My parents celebrated 55 years of marriage on January 31. When I called them to wish them happy anniversary, we reminisced about their 50th anniversary celebration and how much fun it was to gather family and friends for such a happy occasion.
In the course of the conversation, my mom mentioned how much our lives had changed since then. About two weeks after that 50th anniversary celebration, my sister went out for a bike ride and had a moment of clarity. She came home and told her then-husband they needed to divorce. Later that year I made the same decision. No 50th anniversary celebrations for either of us.
Mom’s commented on how sad it was that the marriages ended, yet how hard it was to watch some of the things that happened when we were married. She wished things had turned out differently, but she understood that it was probably for the best for both of us.
That got me thinking about the long and winding road to my own decision to divorce. Unlike my sister, I didn't wake up one day and know. Deciding to divorce was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made, and it took me many years to get there.
Over those years we tried counseling. I tried to change myself to be who I thought he wanted me to be. I took on more and more responsibility at home – for the kids, the finances, the house. I supported his dreams and excused his failings. I thought if I could help him be happy, we would be happy. I agonized, considered, prayed, read, researched, complained, blamed, manipulated, tried to control, and none of it made a difference. I grew more and more unhappy and resigned as the years went by.
I talked to friends and professionals, figuring someone would give me the answer I sought or the permission I needed. What I found out was that no matter how many people were lined up on my side (and there were many), they couldn’t make my decision for me or walk me through my fears. That was something I had to do for myself.
There’s a saying in recovery rooms that God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. In my case, I was waiting for God – or someone else - to do this thing for me. I didn’t want to be the one to end the marriage. I didn’t want to be the "bad guy." I wanted to follow the example of my parents and keep those "death do us part" vows. They didn’t raise me to be a quitter, and my religious upbringing reinforced the lifelong commitment I'd made.
Still, things weren't working. I kept waiting for him to do something really awful so it would be obvious, and I could justify divorce to myself and other people. I thought it would be easier if I could just get mad and throw him out. But nothing really awful happened. Or I had come to tolerate so many unacceptable things that I couldn’t recognize it if it did.
I waited for a sign. Something so obvious that I couldn’t doubt, and something that would guarantee this was the right thing to do. Because there's no going back once you decide to divorce. But no burning bushes or small, still voices came my way. What came instead was the realization that God was not going to do for me what I could do for myself. This one was up to me. Still I hesitated.
My fear was overpowering. I was stuck in indecision. Doing what I knew in my heart was right for me felt like the cruelest thing I could do to my former husband and our family. I couldn’t go through with it for a long time. Yet when one friend suggested that I wait until my kids were out of school, I realized I couldn’t do that. It was 8 more years at that time until my youngest graduated high school, and the thought of waiting that long chilled me through and through. That was my first clue that I needed to take action.
Then I began to see things differently with the help of some friends.
- One friend suggested that divorce was not cruel, that it might be the most loving thing I could do for not just myself but my former husband and our children. I know not everyone buys that, but I came to see how that could be true in my case. That helped a little bit.
- A counselor gave me some clarity about the success rates (or lack thereof) of interventions and asked if I was willing to throw away $30,000 or so to try. (I wasn’t.) She suggested that I start focusing on myself instead of fixing him.
- A friend recommended a helpful book (Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay by Mona Kirshenbaum) and gave me permission to be indecisive until the time was right. She said that sometimes confusion was a gift, and that felt more peaceful to me than trying to force myself to act before I was ready.
Probably most important of all, I began to see that staying for the sake of the kids was not doing them any favors. We were not providing a good role model for a strong and healthy marriage, and I didn’t want to think that my daughter would grow up and find herself in a similar situation or that my boys would grow up and think it was okay to have their wives do everything. It might be better for them to see their mom take a stand for herself and choose health and well-being. As a mom myself I sure wouldn’t want my children to be miserable as I was, and I couldn’t imagine that my parents wanted that for me (despite the teachings of their church).
And so, baby step by baby step, I began to move toward divorce. I talked to an attorney to get some information. I opened a bank account in my own name. I began disentangling myself from my former husband’s business affairs. And those steps finally led to those 4 little words, “I want a divorce.”
Today I’m grateful that I took that long and winding route. I tried everything I could, and I have no regrets. No looking back and wondering "what if."
I know it was the right decision for me and for my family, despite the ups and downs that followed. It was worth the time and struggle. That big decision set me on the long and winding road to freedom and the wonderful life I have today.