Deciding to end your marriage is insanely difficult. It usually doesn’t happen just once. You question if it’s the right choice. You change your mind. You change your mind back. You drive your estranged spouse nuts with all your waffling. It’s painful. And that’s just when it’s between the two of you. At some point your separation goes from being an idea to becoming a living, breathing fact. And that’s when the chorus starts up.
I can’t remember the first time, or first person, I told about my separation. I was sleep deprived, anxiety-ridden and fueled by caffeine. It was all a haze. But I remember hearing “I’m sorry” and seeing a pained expression nearly every time I told someone. And I was sorry the marriage was likely over, but I wasn’t sorry that we were ending it because it meant we were trying to find a way to be happily unmarried.
After hearing “I’m sorry” enough times, I developed a standard reply. “Don’t be sorry. It’s all for the best.” Most people weren’t sure how to process that, but at least it killed the awkward tension and allowed us to move ahead into conversation.
As time went on and the “big admission” became a more regular occurrence, I started to notice a pattern. While the responses typically varied depending on the age, gender and marital status of the person, and my relationship with them, they usually fell into one or more of the following categories:
1. My Marriage is Falling Apart Too
Maybe this one’s more about misery loving company than anything else, but I prefer to think my vulnerability was attracting authenticity from others. Relationships are hard, damn hard, and as time went on and people opened up to me, I saw just how many of us are struggling to stay afloat as partners, parents and professionals.
We’re all pulled in multiple directions on a daily basis and all too often it’s our relationships that take the brunt of our stress. We take our partners for granted, unloading on the one closest to us and assuming they can take it because, well, we take it from them.
As we navigate the gauntlet of our lives we may not notice just how bad things have gotten until they’re really, really bad. But we’re not alone. Facebook and Christmas newsletters and infrequent dinner parties may paint a happy picture, but the reality I discovered was that many, many of us are pretending things are better than they are and scared to admit we’re not keeping every area of our lives as healthy as we’d like others to think. And pretending is exhausting.
2. My Relationship is Awesome So Keep Your Distance
The flipside to the “me too” response is the one where people feel the need to tell you just how awesome their relationship is; things are absolutely amazing and it’s unfortunate you haven’t been able to cultivate the same result in your own marriage. In some cases this came along with a bonus layer of avoidance from that point on, because apparently separation and divorce are contagious. Husbands worried their wives would get similar ideas about separation and wives worried this newly-separated woman was on the prowl. Neither was the case, but the heart isn’t always rational. So some of my friendships quietly changed as a direct result of my separation.
I suspect this reaction is actually rooted in the fear that when “bad” things happen to others that we relate to, then they can easily happen to us. Surely perception plays into this. We looked happy, seemed to have it together and weren’t blatantly on the road to divorce. If it happened to them, why not us? I totally get why this could be startling or uncomfortable for some people, but in the end it takes a whole lot more than someone you know getting a divorce to bring your own relationship to an end.
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3. All the Good Ones are Taken
Oh, the fear mongers. They mean well, but they are so far from being helpful that you wish they’d just said “I’m sorry.” Often they package it as a compliment—“Oh you’re so brave! I could never start over. And with two young kids! All the good ones are taken and the ones that are left, well, you know.” No, I don’t know. Please tell me more about how I will end up dying alone or as the house wench to a psychopath. Because fearing change within my own mind isn’t enough, I prefer to have all of my insecurities vocalized and validated as legitimate concerns by others.
4. Now’s My Chance
Though it may be well-intentioned, there’s nothing quite like someone confessing their feelings for you immediately after they find out you’re separated to add further confusion and awkwardness to a mind-boggling life transition. The influence of pop culture romances combined with a “strike while the iron’s hot” mentality may make it seem like this is a good idea, but no. No, no, no. Just don’t do it. Life’s short, but not that short. The best thing you can do is calm down and be a good friend.
5. I Love You—What Can I Do?
The best response to pretty much any situation applies with separation, too. Those people—those amazing friends and family members—who don’t judge, don’t project their own fears, don’t allow you to wallow in your fears and just do whatever you need to feel human again. They listen, they hold you up, they check in and remind you they’re always around whenever you need them. These are the people who keep you going. Because while it’s generally great to commiserate, to think ahead or to express romantic feelings, when you’re parting ways with someone who has been your world for years it’s okay to be selfish and focused on your own problems. And it’s most certainly okay to allow those who love you to carry you for awhile as you may have carried them. – Erin Skillen
This article originally appeared in Island Parent Magazine.
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