Today marks five years since my ex-wife and I went to a local bank to have a separation agreement notarized, and I moved out of the house away from her and six of our seven children. When I mentioned this to my eighteen year-old daughter earlier, she couldn’t believe it had only been five years. ”It seems like forever,” she said.
She’s right. It does seem like much longer than five years. The marriage lasted twenty-two and a half years, the last two and a half of which were pure hell on everyone involved. Having done all that was humanly possible to preserve my marriage and keep my family intact, when I finally succumbed to the inevitable, it was time.
I am such a different person than the one who drove away from the family home with a borrowed pick up truck full of personal belongings. I am a man again, whole and complete, not the shell of a man I allowed myself to become; eviscerated in my efforts to hold onto an unfaithful woman, letting myself believe that I somehow deserved her treatment. I accepted the labels and derision that she heaped upon me, and I felt every bit a failure.
In leaving my family and giving up on my marriage, I was also leaving behind and giving up on my entire conception of myself, my identity, my being and meaning in the world. As a practicing Christian, I had somehow contorted the truth that a married man and woman become ”one flesh” into meaning they become ”one being.” I gave up my identity as an individual apart from my role as husband and father. As a result, I had not made a single decision of any consequence in over twenty-two years without considering its impact on my wife and my children; usually in consultation with them; from what to eat for dinner, to what type of toilet paper to buy, to whether or not we should paint a room, to where and when we should go on vacation, or even whether it was okay to take a few minutes alone to quietly read my bible. I can see my married readers nodding in recognition.
In the beginning of our dating relationship, and perhaps even early in our marriage, these mutual, shared decisions about all the various minutiae of life were a source of bonding and delight. Over the course of time, especially in the midst of a marriage gone bad, these same decisions provided instant feedback in the form of criticism, derision, and ridicule, even when a decision was supposedly agreed upon. Because I was the ”head of the household”, I shouldered the blame for every mistake, mishap, accident, unforeseen consequence, hurt feeling, and dollar spent. So much so that my oldest son now jokes with me when anything goes wrong and says, ”must be your fault dad!” I realize now that being the head of a family doesn’t mean being the family scapegoat.
I’m not sure why many if not most relationships devolve into this kind of acrimony and resentment. I only know mine did. Living on my own, alone and in my own rented house, was a brave new world for me. Even going to the grocery store was an adventure as I chose foods strictly because I might like them whether any one else in the household did or not. I watched what I wanted on television. I read the books and articles I wanted. I bought furniture I liked and decorated how it pleased me. Not once did I consult my ex.
This is the most wonderful thing about divorce. I found myself again. This is so important that I will likely spend the rest of my life trying to write about how crucial and rare this is. The greatest commandment it is said is to love God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength. The second greatest is, ”you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Having lost myself in a bad marriage, and then being told in the most brutal way (the unfaithfulness of a spouse) how inadequate I was as a husband, I certainly had no love for myself to even know how I ought to love my neighbor. If you don’t know yourself, how can you love yourself? If you can’t love yourself, how can you love your neighbor?
But I do know myself again. I am able to make decisions with an appropriate regard for my own pleasure and live with the blessings or consequences, taking full responsibility for either. I care about the people around me in a way that is no longer a feeble attempt at self-validation. I know both how to receive love and how to give it. I have an amazing girlfriend who has shared these five years with me without either of us trying to stifle or undermine the other’s individuality, and who has made me feel good about myself again as a man worthy of love and of faithfulness.
Divorce has left me very jaded and cynical about marriage, but it has made me very optimistic about life. I think that’s why today’s anniversary seems like too short a time: the living has been so condensed and concentrated in these five years that it has more than made up for the bad years at the end of my marriage and the initial faltering steps out on my own.
Here’s to many happy returns!