There’s a reason I’ve not posted in a while, namely the breakdown of my marriage.
One of the last things I did post was this commentary on my fortieth birthday. I ended it with this paragraph:
Fifteen years ago, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with my husband. The idea of us turning forty together seemed quaintly romantic. Now it's our reality (we're halfway there... he'll be forty in a few months), and that's perhaps the best thing about today. I know better than to think this means "Happily Ever After," but I still feel that there's a hell of a lot of "Ever After" to come. So far, time remains on our side.
That was December 18th. On January 24th, my husband, Rich, sat me down and told me he didn’t love me any more. In fact, he hadn’t loved me for five years. He moved out on February 12th, days before his own fortieth birthday.
Clearly, I did not see this coming.
In retrospect, I could have done. The signs were there… some of them I misattributed to other things, and some of them I dismissed as my own paranoia. Perhaps uncoincidentally, I’ve also been battling self-esteem issues over the past five years.
Some of them I did take seriously. I had had my own issues with our relationship and a couple of years earlier, I had found myself wondering if I still loved him. I came to the conclusion that I did; Rich reached the opposite one. Awkward, huh?
However, we had much the same reaction to these conclusions, which was to deal with it ourselves—without saying a word of our doubts to each other. Rich chose to stay for the family’s sake and try to enjoy life if not his marriage; I chose to address what was bothering me about our relationship by myself. Occasionally, we would talk to each other about specific problems, but we didn’t provide the wider context. The general result was that we each felt our own issues outweighed the other person’s apparently petty concerns and the other person wasn’t taking our problems seriously.
There are many things I’d like to change about how we handled the last few years, but the big one would have been for either of us to get marriage counselling as soon as we had doubts. In retrospect, that’s just common sense.
However, it’s a really big deal to tell somebody your love for them has died when you’ve built a life, family and future together. By the time Rich had the nerve to tell me, it was because he was at the end of his rope. He no longer had the emotional reserves to try to save the marriage. We very briefly did try… we got a therapist who did couples counselling, but he gave up before our first session. It had been too long and there was too much negativity attached to the very idea of staying married. Too much attached to me.
It devastated me. We’d been married for thirteen years, but the number that resonates with me is sixteen. I’d loved him for sixteen years. I don’t open up to people easily; I’d never fallen in love before Rich. When I did fall in love, I loved absolutely. He was my confidante, my support, my best friend—I was closer to him than I’ve ever been to anybody else.
I’m not the first person to go through a heartbreak; they say everybody should experience it once. I don’t personally recommend it. The tears and despair were predictable, but not controllable. I got used to crying in public places and in front of everybody I knew. I got used to hiding in my bedroom or bathroom, so the kids wouldn’t see me breaking down. (My daughter noticed. She started giving my face sharp looks if I acted vague around her. My son remained oblivious, as I discovered last week when he was stunned by his sister’s revelation that I cry.)
Less expected were the psychosomatic symptoms. For two and a half months, I walked around with two burning holes in my collarbone, one on the left and one on the right. I could have pointed to the exact spots, yet they were just representations of a figurative uprooting: we had intertwined our lives and souls, so these were the holes left behind after he ripped himself out of me. Ridiculously sentimental, yet the physical pain was real.
One of the hardest things about this—and something not unique to my experience—was how this person I loved became somebody I didn’t recognise overnight. There’s a reason there are so many horror movies based on a loved one changing and trying to hurt you. It’s a nightmarish scenario. Rich looked and sounded like the person I knew, but it felt as if every time I tried to reach for him, he wasn’t there. The man who tried so hard to please others now rejected me at every turn. My life was crashing down around me, and my confidante, my support system, was deliberately pulling away.
This led to the constant feeling of exclusion, these ongoing micro-rejections: Every time he said he was busy and didn’t elaborate; Every time I saw him tagged on Facebook; Every time he and the kids went out. Discomfitingly, I was jealous of my own children: he was constantly asserting how he still loved them, wanted to be there for them, wanted to spend time with them, and while I knew full well how he intended those statements, I couldn’t help seeing the negative implication: he loved the kids, he just couldn’t bear to be around me. (Thankfully, I resented him for this and not the children, but I wonder how common it is for that bitterness to be channeled towards the kids in these situations.)
From Rich’s point of view, this was agony for him too. We had a memorable parent teacher conference this spring, where the teacher spent five minutes telling us that our daughter was doing great and twenty-five minutes comforting us both as we wept. Rich avoided me in part for fear of hurting me more. He wanted to rip off the band aid and get through this trauma as quickly as possible.
I wanted to take things one step at a time. I knew from friends’ experience that there would come a time when I would stop loving him, when I might even want to have a relationship with somebody else. Yet in the thick of it, knowing that was painful. I didn’t want that to be how our story ended. For us to be just another statistic.
Of course, after a few months, I did get past that initial basketcase stage of the heartbreak. For three weeks in April, I felt normal: I could have a shower or otherwise let my mind wander without randomly bursting into tears and/or hyperventilating. Then Rich filed for divorce, and I plunged back into fear and depression.
Stakes of Divorce
One thing that does distinguish our case from most others is our legal immigration status. I’m in the country as Rich’s dependent. Our visas are tied to his job. If we divorce, I lose my visa and have thirty days to get out of the country. (Same thing if he dies; it’s pretty brutal.) Obviously, I do have children with American citizenship, but the whole anchor baby thing is not nearly as straightforward as the media likes to make out. It’s all a very complicated issue, and I’m not nearly well informed enough to comment here. Suffice to say, my immigration options are in no way guaranteed… nor necessarily desirable.
From the moment Rich told me, back in January, I’ve known my future here was in question and that the most secure path for me was to do what I’ve wanted to do for years and move back to the UK. I never dreamed that I would leave Rich behind when I did so: I would be losing my home and my friends while having to rebuild a life without my partner.
Of course, if Rich and I are on different continents, that means the children will end up separated from one of their parents by an ocean. The stakes are high for us, and this is a situation where there is no ‘right’ decision (be that to divorce or not to divorce or how to divorce.)
Even if there was a right decision, I never had the power to make it. I couldn’t make Rich try to save the marriage, I couldn’t stop him filing for divorce. I have never been so angry with another person as I was when he filed so quickly—and I have never had so much difficulty letting that anger go. (I remain adamant that rushing a divorce within three months of separation is a terrible idea; it requires a great many decisions that will influence the rest of your lives, and you don’t want to make those when the wounds are so raw.) However, fighting a divorce is rarely successful, wastes time, effort and money… and damages the relationship further.
My anger was accompanied by fear, because I was so powerless to stop what was happening, because I was so vulnerable from a legal standpoint, and because I already did not recognise this man whom I had loved for sixteen years and whom my life was still tied to: he had left me with our children, cats and house. While I far prefer my outcome to his, I was dealing with all those responsibilities on top of everything else and reporting to him on what was going on with them (and by extension, me).
Conversely, I never knew very much about what was going on with Rich’s new life. It wasn’t my business to know, most of the time I didn’t want to know, but that imbalance in our new relationship only worsened the feeling that I was trapped and at his mercy.
For weeks, I couldn’t look him in the face when he came over to pick up the kids or drop them off. I wouldn’t let him touch me. I had my first full-fledged panic attack during that time—thankfully it was while the kids were at school, it only lasted fifteen minutes and I managed to get myself out of it by texting friends, but I never want to do that again. (This situation has given me all the sympathy in the world for people who deal with this level and more of depression and anxiety as their norm.)
I couldn’t fix the situation and I couldn’t escape it, so I lashed out. When I felt provoked, I would snap and scream at him, wanting to hurt him, wanting to see him share some of the pain he had caused me.
As usual, time took the edges off my emotion, and while there are many things I have been unable to forgive, we fought painfully to work past that and resume some semblance of cordiality, of amicability, and ultimately of functionality. This week, we were finally able to tell the children about the divorce without casting blame on each other.
There are two reasons Rich and I need to protect what relationship we have left: our son and daughter.
From talking to my friends, I’ve realized that there’s a sizeable difference between divorces where there aren’t children (still at home) and ones where there are. My friends who didn’t have kids were much quicker to tell their spouses where they could go, to embrace their new life with an indignant pride. Friends who did have kids were slower, for the simple reason that they were tied to their spouses regardless: they still had to share parenting decisions. Some of my friends have ended up with no relationship with their exes anyway; I know from their experience that it’s incredibly hard to raise children like that, when there’s no trust or respect between the two partners any more. Clearly, it’s not ideal for the children either.
A phrase I have used many times is: “I am prepared to swallow an awful lot of pride for the sake of my children.”
So despite the clashes, despite the conflicting views of how to move forward, Rich and I continue to work on our co-parenting relationship, and we try to protect each other’s relationship with the kids. One of the first pacts we made, back on January 24th, when he told me, was that we were going to know each other for the rest of our lives, that we were going to be friends for the rest of our lives. It’s not been an easy one to keep… it might yet be broken… but it continues to be our goal.
One of the things we have done right was to continue seeing our therapist even after giving up on the marriage: we had couples’ sessions to manage the break up for a few months, and now we see her individually, with the option to have a dual session if we want. Personally, I find it comforting to know that she gets the full story, not just my slanted view. It makes me trust her advice/opinion more. Without the therapy, I don’t know how either of us would have made it through my anger/fear stage.
Another thing I did right predates all of this: Last year, I had enrolled in a distance learning course to get a British Montessori qualification. This gave me some immediate structure for building a new life: finish the course, find a job at a UK Montessori preschool and move to wherever that school is. (I have no particular ‘base’ in the UK.) This has been a lifeline in an otherwise overwhelming transition. It gave me the series of steps to follow: I still find it difficult to think too far ahead, but for now I can focus on my course, and know that I’m progressing without having to plan the rest of the route—obviously, the details have yet to be filled in, but the idea is that in summer 2019, I will move back to the UK.
For Rich, the transition to the new life has already been made. He has a new home, a new relationship and is integrating that with the same friends, same job. We’re at a completely different place in our process, and that’s something we both struggle with in our expectations of each other.
But we still care enough about each other to make the effort. That’s the thing about a long-term relationship ending. For sixteen years (and lots of marriages terminate after longer), we’ve been in the habit of caring for each other. That doesn’t switch off even if the romantic love goes away. As angry as I get with Rich, it can still be hard for me to hear other people be angry with him, because I still want to protect him. It took me a long time to realise it, but I spent most of this process trying to rescue Old Rich (i.e. the man I loved) from New Rich (i.e. the man I feared), and my therapist had to point out to me that the two Rich’s weren’t totally disparate people.
I don’t just have a relationship with Rich, I have a relationship with his family too. In March, I took the kids to the UK for my cousin’s wedding; I stayed with Rich’s sister, and she and his mother accompanied me to the wedding. This was important to me as a gesture for the kids that both sides of their family could still come together, but these are also women I like and care about and who were unstinting sources of comfort and support to me at that stressful time.
Rich and I will probably always view each other as family on some level. No doubt it will take us both a while to straighten out the boundaries of that—what’s acceptable, what’s essential, and what’s a leftover habit of marriage that would be better dropped—but estrangement isn’t an option either of us are prepared to accept.
This is a messy and occasionally paradoxical post, but emotions are messy and paradoxical, and there are a lot of contextual details that I have omitted because they’re not appropriate for this blog. Obviously, I have only touched on Rich’s perspective in all this, and crucially, I haven’t gone into the kids’ reactions at all. Those aren’t my stories to tell. So bear in mind this is a skewed perspective. However, it’s an update on where I am for those who have wanted it, and hopefully, it’s an insight into some of these emotional processes for any who need it.