When you get married, you don’t see an end. You both see someone that you can love forever. That dream is everything. They are someone that captures every part of your identity in their own existence. They feel the same way. This person is someone you want to grow old loving, dying with a life that includes you both. You both want to be partners in life, ready to stand up against everything time throws at you. You’re ready to prove your commitments and adaptability. This will preserve the most important relationship in your lives.
But then, whether it be 5 years, 15 years, or 40 years later, something changes. Sometimes it’s a gentle mutual conclusion that for your future happiness. The committed love you have for each other; the love that only wishes to see you both happy and fall in love again. In a world where marriage = monogamy, you set each other free. You try to remain friends, and you might succeed. You might drift apart — the occasional post card or holiday party coincidental meeting. At some point later, a few years, or 20 years, you may find nostalgia. Again, you may recall wonderful times. You may even reconnect to share your new lives — the lives you released each other to have.
Sometimes, it’s not gentle at all. It’s a terminal disease that doesn’t show symptoms until it’s already too late. It’s the break down of communication, or worse, the impact of communication that was never there. “Little things” like forgotten phone calls or being “too tired” all the time from careers add up. Your lives’ dreams and passions add up as pieces of yourself cast aside for the sake of “compromise”. Underlying tensions and insecurities break into your day to day lives. Politics, religion, finances, and pain pile up. As this cancer grows, if it’s not caught soon enough it metastasizes and starts to kill you. Even if it’s caught soon enough, the treatment may not work. Marital counseling, renewals of vows, couples’ support groups, date nights, 3 nice things a day for your spouse, self-help-section marital guidebooks — these treatments can still fail.
Worse yet — it seems like it’s working. You’ve both convinced yourselves that it’s working. Everyone around you believes that it’s working. You believe. Instead, in complete denial, you’re destroying yourself inside. Because it’s not working and a small, aching, growing, toxic part of you knows it. This person, this relationship, your “love”, is part of your identity. And this existence on which you planned your whole future, is killing you.
You have a choice between two forms of death. The death of your life happiness, or the death of your old self, your identity, your relationship. You have to sacrifice something.
You have one life to live and one shot at happiness. You’ve both tried until you couldn’t anymore. You’re tired, worn down and wounded by your own defeat. Now, you’re about to deliver that final blow that will destroy you both from the inside out.
It’s sudden, but it isn’t. You have that phone call; have that conversation over dinner. It’s on the couch; in the bedroom; in the back yard; at your parents’ house. The conversation that sits in your stomach like molten lead or freshly mixed cement — you can’t decide. You both speak calmly. Your mind screams violently. You both knew, some small part knew.
You cry. They cry. Your parents cry. Your siblings cry. Your friends cry. Your in-laws cry. Your children cry. Massive collective wounds open and it feels like everyone is being swallowed whole. The world is out of control and things are happening so fast, but are taking so long. You lash out and blame them while they lash out and blame you right back. You’re filled with unfathomable pain. Your life, your identity, and your life commitment, collapses beneath you.
You’re suddenly alone during all the times you’ve become accustom to having someone around. You’re talking to yourself as though out of the shadows, this echoing emptiness, you’ll hear someone respond. You’re forgetting to eat because it seems useless to cook for only one person. You’re still buying foods you hated, but would buy out of habit, for someone, and watching it rot, uneaten. Your home can’t find the proper balance between too much stuff and too little. You can still hear the silence. You stop watching TV, cleaning the kitchen, folding the laundry, calculating the budget. Even listening to music, going out to eat, going out with friends ceases. You stop functioning because for the first time in your recollection, “you” is just one person.
Your friends, your family, your coworkers approach you; they mourn you while you exist as a living ghost of who you once were. They ritualistically drag you out. They introduce you to “other single people”. They suggest you go on a vacation; go take care of yourself; go take a break. They greet you with hesitant smiles and overwhelm you with invitations. You’re overwhelmed with how alone you feel while surrounded by people. How much you wish you didn’t feel this way. You want to take it all back. You want to wake up from this nightmare. They all eventually give up.
Someone you once knew, maybe even someone you call a friend, makes a snide or frustrated remark — “You need a therapist.” You consider it. The act of calling someone to talk about your “problem” — the one you blame yourself for because you created it. You try looking outside your window for support. Try getting online. It is all too overwhelming. You decide to find a self-help book with the least assuming title and back cover that speaks to you… at least a little. You learn the adjective agoraphobic. You don’t return phone calls for two weeks.
Sometime later, you read the self-help book again. Or maybe you throw it out. You start a journal. You make short term goals. You start volunteering. You pick up a new hobby. You get a new haircut. You make new friends that you fail to keep. You start spending time with old friends that waited for your call. You make new friends you succeed at keeping. Your friends start to fill your world again. You finish your book list or video game list. You smile randomly on the street because someone smiled at you. You get the letter in the mail that says your legal name changed.
You find new routines and start cleaning. Your start with the kitchen, the bathroom, the attic, the closets, the pantry, the bedroom, the office. That leads to purging: old papers, old notebooks, old invitations, old greeting cards, old food, old magazines, old furniture, old photographs, old CDs, old perfumes, old toothpaste. The purging leads to overflowing boxes with everything you “don’t need”, defined as everything in your sight that feels heavy just by looking at it, or everything familiar. You give away everything that connected you to the time before “you” meant one person.
It feels so sudden — the daylight, the weather, the way a bird hops on the ground, the sound of wind against old windows, the flicker of lights in old buildings, the sounds of rush hour traffic beginning at 4AM — it all becomes real. Somehow, you didn’t notice it all, and if you did, you didn’t notice you noticed. You feel like you can do anything. You can do anything? You can do anything.
You learn that you’re not such a bad person to be alone around. Contrary to how it felt to have your concept of forever torn apart. You slowly start to take back activities you loved what seems like so long ago. You start to remember your own preferences and likes again. You see old friends again. You choose not to see some old friends again. You buy yourself a new wardrobe. You apply to a new, better job in a new, better city. You accept the offer and smile graciously thanking those that remind you in their farewells that “you deserve this.”
Time goes by and you have a new home, a new phone number, a new fashion, a new car, a new job, new friends, and a new you. You’re asked one day how you ended up here. You think for a moment and respond, “after my marriage ended…” for the first time without feeling your eyes water. The first time without feeling your chest cave under the weight of those words. You don’t even notice the accomplishment.
It’s been years now. You’re seeing someone, or you’re happily alone. Perhaps you’re ready to make a life commitment to someone again. You remember select happy times from your first marriage with a bittersweet nostalgia. You may try to block out the time spent between the two definitions of “you”. Occasionally, you miss your old home, old city, old life and old “you.” Though, you’ve rebuilt every part those people and places used to fill. You remind yourself when the sick guilt comes — usually late at night when you’re alone — that those things don’t exist anymore. You remind yourself that you had to sacrifice everything. That version of you died so this version could be born.