Is Your Squad Divorce-Proof?

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Despite TV’s portrayal of female friendship as nurturing, unwavering, even strengthening throughout trying times, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the people we think we can count on are more like shadows – apparent when things are bright but invisible in the darkest hours.

In the early days of my divorce – a time when I was barely keeping my head above turbulent waters – I instinctively threw out a lifeline to the group of women I considered to be my closest friends. A few of us had known each other since grade school. We had championed one another in our marriages, children, new homes and career changes. We shared girls’ nights, couples’ outings, and holiday gatherings for years. I needed their support and encouragement more than ever.

I wrote a lengthy email detailing my shock and disappointment over what had transpired. A group email was the fastest way to disseminate the information to everyone at once, plus I could better edit my all-over-the-place emotions from behind a keyboard. I poured out my heart and in turn, received instantaneous replies of mutual sadness, anger and disbelief along with promises of big hugs reinforced by even bigger, stronger margaritas.

And then…? Nothing. Crickets.

I’ll admit, I retreated from the world for a while as I tried to sort out the chaos that was my life, but still I expected my friends to find a way to rally around me, not evaporate altogether. Where were the girlfriends who showed up on your doorstep toting Chinese take-out and a sad DVD so that you can all have a good cry? The ones who called out the jerk who just broke your heart and assured you that you’re much better off without him anyway? Oh yeah. They’re on TV.

“Only 13 per cent of divorced women list their ex-husband’s parents as part of their social network; they claimed they had difficulty maintaining relationships with their former in-laws because it was hard for the in-laws not to take sides and to act as if “blood is thicker than water.”

“Not only in-laws disappear: many divorced adults find that friends disappear as well – especially if the friendship had been formed during the marriage and was shared with the spouse. On average, people lose three friends when they get a divorce. Sometimes this is the divorced person’s idea; sometimes it is the friend’s. Divorced individuals are twice as likely as married people to break off relations with a close friend, and they are more likely to feel excluded by their former pals.”

From “Divorce: Causes and Consequences” by Alison Clarke-Stewart and Cornelia Brentano 

At first, I couldn’t figure out what had happened. Did my friends wrongly think I was strong enough to handle everything on my own or were they just too busy to risk getting sucked into someone else’s messy drama? Did they disapprove of the choices I was making or just not know how to comfort me in my hour of need?

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When I talked to my counsellor, she told me that it wasn’t at all uncommon to lose touch with certain friends during divorce. Sometimes, the issue hits too close to home (divorce could be *cough* contagious) or you are seen as a threat (not that you’d steal their men, but that you could dare to be happier(!) post-divorce). Sometimes, they’re uncomfortable with grief and don’t know how to relate to you anymore. Sometimes it’s because they just don’t want to be weighed down with heavy conversation. Face it, divorce is a real downer.

My counsellor wanted to know if I was the first in our group to go through something similar. I told her no, a friend had separated from her husband in the two years’ previous.

“And what happened to her once her marriage ended?” she asked.

I sat silent for a moment. “She stopped coming to our get-togethers. Her name would come up from time to time, but that was about it.”

“Did anyone make a point of reaching out to her?”

“A few times, I think. I mean, I didn’t because I wasn’t terribly close to her, but as I recall, she just wasn’t returning any messages. She was going through some dark stuff and so I guess we sort of stopped inviting her out for girls’ night.”

The irony hit me like a punch to the gut. I’d pushed them away.

“They discover after the divorce that the social world is like Noah’s ark – they are not accepted without their mate. Some friends withdraw from both husband and wife to avoid taking sides; others split into his and hers camps. Often, married couples do not know how to incorporate a single friend into their couple activities. They may feel threatened by the single person because he or she looms as a sexual threat or makes too many demands.

“At the same time, divorced individuals may isolate themselves from their friends because they feel that they no longer fit in, they are upset by seeing others’ happiness, or they assume that others are critical of their behavior. Especially if the divorced person is embarrassed because of the ex-spouse’s behavior, it is difficult to put on a happy face and socialize with the old gang as if nothing has happened. It is also difficult to socialize if seeing the old gang brings up painful memories of the way it used to be.”

I was deeply hurt that my friends had not reacted in the way I expected. I curled up into a ball and withdrew, not knowing what to expect from them next. Facing them might put my marriage under the microscope to be picked apart for over-analyzing, or worse, lead to an all-out pity party. While I longed to be consoled, I wanted their acceptance and empathy, not their judgement or pity.

I didn’t want anyone to walk on eggshells around me, but even I was concerned about what might set me off in that weepy state of hypersensitivity. Our usual conversations centered on home, family and marriage and we talked at length about our kids and our husbands. Where I once would have loved to share in the giggly news of romantic surprises and grand vacation plans and major home renovation projects, the idea of having to participate in such chatter appealed to me as much as a splitting migraine.

All I wanted was to feel normal again and yet, the last thing I wanted was to be around normal, happily-married people who carried on as if nothing earth-shattering had happened. My marriage imploded. The only life I knew was now in ruins. I was an entirely different person from who I was the last time any of my friends saw me.

And what would they understand about what I was going through anyway? They all still had their husbands.

“Having lost old friends, many divorced individuals lose no time trying to acquire new ones or renew friendships that existed before their marriage. Most find new friendships in their neighborhoods, work settings or formal organizations. They are likely to make friendships with other single people rather than married couples.”

They say that making friends after 40 is much more difficult than when we’re kids. Nicole Zangara, author of Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, says that building friendships requires letting our guard down, along with plenty of awkward small talk, uncomfortable moments, uncertain feelings and lots of energy depletion with near-strangers.

“There’s this notion that women should have friendships like the characters on Sex and the City. It’s not that easy and simple. You have to work on developing a friendship,” Zangara told the Boston Globe. “Maintaining friendships is equally challenging. You have your work sphere, your family sphere, and friendships — keeping all of those in order is really hard.”

I was lucky to have been able to make new friends, some of whom were also going through a split or had been through it and successfully moved on. I deepened my connection with a handful of women who had unexpectedly but graciously drawn closer to lift me up during my crisis. And later, when I met my partner, I was grateful to be welcomed and adopted into his friendship circles. Between us, we have a richly diverse group of friends, many of whom are couples enjoying their second marriages and beyond.

Earlier this year, I reached out to the friend who’d been the first in our group to divorce. She looked happy and healthy from the pictures I’d seen on Facebook. I sent her a private message to congratulate her on her exciting new business venture and to inquire how she was doing. She responded without hesitation. After we got caught up on each other’s lives, she asked if I had been in touch with anyone from the old gang. No, her neither.

She said that as she gets older, she finds herself happier with having fewer but closer friends. Me too. We both agreed that sometimes it’s good to let old relationships fall away to make room for new ones, especially if they help us move forward.

I’m hoping she and I will get together soon for a margarita so that I can tell her how truly sorry I am that I wasn’t more supportive and understanding in her time of need. That it was easier to look away than to look directly at something difficult and uncomfortable. I will assure her that going through my own divorce has made me a more compassionate person and because of that, I’m sure I can be a much better friend than I used to be.

The Upside of Humiliation

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I was eight when it happened. Climbing the school bus steps, I said good morning to my bus driver and proceeded up the aisle. My friend Darlene had already claimed our usual seat and I smiled at her, proudly clutching the drawing I had made for my teacher the night before. One moment, I was marching toward our seat and the next… WHOOMPH! I was sprawled out on the floor.

My knees stinging and my ears burning with acidic laughter, I pried opened my eyes and searched for my lunch kit, flung a few feet away. My gym bag was hurled under a seat and my drawing was crumpled beneath me.

“Have a nice trip? See you next FALL!” cackled the older boy whose foot had blocked my path. He sneered down at me for what felt like an eternity, waiting for a reaction while his dodgy gang of friends howled. Deeply embarrassed, but unwilling to give them the satisfaction of seeing me cry, I gathered up my belongings and limped to the back of the bus.

Everyone has experienced humiliation, whether because of someone else’s toxic behavior or because of our own failings. In some cases, like divorce due to infidelity, it feels like both. Discovering a spouse’s betrayal is the quintessential humiliation because it means a great deal of deceit went on right under your nose. They were having their cake and eating it too… now you’re the ultimate chump and the joke’s on you.

I’ve read that humiliation is the result of internally disagreeing with the injury that has been inflicted upon you. You’re put in a situation where your pride, honor and dignity have been stripped away, and now you feel degraded and devalued on top of being deceived. I should’ve known this was going on, you tell yourself, how stupid I must be.

During my divorce, I was plagued by infuriating dreams that always ended in being taunted by my snickering ex. It felt like being eight years old again, dazed and splayed out in the aisle of that school bus. Of course, it all made perfect sense. After 20 years in what I thought to be a solid marriage, I got tripped up by lies and fell flat in front of everyone.

The terror of being humiliated is powerful; it’s what continues to rank the fear of public speaking above the fear of being buried alive. We get so caught up in what others think of us that it can be paralyzing. Heaven forbid, we are singled out as different, or made to be the subject of a school bus prank, nasty joke or neighborhood gossip.

But here’s the thing about humiliation and really, most kinds of emotional setbacks: you can recover from it by shifting your attitude toward what has happened.

Personally, I found it helpful to realize that no one can make you feel humiliated, it’s something we bring on ourselves. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” and it’s true. It means you can change the narrative of your story and insist on a different ending. We can let past events smolder and consume us from the inside, or we can use them as combustion to start and fuel our engine toward something better. Transform that mortification into motivation, so to speak.

I began peeling away the layers of my humiliation: 1) I had this perceived notion that my ex was laughing behind my back because I had been so easily outsmarted; 2) I was embarrassed for having foolishly loved and trusted someone so unworthy of my love and trust (try asking your family doctor to be tested for the whole gamut of STIs without feeling two inches tall); and lastly, 3) I felt ashamed for my “obvious” deficiencies as a wife.

Life coach Martha Beck says that if your shame is triggered because of what you are rather than what you do, you need to stop trying to change your behavior and rethink your beliefs. So I started at square one: my belief that the rejection was the result of something I did or could have prevented.

It took time, but I finally arrived at a mind shift. Mocking your vows and the life you have built with another person is the kind of heartlessness you’d expect from the devil himself, not your spouse. But the truth is, that spouse was not actually thinking of you at all. They were not out to destroy your happiness. You were merely an afterthought; an obstacle they had to bypass so they could continue in their selfish ways. A great deal of plotting went into keeping you in the dark. Their only goal was preserving what they wanted. You, my friend, were merely collateral damage in the inevitable fallout.

After cutting myself some slack, I began extracting myself from the equation, quit taking the infidelity personally and put the blame squarely where it belonged. No more beating myself up over my so-called shortcomings. The situation still hurt, a lot, but that mainly stemmed from my disappointment.

I took a stand against feeling humiliated by someone else’s actions, and by shifting my attitude, another emotion took the place of shame: pride. Martha Beck also says, “If you are following your own moral rules, the very things you’re ashamed of are likely the things about which you can feel the most proud.”

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Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence falls onstage at the 85th Annual Academy Awards on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California. AFP PHOTO/Robyn BECK

As I opened up and shared my story with a trusted circle of loved ones and confidantes, I realized that I was actually proud of how strong I’d become in dealing with what had happened. I was proud of being a good person. I was proud of being a single mom. I was proud of being a divorced woman working on the life that she deserved. It took guts to be able to pick myself up and move on; after all, as the adage goes, it isn’t failure unless you stay down.

Feeling that kind of self-pride puffs out your chest and expands your whole being. Rather than be the victim, I choose to embrace my inner superhero, courageous and determined. From now on, if someone sticks out their foot and tries to trip me up, I know that’s their problem – not mine. I’ve proven more than once that I can get up, dust myself off and walk on with my head held high.

Lasagna & The Alpha Female

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Last week, my partner made homemade lasagna for supper. It was sooo good, cheesy and satisfying. His recipe is unlike mine; he uses chopped eggs in the place of cottage cheese or ricotta; he prefers his own method for the sauce and even constructs the layers differently than I would. But I don’t complain. I just clean my plate and thank my lucky stars that I have a man who enjoys cooking for us.

It wasn’t a snap for me to surrender occasional kitchen duties to anyone. I’d gone completely alpha-batty doing all the household chores by myself since being divorced and I kind of liked it. My newfound independence was actually quite empowering – a post-divorce Rosie the Riveter with a cordless screwdriver and yoga pants.

This new identity was 20 years in the making. As a young bride, I agreed when my husband insisted on managing two household chores – doing the laundry and paying the bills. He had a business accounting diploma, while I barely squeaked by high school math, so it was a no-brainer to let him handle the finances while I brought in a second income, raised the kids and cared for our home.

Everything we bought was a joint purchase, but who am I kidding? He did the negotiating, chose the investments and made the payments. While my signature dutifully appeared alongside his on bank and insurance documents, I was basically a silent partner because I chose to be. Aside from handling all of our household finances, he also did the bookkeeping for my business while I concentrated on working for my clients.

When the marriage went bust, one of my first panic-stricken thoughts was, “Oh great. Now I have to learn to do all the banking.” In all those years, the only financial transactions I concerned myself with was what came out of the ATM – now here I was, about to climb not one, but two very steep learning curves. Aside from inadvertently moving cash out of one account instead of into it and miscalculating a business expense or two, I did pretty well on my own. The bills got paid on time, I set up some new savings for me and the kids and still managed to have money left over at the end of the month.

It was the beginning of a long list of things I’d never done but unexpectedly had to learn to do, do well and do fast. My ex had not been terribly handy around the house, but all the same I’d never lit a gas grill or the pilot light in our fireplace, never taken the car in for an oil change or had to troubleshoot a wonky wifi connection. But thanks to Google and my father’s saintly guidance, I picked up those skills and more.

Soon, I was mowing the lawn and cleaning the grease trap under the barbecue without breaking a sweat. I changed a burned-out tail light and reset a breaker. I put together furniture. I trapped and released a gypsy moth the size of a Mini Cooper that flapped its way into our house one night. I fixed the loose toilet seat and a leaky faucet. And not only did I replace a hot water tank, but a roof (both requiring professionals, but I chose the contractors and more importantly, paid for it all).

No, I didn’t miss having a husband around to do these things. But I did miss having someone to take notice and say, “Hey, you’re doing a great job handling all of this. I’m proud of you.”

And then someone did take notice. I met my partner and 17 months later, he moved in. Suddenly, I had to put the brakes on doing everything I’d learned to do by myself and somehow let a man back in to help.

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I bet Rosie could’ve related to the predicament. You’re obliged to step up and learn decidedly unfamiliar, un-girly and un-fun duties in the middle of a crisis and then, once you finally get the hang of it all, you’re expected to relinquish those jobs when the menfolk return. It comes as a welcome relief at the same time it feels grossly unfair.

Women are genetically programmed to multitask; we do what we can to the best of our abilities, which means we’re accustomed to carrying most of the workload. That’s why I get irked when pseudo-psychologists say things like, “If you want a man to take the lead in a relationship, do less. Instead of making it easy for him by doing too much, relax back into your feminine and allow yourself to receive.”

Ugh. If we girls just sat back and “allowed ourselves to receive” we’d be waiting around a long damn time for some stuff to get done. Not long ago, I nearly blew my stack when a friend said she was awaiting her husband’s return from a trip so that “he” could change a light bulb. Ridiculous! What if, God forbid, he never came home? Would all the light bulbs in their house gradually die off one by one, forcing her to live by candlelight the rest of her life?

Splitting household chores by traditional gender roles is, thankfully, an old-fashioned notion. I want my son to know how to wash his clothes as much as I want my daughter to know how to check her oil. I want them both to know they can Do. It. Themselves.

Essential life skills aside, I concede that it is important to allow your partner to contribute. But understand that once you’ve been let down and left hanging, it’s hard to allow yourself be vulnerable (more on that in a future post) again. I’m the first to admit that I can go to extremes, becoming a domestic Tasmanian devil caught up in my own cyclone of getting things done NOW instead of giving my partner an opportunity to pitch in. Fortunately, he speaks up when I need reminding that he’s glad to lend a hand and that he appreciates feeling needed around here too.

Usually that’s all it takes to get me to take a step back and allow someone else to clean the fish tank, wash the dishes, clear snow off the driveway or make lasagna for dinner. It doesn’t come easy for me, but I’m learning to let someone help lighten the load from time to time. I may be an alpha female, but once in a while it’s good to know I don’t always have to be the one to man up.

 

If We Were Having Coffee…

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If we were having coffee, I’d listen quietly while you got it off your chest. You’ve been trying to rationalize the irrational, processing how the person you once committed all your love and life to has gone from being your closest ally to the antagonist who pushes all your buttons.

And if we were having coffee, I’d tell you that I’m proud of you for taking the high road and not turning every tense conversation with him into a volcanic event. I know it’s hard when he brings out the profanity-spewing, sarcasm-wielding Medusa in you. I know it’s hard when everything he says comes across like a condescending dig or a critical jab. You’re ultra-sensitive because divorce rips away all of your protective layers, leaving your emotions raw and your nerve endings dangerously exposed.

I’d nod knowingly because dealing with my ex used to set me off all the time; even seeing his name on the call display spiked my blood pressure. Sometimes it still does. But I’ve learned to handle it by using the 10-10-10 rule:

  • 10 seconds: Count to 10 to cool down before opening your mouth to speak.
  • 10 minutes: Take 10 minutes to cool down before returning a call.
  • 10 hours: Give yourself 10 hours (roughly equal to a good night’s sleep, coincidentally) to cool down before responding in writing.

I know it sounds like kindergarten, but trust me, it really works. The next time you sense your inner Medusa rising, try counting to 10 and see if that keeps all your venomous serpents under wraps.

If it makes you feel any better, you don’t have to become friends with your ex – but since you share children, you’re going to have to co-parent with each other for a long, long time. If you want to put the kids first, which we all do of course, you’ve got to find a healthier way to communicate for their benefit.

One thing that seems to help in conflict resolution evolution is to take emotion out of it; keep your dealings strictly professional (just think like your lawyer speaks) as if you were merely business associates. If that means eliminating face-to-face conversation and using only voice mail, text, or email in order to stay cool, calm and collected that’s perfectly fine, as long as the messages are civil, concise and child-focused.

Look, I don’t have all the answers. I’m just saying what’s worked for me might just work for you too. Communicating with your ex-partner during a divorce is like walking over hot coals – it’s excruciating, unpredictable and leaves you blistering. You wish like hell you didn’t have to endure the direct contact, but since you can’t avoid it, you might as well focus on getting through it as unscathed as possible.

If we were having coffee, it would be time for a refill and maybe a cookie or brownie to go with it. You deserve it while you’re trying to work through all this, my friend. You’re doing great.

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This post is part of the #WeekendCoffeeShare social experiment, inviting the WordPress.com blogging community to share what they’d say to their readers if they were sitting down together over a cup of coffee.

 

Photographic Memory

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For more than a year, I avoided looking through our family photo albums. I’d just closed the book on a 20-year relationship and had zero interest in reopening old wounds by cracking the pages of an album filled with distant happier times.

Truth be told, I’d wrestled with tossing out the albums altogether or taking the scissors to some select photos, but I quickly came to my senses (you’ll thank me later, kids). I could not rob my children or future grandchildren of continuity in their life story. No matter what happened between their mom and dad, they should always be able to access visual evidence that they were loved and cherished by both of their parents.

Feeling particularly courageous and charitable one afternoon, I decided to take down the old albums from the top of my closet and divvy up a portion of their contents for my ex. He did not request them, but I figured he deserved to have a few mementos from the kids’ early years. Besides, I was no longer comfortable being the family’s lone historian, the keeper of nostalgia, the guardian of joyful memories now tainted by disappointment.

Without allowing myself to linger wistfully on any one image, I made a pile of pictures that I thought my ex would appreciate. Methodically, I chose photos from his timeline – college, with friends and relatives, as well as those taken with the kids from the day they were born up until memories went digital. I skipped over any photos that I was included in, editing myself out of his history as if I’d never been part of it.

It was surprisingly easy to emotionally detach myself from the photos and sort them without reminiscing. I think that was because they had lost their sentimentality.

neuralizerOur abrupt divorce rendered me with acute amnesia, wiping out two decades of good marriage memories from my cerebral cortex as if they’d been erased by the Men in Black’s neuralyzer. Once you reach a point where you don’t know what feelings were genuine and which acts of love were authentic, you question if anything you ever experienced in your marriage was real, including if happy memories were actually happy or merely illusion.

That’s the thing about photos: they are only illusions. While they capture a moment in time, they aren’t actual accounts of what was likely happening when the shutter clicked. The image is distorted by deeper meaning, colored by nostalgia, as what we remember is not always the same as what we actually witnessed. That is a good thing to remember when you are trying to distance yourself from the past.

Revisiting the early chapters of courtship and marriage did make me wonder why I chose this person for a mate in the first place. If I could rewind my life, knowing what I know now, would I have zigged instead of zagged? I shook off the notion. There are no do-overs, at least not in this lifetime. Imagining what could’ve been is a worthless exercise, and there is no point in living with regret.

Before I put away the photos away, I took one long last look at the kids splashing at the beach, playing dress up, getting silly in the backyard and otherwise hamming it up for the camera. I allowed myself to stop and gaze, to clearly see them, hear them and feel them. It was a relief to know that those memories were still well preserved in me; they had not disappeared but were only shelved while my heart focused on the healing it needed to do.

Once upon a time, those old photo albums were intended as commemorative storybooks. Now they serve as proof that our kids were always surrounded by love and laughter and that, yes, we really did have some good days worth remembering. I sure am glad I kept a record of it.