Every divorce is unique. And every person who gets divorced reacts to it in a slightly different way. But the more I talk to people, the more I find that the divorced seem to fall in one of two broad categories – those for whom divorce is a traumatic shock, and those for whom divorce is an inevitable relief. It’s not always the same divide as “those who leave” and “those who do the leaving,” either. Some people leave their spouse and regret it intensely, while others are left and find themselves surprisingly capable of coping.
I was solidly in the “inevitable relief” camp. I am pretty sure my ex-husband was, too. Our marriage was brief and ill-advised, and the only good thing it produced was our son (which more than makes up for all the bad). We were entirely different people, and we wasted a lot of time trying to force each other into boxes. I don’t think anyone was truly surprised when we split up.
For the last four years, I’ve had a hard time understanding how the other half lived. I’ve had a hard time understanding people who are truly surprised by their divorces. In hindsight, they ALL seem inevitable. “Oh, Jack and Jill? Yeah, I saw that coming a mile away. No, I wasn’t going to say anything to her – why would I interfere?”
Yet, for some people, it really is a shock. Whether it’s through self-deception, delusional thinking, or actually unforeseen circumstances, they really don’t see it coming. Even when the ink is dry on the final judgment, they cannot comprehend that this has happened to them. And it destroys them.
A woman I recently met put it this way, “Everything I wanted for my life was gone. Everything I’d planned to build was destroyed. Everything that was supposed to happen, wasn’t going to happen. And I was stuck.”
(In the movies, this moment is usually followed by a montage of Crying To Dramatic Music, and Possibly Throwing Things. For examples, see the collected works of Julianne Moore, who cries awesomely.)
I never felt that way about my divorce. But I sure as heck felt that way about my house. I realize that the last three weeks have allowed me to experience, in some small way, how those other divorced people feel. Traumatized. Disbelieving. The floaty, displaced, dislocated feeling. The deep sadness that too often expresses itself as anger. I have a confession – Tuesday was the first day since the fire that I didn’t visit the house. Part of me couldn’t bear to leave it in the first place. I wanted to camp out in the unscathed sunroom, pretending that it hadn’t happened. That somehow, if I wished hard enough, closed my eyes and counted to three, everything would be back the way it was. Everything I wanted for my life was gone. Everything I’d planned to build was destroyed. Everything that was supposed to happen, wasn’t going to happen.
When she said that, I nodded. Because I finally understood.
Long, long ago, a wise counselor told me we are teaching our children how to be married. If you persist in a bad or unhealthy marriage, your children will accept a bad marriage as “normal.” If you treat your spouse poorly, your children will assume that it’s acceptable behavior.
In the same way, after a divorce, we are teaching our children how to cope with life-altering trauma. If you give up, if you remain stuck, you are teaching your children to give up when life throws them a curveball. Or fifty. If you dwell on the past, pore over your wedding albums, fixate on how things “used to be” or “were supposed to be,” then you are teaching your children to avoid facing their problems head-on.
My new acquaintance described a woman who has been divorced longer than she’d been married, “She’s 65 years old, her children are grown and gone, and yet within two minutes of starting a conversation with her, she’s talking about her deadbeat ex.” She is stuck.
That same wise counselor described Jason’s ex in this way: “She’ll probably be stuck for a long time, maybe the rest of her life. Every morning, when she wakes up, it will be like that first day. The worst day of her life.” Some days I think she will always be waiting for someone to tell her that this has all been a terrible mistake.
People who get stuck may feel like they’ve had all their choices taken away, but this is not true. People who are stuck are faced with perhaps the most important choice of all. Stay and wallow, until the anger and the bitterness consume you like a cancer, or move on.
It’s tempting to stay stuck. There’s often a lot of perverse fun in it. It’s cathartic to destroy things, to lash out at your ex, to scream and cry and eat ice cream for dinner. But it’s not healthy. And eventually, people stop feeling sorry for you.
I’ve been stuck for the last few weeks. I have been eating poorly (well, it’s all been delicious, but you know what I mean), not exercising, and not sleeping well. But Sunday night I decided I was done using the fire as an excuse for holding the pause button on my life. I found a scale at the rental house and stepped on it.
Boy, was that a bad idea.
The key, I think, is making choices within the limited sphere of your control. I decide how much I eat. I decide when I will go for a run. I don’t get to decide when the adjuster will finish his report. I don’t get to decide whether the insurance company will cover everything I feel should be replaced. I don’t get to decide when we can move back into our house. Those things are out of my hands, and I am learning to let them go. I am teaching the children how to get un-stuck.
This has been a good week. Next week will be better. And eventually, all the “after” pictures in the previous posts will become “before” pictures for something else entirely.