Six short years ago, my wife was selfishly choosing her emotions over the wellbeing of our family. She was breaking her promise to love me and to honor our marriage in good times and in bad. She was failing me, and our son, and I blamed her—angrily—for quitting on me. For quitting on us.
Her leaving, resulting in an empty home, the loss of half my son’s childhood, and genuine fear of my unknown future, was the most painful and life-disrupting thing I’ve ever been through.
First, my parents divorced when I was too young to object, making my life harder than all of my friends’. A long-time source of pain and sadness, and my wife knew it.
Divorce wasn’t on the table. We’d said it a hundred times.
But there she goes. Choosing another life over ours. She was running toward something she wanted and felt good about. Her life was IMPROVING, while I was crying in the kitchen, dry heaving into the sink, and feeling certain no one would ever want to kiss me again.
It was almost like I wanted to die, and the shame and feelings of failure that brought are indescribable. I was officially NOT ME anymore. I was some pathetic, sobbing, broken imposter.
She did this to me, I thought and felt.
Not felt, like a purple bruise or a hard slap.
I felt gutted. Betrayed.
I felt rage.
I didn’t want anyone physically hurt—that’s not my way—but I wanted to burn something to the ground. I had a couple of places in mind.
When you hurt that much, you stop caring about things you previously used to. Self-preservation matters less because dying would at least solve the pain problem. When it seems like the worst thing just happened to you, it can make you feel as if nothing else can be taken from you. You’re not afraid of new pain, because nothing could hurt worse than what you’re feeling now.
The worst thing I have ever known—bringing a pain I couldn’t have survived too much longer than it lasted, and forcing me to adjust uncomfortably to an entirely new life I’d never wanted or asked for—was divorce.
Divorce—in and of itself—was the enemy, and an evil thing.
And my ex-wife—the betrayer; the quitter—was the one who forced me to endure it.
The anxiety would make me puke sometimes. Tears would stream down my face.
“That fucking bitch,” I’d choke out.
And then I’d vomit again.
The Road Back to Life
I was dead.
My heartbeat remained. I could move around and talk a little. But I’d lost several months, maybe even a year. What I was doing wasn’t living.
I had ONE ultra-focused mission: To make sure I protected myself and my son from ever experiencing a pain like that again.
My new top priority was to NEVER feel dead again. I’m not sure I could survive it twice.
Divorce hurt me as a little kid.
Divorce hurt me as an adult.
Divorce hurt me as a friend, as several of my social relationships faded away.
Divorce hurt me as a professional, as I couldn’t focus at all on anything being said in meetings, nor could I care about work projects.
Divorce hurt me as a father, as I saw my son half as much as I had before, and I no longer had any control over who he was around, how safe he was; and that I now had to wear the Scarlet Letter of divorced dad in a million life situations where I assumed everyone—friend and stranger, alike—thought I was a shitty father.
Divorce was my new enemy. And I needed to understand it. NEEDED to.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle,” Sun Tzu wrote in “The Art of War.”
It was an idea I’d already accepted. So I went to work on understanding divorce.
I did that right here.
I wrote stories. I wrote stories about my marriage. Little moments that stood out to me, and then I wrote about what I was thinking and feeling about them at the time, versus how I thought and felt about them today.
I read books.
I asked questions. I asked so many questions. Sometimes, just to myself while I stared at the ceiling waiting for the pain to stop.
And I just kept writing as I discovered new ideas. I was uncovering so much about myself, about people, about love and relationships and marriage, and it was empowering to find that new knowledge.
If I UNDERSTAND what happened to me, then I don’t need to be afraid of it happening again, I thought.
I became addicted.
I needed answers.
It was the only way to save myself.
How I Saved Myself
I used to creepily stare at myself in the bathroom mirror for longer than I imagine most sane people do. Like a cliché movie scene you don’t want to watch.
I didn’t recognize myself, because I felt like an entirely different person, and I think that made me see an entirely different person.
I actively sought UNCOMFORTABLE ideas—things I didn’t necessarily want to hear; things that opposed ideas I’d accepted as gospel truth my entire life; things I didn’t WANT to be true—because I’d spent my entire life swimming exclusively in comfort and familiarity, and all that had done was deliver the worst thing that had ever happened to me.
I had to try something else.
Why did my wife choose to end our marriage and leave? Is she evil? Crazy? Out to get me?
Is she stupid? Is she a con artist? Is she a monster?
Is she a bad mother?
Is she a bad person?
All that mattered was the truth because the truth is what I needed to understand to protect my future self from divorce, or from hurting like this ever again. I wasn’t afraid of any answers as long as they were true.
My wife wasn’t evil.
She wasn’t crazy.
She wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt me. There was no credible evidence of any of those things.
She wasn’t stupid, nor a con artist, nor a monster.
We still interacted all of the time, because our son was going back and forth between us every two or three days. We HAD to cooperate so that he always had school clothes, and lunch money, and whatever he needed to feel safe and loved.
Not only was she NOT trying to make any of that extra-hard on me, she—just as she had in our marriage—took on the responsibility of leading the way in knowing what he needed, and taking steps to make sure he had whatever that was. Doctor appointments. Meetings at school. Clothes. Supplies. Birthday and Christmas presents.
She did everything possible to include me in anything meaningful going on with our son.
She was the furthest thing from being a bad mother.
I met her when I was 18—a freshman in college. I’d known her for 16 years—more than half of my life that I could actually remember. My son’s mother was NOT a bad person.
So how could this be? How could this happen?
I’d just stare into that bathroom mirror. Until I finally recognized my true enemy.
It wasn’t my ex-wife.
It wasn’t divorce.
It wasn’t God, or the Universe, or Life.
It was me.
The worst thing that had ever happened to me didn’t happen to me because my wife quit on me and tried to hurt me. My son wasn’t gone and growing up a child of divorce because of my wife’s selfishness.
The worst thing that had ever happened to me happened because of me.
Because my wife HURT—just as I was hurting right then—for years and years. And not only was I the source of that pain, but instead of listening to her and trying to help her NOT HURT anymore, I used pretty much every opportunity she took to try to talk to me about our marriage as some kind of personal affront, and accused her of always finding new things to complain about.
I was the source of her pain. Thus, I was the only one who could stop the hurt, and help her heal. As her husband, I must have seemed to her like a reasonable person to seek help from RE: the biggest source of pain and fear that SHE had ever known—again, just as I was feeling right then.
She came to me for help, and I told her that her concerns were a figment of her imagination.
She asked me to help her stop hurting, and I told her that the things she was telling me were painful were NOT things that actually hurt people, so something must be wrong with her. I told her to get help. I told her to stop blaming me for her own weaknesses and poorly thought-out arguments.
Without even trying to be an asshole, I transformed all of the pain and relationship-killing behaviors I caused into something my wife was responsible for.
I BELIEVED the story I had told myself about her selfishness and mismanaged emotions.
I BELIEVED I was the good guy. The victim.
I BELIEVED divorce was evil and a plague on society.
I BELIEVED women everywhere were growing dissatisfied in their relationships for superficial reasons, and then abandoning their husbands and breaking families because life didn’t deliver them the Cinderella fairytale ending they’d hoped for.
It felt true. All of it. Because from the inside of my life, that’s how I experienced it.
But what really happened?
She persevered through 12 years of the person who had promised to love, serve, honor and protect her for the rest of her life, ignoring most requests for help.
She remained hopeful that she’d eventually find the right words to break through. The ones that would help me see what she already knew to be true. The ones that would effectively communicate how much she hurt on the inside—how afraid she was—just as I felt right then, staring into the bathroom mirror taking stock of all that I’d done.
I believed a story about myself that wasn’t true. That—because I tried to be a good person who loved others and didn’t hurt people—I was by default a good husband.
I believed a story about my wife that wasn’t true. That—because years and years and years and years of pain piled up in moments big and small where the ONE person she had let into her life to be with forever, and had trusted to love her deeply, turned his back on her, or ran away any time she talked about feeling sad or hurt or unhappy. She didn’t QUIT. She reluctantly submitted after THOUSANDS of moments where her partner demonstrated both a lack of competence and/or desire to help protect her from the kind of pain that turns you into an entirely different person.
The kind of person you no longer recognize in the mirror.
I believed a story about divorce that wasn’t true. That—because I felt so hurt by it and saw so many other people hurt by it—it was evil.
Divorce isn’t evil. It’s just bad. Like cancer.
Divorce isn’t a plague. Broken people accidentally hurting each other in their most important relationships is. THAT’s the plague.
Divorce—as ugly as it feels to me, and as uncomfortable as it makes me philosophically after a lifetime of believing Marriage is Forever—is a tool for people who are otherwise out of options.
It’s a lifeline.
An emergency escape hatch.
It’s inconvenient. Because the thing I want most in the world is to help people avoid accidentally harming their relationships, which I believe will lead to fewer divorces and more forever-marriages.
It’s inconvenient. Because divorce has caused me more pain than anything else I’ve ever known.
And as I’ve railed against divorce, and lifted up marriage as virtuous and sacred, I’ve accidentally piled on even more.
Because divorce is bad, but some things are worse.
What causes more pain than divorce?
I never recognized it because it was never happening to me.
But just maybe, the trappings of a faux-happy marriage—the kind that look good to everyone else, but are silently killing one or both members of it—wreaks more havoc. Maybe that causes even more damage, and more pain.
Everyone and everything is a little bit damaged.
Perfection isn’t part of the human experience.
But when we know we are a little bit damaged and love ourselves anyway; and when we acknowledge our imperfections, but still courageously step up to light up the darkness—I think that’s about as close as we get to perfect.
In the uncomfortable, gritty, raw, unfiltered muck of real life, both the beauty and the pain often keeps out of sight.
I was lost.
And I found my way back by learning how to find both the beauty and the pain that isn’t obvious to anyone not looking for it.
You must find the pain. If you don’t see it, you’ll feed it, and accidentally hurt the people you love—and yourself.
I see you, people suffering silently. You’re brave and amazing.
And you must find the beauty. Covered up by all the rage and fear and anxiety and vomit and tears.
If you don’t see it, you’ll lose hope.
I see you, people committed to being a force for good when it seems like you’re constantly being shit on for doing so. You inspire me to carry on. You fuel me to give more. Thank you.
The most beautiful things are those that persist despite all of the horrors happening around them and all of the ugliness trying to cover them up.
The most beautiful things ARE NOT those things unmarred by nicks and scratches.
The most beautiful things are those that radiate so much good, that whatever imperfections inevitably exist, we never even notice.