Taking a Chance for Myself After Years of Marriage.
A week ago, I found myself deep in the doldrums. It was hard to get out of bed after tea and a favorite morning news show.
I could write. I can always write, unless a dire crisis is happening. This wasn’t that. I was just sad. Circumstantially, my mom had just been in the hospital, and at 89, it’s always dicey.
I’ve been married a long time, 42 years, and each decade I ponder seriously why we stay together. We are as different as night and day. I’m a calm, private person, a good communicator, environmental and women’s rights activist, a yogi, a believer in Buddhist philosophy and an empath. He is impulsive, an emotional avoider, glib, loud, prone to angry outbursts, a hockey player with no boundaries.
We’ve had numerous stops and starts in our marriage and a separation seven years ago. Last week I was reflecting on all of the above. Is this my life? Will I be 89 one day and have given up my own desires for the sake of family harmony? What about my happiness?
I am well aware of what is going on in our country and world at large and that disturbs me a lot too. We fought so hard against all of this in the sixties and seventies, how have we regressed so much? Why have we not progressed enough? Why was Orrin Hatch on the Senate for so long? I wrote letters to him in 1977 about protecting women’s reproductive rights. These are sad times.
My sadness last week was more on a personal level. Would my mom be okay? Did she only get the past two years since my father died to be truly happy every day? Their 65-year marriage was volatile; she was a subservient housewife who was under-appreciated and disrespected. Now she enjoys her days, filled with creative activities at a very nice private assisted living residence, five minutes from my two sisters.
Mom dresses up in her beautiful pressed slacks and carefully laundered sweaters, courtesy of my sister, her wardrobe adorned with her choice of pin or necklace for the day.
A former model in the fifties, Mom loves to be beautiful, and she is, still a redhead with my sister’s help, and every day she gets compliments. Something my father, a narcissist, was short on. She never has to cook a meal again or get off the phone because my father needed all her attention.
I am acutely aware, that while I may not look or feel it, I am now in my early sixties and on borrowed time myself. “If not now, when?” looms large in my mind.
While mostly happy with my life — my writing, yoga, the accomplishment of raising two fine creative successful kind sons with happy relationships, two adorable grandchildren very nearby, good friends, two sisters whom I can hang out with and laugh and gripe with — I still get sad.
I get a week like the last one, where I go through a box of tissues, watch sad movies as my therapist once suggested instead of denying the sadness, and stay close to home, avoiding people in social settings. I have that luxury since I write at home. If tears fall on my laptop, no one is witness but me.
My husband didn’t know I was sad. He assumed I had a cold. His emotional unawareness was spot on as usual. When I finally told him, towards the end of the week when he asked what was actually wrong with me, he didn’t understand and said, “Why are you sad?”
I explained that part of it was his inability to even notice I was not acting like my usual self, sunny and positive. I reminded him about my mom. And other things. Like plans we had made for these years, seemingly forgotten. He then retreated inward, as he is likely to do, ill-equipped even after all this time, to minister tea and sympathy.
He doesn’t get sad. He doesn’t understand the blues. He wouldn’t, you have to allow yourself feel deeply to get the blues. In his mind, why go there? He works hard, what else does he need to do? “What did I really have to be sad about?” is the unspoken sentence. The ah, baby or hugging type of affection is not his strong suit. Knowing that doesn’t make it any easier. One hopes. Then one realizes that’s pointless.
I was the stay-at-home nurturer. The hands-on available one, the seer of our boys’ inner lives and emotional health. He provided. Paid the mortgage. Fixed the cars. I grew up in that same kind of household, but that was so long ago, a different world.
How did I end up here? I am a feminist. I’ve worked outside the home in difficult jobs. One, in the autistic classrooms of an elementary school with children with severe disabilities. The other in a domestic violence shelter with women and children. I’ve waitressed and worked in retail, I wrote stories and books. All while raising my boys, mostly on my own, because he was never home. He worked a lot.
He didn’t have to. We argued about that for years. I didn’t want things, I wanted him. Time as a couple and time together as a family. I have a lot of patience. In my marriage, my patience had grown thin. I called it quits numerous times. And then gave it yet another chance. Then I was done with second and third chances. Seven years ago was D-Day. But after six months, I changed my mind. I am still not sure why.
The sadness I was feeling last week was brought on by my reflecting on why I came back. Why did I not go through with the divorce? I had a charming little apartment for the first time in my life. I enjoy my solitude. I had a tight circle of female friends, a few of them had gone through their own divorces and/or separations.
I felt hopeful and joyful during one of the most difficult times a person can go through in life. Especially if you are a woman and you initiate the divorce. Even today. Men leave, women don’t. Family was my problem. It became about them, when it shouldn’t have. These were adults. Some had multiple divorces themselves. “Why leave now?” they cried. Why not? Why do I have to stay?
My boys were men in their twenties and thirties, both living elsewhere in their own happy lives. They understood my plight and unhappiness. They knew their father. They knew we were “as different as two people can be,” as my younger son described us. “You’ll be fine,” he assured me.
My older son felt differently, or at least acted out that way. He and his wife had my two-year-old granddaughter, and “Her life will be ruined,” he said. “Do you know how hard divorce is? How lawyers are sharks and everyone is basically destroyed afterwards?” I was gobsmacked. So having stayed through his high school and college years, I was meant to stay through my granddaughter’s as well?
Maybe they thought I was selfish, daring to take this chance for myself, after 35 years. People retire from jobs, prison sentences end, why did I still have to be a wife?
Seven years ago, I was an outcast in both families, except for my mom, my younger son and two sisters-in-law. But no one lived nearby. My mother-in-law was always a staunch supporter of mine, but sadly she had the beginnings of dementia, though she still asked where I was. No one told her. I finally went to see her and she cried and hugged me. She understood.
She, like my mom, had stayed in her marriage but thought about leaving, more than once. She knew all too well the limitations of an emotionally unavailable man. She’d married one and raised more than a few.
I was very grateful for my good friends and my younger son who lives on another coast. A coast I probably should have escaped to and stayed at for a while to gather myself and fortify my resolve. I would have missed my little granddaughter, we are kindred souls, but as they say, you must put the oxygen mask on your face first. You’re no good to anyone if you put everyone else at the top of the list.
Women are good at that. It’s doubly hard for an empath, but not impossible. If I’d gone out west, I’d have been removed from the drama, and more gentle with myself. For one, it was far away from the local gossip of a small town. I would have been amidst positive energy where my spirit could have starting healing. I wish I’d gone.
Instead I was bombarded with intrusive questions like, “Why are you getting divorced, you two seem so happy?” Why did I owe anyone an explanation? My therapist said, “Tell them you became allergic to him. Say you break out in hives whenever he is around. Leave it at that.” But it was more than that, it was the cruelness of people taking sides, when no one had asked them to choose.
“There’s three stories, yours, his, and the truth,” was another gem I often heard. Wrong. Not even close. Actually, I was dying spiritually, and like an unwatered houseplant deprived of light, I was wilting in the marriage. When you have an empty nest, that kind of neglect will stand out like a sore thumb, until you trip over it.
I had a full life with my writing, a new book I’d finished, and a local newspaper freelance gig, socializing with friends, long walks and travel. I wasn’t bored or displaced, I was lonely. Single people often think if you’re paired off, life is good. But relationships don’t run on autopilot. You need instruments, like communication and connection. You both have to keep the fire burning or the hearth dies.
Our separation became a spectacle. We had a public nighttime job together and people could not seem to wrap their heads around that ever changing. Somehow their happiness depended on us being a couple. Never having gone through a separation before, I had no idea people who weren’t family would freak out too.
I was absent from our nighttime job during the separation for obvious reasons, and I wrongly imagined people would understand my decision, especially women. Most got over it soon enough. After all, I’d put a viable male back “on the market,” as a friend’s husband bluntly put it. “Well, you didn’t want him anymore,” was the subtext.
Fair enough, but we were not divorced yet, and as a good friend said to me, “Boy, he didn’t wait five minutes.” Why wasn’t he grieving? He didn’t want me to leave, yet he did nothing to try and stop me. Or change anything about himself for the better. Try listening. Denial was easier. Sure, I’d planned to have another relationship in the future. I was even looking forward to it.
But first I needed to concentrate on myself. Grieve and heal. Enjoy my newfound freedom. I wasn’t out and about on a bar stool, putting myself on pity’s doorstep. And the market is plenty ripe with pity and distraction.
Separation and divorce is a kind of death. Maybe it’s worse, because you ask for it, like in my case. It didn’t happen out of the blue. There is grieving for what could have been, if only, but you know it will never be, because people don’t change. And that makes you sad. For me, sadder than I’d ever been in my life except the day my beloved Gram died when I was 13. My sadness drove me to leave. Self-preservation.
Separation and divorce is one of the hardest things to go though, except losing a child. Or perhaps a sibling. People eventually do get over divorce. Time helps. The sadness lessens. New exciting things happen. Your mojo returns. In hindsight, I just needed more time. Half a dozen more months and I bet I’d have been flying it.
I loved my solitude and turning the key in my own door, reading a book with the light on at 2 a.m., eating a dinner of green beans or arugula and farm-stand tomatoes or whatever struck my fancy. No one asked me “What’s for dinner?” or “What did you do today?” What was most unsettling for me was being shunned by family and treated like Hester Prynne though there was no Pastor Dimmesdale. Was everyone blind?
When I returned home one day for clothes I’d left in storage, I felt the full brunt of being literally painted out of my original home. It was the strangest feeling. I witnessed my former home being taken over by another woman, whose presence was obvious by her photographs of sunsets hanging on my former walls. I felt nauseated.
Would my granddaughter come to know this woman one day and wonder where I’d gone? My heart was ripped apart. I had PTSD when I learned of this intruder who was replacing me. We had infidelity invade our marriage before: his. I ran out of the house, forgetting the clothes, fleeing as if my very life depended on it, back to the safety of my small apartment.
I stared out my kitchen window at a wall of birdhouses in the garden below. “Breathe,” I told myself, “You will be alright.” Would I? The pain was unbearable. Why did I not see that coming? People don’t change.
I was quite upset, madder than a wet hen to be honest, yet I was good and over him. My soul was being tossed in a storm like a rowboat in 50-foot waves. I was incensed. How dare he? I had not expected those feelings. I wanted to be divorced. I was strong and knew my own mind. I made decisions and stuck to them. I solved problems, I didn’t avoid them. This wasn’t avoidance, this was survival.
My friends remarked how brave I was. I remember one night specifically, just letting go, praying to the Goddess Quan Yin for insight and peace of mind. The strength to go forward in a life where I would be loved the way I so longed to be. I wasn’t “on the mat” physically, because yoga was out since I had fractured my foot from over-walking of all things.
The stress fracture threw off my balance and I suffered a bulging disc in my lower back. Was the Universe against me? Did I not deserve my freedom? Thankfully, my dear friends got me through with love and drove me to the foot doctor and orthopedist for relieving shots of cortisone for my agonizing back pain. Was there a shot for my broken heart? My fractured soul? I just wanted to get through this and be happy.
He was proving himself to be as reckless as ever and I knew deep down I was “wasted on him,” a fitting expression I’d heard a friend use about her own marriage. Let him swim in shallow waters, what did I care?
We had mediation before the impending divorce. Mediation is quite civilized, basically it is divorce therapy. Blood may not be drawn, but lies and revisionist history may prevail. My husband persisted that he had no idea why this was happening. It made him seem pathetic and abandoned. He was neither. Instead he was acting out with too much vodka and a woman 10 years younger with two young children.
I knew who she was, we had met way before the separation. She had befriended me. And when I was gone, she pounced. With me gone, it was the right place, right time for her. Very convenient for him too, since he was not going to stay home and reflect on why I left, or come after me as my sweet mom thought. “Why didn’t he go to your apartment with flowers and beg you to come home?”
Dear Mom. “You mean, like Daddy would have? Why do you think he’s any different?” You’re either that guy or you’re not.
Why did I not just sign the papers and be done? A not-so-small wobble happened. Our mediator suddenly announced a month-long vacation in Sweden. The mediation was halted. We were left to our own devices and it wasn’t pretty. There was a lot of ugly texting. I was still determined to be free. I secured a lawyer as instructed before the mediator left and paid her.
All that was left was to sign the papers when the mediator returned. There was no fight about money. Everything would be split 50/50, including his pension. We had a house to sell. It was not a failed marriage, rather one that had reached its expiration date. As my own mother said, “It’s not like you didn’t try. 35 years is a long time. You have to be happy.” Mom knew.
We had more marriage counseling than you can imagine. I’m a very good communicator, remember. And I’m forgiving. But I’m no martyr or doormat. I was not my mom. Or my mother-in-law. I spoke up, I left. More than once. They never did. But they thought about it, so they never judged me.
The decision to come home was a surprise to me. Surreal even. It felt right at the time but certainly not crystal clear. I was advised by my landlord, a kind woman, and others, to wait. “See if he’s changed.” I knew he hadn’t. That was obvious.
I didn’t listen to them. I panicked. Family pressure and tales of a drinking, misbehaving, over-sharing father, got to me. Why did I need to hear it? Because my son could talk to me. I listened. The fact that my husband could move on so quickly was more than a little disturbing. I stood too close to the embers of the burning fire of our lost marriage and I felt the effects of that heat.
Maybe we were not done with each other? Interestingly, no one asked him why I really left. Like, “What caused her to leave you?” It was all on me. I’d “lost it.” After all, he worked hard, he was a nice, good-looking guy, sociable, generous. “Maybe she’s gone crazy,” they said. “Is she menopausal?” “Is there a boyfriend, or maybe a girlfriend?” No to all of those nosy questions.
Nobody considered maybe I just got fed up from emotional and physical neglect, so exhausted from trying to communicate, so tired of the arguing, that it was just time to go. That revelation was too truthful for many to possibly bear. One man told me later, when he heard we had separated, “I couldn’t breathe.” A woman told me, “I was so despondent that you two were splitting. I mean, what chance do the rest of us have?”
Was I responsible for their feelings about my life? Or what nerve I perhaps touched in theirs?
Last week when I was sad, I thought about all of that. And while I do believe we are here Now, and the past is to be released and the future hasn’t happened though we may gaze into it, it all overtook me for a moment. My mom’s illness was a trigger. I would not be like her and stay until my father died, only becoming free when he was laid in the ground at 91, two years ago.
“You deserve a medal,” people always told her. She never wanted one. She wanted emotional kindness and love. She’d had plenty of sex with my father, whether my sisters and I wanted to hear that or not (we didn’t). What Mom really craved was affection and a little sensitivity. She was barking up the wrong tree.
My sisters and I watched it for years. It made us angry, so we chose emotionally damaged boy/men at early ages. They divorced theirs. I stayed. And left. And came back.
“At least you had the sex,” I told my mom. Perhaps much longer than she desired, but still. You know some men go through a change, It’s called andropause. They lose their libido. Nobody considers that. But not all of them run out for a blue pill or plan a romantic weekend. They just get older. Lazy about love. Even as a young mother, I always put our relationship first. Kiddies were put to bed and it was couple time.
Some men would kill for that kind of attention. I was taken for granted. As a grandmother, I’m not ready for the rocking chair and knitting needles. I’m a vibrant goddess. A good friend told me today, “I adore you.” I’ve never heard those words in my marriage. And sadly, I never will. We grow as women and our partners don’t always follow. You’re very lucky if that happens. It didn’t happen to me.
Still, I came home. Why? Because in all honesty, the pain was too much to bear at the time. Instead of a cheering section for my freedom, I got a funeral procession of mourners for a dying marriage. Women were actually talking about bringing him casseroles. I wasn’t dead, he just doesn’t cook. Does anyone ever bring separated women casseroles? There’s a business. You’re welcome.
I came home because I am the family’s bellwether. I absorbed all of their pain during the separation, and in the process found a way to ease my own. It was magical thinking, not a magical solution. Some things changed. Less work. Winter getaways. Downsizing to a new little cottage. Nuances are not enlightenment, but there is peace. More conversations. A possible book.
I have since met five women who left after more than 20 or 30 years married, and then returned home. One woman had been gone for two years. Her husband significantly changed, she shared. Another woman had her own affair while separated. It gave her fresh perspective — a way to know herself as a person, not only as a wife and mother.
Another return happened when 911 struck. She felt she’d give it another go — what if the world ends? One found her faith leading her back, forgiving and beginning again. These women are all still home, as I am. For today.
What I have learned through much self-reflection and wisdom is nothing is written in stone. If I decide to leave again, I will stay gone this time. I won’t be swayed by anyone feeling it will hurt them too much or their life will be altered. They will have to get over it. At the end of the day, everyone is only really concerned with themselves.
The best example is showing your loved ones who you are and not being afraid to stand up for yourself. Once you do, you know you can do it again. As many times as it takes. I have no regrets, even though it sounds like it. I just have sad days sometimes. They could last a week. Sadness is okay. It helps me remember the joy of turning the key to my own door and knowing I am free, wherever I am.
It took my mom 89 years to realize that.
Nanci LaGarenne has just completed her third novel, and is seeking an agent. Her previous novels, Cheap Fish, a Montauk fishing and mermaid murder mystery, and Refuge, a homage to survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence, have been well-received. She hopes to write a non-fiction book about women and their connection to passion and creativity. She lives in East Hampton NY, and is an ever-changing late bloomer.