“Do you think you’d still be married if all the bad stuff hadn’t happened?” a friend asked me recently.
“Uh, I don’t know,” I answered after a few minutes.
It’s true, I don’t really know. I’d like to believe that in what would be 24 years into our marriage, we still would be. I certainly thought we’d be married forever when we wed (even if I didn’t say “till death do us part” but then again I didn’t say I’d obey, either).
Nine-plus years into my second divorce, I have been thinking about marriage — a lot. I wish I had thought about it this much before I got married, clarifying just why I wanted to get married, but it’s best not to live in regrets. If nothing else, all this focus on marriage lately — from Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage to all the articles predicting the death of the institution of marriage and the political emphasis on “traditional marriage” — might make more people really, really think about why they want to get married. That’s exactly what Susan Pease Gadoua hope to do with our book, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels.
Although I didn’t expect to be divorced, a lot of really good things have happened because of it; I learned a lot. Please don’t take that to mean that I am cheering couples on into divorcing; I’m not. No one should rush into divorce — except those whose lives are at risk — especially if you have kids. Couples should try to salvage their marriage — in healthy ways — if they can.
But divorce isn’t all gloom and doom, as many want to portray it. Nor is it a “failed marriage” — the 14 years my former husband and I were together had many happy moments and created two amazing sons, now young men, whom we were able to co-parent well because we were kind to and respectful of each other (well, most of the time).
So, what did I learn after my divorce?
Divorce doesn’t necessarily make you smarter about relationships: I got married way too early the first time — a few months shy of my 21st birthday — for all the wrong reasons, or actually just one not-good-enough reason: I loved him and he loved me. So when I met the man who was to be my second husband, I thought I “got” what marriage was about. I’d been there and done that, and since he had been married before, too, and we both experienced infidelity, he felt the same way. Well, wrong. Divorce doesn’t automatically make you wiser about relationships and marriage. Unless you delve deep into the behaviors and patterns you learned from your family of origin so you can understand the bad stuff you brought into your first marriage, you’ll just bring it into the next one. Sure, your new spouse may react differently to it, but you still need to own it. Thankfully, I did a lot of intensive work to understand what I did to contribute to the demise of my second marriage, and I learned how to act differently although it’s a work in progress. I don’t know if I would have done that if I’d stayed married; I think I just might have had to hit bottom first.
There may not be someone “better out there” for you: When it was finally clear that I was going to be divorced, I’m embarrassed to admit that among the many complicated thoughts going through my head was an incredibly silly one, What a cliche to be a 40-something divorcee! Why couldn’t this have happened earlier, when I was younger and maybe somewhat cuter and possibly more desirable? I was perimenopausal with wrinkles and sags, a few gray hairs, reliant on glasses so I could read and drive — for a lot of men I was past my “prime,” although in many ways I felt as if I’d just entered it; I was so much more comfortable in my own skin, no matter how less firm. But it isn’t always any easier for 20- and 30-something divorcees. There really isn’t a good or bad age to be divorced, but it doesn’t matter — you divorce because the marriage you’re in doesn’t work any more and you can’t make it work, not because you believe there’s someone “better out there for you.” Divorce means you have to accept that you may be alone — and you’ll be OK with that.
Relationships don’t have to look a certain way, Part I: I grew up buying into a familiar relationship scenario — you meet someone special, date, fall in love, marry, and then one day have a few kids, a mortgage, a dog and a minivan. And, of course, you live happily-ever-after. But when I found myself divorced at midlife with two kids — and wanting to have love in my life at some point — I began to wonder why I’d want to hold on to that same trajectory. It worked fine when I was in my 20s; was it going to work at midlife? I certainly wasn’t going to have any more kids, I owned my own house, I had my own career and dog and car (I ditched the minivan) — I didn’t “need” to be in a relationship in the same way as I believed I needed to be when I wanted to have a family with a partner. Now I had other questions to ask myself, and so for the first time in my life I started thinking intensely about what I wanted, not what I thought was expected of me (and wondered why I didn’t do that before). Did I want to marry again? Why? Why not? What would I do different and what would be the same?
Relationships don’t have to look a certain way, Part II: My extended circle of divorced friends are all over the map when it comes to romance — most have found love again but only a handful have gotten married and a teeny-tiny percentage are living together. A few are in committed relationships and want to marry at some point, a few aren’t sure. I am among the latter; well, actually I know I don’t want to marry again. What I don’t know is if I want to live with someone again although, yes, sometimes I miss having someone around; between my two marriages, I spent about 20 years living with a husband. My partner of almost eight years and I are as committed to each other as any couple I know, but he has his place and I have mine. We don’t have any plans to change that. Both of us appreciate having space in the relationship, and time to ourselves or to be with friends — something I didn’t give myself when I was married. And our time together feels much more special; it’s harder to take each other for granted. I know this arrangement won’t work for everyone, but it’s working for us.
Divorce offers us many chances to do something different, hopefully better. We still have to make the conscious decision to act on them.
What have you learned post-divorce?