My ex husband called me the other day, two days after what would have been our 14th wedding anniversary. Our un-niversary. He told me how grateful he is that we salvaged our friendship even through our divorce. He didn’t want to call on the anniversary itself, he said, out of deference to my current husband, whom he admires and respects very much. They have a funny relationship, those two. My first husband is a super handy fixer guy from Southern California, part MacGyver, part Bob the Builder, part Mike Ness. (If you’re too young to know who MacGyver is, you’re probably too young to read my potty mouth blog. If you’re too old to know who Mike Ness is, don’t sweat it, just think slicked back hair and tattoos. Proceed.) My current husband is an incredibly talented midwestern songwriter who fixes almost everything with either tape or those little white screw hooks... a creative tall, dark and handsome type with an easy, gentle manner. What they have in common is a shared love of our kids and a commiseration on life with a woman who is what they have each independently described as “a lot.” As in: she’s a lot. I hope this commentary refers to my personality, rather than my hips. Occasionally I catch one of the two rolling his eyes at the other, causing me to pause mid-sentence and marvel at how simultaneously awesome and fucked up that is.
It hasn’t always been like this.
When my first husband and I split, it was because we had tried everything, and I mean everything, to stay together. We were both drowning. We were both miserable. I’m not talking about circumstantial why do you always leave the cap off the toothpaste? kind of unhappiness. We didn’t fight about money or control of the television remote. He didn’t hate my cooking. I didn’t hate any of his domestic habits. No one was cheating. I believe those are fixable issues. What I found myself hating was the sound of him breathing or chewing food. It’s notable that those are the very processes which sustain life, right? I’m talking about a weight that pulled the whole family under. I’m not sure who came up with the idea of staying together for the children (I know that what I’m about to say is controversial, but hang with me a minute and I’ll explain in a little more detail) but that would have been the worst parenting decision we could have made. Kids are intuitive. They don’t miss much, and they certainly pick up on the sorts of vibrations that accompany two miserable parents, even two really good miserable parents who are doing their best to hide the fact that they are drowning.
I knew that the worst thing we could have done for those kids was to raise them in a lie. It was suffocating, for us and for them. We did our best to keep it together for them. Especially Tim. He really tried to save it. I remember the year before I left there were about 100,000 Christmas lights on the house. Like I said, he’s a fixer guy. If something’s broken, try to patch it. If that doesn’t work, string Christmas lights all over it and maybe you can pretend not to notice the cracks.
We took almost two years to complete the transition from separation to finalizing our divorce. Those two years were not easy. There were times I was insane (my face sticky with snot and tears, screaming into the phone then hurling it at the wall, which only results in a broken, spit-covered phone and a hole in the wall you just painted the perfect shade of Kansas pale winter sky blue the week before). There were times he was insane (racing me to my new house to confront the new boyfriend who would later become my husband with every intention of killing him and hauling the body away in his truck). Somehow, these moments of insanity remained what they were: explosive and briefly damaging, but not a permanent condition of our relationship. What worked for us was not being crazy in the same moments. We took turns flipping out. It’s only polite. There were moments of absolutely blinding frustration. There were moments of doubt that we were doing the right thing for the kids. There were moments of distrust of the other’s agenda. It helped to take things slowly. It helped keep our focus on the kids. It helped to remember that this is a person who, although no longer a partner in marriage, is still your partner in life and parenthood. Mostly, it helped to allow awakening in our own, separate spirits. This shit doesn’t come out of nowhere, and there is a lot to learn about yourself in times of transition.
Divorce is intimate, at times even more so than marriage. It’s a much more fragile dynamic. There isn’t the same safety net that exists inside a relationship that begins and ends in the same bed each day. It’s much more likely that you will say the wrong thing and hear the wrong thing and the potential for escalation is not only more likely, it’s far more damaging. Reconciliation takes longer, and it requires more effort. Maybe because there’s no sex, I don’t know. What I do know is that what makes divorce so dangerous is not hate. It’s love. I was never angry or disappointed because I hated him. I was angry and disappointed because I loved him, and he wasn’t someone I could spend my life with. In the moments that I was honest with myself, what I heard inside my head was: Goddamnit, why can’t you be who I want you to be? Everything would be fine if you could just... just what? Just be someone else? Someone entirely different than who you are? Oh. That is an entirely irrational and unfair thing to ask of someone. It’s especially unkind to ask that of someone you love.
We kept the pace of our separation cool (just last month, five years after our divorce, he gifted me with a package of photos that he found in storage) and we rebuilt our new dynamic carefully. It’s hard to get divorced when you’re poor. You have to figure out how to go from one double-earner household to two single-earner incomes. I guess the upside is that there’s no expensive material stuff to fight over. That looks like it’s probably a real bitch. By the time we were ready to file formally for divorce, we had worked out the details and negotiated division of assets among ourselves: "I'll trade you two patio chairs for a garden hose and the kitchen knives." We sat in the courtroom, holding hands and crying, while the attorney we shared presented our divorce papers to be signed by the judge. He asked us if we were sure, because it seemed like maybe we’d be back the next week to get married again. There was that much love in the room. Even the transcriptionist looked affected. Then we went out to dinner. I can’t recall who paid the bill. That’s worth mentioning, but I’m not sure why. Okay, I do know why. It’s worth mentioning because it’s a trap we’ve successfully avoided. There were some moments of selfishness on each our parts, but we kept money issues pretty clean. Without going into too much detail, let me just say that I don’t believe in asking a parent to pay child support who is already willing to participate and contribute in their kids’ lives. I can’t see myself demanding that he write a check every month with their names in the memo line. This is a dad who coaches their little league teams and builds them handmade beds and teaches them to fish. It doesn’t really matter who bought their last pair of shoes. We don’t keep that kind of score because we are still family.
Which brings me back to the initial controversy I presented. I know that there are some who would argue that this conversation is a green light to walk away, that I’m making a case for disposable marriages. It’s true that the divorce rate in America is staggering. I’m not advocating giving up on a relationship if there is even the slightest chance that it can be saved in a healthy way. My point is that if you really can’t save it, it is possible to redefine the structure of the family while still preserving its integrity. In the time since we’ve divorced, Tim and I have each gone on to establish solid, healthy, loving relationships. There are amazing new family members on both sides. There are new babies, new grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles who are firmly rooted in our family. My daughter (from my second marriage) calls Tim YaYa ...her own nickname for him, we’re not sure why... and runs squealing to him every time she sees him. We’re still integrated though we’ve been divorced five years now. We sit together at ball games and recitals. We don’t go on double dates or anything weird like that, but we are perfectly comfortable hanging out together at family functions. Imagine a shoot from a pumpkin plant, and how it’s possible for that shoot to re-root and create a whole new plant while still maintaining connectivity to its initial root source. I think it’s like that. We’re separate, but still connected.
This process has not been a walk in the park. It’s still difficult sometimes. Divorce is sad. It’s hard and it’s sad. But I promised to take care of him, and I have no intention of breaking that promise. I wasn’t doing a very good job the last few years of our marriage, what with wanting him to stop breathing and eating. We’re getting better at it every year. Really, we’re not that far from where we started. We’re deliriously happy and in love, just not with each other. We’re close friends who do each other favors and want good things for each other. We’re raising our kids together, and they are thriving. They are surrounded by love from all sides. Smiles are not forced. Laughter is genuine. They have true examples of affection and joy. This is how my 9 year old daughter sees our family:
It’s true that this doesn’t illustrate “traditional family values” and I guess that Family Research Council Radio guy would have some choice words about how I’ve disappointed Jesus and ruined my kids’ lives, but if the objective is to raise smart, happy people, he’d have a tough time finding a problem with the result. Here comes the really controversial part, and the hardest part to say: I don’t believe that God or the Universe or whatever is pissed off that my first husband and I got divorced. I can’t know what would have happened if we’d stayed together, but I do know that we are really happy, our kids are really happy. We are proof that if two people acknowledge, then work through, their disappointments, their anger, their selfishness and resentment and treat each other with the same love and respect that they vowed to they day they married, it’s possible to live happily ever after together in unwedded bliss.
This is the only thing I’ve written that I’ve submitted for anyone to edit/approve before I published it. It’s not my habit to ask for input. I asked both the old and new husband to take a look at it first, so as not to step on either of their toes. Neither one asked me to change a single word.