I’m still here in Luang Prabang and the r&r is serving me well. It’s absolutely and perfectly what I need; and I’m grateful that I have the sense to give it to myself. I’ve felt lazy, lethargic and even a bit worried that I had contracted some rare and evil tropical disease that was causing my inertia. While that could still be true, perhaps my body is just telling me to stop. So I’m listening.
There’s plenty on my mind, though, so today, I’m back on the balcony of the Guest House Manichan with my water pitcher, a fan and the computer – feeling a little revived energetically, but still moving very slowly. And I’m thinking about, of all things, my ex-husbands. Yes, ex-husbands as in ex and husbands as in husbands with an s, plural.
I’m divorced. For the second time. This isn’t new news, but the truth of it has resurfaced with a friend’s recent divorce and her openness about sharing what the process has been for her. Most all of my reflections have been more private – internally, with my therapist and with a few dear friends. Her very public proclamation encouraged and inspired me to spend some time today writing about my experiences of divorce. I figured that two marriages of a combined 25 years deserved at least that.
My most recent divorce happened back in October. On October 19th officially – an auspicious, the-Universe-has-a-twisted-sense-of-humor kinda day – both my mother’s birthday and the day, the exact day, that I moved in with Rainer in Germany 10 years prior. When I saw the date stamp on the divorce decree paperwork that Rainer sent me in the mail (with no personal note of any kind attached, mind you – the fact that I expected or wanted any such thing showed me I was still way more connected than I had hoped for, by this time) – I was flabbergasted. Did he even notice, I wondered? Did it even matter? We had already been living apart for more than 2½ years – and as I had checked off on the paperwork packet – our marriage was irretrievably broken, about which we both agreed. He was already in a new partnership and I had had a few dalliances of my own.
I never intended to get married. Not even once. Certainly not twice. And I certainly never intended divorce – no one does, really. I remember as a young adult and radical feminist, I didn’t ever want to be married and had plenty of scourging things to say about the oppressive institution. That all changed in my early 30’s (not the feminist part, of course) when I went for the whole thing – white wedding gown and all, although we did it in our own style, outdoors in a beautiful setting with our own vows and a woman minister, much to the consternation of my mother. (I remember her being horrified at, amongst other things, our dark chocolate ganache wedding cake covered in strawberries and flowers – what would the family think about no white wedding cake, she worried?!)
And yet here I am now, a middle-aged, twice-divorced woman and sometimes I wonder how I got here – is this my life? Indeed it is – and while it’s not exactly as I ever expected things to turn out, it’s what is so. And it still takes some doing to let go of the shame that still arises when my marital status comes up in conversation. Yep, it’s true and important to ‘admit’ – I feel ashamed of being divorced and twice, no less. Sometimes I even project that shame onto whoever I may be having the conversation with, sure they have some judgment about me and my obvious ‘failure’ as a partner. Even though it wasn’t true (although both of my husbands would disagree), the endings and what caused them weren’t all my responsibility, but my shame doesn’t give much room for that truth. But that’s changing and I couldn’t be gladder for it.
I realize too, that that shame is part of what kept me married in both cases longer than I ‘should’ have been – long after I ‘knew’ that they were over, still I didn’t want to admit it, didn’t want it to be true, didn’t want anyone else to know, lest they judge me as harshly as I was judging myself. Surely I could figure out how to make it work out – surely we could together, surely our love would see us through. It’s amazing the depth and power of those messages about what ‘should’ be so – who I should be, who my partner should be, what our love should be.
I recall the deep grief that enveloped me after my marriage with David was over – the darkness of that time; the loss not only of that love, but also of the dream of lifetime partnership; of all that was riding on it and now wouldn’t be so; all the ways I had pictured that my life/our lives would look. It was the loss, too, of a certain kind of innocence and belief in what was possible – all of it was utterly devastating. I remember thinking about how many people were similarly walking through the world – disillusioned, broken-hearted, forlorn, scared, worried about whether we could ever open our hearts again. The world was filled with us divorced people; and unlike widowhood, divorce seemed to be fraught with different kinds of sorrows and yes, shame. The loss through divorce had become so commonplace in our society – yet I was reeling from its agony and anguish. How many of us were there like this? How could we move from one relationship to the next without scars too deep to ever truly heal?
Ohsure, I would move on in my life, but my heart would stay protected and closed, I figured. I simply couldn’t imagine any other way to be. But amazingly, heal and open my heart again I did – and although it took years to come to a place of peace and acceptance, I found that place within myself from where I could and did love again.
And what a gift it was to both of us whose first marriages were never ‘supposed’ to end. While they hadn’t lasted, we were convinced and determined that ours would – I let myself imagine, dream and commit once again. There was a lot riding on this – no, everything was riding on this. More than I realized. Not only was it so that I loved and was deeply committed to this man, I also needed the success and longevity of our relationship to heal my own sense of relationship failure that lingered unconsciously inside me. I needed to show (myself more than anyone) that I could do this, I was, after all, a competent, capable partner.
It was an impossible and inappropriate responsibility for the partnership and one, amidst all the other challenges, that it eventually couldn’t withstand. But when our challenges became struggles and darkness that only got deeper and more serious, I held on even tighter. I realize now that a part of me knew I needed to let go; but I couldn’t – I wouldn’t. I didn’t know then the extent of what was driving that unwillingness to let go, but I see it now. I see how it felt like my very survival, my very sense of myself depended on the relationship staying intact. I couldn’t bear the truth that I had ‘failed’ yet again in partnership. So I hung on, I kept trying, I kept ignoring the inner voice of wisdom and the pleas and advice of my friends who weren’t keen on having that kind of voice in my life – I even lost some of them in the process. Yet more loss.
This time around, there was an even deeper part of me that was sure I couldn’t and wouldn’t survive another loss of love. It ran deep.
I was reminded of how I felt when I read this line in Graham Greene’s, The Quiet American recently: “…I had lived all this before. I knew I could do what was necessary, but I was so much older – I felt I had little energy left to reconstruct…”
Strong, powerful, independent me couldn’t imagine how to reconstruct my life at this stage. I really believed that I couldn’t live without him and our relationship – I was brought to my knees in a sense of hopeless brokenness I had never known before. And then more shame arose – I couldn’t go to those friends who had ‘warned’ me of what they saw so clearly – I couldn’t bring my lamentations to them anymore than I already had. I was lost and alone.
But not for long.
I turned, then, to a therapist whose flyer I saw, funnily enough in retrospect, on a bulletin board at a music studio where I was going to pick up some things the person had advertised on Craig’s List. I recall only that he had a Rumi poem on the flyer; and that was enough. I quickly copied down his phone number and the items I had come to purchase, taking little notice that I had been at a voice studio, the likes of which all these years later, would come to be such an important part of my life.
John and I forged a therapeutic relationship in which I discovered how some of my unconscious needs were driving not only my relationships, but my life. He pushed and prodded and I cried and resisted – yet over the course of our four years of work together, I learned more about myself than I imagined possible.
I have learned that I was going to survive this loss.
I have learned that I am not a failure, as a partner nor as anything else.
I have learned that what is my responsibility is truly mine and mine alone, no matter whether I am in partnership or not.
I have learned that I was not alone in creating those relationships nor in being a part of their demises.
I have learned that I confused love with bolstering my self-esteem, something no relationship can or ‘should’ be expected to do.
I have learned that even though I was doing this, that doesn’t diminish the truth of the love and commitment I had for those men.
I have learned that I was doing the best I could, with what I knew and how I knew to be; and that had I known any differently, I would have acted differently.
I have learned that I couldn’t know or see what I couldn’t know or see. Not until I could. And then, I did.
I have learned that all of that is true for them, too.
I have learned that I was not alone in my projections in those relationships, but that I alone am responsible for them.
I have learned that bringing them to as much consciousness and awareness as possible is my work.
I have learned that no one is to ‘blame’.
I have learned that the process of letting go of shame takes time, patience and vigilance and that it requires my willingness to look underneath it and to accept and feel whatever is there.
I have learned that when it still comes up, it teaches me about the ways and places I need more self-compassion and kindness.
I have learned that I don’t really know what other people think about me.
I have learned that what they think about me is none of my business.
I have learned that my projections of what they think about me are all I can adjust.
I have learned that my sense of worthiness, while sometimes naturally externally validated, must always come from within.
I have learned that my sense of competence and capability, in relationships and in all of life, intrinsically depends on my willingness to be soft, tender and most importantly, vulnerable.
I have learned that my deepest commitment needs not be to someone else or to my relationship with them; but to my own growth and awareness.
I have learned that Spirit guides me lovingly on my path towards wholeness and healing.
I have learned that I am never alone, especially not when I’m sure that I am.
I have learned that I will forget each and every one of these things that I have learned.
I have learned to trust that I will remember them again. And again.
As I write these, there’s some sense of triteness that comes up for me – of course I know these things, we all know these things – they are what every self-help, relationship book, workshop or therapist will tell us. None of them are new to me nor probably to anyone reading this. But I’ve ‘gotten’ them in a new way. John’s skillful, persistent and loving guidance and presence helped me not only to see these things, but to take a level and kind of responsibility for myself that I never had before.
Interesting. I hadn’t expected this is where I would come to in my writing today. I hadn’t expected this is where I would be in my life at 54 years old. But here I am. In Luang Prabang, Laos, Southeast Asia. It’s all true. And as even more annoyingly trite as this sounds, I also deeply know and trust that it’s all “perfect.” All of these experiences, exactly as they have shown up in my life, were necessary to bring me to this moment in my evolution.
So yes, I have survived. And more than merely ‘survived’. I am thriving. My heart is still open and capable of love. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.