Divorce and Empathy

My friend Becky is in the early stages of divorce, a situation that brings out a lot of empathy in me. It’s not only a divorce – it’s also a complete shift in her life; she is completely starting over from scratch (which is fairly typical with divorces). This, naturally, takes me back to four years ago when I did the same…

I had been married almost nine years to Joe when we called it quits. We’d been together since we were 16 and neither of us had ever lived on our own. We grew up together – and we outgrew one another. We had been trying to avoid the inevitable for years, doing everything we could think of to adjust to one another, including individual AND couples counseling. Divorce came up so often in our relationship that we had already decided “if we ever get divorced, that one is YOUR cat.” He regularly talked about women who would be “next in line” and I tried to escape with friends or travel as often as I could.

Not long after moving back from the isolated northern coast of California to the Bay Area and starting a new job, I started having a serious mental breakdown. I had an incident where I could not get out of bed – I felt entirely zapped of energy and I had to be guided to the car because I was so disoriented and dizzy. The stress had built up so much that my own willpower was no match for it.

I started therapy again and got some anti-depressants. In talking with my psychiatrist (who reminded me exactly of Dustin Hoffman’s character in Stranger Than Fiction), I realized I had some serious personal issues I needed to work on that just could not get resolved while I was in that relationship with Joe. I had to start from scratch if I was going to fix anything about myself. I had to separate completely from unhealthy patterns, behaviors, and people. I had been trying to live a life that just wasn’t me for too long and I was no longer able to stuff myself in that box.

The conversation about separating took about two minutes. Joe and I both new where we stood with one another and knew it’d be a relief to not be together anymore. Everything else aside, we were a bad match – nearly complete opposites when it came to goals, personality, and values. This was not difficult to see. The only reason our relationship had been ‘working’ was because I’d been suppressing so much of myself for so long, trying to mold myself into a good wife for Joe. I might have continued to do this if my own psyche hadn’t put a stop to it. Even Joe had told me, “You aren’t the person I fell in love with at 16.” He was right.

Almost all the difficulty in the separation came out of the reactions of family and friends (not everyone, mind you – we had support, as well). Someone made the comment that because Joe and I had been together so long, had seemed so comfortable in the way things were, that they had placed us in the category of “not breaking up ever.”

Reactions varied – some took sides (although we both maintained that it was a mutual decision) and others felt scared about their own relationships. People argued that we hadn’t tried hard enough, hadn’t done enough to save the relationship. As hard as my depressed and scattered brain tried to make sense of it all for others, I was not able to coherently explain that the relationship was a fraud – that I was a fraud – that I had buried myself for a decade. The relationship was an illusion and there were some fundamental problems with me (and Joe, as well) that needed to be fixed. Guessing at the people we would likely be once these issues were addressed, it was blatantly obvious we wouldn’t choose to be together (if even friends) once healthy.

We both grieved the end of the relationship and the major upheaval in our lives. Joe did so openly, as he is a very outgoing person. I, on the other hand, am more private – it’s only through writing that I am able to share most of what I’m thinking and feeling. My therapists have always had to PULL information from me.

Unfortunately, my lack of demonstrativeness was seen by others as coldness. I didn’t seem to be upset enough. I seemed to be carrying on just fine. (Meanwhile, I was taking bathroom breaks often to deal with my panic attacks in private. The idea that my personal life would affect things like work was appalling to me – I needed to work and I needed to take care of my child and I needed to start all over. I didn’t have time for grief.) A number of people were MAD at me – felt that my seeming indifference was aimed at Joe. The things that were said about me hurt deeply, especially since I was struggling with my long-ignored mental health in addition to this huge life change.

Some of the relationships I had before the split were never quite mended. I still haven’t yet figured out my place with my family-by-marriage. I was fully entrenched in that family for over a decade and loved them as my own. But somehow when Joe and I split, I lost my place with them. I still feel most conflicted about that.

I write all of this not because I want sympathy after the fact but because I would like to implore everyone out there to have empathy for those going through divorce – for BOTH people. Joe did horrible things to me during our marriage and I did horrible things to him, but in the end – even if those things had never occurred – we were wrong for one another and we both knew it. Neither of us wanted our child to grow up thinking that he should force himself to stay in a bad situation that was leaching him of happiness. We wanted to show him how to go out and seek what he needed, to find those things that feed his soul.

I’m proud of myself for walking away from the marriage. I’m proud of myself for sending the message to my son that love and happiness are important. I’m proud of deciding that *I* was important.

Divorce is hellish, no matter how amicable it is. Starting over SUCKS and everyone makes mistakes while doing it – they are, after all, making extremely important decisions about life while under a ton of stress. But sometimes, even as painful as it is, it’s the right thing to do. Without happiness, how is life worth living?