It wasn’t quite this dramatic. ;) (Image/The Great Courses Daily)
I walked into my ex-wife’s house following a quick knock as I do a few times every week to pick up my son after work.
I had a bag of our son’s clothes with me full of specific items I’d promised I’d return, and when I walked into the kitchen to set the bag of clothes on the counter, I saw the red envelope leaning up against the bottle of whatever liquor she had bought her boyfriend for Valentine’s Day. This is their third or fourth Valentine’s Day together.
You feel something when you see something like that. Even six years removed from marriage. You feel something.
Sometimes, I have these conversations with myself when I feel that something. Because, what does it mean?
Does it mean that I love my ex-wife and miss her desperately and wish we were still together?
No. She’s a fine human being and the best co-parenting partner and mother to my son that I could ever hope to have. But, I don’t sit around my house (the one she and I used to share) wishing that she still lived there.
There’s no evidence that she and I could have a good marriage—even now that I understand so much more about my failed marriage than I did back when I assumed all of our problems were her fault.
I DON’T WANT a shitty relationship full of uncomfortable conversations and conflict INFINITELY more than I want to be in another permanent romantic relationship that might be a stepping stone to another marriage. Regardless of who that other person is.
“Given all of the changes and strides you have made in your own growth and understanding of how things went sideways, is there the potential for reconciliation with your ex-wife?” a reader asked me in a recent blog comment.
I’ve received that question many times over the past five years.
There’s a faction of people out there invested in the story—my story. The almost-redemption story.
The shitty husband who is just like their spouse.
And if I can figure it out, maybe they can figure it out.
And if I can figure it out AND want to reconcile with my wife and maybe have a great marriage on the second try, maybe the dream is still alive for them too.
I hope they know their dream can remain alive regardless of what happens with me.
Because a beautiful marriage might be in my future, but there’s virtually no chance my ex-wife will have any part to play other than hopefully having a positive, peaceful relationship with whoever I would invite into our co-parenting inner circle. And that’s more than okay.
I think what I felt when I saw that Valentine’s Day card was shame.
Do I—in a spiritual sense—regret that I was a shitty husband and now we’re not married, and I have to drop my son off in the morning to be cared for by the guy sleeping with his mother? Absolutely.
Am I jealous? No.
It’s more nuanced than that.
It’s not pain. But it is discomfort.
I’m ashamed at who I was.
And just maybe, ashamed at who I am.
What’s wrong with me that all these years later, my ex-wife is in this super-stable relationship, and I’m still ordering takeout with my fifth-grader?
Trigger City Looks Nice Until You Hit That One Part of Town
The next morning my son didn’t have school, so I dropped him off back at his mom’s house before driving to the office. Her boyfriend was the only person who was going to be home with him for the first couple of hours that morning.
I neither hesitated nor thought twice about leaving my favorite little human in his care. I can trust him unequivocally to be good to my son and his mother.
If you don’t know how much that’s worth, you’ve never shared a child with someone who doesn’t live in the same house.
I have what I consider to be a mature, well-thought-out and healthy mental and emotional position RE: my ex-wife.
Married people with children have never thought about what it feels like to wrestle with the stress, fear, and anxiety that you encounter the first time you realize that your ex who you share children with are now in total control of what happens to them whenever they’re not with you.
They can date, live with, marry ANYONE and there’s not one damn thing in the world you can do about it.
When the divorce first happened, I couldn’t breathe.
Not the way normal people breathe.
I couldn’t sit still or sleep or think or talk or in any way behave however I perceive ‘normal’ to be.
Someone at work asked me about it. About the time I was adjusting to a new world where I felt like I had Iost half of my son’s already going-too-fast childhood, and where I felt like I’d lost ALL control over his safety and wellbeing.
If I can’t influence who she sees, how can I protect my son from the bad ones?
A huge percentage of the panic I felt back then was being stripped of that sense of control.
That slice of the Pain & Horror pie chart got tossed into a cauldron with all of the other stuff—rejection, embarrassment, fear, a sense of failure, emotional brokenness, and surely some other bad-tasting things I’m forgetting.
Holy shit, is this really happening? I quietly thought to myself while I recounted that story from six years ago. Because I started to feel it.
I’d just sit at my desk sometimes staring straight ahead on the verge of tears, trying to draw long breaths and hoping no one would notice or ask me any work questions.
Sometimes my hands would shake a little in conference room meetings. Every guy at the table had a wedding band on but me, and they were all super-interested in the work conversations just like I used to be before the world ended.
I didn’t speak. I didn’t make eye contact. I didn’t do anything except hide my jittery hands under the table and concentrate really hard on pretending to be tough and stoic so that I wouldn’t cry in front of my friends and coworkers.
Those were the hardest days I’ve ever known.
Those were the days where I used vodka as a crutch and started smoking again after having kicked the habit. Those were the days were I felt so dark and shitty and uncomfortable down deep where no medicine can reach, I FINALLY understood why some people give up. After a lifetime of not getting it, I finally “got it.”
If every second of your life HURTS—excruciatingly—and you lose hope that you can find your way back to where it doesn’t hurt (or tragically have never known a life without pain), then it makes sense to be more afraid of living than dying.
I wasn’t suicidal. That never happened. But I remember thinking that if some semi coming the other direction crossed over center and pulverized me that it would feel merciful.
That’s when I knew I was damn close to rock bottom.
After a lifetime of being afraid of lots of things, I wasn’t afraid of much.
It’s the super-power of grief. It’s the ONE cool thing about it. Everything sucks. Things can’t get worse. So—boom. A liberating taste of fearless living.
When we have things to lose (the best things in life) it makes sense that we’re afraid of losing it.
When we’re out of things to lose, it’s not super-neat that we suffered a great loss, but you are gifted a healthy dose of perspective that I think most of us need.
There were all of these things in life that I had wanted. That I’d made a goal. A certain amount of money. A certain kind of house. A certain kind of job. Etc. Material-ish things, in many cases, as a measure of having “a good life.”
But then I felt like dying, and it occurred to me that even if I had my dream home and the largest bank account I could think of, I STILL would have felt empty and broken in that moment.
There’s nothing we can buy or acquire to protect us from that feeling down deep inside where the medicine can’t reach. Once I discovered that important truth, I developed a healthier, more appropriate perspective on finances and material possessions.
I felt that feeling return.
The bullshit one that nothing but time can fix.
And all it took was me retelling the story to a couple of friends at work. It all came rushing back. The nausea. The anxiety. That feeling of tears welling in my eyes that I hope no one noticed.
I went for a walk, just like I did six years ago. Just a bunch of quiet deep breaths and the music in my headphones. Maybe no one will know.
The problem though is that I knew.
WTF is happening right now?
Our Scars and Stories
I was fine by the time night rolled around. I didn’t think about it over the weekend.
I’m only thinking about it now because I wanted to write this.
We have all of these souvenirs from our past lives. Maybe they’re tangible objects. Maybe they’re foggy memories. Maybe they’re razor-sharp feelings triggered by things we see or hear or smell or think about.
These souvenirs are comprised of both our scars and stories.
Our scars are proof that they happened. That we’re still alive.
Your ex-husband is seeing someone new, and you don’t like it, even though you left him AND would never choose to be with him again? It hurts somehow but you can’t explain why?
You don’t have to. Scars. Stories. Yours.
Your ex-wife is seeing someone new and it’s totally fine, but the memory of your wife leaving you, and losing control of your son, and all of those nights thinking about how much she was loving being with that other piece of shit while you sobbed at home alone on the couch makes you FEEL that all over again? Several years later? And you can’t explain it?
You don’t have to.
I don’t have to.
Everything’s going to be okay.
Really, it already is.