Editor’s note: We’ve been talking a lot about stress at midlife lately—and what’s more stressful than dealing with a relationship gone south? Divorce is one of the most painful things that can happen to a person and, unfortunately, not uncommon. Have you gone through or are you going through a divorce or trial separation? Tell us how you handle the stress and anxiety in the comments!
Most of the time when you’re heading for divorce, deep down, you know it. That doesn’t make it any easier and less confusing.
Scene One: It’s 2 a.m. I take the anti-anxiety pill prescribed to help me sleep through the night, fluff my pillows, open the window so the bedroom becomes my menopausal happy place of 63 degrees, and climb into my king-size bed. Alone.
During this time of trial separation, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to own the whole bed.
My husband of almost 29 years has moved out. And you know what goes through my mind every night? That scene by director Nancy Meyers (famous for depicting the transition of powerful, divorced women) in Something’s Gotta Give, where Diane Keaton’s character describes living alone:
Sleeping by myself took getting used to, but I got the hang of it. You gotta sleep in the middle. It’s not healthy to have a side when no one has the other side.
I try that sometimes. I smoosh his pillows and my pillows together and sleep on the hump that has formed on our mattress after years of two bodies lying next to each other without spooning. But I’m uncomfortable on the hump, because during this time of trial separation, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to own the whole bed.
Everything And The Bathroom Sink
In the morning, I walk into the bathroom to brush my teeth and notice the drip, drip, drip of his sink faucet. Those droplets splash into an unused porcelain basin, a searing, audible reminder that no one is shaving next to me. Interestingly, Nancy Meyers has something to say about sinks, too—in It’s Complicated, where Meryl Streep, is talking to her architect about plans for a house renovation:
(Jane) I have one tiny note now. In my bathroom…um…no his-and-her sinks.
(Architect) No his?
(Jane) Just hers.
(Architect) And you don’t think in the future you might want a his?
(Jane) Oh, God, we’re talking code about my life, right? The truth is, in my current bathroom, I have two sinks and sometimes the other sink makes me feel bad.
They don’t tell you these things when you read the self-help articles about heading for divorce. They also don’t tell you how weird it is that the soap no longer gets smaller, that the failing smoke detector batteries are too high for your ladder, and that chicken breasts are only sold in packages of two. These are the things I notice after three months of living in limbo (though not legally separated), the makeshift way-station my husband and I dreamed up in order to get “clarity and perspective” after years of marital issues.
Beautiful Memories, Tremendous Pain
I never wanted it to come to this. I’m a huge believer in communication and couples counseling, in forgiveness, and in moving forward. For ten years, I have fought tooth and nail to save a marriage that has been full of beautiful memories and tremendous pain; a spouse drowning in emotional brokenness—the inheritance of childhood abandonment that put him on a lifetime search to fill the hole in his heart and prove his self worth. Checking out…coming back. Checking out…coming back. Eventually, I fucked up, too, by having a wholly damaging four-month affair several years ago, driven by a belief that my marriage was doomed and the (mistaken) assumption that creating my own safety net would protect me from being alone. Turns out that was the ultimate irony.
My husband’s pain frequently shows up as anger, and no amount of soothing, loving, comforting, supporting, crying (or, as my therapist glaringly says to me, enabling) helps unpack it.
Working through this multi-year minefield—which included dealing with the trauma of a lover who took it upon himself to technologically torture my husband and me after I ended our affair—has left me living as a party of one, without the power to fix what’s broken. My process has always been external (talk, talk, and more talk); his process, internal. For every conversation I wanted to have, he wanted to run the other direction. It was always about his privacy, his agony, his problem. To make things worse, my husband’s pain frequently shows up as anger, and no amount of soothing, loving, comforting, supporting, crying (or, as my therapist glaringly says to me, enabling) helps unpack it.
Despite all of this, we love each other. We text about the kids or money or random news almost daily; fights are infrequent; sadness is not. So I sit here alone in a 5,300 square-foot house for now, while my husband temporarily resides in a depressing little rental apartment. I’m trying to live in what has become a nebulous cloud of uncertainty—one in which I can move neither forward nor backward, because it takes two to tango. We share grown kids, a bank account, health insurance, a mailbox, friends, holidays, and a belief that we’re both being held hostage, and yet neither of us is ready to say we’re done. Or if we are, neither of us has the courage to admit it. The one glimmer that sustains me throughout this nightmare is the confidence that my husband and I will always be there for each other. We married as kids, parted as middle-aged adults, and will be family forever.
Heading for Divorce: What About the Kids?
And that family? It includes two amazing kids—one college age, one post-college—who might as well have been plucked from Central Casting with the following audition notice: Attention, looking for sister and brother who can offer unending support to two sad parents (and each other) without taking sides. Must be exceptionally devoted and forthcoming with words of wisdom and love—especially via text. Must call home regularly. Required to be somewhat emotional, yet champion parents’ individual happiness. And not blink an eye at shocking news.
By the time we separated my daughter actually uttered the words, “This is news?”
Both kids got the part. In fact, they “got” everything, having witnessed the pain and dysfunction leading us to this point. Believing that my husband’s penchant for privacy would result in the kids being traumatized by the announcement of a separation (neither of my children like surprises), I groomed and prepared them, little by little, so that by the time we did the deed, my daughter actually uttered the words, “This is news?” Plus, they’re just really good humans,
Sometimes, I almost think this is easier for them than for us. When my husband first told me he wanted to leave, I was devastated and terrified: of losing my best friend, of being gossiped about, of being lonely, of financial strain, of moving from a beautiful house into a shitty place that wouldn’t nurture my soul. I feared losing my entire identity as an Us, believing that divorce would mean the invalidation of a lifetime of precious moments.
Making the Announcement
With a pit in my stomach, we sent out a long, loving email to friends shortly before the separation, both crying as I hit the send button, and within minutes, the text messages and notes of extraordinary support began flying into our phones. I knew in that instant I wouldn’t be alone. But what I didn’t know was that it would be up to me to find the joy in life, because no one was going to deliver it to my doorstep.
I’ve masterfully foisted myself onto people who may have forgotten that there’s a 54-year-old woman who needs some company.
I absolutely hate clichés, especially the one about knowing who your friends are, but, dammit, it’s true. Some of the people I thought would be right there by my side became painfully silent, and some of the people who poured out messages of love in those first couple of days after our announcement have all but forgotten about us.
That’s another thing they don’t tell you: It’s not always about losing friends, it’s about friends getting wrapped up in their own lives and forgetting to reach out or feeling awkward and not knowing how to do so. I’d be lying if I said that their reserve didn’t built up a grudge or two within me.
But here’s how I’ve handled it: When I get a call or text of love and support, I let that person know EXACTLY how much it means to me. When someone suggests dinner or wine, I put a date on the calendar instead of responding, Oh for sure! We’ve got to do that soon! I’ve booked trips (snowshoeing with a friend, Europe to visit my bestie, NYC to see my son); invited a couple of friends over for game night; and masterfully foisted myself onto people who may have forgotten that there’s a 54-year-old woman who needs some company.
Letting Go of Embarrassment
The key is leaving any embarrassment about being alone on the curb. When I text a friend to wish her a Merry Christmas and ask how she’s spending the holiday, I know full well she’s going to ask me the same, and though I don’t respond as a sad sack, I don’t lie if there’s not much on the schedule. You’d be surprised at how many people are actually happy to extend an invitation. Sure, they love me, but I also think gestures of kindness make them feel good about themselves.
My husband and I laid down guidelines for this trial separation: We wear our rings (I believe it’s important to be perceived as unavailable during this time when we aren’t legally split); we don’t have romantic relationships with other people; we don’t spill the details of our difficult marriage to anyone but our closest confidantes.
But this stage comes with its own set of complications. One of my best friends is a guy I’ve known since high school. He is twice divorced but dates plenty. He regales me with details of his sex life, and I regale him with details of my nonexistent one. We’ve never shared a kiss or expressed any romantic interest in each other, yet we spend a lot of time together. He’s the friend who calls me up and says, “Put on your coat…we’re going for a walk.” Or invites me to a football game or to a show. Or says we need to watch an old movie and drink tequila because he’s had a shit day.
The Waiting Game
Given my past indiscretions, I feel inordinately guilty every time I hang out with him, despite the fact that I would never again dip a toe over the line of ethics and propriety. This guilt comes not from worrying about my actions, but from worrying about what my husband might think I’m doing, about triggering his pain and trust issues. It doesn’t matter that I endured a decade of disconnection, the moment I strayed I branded myself with a Scarlet A forever. Frankly, I wish red would leave my color wheel. It doesn’t suit me, and I never feel good wearing it.
He’s just as miserable alone as he was with me—a toss-up between the fire and the frying pan.
As they say in Titanic, now we wait.
Wait to die. Wait to live. Wait for an absolution that will never come.
I can’t erase the damage my actions had on my marriage, and my husband can’t erase the pain he inflicted on me before, during, and after my affair.
Yet despite the fervent hope that he would circle back to me once again—healthy, strong, and loving—I’ve got to be honest and admit that I don’t see it happening. He’s just as miserable alone as he was with me—a toss-up between the fire and the frying pan. And even if my husband decided to work on our marriage, I can’t imagine I could ever trust him to stay loving and emotionally healthy for the long haul.
And there’s this: I’m liking the calm. No one’s snapping at me, correcting me, blaming me, looking at me as a traitor when his own demons set in. I call the shots in parts of my life for the first time in decades: deciding when and what to eat, making plans with friends and family members that my husband never wanted to hang out with, finding strength and moments of peace amid the sinking ship.
No one’s snapping at me, correcting me, blaming me, looking at me as a traitor when his own demons set in.
There are days (lots of them), where I look at photos of my sweet, supportive children, reflect on our family memories, find loving cards from my husband, hear songs on the radio, look into his sad blue eyes, and burst into tears at the prospect of heading for divorce. Yet, when I’m really honest with myself—and that’s fucking hard, because it’s easier to just live the dysfunctional fairy tale—I think I fear losing those newfound moments of peace more than I do my marriage.
The script hasn’t been finished yet, but I have a feeling I know how the story ends.