Can anything good come from divorce?
Today my dear friend, Alice joins the Birthed conversation that I’m picking up again this Lent. (If you missed the Advent series you can start reading here). I’m so glad to share Alice’s hard earned wisdom today. I know you’ll find it as moving as I did, no matter if divorce is a part of your story or not.
“You never really expect bad things to happen you. Well, maybe some bad things . . . but not really bad things.” That’s how Elizabeth Hagan begins Birthed, her memoir about infertility and the blessings that eventually came into her life following so much heartache.
In my own life, the unexpected “really bad thing” was divorce. It shattered my life not once but twice.
First came my parents’ divorce, when I was sixteen years old. As if being a teenager wasn’t hard enough! I did not welcome this catastrophe into my life. I didn’t want to hear their arguments. I didn’t want them to hate each other. I didn’t want them to find other partners. I didn’t even want them to comfort me. I just wanted to escape the whole situation, including my own feelings of sadness and shame. How could they do this to me?
This unhappy experience did not stop me from getting married in my twenties and plunging immediately into parenthood. Even as I carried so much negative baggage from my childhood, I was convinced that I would never inflict this heartache on my children.
I was in for a humbling surprise.
Despite my determination to make the marriage work—and to spare my children of ever having to feel the pain that I had felt as a child—my marriage fell apart, and I was powerless to save it.
And so began a dark and stressful time in my adult life. I could write a long, long book about all that went wrong during that time. I could give you all the reasons why my marriage was unsalvageable. I could cast myself as the heroine of the story, the one who endured injustices and who fought to protect our two boys. But that’s not the story that really matters.
One afternoon, during the early days of our marriage meltdown, my ex-husband and I were sitting in the living room—a room that soon would no longer be ours to share—engaged in one of our many unpleasant disputes. As we sat on the couch, facing each other awkwardly, he said to me point blank, “You are a very unhappy person.”
Now, I could have taken that statement very badly. I suspect that in the moment I didn’t take it well, though I don’t remember for sure. But for whatever reason—I choose to think of it as the grace of God—the observation stuck with me. It was like a gnawing and persistent toothache. I couldn’t get rid of it. I couldn’t shrug it off because, deep down, I knew he was right. He might have been my worst enemy at the time (and I’m afraid I was his too), but he also knew me better than anybody else did.
Here’s the truth: I was unhappy.
Yes, I was good at putting on a cheerful front with my friends and coworkers. Sometimes I even managed to fool myself. If I acted like a happy person, didn’t that mean I was happy? But I wasn’t enjoying my life. And now that my ex was bowing out as my life partner, I couldn’t blame it on him.
In her book When Things Fall Apart, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes about the end of her own marriage years ago. She recounts the moment when she learned of her husband’s infidelity, when “my whole reality gave out on me.” She writes about losing her sense of security and about how this opened her soul wide open. She couldn’t fool herself any longer: “instinctively I knew that annihilation of my old dependent, clinging self was the only way to go.” As human beings we tend to cling to the idea that if only the people closest to us—maybe a parent or spouse or boss—would change, our problems would end. It doesn’t work that way, though, and my own life had to fall apart for me to finally recognize this truth.
How had I let happiness slip from my grasp? How had parenthood, so eagerly longed for, become an anxiety-ridden burden instead of a joy? Why weren’t my boys and I having fun together? Why had I stopped listening to my favorite music? Or laughing?
As I began to seek answers to these questions, a season of recovery began for me.
It was time to accept responsibility for my own happiness. Step by step, I began to do just that, consciously letting go of bitterness and blame. “Let it begin with me” became my personal mantra, and it remains so to this day. I never w
anted divorce in my life. But I also never expected the joy that would burst forth—as soon as I was willing to claim it—after such sadness and pain.
Alice Stanton is freelance book editor. For more than two decades she worked as a manuscript editor for the University of Oklahoma Press. A native of New York City, she currently resides in Weatherford, Oklahoma.