I was at a meeting the other day, on a quite unrelated topic, when a man across the room spoke up. “I’m just looking for some hope,” he said.
His gaze was pinned to his lap. He wouldn’t look at any of us.
He explained that it had been his little girl’s birthday recently and he’d barely survived it. The sideways glances of his ex-wife’s family. The lack of friendly comments. The way his little girl noticed none of it as she gave him a great big hug, then dashed away to play with her new toys.
Was his daughter going to be all right?
Was he going to be all right?
Another woman leaned forward. “It took 5 years,” she said gently. “In and out of the courts. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have let the lawyers draw it out. My children’s college fund ended up lining their pockets. No one won.”
Heads nodded. Silence fell upon the room.
It takes courage to share the pain of divorce.
Not everyone is sympathetic, especially online. One popular blogger wrote, “Divorce is immature and selfish. Don’t do it.” Her post got 1600 likes and 725 comments.
Even among the sympathetic, it’s hard to know what to say, aside from offering the same old lukewarm aphorisms:
“Don’t worry, it’ll be all right.”
“You’ll make it through.”
“Think on the bright side.”
Hope needs honesty. When things are that bad, “You’re gonna be fine” doesn’t cut it.
I’ve spent years exploring what it takes to save a marriage. Some of the popular advice makes me flinch.
Some marriage counselors believe that fear is a good reason to stay in a marriage. If you’re afraid of the financial and emotional cost of divorce, then you’ll double your efforts to make it work.
Part of that is true. Divorce is bad for you.
Getting divorced increases your risk of chronic health conditions, such as heart disease or cancer. It’s harder on your physical health than your mental health. You can find happiness again, but the impact on your body can’t be erased.
But the other part isn’t true.
Threats don’t keep you married.
If the only reason you’re hanging on is because some expert wants you to believe that what lies on the other side is worse than what you’re going through, then get rid of the expert. Guilt-tripping doesn’t help anyone.
For good people, divorce is the option of last resort. They wouldn’t be considering it if they saw any other way through.
Unfortunately, starting the divorce process changes their relationship in irrevocable ways. They begin to see a very different side of their spouse. As the saying goes, you never really know someone until you divorce them.
“If I’d known he was capable of that kind of behavior when I married him,” one woman remarked, “I wouldn’t have touched him with a 10-foot-pole. That man is cruel. He takes pleasure in doing everything he can to make my life miserable. I think I could have coped with that but for the impact on the kids. He can’t hurt me without hurting them. I wish he’d think about that once in a while.”
No wonder no one wants to talk about divorce. It brings up our worst fears.
Let’s talk about love! Let’s talk about light and goodness, rather than pain and shadows. Teach us how to save our marriages, rather than confront the darkness. Put a safe distance between us and those who failed. They broke the sanctity of marriage. We won’t.”
Divorce polarizes. You’re either a saint or a villain, depending on where you stand.
So I was relieved to hear one last speaker add her thoughts.
“You know,” she said, “getting out of my first marriage was the best thing I ever did. But what really started the healing was realizing that I wouldn’t be the person I am now without him. I’m grateful to him for that.”
She looked around at us.
“If I’d married a kind, supportive man, I could have gone my whole life without developing a spine. I’d never have known my own strength. But getting out of that marriage taught me that, even if no one else was on my side, I was on my side.”
The room nodded in unison.
The speaker smiled at the man who’d started the conversation. “Maybe that’s what your ex-wife is teaching you. You can either agree with her, that you’re a bad person and you deserve to be shunned, or you can start to ask what this situation is in your life to show you.
“Maybe you don’t need other people’s approval as much as you thought. Maybe you can forgive yourself instead of waiting for her to extend an olive branch. Maybe you can be a better father now. Who knows?”
“Isn’t there a quote?” someone broke in. “Turn every obstacle into an opportunity?”
She nodded. “And the biggest obstacles are the biggest growth opportunities. Even divorce.”
I saw the man nodding vigorously as he wiped his eyes with his shirtsleeve. “You’re right. I’ve never been on my own side before. I just sit back and let other people judge me.” A smile broke across his face. “I guess I’ve got some learning to do.”
“As do we all,” I murmured to myself.
As do we all.