How to Survive Divorce: Rediscover Yourself . . . and Eat Lots of Pizza
"The half-life of love is forever."
Junot Díaz, This is How You Lose Her
"The half-life of divorce is unknown but it feels super long."
Me, This Essay
You're getting divorced? Me too. I'm 36, sans kids. I was married five years ago, when I was already a fully formed adult human. It's sad, but it's not exactly tragic.
Except in my own mind, where I treat this personal development as unequivocally and epically sad. And it feels like the wedding was yesterday, like my hand is still cramped from all of those place cards on which I wrote out each guest's name in an elegant cursive, using a blue felt pen purchased especially for the occasion. The anniversary just passed, so the pictures of the stain-glassed church ceremony (a full, unending, Catholic mass) and the indulgent honeymoon that followed (Barcelona! Rome! This union is for the ages and we're going to throw money we don't have at it!) keep popping up in my Facebook "Memories" feed.
It was a wedding people described as "the most beautiful one I've ever been to, even better than my sister's." I married a kind, generous, good-looking dude. My soon-to-be-ex is the kind of man my friends would say they "really like" before I could ask them what they thought. "He makes it hard for the rest of us," said my male friends. As for me, well, my soon-to-be-ex made me feel safe and loved.
None of that matters, of course. Even the truest passion, the most honest commitment, can end in divorce. Five years into a marriage to a gentle soul whom I still love and who still loves me back, here I am, preparing financial disclosures so that we can split up our debts and assets and call it quits on our union.
How is this happening? Divorce is for people who shouldn't have married each other to being with. Like my parents. Divorce isn't for the lovers and the dreamers. Divorce isn't for me.
I'll get over myself, eventually. I'll join the masses of people who've had this exact experience and came out on the other end, stronger and smarter.
Until then, I just want to survive. And I want you to survive too. This hurts more than I ever imagined it would, in ways I never predicted, but I've picked up some strategies along the way, some key pieces of information that will get me through. That will get you through.
So here's what you need to know, from a fellow survivor-in-training.
People are going to make very strange comments about divorce and expect you to nod in agreement.
There are phrases I hear over and over again whenever I tell someone that my marriage is over.
"I know SO many people getting divorced right now! What is going on?"
How do you respond to this one? "Yay! I'm just like everyone else!"
The comment diminishes your feelings by making you just another number, just another unoriginal suffering soul. I mean, maybe you're not unique, but in the throes of pain, no one needs to be reminded that her suffering is generic.
Just nod and walk away. This conversation is never going to make you happy.
Then there's this one: "Divorce is like a death."
Eh . . . I don't know. I mean, yes, my marriage is over, but no one died. I can still call up my soon-to-be-ex and yell things like "WHY DID YOU GET TO KEEP THE LE CREUSET????" I will hang up, and then he'll call me back and calmly tell me "Because you don't cook."
That's not like a death. I talk to my dead grandmother all the time and she never, ever answers.
Divorce is an excruciating experience. But life goes on. In death, it does not.
The aggressive response here is to ask "How so?" Again, I recommend nodding and walking away.
And don't get me started on the people who tell me "at least you don't have kids." Really, people? Maybe I wanted to have kids.
Deep breaths. I recommend deep breaths.
You will have all the feels. All the deep, dark, bad feels.
I am a relatively young overachiever with a job I love, superb friends, and more than enough money to have a roof over my head and food on the table. But I'm convinced I'm a failure because I failed at marriage.
I don't think this about anyone else who's divorced, just myself.
As I muddle through my divorce, the easiest days are the busiest ones. I now hate weekends. I wake up on Saturday morning and lay in bed wondering what my soon-to-be-ex was up to the night before. Often, I'll wake up dripping in sweat, having had divorce-related nightmares in which my soon-to-be-ex appears hand in hand with another woman and my in-laws just stand there and laugh.
A few months after we decided to get divorced, my soon-to-be-ex attended his brother's wedding. I knew exactly what day and time the whole thing was going down because when the invites went out, I was still on the guest list (no one bothers to disinvite you; you just know you're no longer welcome).
It was hard to get through the appointed day knowing he was at a family wedding without me. It made me think about our wedding ("Classier," I snarkily concluded). I imagined him dancing and smiling and drinking champagne.
(He tells me he spent most of the wedding sitting in a corner feeling depressed. I don't believe you, soon-to-be-ex!)
That was the first wedding he went to after our divorce decision. There are many firsts after you pull the plug, and they are all hard.
The first day you don't wear your wedding ring. In the split second before you remember why you're not wearing it, you will panic and worry that it's lost.
The first time you go to an event you'd normally bring your spouse to. You'll have to explain why you're there alone. You'll get better and better at explaining things each time someone asks. By the end of the night you'll throw in a joke, like "Yeah, he finally caught me turning into a werewolf!"
Everything from songs to movies and even inanimate objects will trigger an emotion.
I cannot yet listen to any Beatles song without feeling tears well up in my eyes because our first dance was to Here Comes the Sun. Which is not even a good first dance song.
I cannot yet watch my favorite actress Kiera Knightely in any one of her excellent movies because she stars in my favorite Pride & Prejudice adaptation, which my soon-to-be-ex and I watched on the last Valentine's Day we spent together. Now, love is dead, so goodbye Kiera Knightely.
I can't yet carry the grey purse that my soon-to-be-ex bought me on our honeymoon, even though it's the most practical and stylish purse I own because WAAAAAHHHHH MY HONEYMOON. Also, it needs to be cleaned.
I can't even eat beets. I love beets! My soon-to-be-ex would always put beets in the salads he made me. So for now, goodbye, beets. Not ready for you yet.
Yet. Some day I'll be numb to that lovely grey purse and Ms. Knightley's comely face. But for now, I'm treating my feelings as normal, and temporary.
I don't think I'll ever listen to Hear Comes the Sun the way I did when I was 11, but maybe some day it'll make me smile. At least I won out on the wedding song choice. My soon-to-be-ex wanted it to be Beast of Burden.
Maybe that was a sign.
Good feelings will surprise you.
I have described myself as "fiercely independent" for as long as I can remember. But when I was married, I let my soon-to-be-ex get the car serviced, I made him take out the trash every week, and whenever we went anywhere, he drove. Long trips and short, I was just the passenger. I let him negotiate leases and buy our cars. Me, a lawyer.
I'd become something of a wuss.
Low and behold, I can still set up a printer and assemble furniture. I've been pushing myself, becoming more and more adventurous about long drives. Or maybe I'm just becoming more like the woman I once was.
Over the Fourth of July weekend, I worried that if I stayed home, I'd feel sorry for myself and eat too many potato chips. I booked a one-night stay via airbnb in a yurt three hours north of the town I live in. I have never, ever been camping, so a yurt seemed adventurous enough.
That weekend, I drove competently over bridges, and, yes, through some woods. I survived a night without electricity and a bathroom. I held a flashlight under my chin and read until I feel asleep. Sunshine woke me up in the morning. Everyone else at my little yurt compound was traveling accompanied. At first I felt embarrassed that I was alone, and declined every invitation to join the other guests for a glass of wine because I couldn't stand to be the odd one out. Once I stopped feeling ashamed of my need to be alone, I started to enjoy it.
On my drive home, I stopped at a state park. I sat on the edge of a lake, surrounded by families and couples. Again, I felt slightly embarrassed to be on my own (and to be taking so many selfies), but I turned up the music on my phone and read . . . Fear of Flying. I'd read it as a teenager and figured this was a good time to revisit the story of a woman exploring . . . herself.
I left the beach exactly when I wanted to leave and no one told me that I'd stayed too long or left too soon.
It's been nine years since I was last alone. That's a long time. In those nine years I've become more professionally confident and financially secure. It's not really a bad time in my life to be alone. So I'm doing it. If I want to see a movie, I go to a movie. Alone. If I want to take a trip to Santa Fe, I do it. Alone. And it's ok. In fact, it's liberating.
Your weight will fluctuate.
I saw my soon-to-be-ex three months after we'd separated and was shocked by the way he looked. His pants were hanging off his waist.
"You have lost too much weight," I told him.
"I've just been working out more," he told me."
He later admitted that he couldn't eat and had dropped fifteen pounds.
I've gained about fifteen pounds. I did not turn to exercise for comfort. I turned to pizza, breadsticks, Jimmy John's, chocolate and cheap white wine. This lasted for a few months until I realized that no, I didn't shrink every single pair of pants I own, and that, yes, it was time to get on a scale and face the music.
It's not easy to lose weight at 36, but I'll do it.
More importantly, that food was the comfort I needed. I'm not thrilled to look at myself in the mirror these days, but I also don't regret the meals I shared with the people who wanted to check in on me to make sure I was ok. I went out to eat. A lot. And it helped.
All that stuff . . . where does it go?
Dividing up possessions is a bitch. My parents, divorced after twenty years of marriage back in 1991 (!), are still, in 2016, smarting over who got to keep which record in their carefully curated collection.
My soon-to-be-ex gave me most of what I wanted. But I'm still kind of pissed he got to keep the butcher block.
I remind myself that they're just things. Take what you had before you got married, and approach everything else with a sense of nonchalance. You can always buy a new couch. But you can't reclaim the dignity you lost by fighting over a used mattress. Trust me.
We both have no idea what to do with the wedding photos and memorabilia. When I packed up and left I took as many of these things with me as I could. I wanted him to feel some of the emptiness I was feeling, and figured that robbing him of any memory of me was the way to go.
Don't be like me. Offer half of the mementos to your soon-to-be-ex. If he or she declines things you think he or she should want, let it go. That person is hurting in other ways you'll never see.
Talk to other divorced people. They are wise.
The best advice I've gotten is from people who've been through this.
One of my recently-divorced friends, unlike many of my still-married friends, was the only one willing tell me my marriage was over and that I needed to move on. I desperately needed that piece of advice. Limbo was doing me no good.
Divorced people will share what they went through without assuming it's what you'll someday experience. They will always, always pick up the phone when you call. They will reach out to you on those cold, lonely Sunday afternoons when you're still moping about in your pajamas and need to be told it's about time to leave the house.
You will also discover, happily, that many of the lovely couples you know were once married to other people. Second marriages will touch your heart in ways they didn't before. You will recognize patience and gratitude in those partnerships. You might be half of one yourself someday.
Don't expect to hear from your in-laws.
My mother-in-law told me over and over again that I was the daughter she never had.
My brothers-in-law called me their sister.
We celebrated birthdays and holidays together. I held their babies. I consulted on wedding dress options. I listened to them complain about each other and helped negotiate truces. I washed their dishes and set their table. I commented on graying hair and severance packages. I gave out free legal advice like it was candy.
And now, it's like I don't exist, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style. Ghosting at its worst.
But . . . they were truly some of the most unpleasant people I've ever met. My father-in-law liked to hit on my friends, make jokes about my "rack," and ask redheads if their hair color was in fact naturally red. My mother-in-law said things like "anything with fat in it makes me gag" and exercised seven times a week. When she found out my soon-to-be-ex did most of the cooking, she said I treated him like my maid. Holiday dinner conversations were peppered with sexist, racist and homophobic asides. If I complained, I was dismissed as overly sensitive.
The first time I met my soon-to-be-ex's godfather, he asked me was whether I had any hereditary diseases. Later in the evening, he informed me that women who sleep around in their 20s have a harder time conceiving in their 30s. I was in my 20s at the time. He was (and still is, I hear) a doctor.
I don't miss that crap. You won't either.
Get a lawyer.
You're best friends with your soon-to-be-ex? That's awesome. Get a lawyer.
He or she promised you half of everything? Great! Get a lawyer.
There's nothing to fight over? That's what you think. Get a lawyer.
Divorce is a legal process. You need legal advice. Someone, that is, a lawyer, needs to look out for your legal interests. You may be too hurt to see this, but it's true.
I'm a lawyer and I got myself lawyer.
In sum, get a lawyer.
Know that you will survive.
Somehow, every day, I get out of bed. I still go to work. My eyes betray my sadness. But I'm still me.
People will surprise you with their kindness and how willing they are to help you get back to living. And you will surprise yourself. Maybe you'll sign up for online dating and discover that you are, in fact, hot shit. Maybe you'll decide that being alone is the way to go. Maybe you'll adopt a child and make one hell of a single parent.
Maybe you'll discover the cure to cancer now that you have more time to devote to your work.
Your life in some ways is beginning anew. It's not going to be perfect, but it's going to be ok.
How to Survive Divorce: Rediscover Yourself . . . and Eat Lots of Pizza