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.