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One day you finally knew what you had to do
For all my friends who have re-found themselves, and those who will yet.
I had finally reached the front of the paperwork checkout line after acting as an extra on Yellowstone in June 2021,still marveling at my ability to just…go and do a thing…when a lady behind me heard me say, “That’s my old name. I just got divorced” to the guy confused by my mismatching W9 and DL. She tapped me on the shoulder and said with a smile, “Welcome to the club.”
It had only been a month since the divorce decree had come through. I’d left not long before that, January.And I was beginning to find out that there is a whole world out there – a club, if you will – of divorced ladies. I felt like I’d been let in on a secret society. It was astonishing, honestly, that I’d never noticed before.
Within a month, two friends had texted to ask who my divorce mediator had been, because they were moving down the same path. Female acquaintances would message me after social media posts with “I did this too” or “I’m proud of you, I’m right there with you.” All were women who had initiated divorces from their husbands after long-term marriages of 15-30 years. All of us were somewhere between 45 and 55 and all professionals.
I started to wonder, what is going on here? Is there a pattern? Or am I just the hub of a huge network of women having the exact same experiences? I doubted that. So, I started to investigate. For this piece, I have spoken with several of my recently divorced or in-the-midst-of-divorcing friends who initiated their separations, about what made them leave – many can point to a specific catalyst – as well as professionals who work in this field, the field of divorce, as attorneys and coaches. I’ve used pseudonyms for all my friends. I’m not a sociologist trying to write a 2023 version of The Second Shift, although I recommend that book. I was just trying to uncover repetitions and themes, and maybe develop some theory about all this.
First, some statistics. This 2022 piece from the BBC states that 70% of divorces are initiated by women. But why? The article suggests partly because women get less from a marriage than men do, particularly if they are doing the child-rearing, housework, and emotional labor because the husband is not and eventually they realize they don't have to live like that. In addition, women have more close friendships than do men, people in whom they can confide about their marriage frustrations. The article notes:
It’s possible these friendships make divorce seem like a more plausible option – research suggests that if a close friend gets divorced, people’s own chances of divorcing rise by 75%.
I definitely experienced that myself, when my friend J., profiled below, left her marriage well before I did, and I saw the happiness it afforded her. And I also know that my decision influenced at least one other friend, who has told me she was inspired by my ability to just do it and be demonstrably happier afterwards. Taking that first step is so incredibly hard, and if you know someone else who has survived it, that can be inspirational.
And I want to state here, that I recognize all these stories are the woman’s story, because that’s what I am and that’s what many of my friends are and I don’t know very many divorced men and even fewer who initiated the divorce themselves. I’m in no way trying to suggest through my one-sided reporting that women are the only victims of mistreatment or neglect, or that they didn’t have a hand in the way their marriages devolved and ultimately collapsed. Some pieces of these narratives can be applied equally to men and to women, and others are more gender-attached. And, I'm only talking about heterosexual relationships. Not being a sociologist, I'll just report what I heard and provide summaries periodically.
Exposition: Beginnings of Problems
The first piece of the pattern is, not surprisingly, the women I spoke to could no longer find common ground with their husbands. Whatever brought them together years before had vanished, or become obscured by other conflicts, tensions, or a miasma of neglect caused by or leading to a lack of intimacy. Let’s start there.
Meagan, 55, describes her relationship as years of feeling neglected and ignored. She now feels as though she lives in the house alone, though someone else is always…just… there. In a telling detail, her spouse agreed to marriage counseling when she suggested it, but then forgot to attend the first appointment. Meagan is still in the process of exiting her marriage and so, is still in the house with her husband.
Alexandra turns 50 today.She told me of her discontent, “It’s been years. I was generally unhappy but not unhappy enough to leave. I didn’t want a divorce for my kids since my own parents got divorced. I decided that I was just going to be in a sexless, loveless, but not hateful relationship. It was like having a roommate. No intimacy. Just another adult who was sort of helpful but not usually. Another human I was taking care of in my household.”
Ellen, who is 47, shared, “I never really felt loved. Never flowers, like ever. Begged for massages and received gift cards to get them. His jobs would often be out of town somehow. I was alone.”
Michelle said her marriage was 80% based on her husband's wants and needs. He sometimes told her she talked too much and would often become agitated when she chatted on the phone or listened to music. She said she learned to avoid his displeasure by quieting herself over time, and rarely felt she could be herself in his presence. After a while, she said, she forgot who she had been. Michelle is 50.
Liz, 55, said that she eventually didn’t trust her husband to have her back. His children regularly bad-mouthed her and he wouldn’t defend her, or tell them off, and sometimes he even went along with what they said.
Ally, who is 48, said she knew she couldn’t trust her ex with her emotions or to make good decisions about alcohol, and that there was no sex in their marriage. “I was completely resigned to this being the rest of my life,” she told me. She told herself, “This is what I signed up for.”
Rising Action I: Kids
All of these women had children, their own or stepchildren with their spouse. And most waited to leave on account their children's age, though many didn’t make it all the way to that last high school graduation, and in retrospect wished they had left earlier, if only to limit how much their children had to witness the unhappiness.
“I can tell you for sure that I waited until my kid was basically raised before uprooting his whole world,” Ellen wrote. But, she added, “It was very sad really and I regret raising a child in that [environment].”
J. wrote, “My ex wasn’t healthy — I knew he would die young, and it seemed easier to wait than rock the boat (I don’t do conflict well) and especially with him it would be ugly because he was always right and unless he was passive and/or didn’t care, everything was his way. A friend pointed out to me that I was teaching my girls that it was okay to be treated like crap under the guise of love.” She is now 55 and left her marriage when she was 48.
Meagan said, “Our kids are really great. We put so much time and energy into our kids that we had nothing left when our son finished high school and headed to college. We stayed together while they were in college, and now that both are legitimately in the adult world, we truly have nothing left.”
Rising Action II: Age and Stage of Life
One noticeable feature of this group is our similar ages and phase of life. Attorney Brandi Ries, who does a lot of work with families, says two things often happen in women’s lives: one is exhaustion from raising children, often largely alone, and the other is women reaching their forties and beginning to think about their own lives and health. “As women seek to improve their own wellness, especially in their 40s, their partners are either also doing that, or else those relationships don’t function well.” In other words, women tend to become concerned about their own development during those years, and if their husbands don’t evolve with them, it can make for a mismatch.
I think this could mean a lot of things: we are looking at ourselves, our bodies, and our professional trajectory and asking, what is holding me back from being my best version of myself? Is it the job? Is it me? Is it my spouse? It might mean that we’ve essentially put our lives on hold while our children were small, and now that we’re mid-forties and beyond, we can think about our next possibilities. There could also be a physical mismatch by this point. If we’ve been married since our 20s, I think there’s a good chance we simply open our eyes one day and realize, “This isn’t where I thought I’d be at 45. What can I do differently here?” And if our spouse isn’t on board, well…I know a lot of my friends felt like they were trying to drag their husbands along on a progressive path, but you can’t pull someone else forever.
Alexandra put this so clearly in one comment. She said, “Childrearing…once they aren’t so small you look up and go okay, I can do more in my life now. If you’re with someone who is capable of having those conversations, good. But if not, then it’s about cutting your losses.”
I spoke with Karen McNenny, who describes herself as a divorce coach and mediator among other roles. Her goal is to help couples navigate divorce in a healthy way, “before the love is gone.” Her approach is to assist divorcing couples in seeing each other as a coparenting partner and even a friend, instead of the enemies an acrimonious separation can create.
For humans, change is hard, Karen told me, and there can be a certain complacency and comfort in the discomfort. She has observed that while both individuals might be struggling in the marriage, it’s often the woman who says “enough.” This process often begins with a long stretch of planning where the woman is, in Karen’s words, “packing the psychic parachute.” She’s deciding how she’s going to make it all work, with kids, financially, a home for herself, and so on. “For anyone who thinks these women are making a rash decision, that is very rarely the case,” Karen said.
Conflict: Role of COVID
I have wondered if COVID played a central role in any of this. Brandi told me that we know unemployment, mental health problems, and substance abuse spiked during COVID and are still above normal levels. These behaviors can and did exacerbate underlying problems in marriages. In addition, while she clarifies that these behaviors don’t cause domestic violence, they are associated with higher risks of domestic violence. And we have had higher rates of domestic violence since COVID, which of course can lead to marriage breakups.
Brandi added that she’s also seen higher rates of long-term marriages ending since COVID, and that family attorneys are incredibly busy right now. I wondered, is that a holdover from people being super annoyed at their spouses during the shutdowns, or is it more existential? Are people asking themselves, “What am I doing in this unhappy situation when I could actually die tomorrow?”
Karen’s assessment is that both factors are coming into play: “For couples that were struggling, it was harder to avoid those struggles. Gym, clubs, work, friends…these were distractions. But with those gone [during the shutdown], a lot of people were left in their day-to-day world really examining these unsettled marriages." And they’re also asking themselves the existential question about whether prolonging something objectively bad is worth the unhappiness. Why wait? They were saying. Karen pointed out that it has worked the other way too: people who considered getting married sometime in the future were eloping, going to the courthouse and so on: why wait? They were also saying.
I talked to my friends about this. COVID actually divided houses in some cases. For Liz, her ex refused to take any precautions for safety and parroted extremist talking points on mask-wearing, vaccines and all of it. Michelle's ex was the opposite: he was so anxiety-ridden about getting the virus that she was still bleaching groceries into the fall of 2020. She said, "I had to go back to work in May 2020, and coming home with my germy clothes required a whole process of changing in the basement and washing masks, etc., to help quell his anxiety. It was so stressful for all of us." Michelle noted that as her ex-husband’s extreme anxiety spiked during COVID, so did his reliance on substances, as well as on her.
Pandemic or no pandemic, the existential question is really at the root of so much of our desire to leave. “I deserve to be happy,” Alexandra said. Liz said she saw her sisters being single and out doing what they wanted and realized, “I want to do what I want to do.” J. added, “I heard someone say ‘never play second in a relationship.’ You should, especially with the one you love and who loves you, be number one.”
Ally said, “People are dying. I know someone who dropped dead one day at 52. I could just die at any time…Having a different kind of love, travel…my life is half over, and I only get the one life. Why would I sacrifice the rest of it in this state of purgatory? Things in my marriage were okay, never great, sometimes awful. It's not like there was a whole bunch of highs to counteract the lows. I was seeing myself planning my retirement that could exclude him as much as possible, as my escape. ‘Maybe when [my husband] dies I'll have a lover again, even if I’m 70. A companion, something,’" she thought.
Climax: The Catalyst
This brings me to the catalyst. Most of these women can point to a moment, or a collection of them, that helped them realize they wanted something different and could make it happen. Many women I know waited a long time in unhappiness for various reasons: kids, finances, the hope that things would get better. But ultimately each of them experienced something that pushed them up to, and over, the line.
Ally told me about three instigating events that happened. One was that her ex-husband drank and drove, and that he had their child in the car and refused to change his behaviors “even after I went ballistic on him.” Another was that after an intensely emotional conversation about a friend who had passed away, she called to tell him about it “and he doesn't have time, brushes me off.” Finally, “I decided to have an affair and was about to embark on it.” She initially wanted intimacy but became involved with this person. “[My ex] believes the worst of me and [this man] always believes the best of me. After being with someone that I could trust with my emotions, I was just like fuck, this is how you can communicate with someone? Everything is genuine.”
Alexandra also met someone else, and allows that though they might not end up together, she said he provided “A reminder that there is so much more than I was getting. And I deserve so much more than I was getting. I let myself be diminished in so many ways. Not just in terms of my relationship with myself but what I was willing to do in my life. Everything. I was a shadow of myself.” This new man was the catalyst to help her see that her life could - and should be - so much richer.
Michelle learned that her ex had been reading her texts, following her, and had kept some pages from her journal for almost 20 years. She still didn’t leave right away, but looking back, these are some of the things she can point to that showed her something was terribly wrong and that keeping herself safe was more important than keeping her ex and his feelings safe.
J: “I got into grad school and changed jobs at work. I started being around people with positive attitudes who respected me and treated me as an intelligent, valuable human. I realized I liked being treated that way…the confidence I’d gained with my grad school experience gave me the strength to leave. He did flip out, it did get ugly and scary but I never once thought of going back. Life without toxicity, fear, shame, control and walking on eggshells is the only life I will ever allow myself to live.”
Ellen wrote, “The real decision was made when a conversation with a colleague led to her asking me, ‘Are you still friends?’ And my real answer was ‘No.’ I was living alone in a shared household. It was more lonely than being physically alone.” This reminds me of Meagan, who describes her marriage as an exercise in being alone in her house with a husband that’s just there. Ellen added, "I remember that just as I was gearing up to make the official announcement [that I was leaving] I was physically ill with stress. I was surprised how physical my symptoms were in the months just before I was able to make a break."
For Liz, the catalyst was two things: one was, she was smoking and drinking so much in her unhappiness that she was becoming self-destructive. She knew that if she didn’t slow down or stop, it would eventually kill her. And, she turned 50. “When I turned 40 I started to have my own opinions. When I turned 50, I said fuck it. I’m not happy, I want to do what I want to do. There is something, when you turn 50, you just quit giving a shit what other people think.”
Denouement: What Happened After
And how did my friends fare, once they made the decision?
Alexandra said, “I was talking on the phone with a friend who said something along the lines of, ‘Your voice sounds totally different. You seem so much lighter!’ I absolutely felt different once the marriage was over. I had felt so stuck and finally felt free, even though in some ways I had just made my life much harder."
J: "I am often struck with a wave of gratitude at times when I'm porch sitting and being reflective of how I can hardly believe I really left him and won't ever deal with him and his dysfunction ever again. I can't believe I graduated from grad school and got my new license and moved! It is surreal and makes me proud of myself, which for a very long time was a feeling I did not experience. I do experience a similar feeling of gratitude and liberation when tackling finances or decisions - I can make them myself. I don't have to ask permission, I don't have to worry anyone else is spending my money. I love being independent."
Ally said she couldn’t recall a specific moment, but “the moment I told him I wanted a separation was terrifying but I also felt really brave and so relieved that I finally got the words out of my mouth that I'd been wanting to say for a long time. Intense relief, I don't have to spend the rest of my life with this person.”
Liz: The day I moved out of our house and into my tiny house…I spent the whole day hauling stuff from the big house into my house, and I was so happy. I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. I couldn't quit smiling. But the icing on the cake was that day my daughter-in-law, who had caused so many problems in my marriage for years, was texting me because she was mad at my sister for something. For the first time I finally just told her that her behavior was ridiculous and was no longer my problem. I handled it so well that I actually texted my therapist who had been with me all through my marriage issues and told her ‘I'm going to be ok, aren't I?’ And she responded that yes, I was going to be great.”
Michelle told her ex she wanted a divorce, spent the next couple of hours packing clothes and essentials, and went to stay at her mom's house which was empty for the winter. She said, "I walked into that house, closed the door, and felt the lightest I had felt in years. The relief was instantaneous, like sliding into a warm bath, or turning on a light. And people did not stop telling me for months how different I seemed, how much happier, even my dental hygienist! I remembered who I had been, and who I am."
Meagan is still working on it. She is a planner, and won't make the move until she's completely prepared. She has a binder of paperwork she's collecting for the eventual legal work, hidden in a bag in the back of her car. It has taken her a long time, but she says, "It’s good to simply know freedom is at the end."
I began this newsletter by describing one of the things I did after I found myself free to choose activities as I pleased. But the very first day I truly felt the difference, an actual shift in myself, was an hour I spent trying in vain to take photos of prairie dogsand, more successfully, tree swallows outside of Council Grove State Park. In my old life I’d have been hurrying up, knowing I needed to get home for whatever purpose, pinning down the reasons in my head for why I had been gone so long, and dreading the return. But that day, I just clicked, and clicked, and clicked some more, until I decided I was ready to move on to something else.
The Journey One day you finally knew what you had to do and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice– though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles. “Mend my life!” each voice cried. But you didn’t stop. You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations– though their melancholy was terrible. It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones. But little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice, which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do– determined to save the only life you could save. -Mary Oliver
Don’t judge. Being an extra is fun!
Montana has zero waiting period and if you can find an attorney or mediator, a dissolution of marriage can go as fast as they can schedule you in.
I’d never noticed charcuterie boards either, but now here they are on every menu!
And because I am a recovering English teacher, I will apply the ageless plot diagram to my piece although I think I messed up the rising action vs. conflict. I said “recovering…”
Happy birthday, my friend!
Truthfully I cannot imagine this experience and I told Karen this. But I think it’s a fantastic idea, for the couples who can do it, and especially wonderful for their kids and even friends who don’t have to feel awkward about “taking sides.”
I know they are ground squirrels. I just like calling them prairie dogs.