On May 1, 2007, I walked up to the little two-bedroom unit that was now my home. I fumbled for a brass key and opened the door to the next chapter of my life. Overhead, birds sang in a tree, utterly ignorant of my pain. I strained a glance through the filtered sunlight and wished for a moment I were one of them.
I’d divorced once before, but this was different. This time, children were involved; my beautiful, precious little girls – pure and innocent, and unaware of the seismic shift that had just occurred in their lives.
I reached for the door handle and stepped awkwardly into the lounge room. It was tiny, and the sound of my footsteps echoed my emptiness. A hard tile floor and four stained walls mirrored the hollow vessel my heart had become. This was it. I was alone.
Exhausted and shattered, I shuffled over to the kitchen bench and pressed my weight against it as I began to cry. I’d left my little babies, and tonight I would sleep alone for the first time in a decade. It was more than I could bare.
I’d like to tell you that the pain soon passed and that I began the process of rebuilding my life. But as so many of you will attest, that just wasn’t the case. Before long, the kitchen bench held dozens of bottles of cheap alcohol, as I sank into a deep depression, with booze my sole companion.
A couple of friends offered support, and I’m afraid I called upon their help more times than they’d probably wished. But without them, I don’t know what would have happened. We men can be stubborn as hell when it comes to depression, and more often than not, we turn to our work or alcohol (or other vices) to try and cope.
Lucky for me, one friend never gave up on me. Without Nick, who often sat there and just listened, I might not have made it through. Without his support, my girls might have grown up without their dad. We don’t keep in touch all that much anymore, but I credit him with saving my sanity and quite possibly, my life.
Many nights, I cried myself to sleep. Clouded by the effects of too much wine, I’d stumble into bed and remember all those times my little girl, Sarah, would crawl into bed with me. Like a tiny blonde cherub, she’d walk from her room into mine and push me gently to make a space for her. We’d snuggle together and drift back to sleep – often in the same embrace when the sun streamed through the bedroom window. Even as I write this, I feel my throat tightening and tears starting come. I miss those times, even 12 years on.
But things did change. Despite the tumult of ending an eleven-year marriage and the legal wrangling that ensued, the sun did shine on my face again. My emergence from that darkness was thanks to a woman I’d met – the woman who is now my wife. God only knows why she chose to be with me; why she allowed herself to be the subject of ridicule and suspicion; even violence at the hand of an angry aggressor. But she did. She stayed. And she gave me all the time I needed to drag myself out of the abyss. It’s no wonder I love her.
I had nothing to offer. There were no promises of future fortune and no easy road. I’d emerged from the mess with no assets to my name and $140,000 of debt. I guess she saw something in me that I couldn’t, at least not then.
As the years passed and the unpleasantness faded, I was deeply grateful that my girls seemed to be okay. They’d taken to Yingying, and she to them. It looked like we’d be fine after all.
In time, I became friends with my ex-wife again. I helped her move house and we sought common ground on issues related to the girls. We still do. The simple fact is, I really liked hanging out with Violeta. She’s funny, sarcastic and blunt as a sledgehammer. We should have just been friends – not husband and wife. But there you go. Sometimes it takes a shitload of pain to recognise simple things like that.
Now that we’ve moved on with our lives, it’s clear to me that divorce was the only answer for us. To have stayed in a toxic relationship, where our values and ideals clashed almost daily, was never going to work. And it would have been terrible for the girls, too. A friend at the time gave me some very stern advice just prior to the separation.
He said, “Peter, if you’re miserable and depressed all the time, if you’re not living the authentic version of you, you’re doing your children an incredible disservice. And you’re setting a dangerous example. If your girls matter to you, you need to end the relationship.”
He was right. It’s better for kids to be raised by individuals who love them than by a couple who hate each other.
I was lucky. A close friend kept me away from the cliff long enough for my new wife to show me the light. Sounds religious, I know, but I’m talking simple mechanics, here. People need people. Very few of us make it through the hell of divorce without the help of a committed friend.
And worse (this is the big ‘but’), men who remain alone after divorce are at far greater risk of death than those who remarry. According to the Harvard Medical School, an MRFIT study of 10,904 American married men, those men who divorced were 37% more likely to die during the nine-year study than men who remained married.
Divorce also triggers a sharp increase in the rate of suicide by men, but not women.
They went on to say, “Marriage appears to have a positive effect on a variety of health outcomes. Mental health is the most prominent; married men have a lower risk of depression and a higher likelihood of satisfaction with life in retirement than their unmarried peers. Being married has also been linked to better cognitive function, a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, improved blood sugar levels, and better outcomes for hospitalised patients.”
So my advice to you, as someone who’s walked this lonely walk, is this. Toxic relationships benefit no one – least of all your children. If marriage counselling is mutually agreed upon and there’s even a glimmer of hope, do it. But if it fails, or you’re beyond its ability to help, end it. Get divorced. And do it as amicably and humanely possible. Don’t be spiteful. Play the long game.
And for everyone’s sake, get as much support as you can because you’ll need it.
Recognise that life is incredibly short, and your job as a father is to make the transition to being the ex-husband of your kids’ mother as smooth and painless as possible. Yes, you might lose all your material worth. Don’t roll over like so many of us do, but also remember that most successful men fail many times before building their legacy. You can rebuild again.
Then when the dust has finally settled, get back to who you truly are. Throughout the carnage, read books and mix with people who lift you up and show you the light over the hill. Become the best version of you possible. And if you’re ready, one day someone special might just walk into your life and share the remaining chapters with you. That’s what I hope for you.
Tomorrow is a brand new day, and you have an opportunity to decide to move forward, to create the life you know you deserve. One day at a time.
Previously published on midlifetribe.com
Photo credit: Getty Images