An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
How does someone end a relationship gracefully? How does someone walk away from a marriage knowing she has had and created more love than mistakes? How does someone honor family and children and still separate from a partner of 25 years?
My experience has been that the two times we are subject to the most unsolicited advice is when we’re pregnant and when we’re getting divorced. I cannot tell you the number of people during my divorce, particularly other women, who felt free to tell me that the choices I was making for myself and my children were just wrong, wrong, wrong. I was not peaceful enough, or conciliatory enough, or Zen enough for their taste. I really do try not to be an asshole, but for the record, fuck those people.
Since you’ve asked for my advice I will give it to you, but I would urge you to take it with a grain of salt. A marriage that lasts a quarter-century is a complicated beast, however amicably you and your husband may approach its dying. I cannot know, nor can anyone else, the tally of unacknowledged or unresolved issues, betrayals, or disappointments you all have logged in all that time to lead to this moment.
There is also no one right way to divorce. Some people can do all the negotiation themselves, fill out DIY paperwork from the internet, get a judge to sign it, and they’re done. Some people hire a mediator, hammer all the details out with a neutral third party, and call it quits. Some people need the strongly enforced boundaries of the court system in order to extricate themselves from whatever tangled knot of emotions, dependents, and assets they’ve built a life around.
You can navigate any and all of these scenarios with grace, which in this case I define as owning your own emotional material, managing your own primal needs for power, control, and safety, and treating your soon-to-be former spouse and children as separate people from you who are having their own complicated experience and deserve basic respect. Not in the definition, I hope you’ll note, is anything about how your soon-to-be former spouse or children behave, or anyone’s experience of grief, rage, or resentment. Also not in the definition is sailing through the whole experience without a single misstep. You are divorcing your husband, not your humanity.
You will not manage to be a paragon of kindness, patience, and emotional self-containment at every moment. How could anyone manage to live through the upending of their entire lives and do that? Don’t add unnecessary suffering to your already full plate by drowning it in unrealistic expectations. Accept that you will stumble, commit to owning it, make amends as necessary, and keep going.
Grace is not perfection, some sort of stasis that if you fall out of it it doesn’t count. Grace is movement, and therefore, change. It is call and response, absorb and deflect, fall and then rise, again and again, and again.
You say there has been more love than mistakes, and if you can hold onto that sense of the balance of things through the process, god bless you. If it is truly that you both feel you have grown apart through no fault or specific action, and it is just a sad, but not contentious, disentanglement, then maintaining some sense of grace may be a comparatively easy thing.
As you move through the process of separation and divorce, however, your sense (or his) of the balance on the emotional tally sheet may shift. Unexpected waves of feeling may come crashing in, and it can be hard to maintain your equilibrium when you suddenly find yourself in that deep water. What I will offer here will help you stay afloat until you get to the shore that is just barely over the horizon right now, where you are safe, emotionally sound, and single again.
First, I would sit down, separate from your husband, and contemplate what sort of relationship you want with him post-divorce. Are you hoping to only really overlap in order to co-parent the children, but otherwise maintain totally separate lives? Are you hoping to maintain a friendly rapprochement that could involve spending time together at family holidays or events for the kids, knowing that one or both of you will likely choose new partners that will have to be welcomed? Are you hoping to stay good friends, offering emotional support to each other, but not be romantic partners anymore?
The rules of engagement, so to speak, will depend on the desired outcome, but the reality is that you may not both want the same thing. If that is the case no amount of reverse-engineering will reconcile those differences. Still, thinking deeply about what you are hoping for, even if you have to hold those hopes with a considerable lack of attachment, can help you choose how to behave in order to make space for that possibility.
Second, here’s the brutal reality: if you have ceased going back and forth about it and decided to divorce, there is no sense in communicating about what caused everything to fall apart any longer. That is done, and no amount of talking about it is going to change anything. You will just end up in an endless loop of competing narratives, which does not serve either of you. If you want to go to therapy together to negotiate how co-parenting can best be accomplished, great. Some people find that very fruitful. But whatever grief, anger, or regret may emerge for you over your marriage is for you to discuss with your friends, a therapist, or some other trusted adult, and the reverse is also true. While you are still actively disentangling yourselves you cannot be each other’s emotional support blankets (or punching bags, for that matter).
The only regret I have regarding the way I dealt with my ex-husband through our separation and divorce was how long it took me to understand this and stop going around the mulberry bush with him about whose fault it all was, both explicitly and implicitly. I was so used to being emotionally entangled with him, even though it hurt, that it was very hard to release the need to have him see me or understand my point of view. I won’t assign motivations to him for why he persisted in trying to engage emotionally with me for so long, but boy, was he like a dog with a favorite bone. It was the unnecessary suffering cherry on the top of a crap sundae. No one needs that.
What you do need is a disruption of your existing emotional patterns, and a lot of how those patterns play out is in how we communicate. Remove, for the time being, any emotional content from your communication with each other. You can be civil and respectful, even collaborative; you don’t have to be cold or unfeeling. But striving to be emotionally neutral in your communication with each other will go a long way towards you achieving the grace you’re hoping for.
If you can manage that while speaking directly to each other, that’s great. If for a while you need to stick to written communication, that’s okay. However, text is a perilous beast. It’s hard not to feel like the other person is supposed to respond immediately or vice versa, and it can be very hard to correctly read or convey tone. I would only use it for emergencies, myself. The same goes for Facebook Messenger, Marco Polo, or any other quick message app. Stick to email.
In your inbox, set it up so that any emails from him dump immediately into a designated folder. That way, they won’t surprise you or get lost with all the junk. Never check that folder less than two hours before bedtime. Seriously, sleep is precious. You aren’t going to help anyone by spinning all night. Ask me how I know.
When you do check email, never send a reply for at least 12–24 hours. If you want to draft a reply and get all your emotions out have at it, but DO NOT send it. Come back later, strip all the feelings out of it, and then send it. This will suck, but it’s worth it in the long run. Trust me.
Also, put whatever blocks or filters in place that you need to not be confronted with whatever he is doing and saying on social media. This may mean removing your connections to him, but it also may involve removing or silencing connections temporarily with those people that you have in common. While you are haggling over kids and assets, not to mention wading through waves of emotions, seeing him celebrating some new thing he bought or someone congratulating him on his new girlfriend, can be a riptide. It’s hard to be graceful when you find yourself suddenly emotionally drowning.
All of it comes down to this for me: we are always responsible for how we treat other people, regardless of our emotional state. I don’t think that “I didn’t mean it” or “I was just angry/sad/overwhelmed” are ever excuses that are acceptable for adults. From beginning to end, I stand behind every single thing I ever said or did through my divorce because I have to. There are no take-backs. I don’t get out of it because I was in crisis and the whole thing was an emotional shitshow. Would I do some things differently now? Yes, but only because I know more about myself and how to move through the world as the person I want to be, which I only learned from going through it as exactly who I was then.
Setting and maintaining emotional and communication boundaries while you move through this process allows you time and space to make sure you can stand behind everything you do or say. It may seem like a burden, but it is building the strength and integrity to make you not just graceful, but formidable. Formidable can be useful when you’re in the world alone again.
The only other things I will say are about the kids, because they really are the hardest part of all of this, in my experience. Whatever is going on between the two of you, try your utmost to keep them out of it. Do not talk to them about your struggles with or feelings about their father. Try to never speak poorly of him, and if you do (which most of us do at least once), own it. Apologize to them. Tell them you both love them and that is the most important thing because it is from their perspective.
If they are angry at him, or at you, don’t get sucked into it. Let them have their own experience, whatever it may be. They deserve the same sort of emotional boundaries and baseline respect that he does. If you can afford to get them some therapy, even if it’s short-lived, do it. It will signal to them that their experience matters, and provide them a neutral party to express whatever they are going through.
I am so sorry that you are going through this. Even if it is the right thing to do, going through a divorce is earth-shattering. It is a death. Who you thought you were is not who you will be when you get to the other side of the necessary grief and healing. You will get to the other side, however, and I believe it is entirely possible to do it with grace, no matter how you dance.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
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