Twice is nice, but not when it comes to divorce. Dawn Elyse Warden shares the heartbreak of second separation.
By the end of 2014, I will officially be divorced for a second time, a fact that has left me deeply heartbroken and carrying a profound sense of failure, and to a degree, shame. These last two sentiments, the byproduct of being a parent and feeling responsible for my children’s perception of marriage as they evolve from teens and young adults into husbands and wives. I don’t have to tell anyone who’s been through it. Divorce is a gut-wrenching experience.
As I told my three youngest on a very sad Friday afternoon after their stepfather had come over to talk about his decision to divorce, my respect and appreciation for marriage—and the belief that a happy, life-long relationship is possible—has not wavered. I was clear that marriage is hard work and that there are ebbs and flows of great times, good times, just OK times and pretty sucky times—much like the dynamics of sibling relationships.
We talked about some marriages needing to end because of alcoholism, drug addiction, abuse, mental illness, and other reasons more nebulous, such as one spouse wanting freedom or more personal time to pursue a non-traditional career. But my message remained the same: Marriage is not easy under perfect conditions and there are rarely perfect conditions. My advice was to prepare themselves not for the ideal times, but for the challenging times, so that they have the tools and mindset to stay the course (or right an already sinking ship) when the fireworks die down, responsibilities multiply, money dwindles, and tensions and miscommunications rise.
I assured them that many of these things will happen, but also that they’re not valid reasons to head toward the door and away from the serious commitment that they’ve made to themselves and to another person. I didn’t need to tell them that divorce brings with it a lot of pain and loss; they’ve already been there. Going through it a second time has been incredibly debilitating to me. They may be processing it differently, but they’ve not been immune and are old enough to form their own opinions and to put up emotional walls.
If I didn’t say it earlier, I am not proud of being divorced.
Not once, and certainly not twice. I worry about what it conveys to those who don’t know me, who I will meet in professional settings. Inevitably the personal questions come up, and to me, I feel that “twice-divorced” reflects something negative about my character that could be misjudged by someone wanting to do business with or hire me. I don’t know if others have thought about this in similar fashion. I certainly did not “opt in” for this second divorce, yet I can’t shake the notion that it makes me look tarnished in some way. This is not a judgment on anyone out there who has been in my shoes; I know many people for whom the third time really was the charm. Then again, I know many, including my father, for whom that was not true. But where he was unlucky, and occasionally foolish in love, he was rich in parenting skills and has been a devoted father to his own brood of five.
My mother, though separated and divorced from him when I was still a baby, did go on to have a very long and generally happy and satisfying second marriage. However, divorce is a part of my genetics. I wasn’t happy about it as a kid, and I am less so today. Because no matter how much of a modern woman that I am, I still believe in marriage. I believe in the beauty of a longterm relationship where a couple can look back at the roller coaster ride they’ve been on and say, “Despite the odds, the disconnected times, the outside distractions to romance and coupledom, financial straits and mismatched schedules, we made it.”
My first marriage lasted 16 years. This new marriage, 20 months. A damn shame, because many couples therapists will say that the first year of marriage is often the hardest. And in fact, this turned out to be true more at the start of Year Two when the pressure of finances, slow-growing entrepreneurships, job hunts, sports schedules, and teenage angst and antics crept in to our sacred space. We both knew what we were dealing with, having been under the same roof for two years prior to our getting hitched, but our expectations and commitment were different.
I can only speak for myself, as that is the fair and courteous thing to do, but after making mistakes and not trying hard enough to save my first marriage, I was determined to do the in-depth analysis, use the tools and make the lifestyle adjustments to take this second one to the next level. That doesn’t mean I didn’t make mistakes along the way, but I said “I do” at the altar with 120% intent to stay married.
Which is why, along with the heartbreak and sense of betrayal in our disparate commitment, I feel vast disappointment in both myself and my husband. And, the need to express my stance against divorce as the mature way to correct relationship issues and personal shortcomings. Doing the work, as a couple and individually, when you really don’t want to, is where maturity and growth flourish. And who among us does not need a dose of both now and again?
When my first husband and I separated then divorced, there were very specific reasons, and I openly claim a lion’s share of responsibility. I remember the therapist telling us during one session, that repair takes a lot of time, years even, and that staying in a marriage when there are difficulties and hurts is so much harder than walking away, but that the definition of marriage is “commitment to doing the work.”
We thought a lot about what she said, but ultimately, we didn’t know where to pick up the pieces and were too wounded to try. So when he asked me one day, if we thought we could put things back together—a few months after we had both started new romantic relationships—I told him I thought it would be too hard because of there now being other people entangled in our hearts and bodies, and he agreed. Deep down, what I felt most at that moment, and why the pain side is so deep for me in this second divorce, was that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering what might have been with this new man in my life.
(Cue Alanis Morrisette…)
Fast-forward 10 years and here I am again. Though my signature is still needed, the future has been sealed: Another retainer fee, another round of furniture and clothing and tools and bikes and stereo systems and jewelry and lingerie and photographs and memories to pack into boxes; passwords to be changed and dates to be forgotten, friends to be lost, and now, Facebook to fret over … Another broken-home experience for my children and another reason for them to be very anxious about how their own marriages will turn out. Or if they’ll ever trust themselves or their own family history enough to take that step at all. They may be older this time around, but I know from my parents’ history that reluctantly adjusting to stepparents and then having to undo that relationship and the associated emotions, particularly trust, still has impact, even for high school and college-aged “kids.”
All of the above is why I am daring to share these words, and why I will continue to write about this in some form for months to come. I want my children to believe that they can have a happy marriage. Whether they become parents or not is irrelevant. Kids are not the only stressors to a romantic relationship. Thus far, I have not been a very good teacher in the marriage department. So for them, I want to start a conversation, with myself and with others, to help them understand the work needed individually and as a couple to make a marriage last.
I am too old to have a chance at a life-long marriage, and with a heart as heavy as mine, I don’t know that I have the courage to risk a third marriage (let alone a date). But that doesn’t quell my desire to be in a relationship where I can reflect back a few decades and say, just like all those wonderful couples whom I admire, including my dear grandparents, “Look at what we’ve endured; we made it.”
For now, it’s back to being a single mom and doing what I can to help these five beautiful creatures rewrite their family history in a way that I could not.
This post was previously published on the READ.eat.DEW.write blog.
Photos—Clair Pruett Photography courtesy of author.