A friend of mine once told me that “no one wins in a divorce.” At the time I thought, “sure, but it’ll be so much better to be divorced than to be married.” Overall, though, my friend was right. When you get married, you have the crazy sense that you are with this person and it’s the two of you against the world and you’re making your way together. It’s a inspiring time. At least it was for me. I got married young, in a church I was struggling to believe in. I thought that getting married would help me understand the greater religious mysteries that confused me. I guess I thought that with marriage and children would come some maturity and I would suddenly understand the why of life and that would help me understand the church I belonged to. I got married and I had three kids in quick succession. I was 25-years-old when my youngest was born.
I was raised to think that getting married was the ultimate goal and once married, my good husband would make all the big decisions, he would take care of me and he would do everything for our family. I achieved the “ultimate” goal at 20 years old. I also thought that being married meant that I was worth loving and it meant I was a worthwhile person, because someone wanted me enough to marry me.
I think my first husband and I were too young to really know how to be in a relationship and to be two independent people at the same time. That takes time and years and life experience. We didn’t have a lot of that. Instead, we spent our sixteen years together wanting to change the other. The relationship started in a religious patriarchy of control and verbal abuse, and escalated as the years went on to domestic violence, financial abuse, severe emotional abuse and I became adept at lying to my family, my small circle of friends and my community.
There were so many signs I should have seen, so many markers along the way, but I ignored them, thinking that if I loved my husband truly and did my best to make our marriage work he would love me truly and want our marriage to work. Most importantly, I thought that if I accepted him truly he would accept me truly. It took me almost 16 years to realize that we have to accept ourselves first, our worth does not come from others, but from within.
My marriage ended badly, because it started with two people who were really not ready. My first husband needed a mother figure because his own mother disowned him when he was in his teens. I grew up with a strong fear of abandonment because my father left our family when I was young. Even though I had a good relationship with my dad, I still feared being abandoned (this is still true today, though I am working on it) and so I was looking for a man to “pick me” over everything and everyone else. I was looking for someone who would love me so much they would never abandon me.
So when my marriage went “pear-shaped” instead of letting go, I hung on for dear life. I didn’t live as though I knew we were closing in on the end. I just tried to make it through each day thinking, naively, that love would save the day.
And it did. But it wasn’t my love for him that saved the day, it was my love for myself and my kids.
Near the end of my marriage, when I was in my mid-thirties, my subconscious was screaming at me to get out, but I did not want to hear it. I judged myself too harshly and thought that if I walked away, it meant I was failing and it also meant that I wasn’t worth someone’s love. It meant I would be alone and unlovable. I had already left the religion of my youth and had lost almost every friend I ever had. I was alone. My sense of self-worth was in the toilet and it didn’t help that every day my husband was telling me that he loved God more than me. I mean, who can compete with God?
Then one day, I knew that if I didn’t do something to get out (mind you I had no job, no money, no bank account in my name) I was going to die; from violence. So I called a crises line. The woman who answered talked to me, she gave me information on women’s shelters and she referred me to the YWCA for free help. I quickly called the YWCA and the woman who answered that line listened to me and listened some more. I told her my entire life story. At the end I told her I was so scared, but she said “You already had the courage to leave that church, you have the strength in you to leave this marriage, too.”
Somehow, it was like the universe or fate or some divine entity out there finally granted me the ability to discern, to see what my life was about with my first husband and to see how I could make my life different starting right then.
I’ll end where I started. “No one wins in a divorce.” These are very true words. Though hopefully each person in a family, including children, can come out at the end with a sense that difficult choices, like ending a marriage, can be made with courage and conviction and can eventually bring peace and quiet and a growing sense of self-esteem.