My divorce was a long time coming.
Like a lot of women, I’d become all too comfortable in the day-to-day of life with my husband. When our elder son was born in 2001, we decided together that I would stay home and care for our children while my Dear Husband worked and provided the monetary support that allowed us to live a mostly comfortable middle-class, suburban life.
I loved being able to care for my children, and I don’t regret that decision for a moment, but I was a ignorant of who he and I both were as people, numbed by the minutiae of managing our household and our children and our constant logistics. I’d taken on the titles of Wife and Mother to the extent that Stephanie had all but ceased to exist.
By the time I was painfully cognizant that things were falling apart, we were in dire straits. We were fighting all the time, constantly threatening each other emotionally. Separately and together, we were trying to determine if battling through marriage counseling was worth it, even for the sake of our two wonderful kids.
I happened to see my family doctor, who was also my husband’s doctor. While he knew us both extremely well, I trusted that anything I told him would remain between us. He walked into the exam room and found me patiently waiting on the paper-covered table. He looked at me and cocked his head, then glanced at my chart.
“This is more than a medication check,” he said, motioning toward my tightly somber face. “What’s going on?”
I started to cry. “DH and I are not doing well,” I choked out. “We’re probably filing for divorce.”
Without going into the details of our decimated marriage, refraining from using our doctor as a sounding board for everything I felt my husband had done wrong, I explained that it had been coming for a while but that I was shocked at how much harder making the decision to separate was than even living in all of the turmoil had been.
The doctor was patient and non-judgmental. I knew he’d been through a similar situation with his first wife years before, when they and their daughter were very young.
He hugged me and gave me the best advice I got through the entire process:
“When you’re in Hell, you just gotta keep your head down and run. Don’t stop to look around and see what’s there; you’ll never get out.”
Ultimately, it took us more than two additional years to finish the process of emotional and legal separation and dissolution. At times, it would seem that we might be able to save our twenty-year relationship, but that isn’t how it worked out. We tried to salvage what we could, but we also tried just as hard to tear each other apart.
At its worst, which was actually after he moved out of the house, I was shocked to realize that I was at war with the person I’d been in love with for more than half my life. How could the man I’d chosen to father my children be suddenly so cold and callous, so determined to make my life as miserable as possible?
For months we went at each other—privately and away from our children—judging and attacking for every perceived wrong.
You were mean to the kids this weekend.
You just want to be able to live your life without us.
You never cared about us.
You never cared about me.
I never loved you.
I wish we’d never gotten married.
Every mistake either of us made and that the other found out about became fodder for this firestorm of emotional assault. Moving into separate lives, we were each still so caught up with what had gone wrong while we were together that we used the physical distance as an excuse to drag up every little bit of past damage we’d somehow managed to miss during the months in counseling. Because we weren’t living in the same house where the children would be witness to the arguing, we held nothing back in trying our best to eviscerate the other with hurt.
How was I ever going to build a new life without him, if all I was doing was defending against his constant attacks?
I remembered what my doctor had told me in the beginning. While it might feel like I was in Hell, there was a way out. There was an eventual exit. I put my head down, and I ran.
I stopped looking at what DH was doing or what he had done before. I stopped examining every detail of every conversation and exchange we’d ever had. In fact, if our conversations didn’t have to do with logistical details of our children—visitation times, reports from doctors and teachers, bills that needed to be paid—I didn’t engage him at all. He would still sometimes email me in the middle of the night to rage at me, but I stopped responding to it.
Fourteen months after he moved out, we finally received a calendar date for our divorce trial. During the days leading up to our court date, I cried almost non-stop, including all the way to the courthouse. I grieved one more time for that man I’d loved and lost, for the dreams and intentions we’d let die, and for the horrors we’d put each other through during our last few years together. In the parking lot outside the courthouse, I wiped away the runny trail of mascara and glanced one more time at each and every one of those demons, and I told them goodbye.
Head up, shoulders back, I marched into the courthouse and out the other side of Hell.
A month later, we are managing to work together civilly and cordially, doing what’s best for our children as we redefine our separate and cohesive family unit. We are tied closely together for the next ten years, but the rest of our lives will be intermingled through those of our sons.
There are still things I’m angry about, that will likely always anger me if I choose to think about them. Moving ahead, I don’t want to be caught up in those things again. I don’t want to be dragged back into that emotional Hell, even for a moment. I might not be running from it now, but I also refuse to look back. Those demons and ghosts may be in the distance over my shoulder, but I’ll never turn around to see them.