting over from scratch. No one sees this coming when they’re marching down the aisle—whether the aisle is church stone, beach sand, or hardwood in a local VFW club—till death do us part is embedded deep in our hearts on that wedding march, and in our partner who’s waiting at the end, face beaming at the thought of you growing old together and retiring to a porch swing, sipping fresh lemonade.
Fast forward to the day you’re sitting on a beach in Mexico on a “girl’s trip” realizing how short life is, and that death-do-us part is a really, really long time when you’re married to a guy who prefers watching ESPN over viewing any part of you…even when you’re rocking lingerie. Or a guy who isn’t who you thought he was when you said yes.
This was me at thirty-one years old. Life had recently taught me I controlled nothing. I learned I could attempt to protect everything in my life—my family, friends, relationships, and my heart—but bad things happen despite efforts to prevent them. That trip to Mexico was an escape. Everything about me was broken. I had just lost my nine-year-old daughter to brain cancer, and during the time she was sick, had gradually discovered that my husband didn’t have the emotional capacity to help my dying heart survive the process of losing her. He wasn’t cruel or apathetic. He just didn’t get it. The day before I left for Mexico, my friend and neighbor Ray died of a heart attack alone in a hotel on a business trip. I was devastated by his death, as much for losing him as for losing any belief that life would be there waiting for me to live again if I ever healed. I learned the hard way that life is too short. I knew then there were things I needed to think about. Big things.
So there I sat at thirty-one years old—five kids, a cat, two dogs, and a husband I needed to decide on. Sitting there on that white, sandy beach at 6:45am, while my intentionally childfree girlfriends slept till noon, I thought about things. A lot. On that beach—day four of thinking—I finally decided. It was over. I was indeed—done. I could not come up with one reason to stay with my husband that had anything to do with my own happiness or comfort, just those around me. My husband was a great guy, I thought no one would understand my choice. My kids would be crushed. My family might be disappointed in me. My financial stability would be suddenly unstable. People would talk.
On that beach, none of it mattered. I would always take care of my kids. My family would get over it. I could make my own money. And who gives a sh*t what people say. The final decision came down to a crude, possible future reality—some day I may not have teeth or control of my bladder. I may get sick. Really sick. Would I feel loved and cared for no matter what? I didn’t think I would. Would he cry with me and for me if I did get really sick? I didn’t think he would. I thought a lot about this in particular. I shouldn’t have had to. This was not how I was going to live the rest of my life.
Over doesn’t always happen like mine did. It happens in many ways—getting dumped out of the blue, cheated on, or just realizing you plain old made a mistake in choosing your life partner and need to end it. No matter how the end happens, it sucks. Those first two scenarios are full of shock and awe. They’re rugged. Everything you thought was—wasn’t. Everything happening to you is out of your control. You can’t sleep or eat, and friends worry. It’s the making of a Carrie Underwood song. In these situations, you are forced to survive. You don’t weigh options, such as financial independence, who gets the kids, house, friends, dog, or cat, or what it will be like with way too much time alone. You successfully wing it all and make it because you have to. This is important to remember as you look at scenario number three—you will always survive the end and be better on the other side.
Because then there’s the third scenario: Deciding you’re done. This path allows for way too much contemplation. In this case, knowing you’re done is the real done, not the temporary, annoyed, “I hate the way he or she chews cereal” kind of done. I’m talking about the done when your smart-brain knows your relationship is unhealthy or awful, but your excuse-making, crowd-pleasing, desperate-for-it-to-work brain takes over and wrecks everything. This part of the brain allows for fear to creep in and trump your gut instincts and smart-brain knowledge that you are in the wrong place with the wrong person. If your brain is functioning in this manner, you may need an intervention. By me. Right now. So please pay attention.
If you read my first APW post, you’ll know I love lists. If you didn’t read it, then know this—I love lists. If you are in need of an I’m done intervention right now, I am going to offer you scenarios (some I’ve been through, some I’ve watched others endure) in list form, that will help you know that no matter what you’re afraid of, or don’t know how to do, everything will be okay. For real.
Scenario One: You’ve never lived alone. You know who you are—you lived with your parents, then a roommate in college, and now your current partner. You have no idea how to be alone. That’s okay. Alone, at first, is terrifying. Time drags. The phone never rings. Notifications don’t come. I’ll be honest. It’s tough. Don’t tackle this on your own at first if you don’t think you can handle it. Most can’t. Stay with anyone who will take you—temporarily. I stayed with my good friends Kate and Joel. Three or four days. Maybe twenty-five. It’s a blur. Joel asked me to surrender my phone so I wouldn’t torture myself through the night waiting for calls or notifications—even though I was the one who was done. He wanted to be sure, more than anything, that I didn’t make any calls or send messages I would regret based on my fear of being done and alone. I gave him the phone. It worked. I made it over that initial panic-filled hump. You will, too. Lean on the people who love you. They want to help. Doing this will help you stay true to your decision to be done and your decision to be where you need to be.
Scenario Two: You don’t know how to do anything—like pump your own gas. While this may sound extreme, it happened to a friend of mine. She had decided to leave her husband for another man—gasp! She didn’t mean to, but she fell in love with a close family friend. Her teenaged daughters took the side of her husband, her husband was destroyed, and her new lover’s wife was set on revenge. She could work through all of that, and rebuild, but could not get past what she didn’t know how to do—pump gas. Her dad had done it for her when she was young, and her husband had picked up where he left off after they were married. As she sat in my classroom crying about pumping gas, I offered to take her to the 7-Eleven to teach her. She learned. There are teachers everywhere. Look to them to teach you how to do what you don’t know how to do—the things that make you stay where you don’t belong.
Scenario Three: You don’t know how to start the conversation. Don’t over think this. Just say it. Be kind, empathetic, and gentle, but say it. I remember riding in the car on the way home to Portland from Boston after that Mexico trip. It was Valentine’s Day, by chance. My husband offered up a diamond bracelet, which made it tough to spit out the words. It wasn’t the bling biting my tongue, it was the thought and effort. Finally. It was weird. And nice. And confusing. But not enough to change my mind. I told him that things were not what I needed. I didn’t know what I needed, but I knew it wasn’t stuff. He knew what I meant. We drove the rest of the way home in silence, both beginning the end. For the next few years, we rode the stages of grief—the loss of our daughter and the end of our marriage—trying to figure out how to keep our kids stable and healing. He’d leave to stay with a friend four days a week, and I’d leave for three. We focused on keeping the kids in one place to give them a shot at normalcy. It worked for a while. We split accounts, talked to lawyers, and went to grief counseling together. I bought an apartment building, he and Joel moved me in, and it was done. I was alone. And I was okay. Alone let me learn more about me and what I wanted and needed. At times it was lonely and quiet, but I was okay. I called on Kate and Joel often. I stayed with my brother and his wife here and there to get through the quiet. I said yes to every invitation to do just about anything because it took my mind off of my doubts. I made it.
Weighing all of your options—reasons to stay, reasons to go—is a great way to convince yourself that staying in a shitty relationship is the best way to go. Do not do this.
Be loved. Know that you will feel loved when sh*t unexpectedly hits the fan in life. Accept nothing less than living your life with your one great love—the one who has your back—thick and thin—sickness and health—your best friend— even if it means being alone long enough to figure out what that means to you. Don’t be bought out to stay. Don’t stay for the kids, or the dog, or the cat—they will all see right through you. Go. It’s worth the leap. You will figure it out and find your way to the real thing.
I finally figured it out. I have my real thing. He’s sitting behind me in the recliner waiting for me to turn around and watch The Voice with him while the Bruins play the Canadiens on another channel—because he knows I love me some Adam Levine. Now that’s great love.
Photo by APW Sponsor Gabriel Harber Photography