I really never thought I’d be a cheerleader for divorce. Hell, if you’d asked me 25 years ago about divorce, I’d be horrified to discover I’d have two of them some day. I don’t come from a broken home. My parents have been happily married 47 years. My grandparents all had unions of over 50 years. Heck, my great-grandparents, who I had the honor of knowing (they lived into their 90s), made it to nearly 70 years of marriage. Factor the familial longevity of marriages, some middle class prosperity, and a United Methodist minister father — I’m the last person you’d expect to be shooting fireworks off a roof to celebrate the dissolution of my marital bonds. (But I did. And then a blues singer sang “I’m Sitting On Top of the World” just for me. And there was champagne. As divorces go, it was pretty special.)
When I married, I thought it was for life. I certainly wasn’t a perfect spouse, but I tried damn hard. I first got married in my early twenties. My first marriage of a decade ended because my then husband descended into mental illness (OCD, depression, and hoarding) and refused to treat it. And by refuse — I mean, like on the hoarding reality TV shows (of which there were none in the early 1990s) — REFUSED. I dragged him to marriage counseling, anxiety disorder clinics, I read books, I begged, I stopped begging, I got my own life, I almost left, I got pregnant, I stayed. I spent many years with a man who would go into week long furies because I threw away a sponge. I’m not kidding. This was a functional person to the outside world, with a home, and friends, and a career as a systems analyst. But he would be completely immobilized with indecision by a pile of mail or a moldy sponge.
I thought when his illness had a name, he would seize the opportunity to learn more and treat it. I thought he would fight to get better, to save our faltering marriage. To be healthy for his son. He did not want these things. I wanted these things. I finally realized I was in it alone, and I’d been a single mother for a long time without cluing into the fact — I paid the mortgage, did the child care, had separate interests. When I spent 911 alone terrified, with a preschooler, while he decided to stay late and “work” (I lived in Arlington, Va. at the time — you could see the smoke from the burning Pentagon), I filed a few weeks later.
The Commonwealth of Virginia is a paternalistic state. If I had wanted to, I could’ve taken 10 years of his pension. Could’ve asked for spousal support. Could’ve filed on fault grounds. I did none of that. I accepted less than half of baseline child support, just to get him to sign a settlement, (which he then defaulted on for years), and paid him a shitload of money from an inheritance I had to ensure that I had physical custody of our son, and bought out our house from him. I was codependent. I felt guilty for leaving him. But what I mostly felt was a huge sense of relief.
It’s over a decade later. He’s unemployed, angry, and has descended further into isolation and mental illness. I have never for one moment regretted jumping ship.
The same Commonwealth that would’ve granted me many support privileges for divorcing him also made it extremely difficult for me to leave him. I had to wait ONE YEAR AND ONE DAY of physical separation before I could even FILE.
And of course, he did not want the divorce. He wanted a caretaker, and he made it very difficult. But I did succeed in divorcing him. although it took nearly two full years (and thousands in legal fees).
I was a single mom at 34, my son was four, and I spent several happy years doing that gig before I met my second husband.
I was 38 then. He seemed like a stand up guy. Everyone in my close circle who met him adored him. He’d worked for the federal government for 20 years, what could be more stable and normal? He was bright — three advanced degrees, two in engineering and one in law. He pursued me, asked me to marry him after a year, and move with him to Pennsylvania where he wanted to take a new job.
I was in love. I thought I’d have more children. I thought this was my happy ever after. I was so determined to not fuck up again. I so bought into that dream, that I financed HIS dream, his career, and bought a 100 year old house with him.
I’ve told this story elsewhere. I was married 6 months when his mistress of 20 years called. He was a serial cheater.
Pennsylvania, unlike Virginia, was a no fault divorce state. I was fucked. My money? I’d commingled it into the house we purchased. I paid off his debt to get a better mortgage rate. Readers — I put the CHUMP in Chump Lady.
I should’ve run, but I spent over a year trying to reconcile with that man. I did therapy, read the books, bought HIM the books. A great part of the reason, I’m ashamed to tell you, was that I didn’t want to fail twice at marriage. I didn’t want two divorces on my record. I had a hard time bludgeoning hope that that mess could be saved. And he, of course, didn’t want a divorce either. I was a good mark. He wanted cake. A nice family front for his narcissism, and whatever side dish fucks he felt like on the side.
He would not quit cheating. I finally left.
It’s years later — and what pisses me off as I look back on this is that my two divorces are a mark I wear, to people who don’t know me, as a “failure.”
I will not argue with you that I didn’t fail. I did. But DIVORCE wasn’t my failure — my codependency was.
My first marriage — I should’ve figured that shit out sooner. My ex-husband’s actions sent a message that was very clear and consistent. He did not want to address his illness. I failed to receive the message. I kept tilting at windmills, convinced I could change that outcome. Not realizing, I could only change ME.
My second marriage — I should’ve figured THAT shit out sooner. My cheater husband’s actions sent a clear message too — he was NOT going to quit cheating on me. Now, he said he would. He begged and sobbed and did his grand theater of Remorse. But he gave me four DDays. FOUR before I left. And then he called me a “quitter.”
So, I hope you will understand, folks, how much I despise all the “stand for your marriage” bullshit that is out there on the internet. I think it plays to a terrible vulnerability in betrayed spouses — that you ALONE can FIX THIS.
You cannot. And anyone who tells you so is selling you snake oil.
Recently, Beverly Willet wrote an interesting essay on divorce for the Huffington Post. Where she essentially argues that divorce should be harder. We should all try harder. And that we should think of the children who are effected by divorce.
To which I countered — yes, divorce is horrific and it’s terrible that children suffer as collateral damage. So abusers should think of those children before they abuse, and drinkers before they drink, and cheaters before they cheat.
Why do we lay the opprobrium at the feet of those who divorce such people and not at the spouses who check out of their commitments, but hang on for all the perks and glory of “marriage”? Otherwise known as cake eaters. We wag our fingers at those poor souls who file for divorces they don’t want and judge them as quitters — and paint them with the same brush as idiots who walk out on their marriages.
Beverly Willet was a betrayed spouse, and although we arrive at very different conclusions — me: leave the cheater! her: save the marriage! — we have a lot of common ground.
She wrote in a message to me on HuffPo:
“Well, some people change and come to their senses, and some people don’t. And some couples manage to get over fidelity, and others don’t. The choice to find that out was mine. Only our legal system and our society do not support marriage or encourage reconciliation. I felt as if I needed to take a stand, not only for my family, but for the other families in our country not only torn apart by divorce, but also forced into financial and other difficulties by a system that allows and encourages this behavior, rewards the wrongdoer and often punishes the innocent spouse and children. There were other factors involved, too. I”ll check out your blog. Here’s mine:www.beverlywillett.com. Glad to meet you.Perhaps life will also hold a second chance for me. I wish you well.”
Fuck ’em, I say. You can DO IT ALONE and you can do it BETTER than being shackled with a cheater or a loon. I’m living proof. And for all this guilt and nonsense that they heap on single mothers and children from broken homes — hey, our last two Democratic presidents were raised by single moms. My kid, who should I guess be a quivering heap o’ neurosis from the two divorces I have selfishly inflicted upon him is on the all A honor roll. He walks our widowed neighbor’s dog. He’s got a work ethic. He’s polite, kind, empathic, goofy. He is no more fucked up at 15 than I was with non-divorced parents. Probably a lot less than.
Oh, and marriage — I still believe in it. I never stopped believing it. The difference this time is I found someone who believes in it too. I hope Beverly will as well.