As year three–yes, three–of my separation looms, I sometimes ask myself: Why aren’t R& I back to being friends yet?
Shortly after we split, I confidently told myself, my kids and my mother that my relationship with R started as a friendship (1985-1989), then became romantic/marital (1989-2008) and was now back to being a friendship (2008-eternity). See? Nothing to it! Toss the wedding bands aside, and—boom—just like that we’re back to being friends again. It seemed like a positive way to spin it and a lovely idea, given that R and I never stopped fundamentally liking one another, even if the love part went awry.
But so far, the sweet post-marital friendship I envisioned hasn’t quite panned out; we’re not even Facebook friends. There was an unforeseen circumstance about which I’ll be terribly cryptic–but that notwithstanding, it’s all turned out to be more complicated than I could have imagined.
It’s not that I hate R, nor do I love him anymore. We’ve both moved on. He’s had the same girlfriend for three years; I had a boyfriend for over a year (that ended a couple of months ago, fyi–not a tragedy in itself, but more on that in a future blog post). What I’ve come to realize is that when you have kids and joint custody, the post-marital relationship is the real til-death-do-us-part one. It’s the arranged marriage after the voluntary one–and for me, it sometimes requires a lot more effort.
Almost every day, we email or talk on the phone—about summer plans for the girls, about whether the girls need new sneakers (probably, don’t they always?) or should have less screen time (yes, of course. Their brains are melting.) About this or that adorable/infuriating/worrisome/brilliant thing one of them did or said. (Oh, and did you send a check to afterschool? Because I didn’t.)
We work one block from one another and often meet at a mid-point to exchange something one of the girls left at his place and needs at mine. Then there’s the weekly transfer of stuff from one house to the other, the incessant stopping-by to get something someone forgot, which usually involves a little chat on the threshold of the house that used to contain the four of us.
R & I are pleasant and friendly enough during most of these exchanges–but I, for one, could use some space. I find it wearying and confusing to constantly be interacting with the man who made a big fuss about living separately. It makes for a chronic low-grade tension, a perpetual neither-here-nor-there-ness. Limbo personified. How do you really move on when your ex-spouse is in your face all the time? And yet, what choice is there? Who else is going to help me figure out summer camp? Who else shares the same ridiculous degree of pride in our daughters’ sparkling report cards? Who else is R going to depend on to host the girls’ birthday parties and fill the goody bags? Who else does either of us call when one of the kids is sick or when the help required can only come from the other parent? We still need each other, which is both comforting and claustrophobic.
I’m not sure what form a post-marital friendship should take, or if the very concept is pure oxymoron. Maybe friendLY is the best one can hope for. Can you really go back to holding–rather, shaking–hands once you’ve given birth in front of someone? The notion of remaining “perfect pals” with your ex, as the book The Good Divorce describes, is, frankly, kind of weird. We’ve all known ex-couples like this–who hang out and even vacation with each other and their new partners. What is that and why?
It’s hard to know where the boundaries are. When R&I are too chummy, I wonder why we’re not still together. On the occasions when he comes over–say for Christmas morning, or one of the kids’ birthdays, I sometimes think: “Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t we all live under the same roof and that way I’ll have another adult to help me cook dinner and fix stuff, buy milk on the way home and get the girls to bed?”
Conversely, it feels icky when I’m too angry or chilly towards him. When he’s looked clearly sad or stressed, I’ve even had the crazy impulse to give the guy a hug–but how do you hug that? You can’t.
It’s complicated, for better or for worse.
This morning I was lying in bed, listening to NPR. It was early–around 8 am. (I got up so I could get to Target before anyone else, because I have crowded-Target phobia.)
Anyway, a guy was being interviewed about “mindfulness” (sorry, but that’s one of those jargon-y words I have to put in quotes, though it resonates with me more than the others) and meditation. He read this poem aloud and it spoke to me in a big way, so I want to share it. It’s the takeaway message for me and I think for anyone who ends up single again after a long relationship. You were on one planet, half of a whole, and now you’re on a different one–one that only vaguely resembles the planet you were on as a single person before marriage. Even if you end up in a new post-marital relationship, it’s so different from that first defining one, formed when you were young and naive and forever-oriented. You’re forced to realize that it’s you who must be your greatest source of strength, you who is both halves of the whole; anyone else is pretty much gravy.
I’ll shut up now and turn the spotlight on the beautiful, true words of my guest poster, Derek Walcott:
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
I’ve been hating the desk in my dining room for months now. We moved it down there after R moved out and tenants occupied the third floor of our house, where I previously had a little office. It’s a big, clunky piece of furniture whose main virtue is that it holds a lot of stuff. But I never use it anymore. I’ve spent months plotting to get rid of it and to replace it with something sleeker and more dining room-like and finally, this past weekend, I made it happen. Prior to ditching the desk, though, I had to empty its seven drawers, an experience that turned out to be something of an emotional landmine. A few of the random, meaningful, meaningless things I came upon:
It’s clear what I should do with the hospital bracelet (stick in box with other baby memorabilia) and the invitations (toss into recycling), and the mini-cassette recorder (save because no other way to play mini cassette tapes of girls saying ridiculously cute things at age 2). But what about the R-related (but not necessarily R-rated) stuff? These random desk-drawer findings are just the tip of that iceberg. There’s a box in my closet that contains assorted pieces of my past, from my junior high school diary to another stack of love letters from R. (I threw this particular pile of them at him during the ghastly, wrenching pre-separation months and also offered some suggestions for where he might want to shove them.) And then there’s an entire freestanding wardrobe filled with photo albums chronicling our 18 years together.
It’s been a couple of years since R left now and I have some distance. I have transferred my romantic feelings to another person. I can come across the odd Valentine’s Day card from R without it sending me reeling. But still. Still. I shared almost half of my life with this person and it’s hard to know where to put it all, literally and figuratively. Reading these gushy missives is an out-of-body experience. I know all of that happened and that this was the most significant and lengthiest relationship of my life, but it all seems so, so distant already. It’s still hard to process how those passionate written exchanges, once focused on our mutual adoration, could have devolved in to the quick, terse, business-like email affairs that they are today. Looking at letters and photos from my married days brings up something different than the sweet nostalgia I feel when I read something saved from a college or high school boyfriend. Those relationships were meant to be finite. The scenes from a marriage, on the other hand, still sting and feel like reminders of failure–as if they don’t really count because it didn’t last.
So where do I store this stuff emotionally, how do I make a place for it in the modular add-on system of past experiences growing inside my aging brain? Do I want my kids to come across those letters one day so they can see that in fact their parents loved each other once? (Does one keep naked pictures of one’s ex? What’s the protocol there?) Or should I get rid of all of it, sending it off with the ship that has sailed?
While I was unloading stuff from the desk drawers to the dining table, a little gift card fell open. It was signed ”I love you, R,” and it landed right on top of a folder labeled “Separation Agreement.” Really. You can’t make this stuff up, and I didn’t.
Several of you have complained that I haven’t blogged in a while and you’re right, you’re right. I’m sorry! (How’s this for a lame excuse: I’ve been busy.) But I’m thrilled that any of you actually notice and care. That is hugely gratifying and encouraging, so don’t go anywhere. I actually have a lot of post ideas brewing and very soon I expect to unleash a torrent of fascinating, fully-formed posts.
In the meantime, how about helping me get my writerly juices flowing? Ask me something Living in Splitsville-related and I’ll put together a fun little blogger/reader Q&A.
Go ahead, ask!
Oh, and here’s a cartoon from this week’s New Yorker that seems appropriate. Enjoy.
It’s been almost exactly two years since R moved out. I honestly can’t believe it has been that long–even though we middle-aged folks are constantly bemoaning the brisk passage of time. My goodness, wasn’t I just writing the post about surviving the first year? Where has the time gone?
Many of the (many) books I’ve turned to for guidance during this difficult period mention the two-year mark as a milestone. Apparently, if you’re the me in the scenario, by then you are officially back on your feet, successfully re-routed toward your glorious post-divorce future. I remember reading about it while still in my raw, skinless state and thinking I could not possibly survive two whole years. I hoped someone would hit the fast-forward button so I didn’t have to be awake for the duration. Or hit me with a bus.
And now suddenly I’m here, 24 months later. I am, in fact, re-routed and less raw, just like the books promised. Yet, oddly enough, I’m also feeling a little sentimental about that hellish phase, if only because it gave me an automatic excuse for being unable to cope with anything. Just like when you have a baby and chalk up the extra weight, the slovenly attire, the exhaustion, to the fact that, well, you just had a baby–until one day you wake up and notice that your kids are in elementary school and you can’t fall back on that anymore.
When I couldn’t handle certain household tasks (and I couldn’t), I forgave myself because, after all, I was a recently-separated, marginally-employed, suddenly-single mom. If my temper was too short with the girls (and it was) or I cried in the bathroom (and I did), well, wasn’t I off the hook, given that I was going through an awfully hard time? If I needed a reason to turn a man down for a second date (which I did), I played the confused newbie: “I’m sorry. I’m so new at this. I’m not ready. I think I started dating too soon. Maybe in a few months…”
Abigail Trafford aptly describes those years as Crazy Time in her book by the same name: “It starts when you separate and usually lasts about two years. It’s a time when your emotions take on a life of their own and you swing back and forth between wild euphoria and violent anger, ambivalence and deep depression, extreme timidity and rash actions. You can’t believe…how terrible you feel, how overwhelming daily tasks become, how frightened you are; about money, your health, your sanity.”
Now I’m so jaded that when I read other women’s divorce sagas, I think, “Oh, boo hoo, honey. Pick yourself up off the floor and get on with it. Pump the gas, kill the mice, fix the toilet, change the occasional light bulb, join the dating site. Because–guess what–you have no choice.”
But, as crappy as I felt during that stage, it also came with the thrill of the new and unknown. I had my work cut out for me, a fierce sense of purpose. Every day felt like a challenge, an occasion that required rising to, an endless loop of first-days-of-the-rest-of-my-life. It was often agonizing and exhausting, but there was so much intensity and drama, so much adrenalin. It was an adventure.
And now things have leveled off. I have a job; a guy. Much still remains unknown, unhealed and unclear–but Crazy Time has officially ended. It’s not exactly a let-down, it’s just so weirdly calm and orderly all of a sudden that I’m a little disoriented. I wonder what will be the source of my next adventure and what will provide meaning. Or maybe I should just embrace the stillness for a while.
(Note to the universe: I said adventure, not heartache. Meaning, not misery. Got that?)
This is not mine, btw.
This past weekend I decided to wear a bracelet that I haven’t worn in years. No big deal, really, except that the bracelet was from R, and for a long time I boycotted most of the jewelry he gave me in a misplaced, don’t-mention-the-war type attempt to protect myself from sentiment. (Plus, the books say that removing physical reminders of the spouse is necessary to heal and rebuild.)
The downside of my jewelry boycott (mancott?), though, is that I have been wearing the same wimpy handful of non-R-associated necklaces and earrings for two years now and I’m getting bored. About 80 percent of my jewelry collection was given to me by R, and,whatever one may or may not think about the man’s other facets (tee hee—get it, facets?), one can’t deny that he had excellent taste in baubles. In fact, it instilled in other females the kind of awe and envy that is usually reserved for that lone remarkable dad pushing his kid on a swing at the playground on a weekday morning.
My friends routinely expressed amazement. “R got you that? He picked it out himself? All by himself?” Then would come the sad stories of having to return–or, worse, keep–ill-chosen husbandly gifts of jewelry, or of having to actually accompany one’s husband to the store so as to avoid faking an “Oh, honey, I love it!” moment.
I never understood this stereotypical cluelessness among men, because it seems that if someone truly knows you, he also gets your style and sensibility. Right? It’s so simple. (The truth is that toward the end of our marriage, R’s jewelry prowess began to falter, and I ended up returning a pair of whimsical, but not wearable, antler-shaped earrings. Something was clearly amiss.)
At one point during those stormy pre-separation months, I weepily gathered every last bit of jewelry that R had ever given me into a tangly mass and chucked it into the wastepaper basket next to his dresser. Fortunately, a sliver of my rational brain was still functioning and knew I would regret that move. I dug it out and tossed it into a drawer instead.
And now that I’ve lifted the ban, it’s like I have all this new jewelry! There are a few key pieces that give me a pang, but it’s amazing how time has diluted most of the voodoo.
Once I found the bracelet, I started sifting through the other stuff. I even reluctantly opened the gray suede box that now serves as a tiny coffin for my wedding and engagement rings. I put the engagement ring—one of my favorite pieces of jewelry (and yes, R chose it all by himself)—on the ring finger of my right hand. Then I put it back in the box because that one’s still a little fraught, plus it seems wrong to wear a symbol of a marriage-to-be when the marriage is now a has-been. But IS there any real reason not to wear it, now that it’s not so much my engagement ring as just a pretty ring that happens to have been given to me during a prior engagement?
What do you think?
Anytime you become a member of one of life’s many clubs, you’re introduced to new terminology. When you’re planning a wedding, you start tossing around terms like registry and flatware. Parenthood brings forth birth plan and lactation consultant. In the divorce zone, the lingo includes custody, mediator, and spousal support (that last one sounds like an uncomfortable device you might have to learn to live with after an operation, doesn’t it?)
Well, I was thinking recently about some of these terms and how one might want to customize them to suit one’s particular needs. Here’s what I came up with:
I wanted to come up with a third thing in this vein, but I couldn’t. So it’s your turn. What’s your personal fantasy twist on the customs of separation and divorce?
I am so clueless when it comes to understanding the many machinations of money (yet admirable for almost always being able to alliterate?)
During our last couple of sessions with the mediator, money’s what we talked about–proving that, as with so many things in life, divorce ultimately comes down to cash: where it used to come from, where it will come from, who owns what, who owes what to whom, and who bought the girls their last pair of snow boots. (I did.)
My understanding of money has always been very basic (i.e., you earn it, you spend it, you need it), and being married to R enabled that blissful ignorance. From the moment we moved in together on my 27th birthday, financial matters were his responsibility. I was elated when we got our first joint checking account that year, partially because I felt so grown up and also because–honestly?–it felt comforting to have a man’s name on those checks. In fact, R’s name was printed above mine even though both of my initials precede his in the alphabet. I’m not sure how that happened, but so it did.
For all of our married years, it was mutually understood that R was the one who knew the difference between a 401K and an IRA, between a variable interest rate and whatever the other kind is. The fact that he received a regular paycheck, while my income as a freelancer was unpredictable, followed suit.
Hence, being forced to discuss matters financial for two hours in the mediator’s office is not my idea of fun. During the last session, I spaced out as the mediator tapped frantically on her calculator and R scribbled furiously on a pad. At one point, my gaze wandered to the solid metal paperweight shaped like a bunny on the little table next to me. I wondered what sound it would make if I threw it at the side of R’s head. (Yes, even we amicable couples have our moments.)
My bunny-paperweight-tossing fantasy was interrupted when the mediator asked me if I understood what we were talking about. I, too ashamed and polite to say, “NO, I have no f**king idea what the word equity means,” cheerfully responded: “Yes. Yep. Absolutely.” I felt as dumb as Jeannie (as in I Dream of).
But, hold on, here comes the optimism: Tomorrow I start my full-time job. Even though I am well aware that cubicle life is not everyone’s idea of joy, and even though single working mom is not the label I’d pictured for myself, the thought of earning my own regular paycheck is empowering, relieving and kind of cool.
Soon, I plan to be a financially savvy force to be reckoned with.
(BTW, if you think you can describe the sound a metal bunny paperweight makes when it hits the head of a middle-aged man, by all means let me know.)
On Saturday night, I went to a Valentine’s day dance at my 3rd grader’s school. It was 1980′s-themed, so I spent the afternoon helping my girls outfit themselves in leggings and big shirts with belts.
The school was brilliant enough to provide a little pub in an adjoining room, so that the parents could buy cheap wine and beer in support of the PTA. Every now and then, we wandered into the gym to watch our kids dancing under ghastly flourescent lights to songs by such 80′s phenoms as The Violent Femmes, Billy Idol and Blondie. Our songs.
The combo 80’s/Valentine’s day theme had me waxing nostalgic in a big way. That was the decade when I first experienced the joys and miseries of romantic love, real and imagined. (For a while, I was sure I would DIE if Matt Dillon did not step out of the movie Little Darlings and instantly become my boyfriend.)
I also wrote a lot of bad, angst-ridden poetry during that decade, as I recently discovered while sorting through boxes of stuff. Allow me to share some excerpts (and please try to cut me some slack. I have never shown anyone these fine works, not even those for whom they were written):
* * *
Our love is like a dried-out Flair pen
No longer works, it tries.
It dies. It tries.
My optimism brews beneath a haze of lies.
* * *
This is not the first time.
This is nothing but self-slaughter. This is nothing but used crime.
Latent vacancies destroy the pillow
So blatant is the urgency
* * *
Beneath the crisp white smile of your work shirts
It’s your heart I want to taste
Even if it’s just one big bruise
Or beating red and salty
Like a healthy animal
* * * *
I happen to think the last one has some merit, but, um, a dried-out Flair pen? I can LOL at that now–but back then, it was not a laughing matter.
The 80′s ended with me meeting R, who caused me no angst whatsoever until well into the millennium. By the time I felt angsty about him, I had two kids and zero inclination to write poetry (though I did hit send on a few emails from hell itself).
Now, at the beginning of the 2010′s, I’m feeling too old for angSt. Or maybe just too wise to worry about Flair pens, dried-out or otherwise. Or maybe I’m kidding myself.
Hey, whatever happened to Matt Dillon, anyway?
As usual, the end of the decade is being marked by countless articles, TV and radio specials–all of them scrambling to accurately distill the ’00s into a tidy list of significant people and events.
Oh sure, there was that 9/11 thing and a few wars started here and there–but apparently one of the most shocking things to happen in the past 10 years was that a rich, famous athlete had extra-marital affairs.
If you are among those who claimed to be floored by this news–who has perhaps smashed the face of your Tag Heuer watch in disgust–here is what I say to you: Give. Me. A. Break. You are so not shocked and you know it. You know it. Whatever one may think or feel about Tiger’s indiscretions on a moral level, I find it impossible to believe that anyone is genuinely shocked. Disappointed? Sure. But not shocked.
Since when has anyone with a squeaky-clean public persona lived up to it in his personal life? If you are a rich and famous married man, you are required to cheat on your wife. It’s not a choice. Ask David Letterman, Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer and all the others. Having extra-marital sex with younger women is written into their rich-powerful-man contracts. They are not allowed not to cheat. (OK, there’s the occasional Paul Newman, who finds a loophole by making salad dressing and pretzels.)
My cynicism about this should not suggest that I am one of those bitter divorcees who thinks all men are weak and pathetic–because truly that is not what I’m trying to convey. I certainly don’t condone adultery or deception, and I feel for all the duped wives involved.
I just think it’s naive to be surprised, given that unremitting monogamy seems like a longshot for most humans–rich, poor, male or female. In fact, what Woods did was so predictable that that’s what he should be most embarrassed about. Couldn’t he have instead surprised the world by not philandering? That would have been refreshing.
I like the way Frank Rich put it in a recent New York Times op-ed called Tiger Woods, Person of the Year: What’s striking… is the exceptional, Enron-sized gap between this golfer’s public image as a paragon of businesslike discipline and focus and the maniacally reckless life we now know he led. What’s equally striking, if not shocking, is that the American establishment and news media — all of it, not just golf writers or celebrity tabloids — fell for the Woods myth as hard as any fan and actively helped sustain and enhance it.
I just hope our president, who has so much riding on his own image as The Perfect Husband, has something like the Paul Newman clause written into his powerful-man contract–because if he ends up in a Monica Lewinsky-type situation, we will surely be looking right in the face of Armageddon.
What are your thoughts? Why is our society so, um, wed to the concept of lifelong fidelity, and why do we feign shock when we discover that, for the gazillionth time, someone has cheated on a spouse?