Coming to the End of Our Triumph

I thought divorce only happened to people who were...not us.

At first, it felt like something happening to me. Something my husband was doing to me. I abdicated all responsibility. “If he wants to divorce me,” I thought to myself, “he’s damn well doing all the paperwork himself. I’m not going to play a part.”

Over a year later, seven months after I left, on a beautiful sunny Friday, I photographed a courthouse wedding. After I said goodbye to the happy couple, I sat in a coffee shop sipping a hot chocolate and pulled out all the paperwork. A couple of weeks earlier, I’d paid a lawyer to help me make sense of everything that needed to be filed. I’d mailed copies of all of it to my husband in another state, carefully annotated with post-its to indicate the two pages he needed to sign in front of a notary and mail back to me. I put the documents he’d signed in their proper places, ran through my checklist again, finished my hot chocolate, walked back to the courthouse, and filed for divorce. A woman sitting behind a desk stamped my paperwork with my case number, accepted my credit card for the court fees, and handed me a receipt. I walked out in a daze.

Years earlier, when I’d finished my undergraduate thesis, I’d handed it to a woman at a desk and she’d handed me a wreath of fake plastic laurels to wear around my head. For the few days afterward that I wore them, everyone I passed on campus yelled “congratulations!” Getting divorced was like writing my thesis. It was a many-months-long process that demanded patience and intellectual rigor, exhausted my emotional capacity, and required detailed attention to formatting and presentation. Where were my laurels? I wanted a sign, or a t-shirt I could wear: “I just filed for divorce. Congratulate me.” Instead, I found a florist and told her what I’d done, and she put together a beautiful bouquet for me, and I carried it home and put it in a vase and tried to find a spot to put it that my two cats couldn’t reach.

My ex-husband and I adopted the cats together. They have names based on the grad school research he was doing at the time—beautiful, melodic names of Indian classical musicians. As I write, they are asleep on the foot of my bed in my wonderful little apartment. Their custody was never really a question—they were always mine. Once, before we’d stopped trying to have a happy marriage, I went out of town for a few days and had to leave detailed cat care instructions for him, like people leave for pet sitters. At the time, I resented my partner’s reluctant involvement in their caretaking, but when I was getting ready to leave I was glad to be able to make plans to take them with me without discussion. Nothing like divorce to change your perspective.

Before I got divorced, I thought divorce only happened to people who got married too young, or who didn’t ask the tough questions before they got married, or who weren’t willing to work really hard at a relationship, to put it ahead of other priorities. We were old enough, we’d worked through one of those premarital-counseling-in-a-book books before we got engaged, we’d had actual premarital counseling during our engagement, and our relationship was, I’d have told anyone who asked, the most important thing in my life. A child of multiple divorces, my partner even insisted we talk about divorce. We agreed that even if we someday had to separate, we would always love one another—we would always be kind. Those messy, dramatic divorces you always hear about happened, we were sure, to people who hadn’t been together as long as we had before getting married, or people who didn’t love to laugh at the same things, didn’t know how to travel together, didn’t share the values and politics that we did. Before we got married, I went through this checklist of sorts, sure that the combination of these things meant we were safe, ready to start adopting cats and having children and growing old.

So when, four days after our wedding, we revisited an old argument and he told me he couldn’t be sure we’d be together forever, I had to pull over the car on the side of the highway to sob. I clutched my manufactured certainty to me and, like ice, the tighter I gripped it the faster it melted away, and the colder I got.

Love stories are unique but also all the same; I think that divorce stories are like that, too. The play-by-play doesn’t really matter. A few months later there was an incident and a huge fight. I felt betrayed. He felt smothered. For a few months I clung to the relationship while he tried to decide whether or not he could be the husband he saw me wanting, to decide whether or not he would stay. For a few months he thought he could and would, and we tried. But it wasn’t enough, and I decided to leave. For a few months he tried to make me stay, and then, one year after our wedding, I left. It was messy. It was dramatic. We were not kind to one another.

There is no certainty. There is no amount of premarital counseling that will guarantee that you mean the same thing when you say the same words or that you’ve asked the questions that will end up mattering most. There is no amount of rehearsing for worst-case scenarios that will prevent their occurrence. Vows and promises, however genuine and well intentioned, are still just words, not clairvoyance. Certainty is not the same thing as security, and I’m starting to believe they work against each other.

Certainty says: this is a sure thing. I know this person, and they know me, full stop. Certainty has arrived. Certainty is done. Certainty doesn’t need vulnerability or real intimacy. Certainty is jealous because, fundamentally, it is afraid.

Security says: this feels good. I trust this person, and they trust me. I am excited to always be getting to know this person as a dynamic, evolving being. Security is a journey. Security is always in progress. Security requires vulnerability and makes intimacy possible. Security is brave, because it can be, because it accepts that there are no guarantees.

That’s one of the things I’ve learned since I left. I’ve learned a lot by getting divorced. I’ve learned that these things happen and the world keeps spinning and life goes on. I’ve learned that no matter how ashamed I feel, the people who love me still love me. I’ve learned the very important lesson, obvious in retrospect, that happiness with one’s own life circumstances is a prerequisite for happiness with and commitment to another person. With the help of my awesome therapist, I’ve learned how to acknowledge, respect, and respectfully communicate my emotions, values, and priorities (though that stuff, like security, is also always in progress). I’ve learned a lot about taking responsibility. I take responsibility for years of incomplete communication with my partner and with my own true self. I take responsibility for my own reluctance to be vulnerable and allow myself to be known wholly, for fear of losing the romantic relationship I ended up losing anyway. I take responsibility for leaving the city I loved to follow my partner to a new state. I take responsibility for resisting happiness in our new city, for failing to create a community or support network outside of my partner. I take responsibility for choosing to leave my marriage and return to the city I never stopped missing. I take responsibility for our divorce.

I got the letter in the mail from the courthouse, confirming that “a General Judgment was entered in the register of the court in the above-noted case,” that we were divorced, two days before Valentine’s Day. I emailed my ex-husband to let him know. Recently, it feels possible to talk to him again. I wished him a happy Valentine’s Day and asked about his girlfriend. He wished me a happy Valentine’s Day and asked about my boyfriend. We both answered carefully but honestly. Sometimes we send each other links to articles or things we find on the Internet that remind us of one another or that we know the other would appreciate. He asked me if he could use a piece of my artwork in a lecture he’s putting together for his students. Recently he told me that getting legally divorced has helped him release some anger, and now he just feels sort of sad about it. I told him I feel sort of sad, too. There’ll be a learning curve as we try to be friends, I think. He’ll be in town at the end of this month to see his mom, who lives here. I told him he could come to my place to see the cats, too. And me, I guess.

So did our marriage fail? I think a lot about these lines from a poem by Jack Gilbert about divorce that I originally read years ago, before I’d ever been married or even met my ex: “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.” We loved so much. We felt such tender things. We learned so much. We saw such beautiful places. We dreamed such beautiful dreams. Also from Jack Gilbert’s poem: “How can they say / the marriage failed?” I am a braver, stronger person because I married my partner, and I am a braver, stronger person because I divorced him, too.

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  • Faith

    Beautifully written. As a happily married lady, I must confess that the divorce posts on apw are by far the ones I treasure the most. Maybe because they are so heartfelt and full of the real ugly/beautiful stuff, and maybe because the possibility of going through something similar – or of any type of loss in my marriage (death, betrayal, loss of love, etc) is such a powerful fear and something that I grapple with. Thank you for including posts such as these. They are therapeutic for those going through tough times I’m sure, but also for this in happy times.

    • Kayjayoh

      I also love that this is a wedding website that doesn’t hesitate to talk about the heavy, sometimes unhappy things. We talk about divorce, about infidelity, about abuse, about sickness, about financial hard times, about death… Sure, we also talk about paper lanterns and flower girl dresses, about honeymoons and jewelry, but we recognize the full spectrum of things that go along with marriage and relationships. Take that, The Knot!

    • JDrives

      Yes to this. I’m getting married this year to a man who’s been through a divorce, and it’s something that we’ve talked about, despite being a very painful thought (and one of my great fears as well). I am bookmarking this piece to come back to as a reminder of security vs. certainty, taking responsibility, and ultimately, that there is hope even if the darkest of the dark were to happen.

    • enfp

      And so often these posts touch on more universal themes and offer insight that goes beyond divorce. The author’s beautifully written analysis of security and certainty is relevant to pretty much anyone who is interested in being in a committed relationship. I know I’ll be pondering it as someone who is getting married in a few months.

  • Amelie

    I loved the part about the difference between ‘security’ and ‘certainty’. Such a good thought! I think this will be on my mind for some time….

  • TeaforTwo

    I just looked up the rest of that Jack Gilbert poem, and it is beautiful. A beautiful, sensitive, heartaching poem about divorce, but also a bit of a manifesto…”anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” I love it.

    • Anonymous

      “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly” — yes, exactly. Dang, now I wish I had made THAT line the title of this post. :)

      • Manya

        Yeah, that might be my new mantra.

  • Stef

    Thank you. Yesterday picked up the papers declaring my divorce final. I am certainly a braver, stronger person for all of it.

  • anon

    This is a gorgeous piece, from poetry to prose, and so exactly what I needed to read today. I identify with the whole thing, really, but the “There is no certainty. There is no amount of premarital counseling… ” paragraph is particularly poignant. Thank you for writing this, and expressing so eloquently many of the lessons that I’ve learned over the past year.

  • Rachel Kirby

    What a beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing. Thank you for your strength and honesty.

  • SJ

    I sent this to both of my parents. It quietly fixed something in me today and I thought they could benefit.

  • 34bride

    The whole post is awesome, but this really jumped out: “Security says: this feels good. I trust this person, and they trust me. I am excited to always be getting to know this person as a dynamic, evolving being. Security is a journey. Security is always in progress. Security requires vulnerability and makes intimacy possible. Security is brave, because it can be, because it accepts that there are no guarantees.

    I was reading the part about certainty before that, shaking my head. And then this wonderful, insightful answer. Funny that a post on divorce clarifies the vows my husband and I made, but it does: We didn’t vow based on certainty (good lord, on some levels we were terrified), but based on the security of trust–trust in who each other was AND who we could become together.

    Beautiful post.

    • Jess

      That just hit me over the head when I read it too.

    • Gina

      Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I never knew how to articulate why I was comfortable with the fact I wasn’t certain my husband was “the One”. But you articulated it so beautifully: the security of trust.

  • jashshea

    Skipped down a bit to say:

    1. Wow.

    2. “Certainty is done” vs. “Security is always in progress” Double Wow X 1,000,000 X infinity. I’ve never been able to put that distinction into words/order for myself.

    • EF

      yeah, exactly those points. this was such a great post.

  • macrain

    “Security requires vulnerability and makes intimacy possible. Security is brave, because it can be, because it accepts that there are no guarantees.” YES.
    Do you guys know Brene Brown? Her work is all about vulnerability and shame. This entire post reminds me of her work, which is to say I think it’s beautiful and amazing.
    Much, much love to you Anonymous. XX

    • Anonymous

      I am the author of this post and YES, this post definitely owes a huge debt of gratitude to Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly, which I cannot recommend enough.

    • I love her work. I just finished reading Daring Greatly (which I bought when going through my own divorce as a sort of attempt to stay vulnerable in life and relationhips, despite being in the middle of great pain and hurt). Excellent book.

  • Kina

    One of the best posts I’ve ever read on APW, hands down. Thank you so much for sharing. Perfect.

  • lolauren

    This gave me shivers. Such a lovely piece, thank you for sharing it.

  • Loved the difference between security and certainty.

    Going through a divorce while working in the wedding industry is awful. I photographed a wedding the day after leaving my abusive husband, and although I had it all “planned” in my head how the split would go, nothing happened as it “should”. It was awful, messy, exhausting. It almost did me in. It took me years to get to a good point, which I celebrated on APW

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Anonymous

      The first couple of weddings I shot immediately after deciding to leave happened to be the weddings of some of my awesomest clients ever. I lucked out and, somewhat to my surprise, came away from those events feeling better about both my decision and marriage in general. Those couples reminded me that what I was looking for in my life, what I wanted, was not impossible — it happens all the time.

  • LM

    So thoughtful and well-written. I really appreciated your point about thinking divorce was for other people, and feeling protected by certainty. It made me think of Alice Trillin’s “Of Dragons and Garden Peas” (which she wrote about having cancer) and how we try to control our fear, and what it means when our protective methods (she calls them talismans) are challenged. We need to believe that if we do the “right” things, we can avoid painful or sad situations, but at times, we also have to acknowledge that they are not working for us. As someone said elsewhere, I think this post and others about divorce really give a more nuanced perspective on relationships and marriage and the real things that people grapple with.

    • Jess

      I was just thinking the other day about how I’ve approached things for so long as a “checklist”. I look at life and say, “There must be directions. I get through everything by following directions, by following instructions and plans.” And there aren’t any.

      If there aren’t directions, if there’s no “To-Do” list, no process flow charts, how can I get things right? I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that I can’t get things right; they will just go the way that they go. This piece brings a lot of perspective to that in a specific situation. There was still something to be honored, even if it didn’t “go right.”

  • Rachel

    Great read. Thanks for sharing. I am recently engaged and my fiancé commented the other day how he feels “secure in the best way possible” now that we are on the path to marriage. I had that comment in mind as I considered your security vs certainty point.

  • Wow. Beautifully written. Thank you so much for sharing this with us; it shows true strength and courage under difficult circumstances. My now-husband and I talked about divorce a lot before we got married, as we are both children from divorced parents (whose divorces were messy, ugly, and mean). It scares me that even though we talked about it, if it ever came to pass, it might still be ugly, messy, and mean.

    Also, this really spoke to me:

    “Security requires vulnerability and makes intimacy possible. Security is
    brave, because it can be, because it accepts that there are no

    Again, beautiful and honest. Thank you so much.

    • joanna b.n.

      And that is the only reason I know for a prenup – decide how you will separate, IF YOU DO, while you still love each other and can relate out of that love.

      • Another Anon

        I actually am relieved I didn’t do a prenup – I would have done it out of that love and graciously offered to provide alimony for a period of time, etc. But when my partner left me – without any warning, signs of unhappiness, or willingness to talk about it – I was like “I am not giving that motherf—er a dime of my hard earned money!” (Luckily, he didn’t ask for alimony, or any of my retirement savings.) I am getting married again and if I do a prenup I will put the love of MYSELF first, not diminish my capacity to fulfill my own desires by providing money to someone else.

        • Another Anon, I just want to say I am so sorry to hear your ex left you without any warning, no signs of happiness and no willingness to talk about it. I know exactly what it is like to live through that hell. Sending you wishes for a happy future that is better than what you would have wished for….

  • Sonora Webster

    Thank you for this. I was so afraid to end my terrible engagement a few years ago because it was so hard to know what would be on the other side. But sometimes splitting up is the right thing to do for everyone involved. Hopefully this will help others who are afraid of taking such a scary step!

  • Shira

    Thank you so much for sharing and talking about this difficult subject with such honesty and openness (and eloquence!) I think we should all talk more about divorce – it’s something so rarely talked about, but how else are we going to even begin to understand it? So thank you thank you, and keep us posted on your journey!

  • Jessica

    This is really, really fantastic.

  • Well. The wind just got knocked out of me. I want to bake you lots of cookies now. Thank you so much for sharing. I especially loved this part: “Certainty doesn’t need vulnerability or real intimacy. Certainty is jealous because, fundamentally, it is afraid.” yep.

  • E

    I am terrified of divorce.

    • carolynprobably

      Me, too. Which I think is precisely why I need to read and learn and think about it more.

  • Erin E

    What a lovely piece… thank you for sharing it. Your last paragraph made me want to stand up and applaud. I really dislike the term “failed marriage” and I dislike that we view so many divorces that way. Most marriages see happy times, children, pets, homes, love and beauty throughout their duration – just because the marriages may end does not mean that they’re “failed”.

    • Violet

      And really, all marriages end- either through divorce or death. So by that logic, all marriages would eventually become failures. Reminds me of this Mitch Hedburg joke about not defining things by how they end:

      “I like to drink red wine. This girl says ‘Doesn’t red wine give you a
      headache?’ ‘Yeah, eventually! But the first and the middle part are
      amazing.’ I’m not gonna stop doing something ’cause of what’s gonna
      happen at the end. ‘Mitch, you want an apple?’ ‘No, eventually it’ll be a
      core.'” – Mitch Hedburg

  • joanna b.n.


    Also, this. Yes. “I take responsibility for my own reluctance to be vulnerable and allow myself to be known wholly, for fear of losing the romantic relationship I ended up losing anyway.”

    Before we were married my (now)husband said something to the effect of – “if you aren’t yourself, and I fall in love with who I think you are, what kind of a life is that? You’re pretending to be someone else, and you’re not being loved for who you really are.”… while trying to get me to really let down my guard and be known wholly so we could have an honest and functional relationship. I’ve referred to it over and over and over. I hope that you will have the experience soon of someone loving you for who you really are and vice versa.

    And thank you for reminding us all to cherish and dig deep and consider that no one is immune to divorce.

    • JDrives

      Internet fist-bump to your awesome husband!

  • Christina Cusolito

    I really loved this part: “Vows and promises, however genuine and well intentioned, are still just words, not clairvoyance.” For reasons that I’ve never quite been able to articulate, I find the “no matter what, to death to us part” sentiment to be the opposite of romantic. Part of me actually wishes that marriages had to be legally renewed every 7 years, like a drivers license. I guess I’d like there to be an everrrr-so-slight element of being kept on my toes, and keeping my husband-elect on his toes. If someone has vowed to stay with me NO MATTER WHAT, I might slowly turn into a permanent raging beast, which is my natural inclination a large portion of the time. Besides that, the NO MATTER WHAT sentiment isn’t even true; if my future husband lifts his hand at me, even one time, divorce would immediately be on the table. Am I marrying my boyfriend with the expectation of eventual divorce? No, of course not. But I am comforted by having the option of divorce. And in an odd way, knowing that we both have an “out” drives me to be a better partner.

    Pssst … If anyone has any ceremony language alternatives to “’til death do us part”, I’d be greatly obliged if they’d share.

    • We’re working with “till the end of our forever” for now. It’s not perfect but it’s the best compromise of hope and reality…without being a Debbie Downer.

      • Christina Cusolito

        I actually really like that. Thank you :)

        • Manya

          We used: “for all the days of our lives”

    • Sabrina

      We are using ” I choose you, I love you , and I marry you untill the gods see fit to seperate us.” Because I feel the same way that you do,I just cant promise NO MATTER WHAT.

      • Christina Cusolito

        See? If it wouldn’t cause my family to be jolted out of their seats, I’d probably use similar language. Unfortunately, using a word like “separate” is probably to blunt for my largely Catholic family. Sigh.

    • Jess

      I’m with you on the having to renew. I’m trying to come up with a way to refresh and review a relationship. Kind of take stock and say, “Is being with you still worth it? Why?” and remember the awesome things that led us to where we are.

      • joanna b.n.

        Same. Like, vow renewals? Do people actually do those?

        • Manya

          Yes, they do! We are getting married again in Las Vegas this summer (we are joking it’s an elopement) and we’re both really excited about renewing our vows.

          • Jess

            That’s awesome! I love it!

        • Jess

          Right? Like I’d love to see a checkpoint, re-analysis, vow renewal be a standard thing. Like five years in, what’s the state of the marriage? How are we doing? What could we do better? What are we awesome at?

          A worksheet/survey perhaps?

          • joanna b.n.

            Ha yes. A worksheet, and a worksheet completion ritual.

          • Jess

            I’m for it.

    • Anonymous

      I’m the author of this post so you may want to take this with a grain of salt, but in our vows we promised to “do the hard work of making now into always.”

      • Christina Cusolito

        Oooh, I jotted that one down, no grain of salt needed.

    • Kelly Mine-His

      We left that out entirely! We made no promises of complete fidelity, foreverness, etc. It wasn’t really what we were promising to each other, so we just didn’t include it, and you don’t have to!

    • I actually know a couple that legitimately thinks of their marriage as a partnership on a renewal basis. The first “contract” was for 20 years, and they’re now coming to the end of the second one which was for 15 years. They told me they do it for the exact reason you mentioned–it keeps them on their toes.

      • Guest

        We just pinky swore ;)

    • Ally

      LOL @ “If someone has vowed to stay with me NO MATTER WHAT, I might slowly turn into a permanent raging beast, which is my natural inclination a large portion of the time.”

      I’m so there with you on that one.

      Reading through some of the comments on trying to be yourself 100% I was thinking how that is definitely not an issue I have, rather the issue is more like giving my poor husband a break from me being so fully/brutally me all the time.

    • anna_dee

      We used “for the rest of our lives together” (no punctuation – adding a comma before “together” changes the meaning). The realists in our audience heard it as the first interpretation, the more romantic the second.

    • Sam2

      We just pinky swore :)

  • This post really got me thinking this morning. I’m going to save this, and I just sent it to my fiancé too. I think sometimes I have trouble being 100% myself with anyone, including my soon-to-be husband, and that is definitely playing with fire. Something to think about and work on as we get closer to our wedding and come out on the other side.

    • Jess

      I’ve been reminding myself to be more fully me. Daily, giving myself permission to be bigger (inspired by another APW post), and telling myself that I can’t hide parts of myself away like I think. It’s hard, but worth it so far.

  • Kathy

    Such a beautifully written piece with so much wisdom in it. Very thankful to have been privileged to read it.

  • nik

    Griffin laurels! This expressed your growth from the experience so clearly and beautifully.

    • Anonymous

      :) thanks for the timē.

  • Tory

    This was hard to read and wonderful to read and why I keep coming to this site despite the fact that there is no one in my life that I am even contemplating marrying. Because here you confront the real sides of relationships. I almost want to send this link to my ex-bf because so much here is what I think were our problems also. And we were right to end it. And now I’m going to go cry a lot.

  • Heather

    Thank you so much for sharing. I wish you all of the joy and love that community and time can bring to you. I think the love that you shared with your ex-husband and the leap of faith you took in marriage is triumphant and brave. With marriage we all take leaps of faith with no guarantee. thank you for your honesty.-Heather

  • socallmeshirley

    This was very good. Thank you.

  • Beth R

    I have never been divorced, but before I met my husband I was with someone for a long time who I was 100% sure I would marry. When our relationship ended, I realized for the first time how divorces happen, because until that point I thought for sure we could work through any issues. But sometimes it’s not in anyone’s best interest to stay together and I know that now.

    I don’t think that relationship was a failure at all, though – it was still a good relationship full of a lot of love and support, even when it ultimately wasn’t the best thing for either of us. And I know that ending that relationship helped me become a better partner to my husband when we met and to recognize the ways in which he was a better partner to me than my ex. It scares me that the same thing could happen with us some day, but what can you do but take it one day at a time and do your very best?

  • Did this one choke anyone up a little bit?

  • JenClaireM

    This post made me feel braver – less afraid of all that is uncertain in life. Thank you for it, and for sharing your wisdom.

  • Moz

    This is a beautiful, poignant post. Thank you.

  • “I take responsibility for my own reluctance to be vulnerable and allow
    myself to be known wholly, for fear of losing the romantic relationship I
    ended up losing anyway.”

    This is one of the parts of my husband leaving me for someone else that I find most difficult… I DID let myself be fully myself and fully open and known. It didn’t occur to me to do anything else, but I’m also a super open person. But I will say that it has been difficult to accept that the person who knew me best in the whole world decided to leave me. (Which is one of the main reasons I bought Daring Greatly, as I mentioned in another comment…to remind myself to not let this experience change me and make me unwilling to trust someone else with my full, vulnerable self…)

    Beautiful post…. And I wish everyone going through the pain of divorce much courage and strength and hope that it will get better.

  • Amazing post. A year and a half after my non-legal divorce, this helps put a lot of things in perspective. I felt just like you described, that divorce only happened to people who didn’t do the preparations I had. The truth is just as you said, “Vows and promises, however genuine and well intentioned, are still just words, not clairvoyance. ” Perfect. Thank you.

  • singsthemagpie

    You just described the past year of my life — except he got the cat (I miss my sweet Fuzz so much!)

    Thank you.

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