The Tip of the Iceberg

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Only a fraction of an iceberg is visible while 80-90% remains hidden under the waterline.

The Titanic crew discovered this when frantic orders for a hard turn to veer away from an ill-fated ice mass came moments too late. While she barely missed the protruding peak, Titanic still collided with the iceberg’s enormous bulk below sea level, ripping up the side of the ship and puncturing its water-tight compartments.

Icebergs: it’s what you can’t see that can hurt you.

I remember getting a sinking feeling that something was going on with my husband of 20 years. Upon confronting him, he confessed to an affair sparked during an out-of-town business trip. I suspected that it merely scratched the surface of the truth. I knew that he’d had what he called an “emotional affair” with a different colleague 10 years previous, but he went to counselling and recommitted to our marriage. If he had been remorseful about this latest fling, I would have been willing to work it out too.

But, of course, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

What it really was (at least to the best of my knowledge) added up to numerous one night stands, short-lived flings and at least one multi-year affair, along with an online porn addiction, regular visits to a gentlemen’s club and an overall inability to remain faithful to any woman since the age of 14. He was a serial cheater and, in his own words, “not a good husband.”

I’m certain that he admitted only to an abbreviated version of events in order to appease his guilt – which makes the unedited story simply unknowable. I believe that the total iceberg is even larger, darker and more sordid. I will never get to the bottom of it. The unexplained trips, strange hours and manipulative behavior – it all remains beyond my grasp, still floating around in my subconscious like menacing chunks of ice.

The infidelity iceberg will ram your hull, buckle your equilibrium and leave you feeling foolish as you decode what was real and what was deception (“How could I have been so stupid?”). It scrapes your ego, distorts your perspective and punctures your water-tight, unconditional trust – not only in the individual who wronged you, but in almost everyone around you: past, present and especially future. And yet, you fight your way back to recover from it.

A seasoned ship captain offered his advice about avoiding disaster at sea. “The thing you need most in iceberg-infested waters is fear,” he said, adding, “and don’t talk about the fact that you’ve been lucky. When you do that, you become vulnerable.”

While I don’t believe fear should navigate our life’s voyage after infidelity, it certainly forces us to wake up and become more vigilant. Icebergs tend to sneak up on us when we fail to pay attention.

The upside to icebergs is that they prompt us to shore up our defenses – in a good way. We build stronger, more resilient vessels equipped with enhanced radar technology (our instinct) and ample life preservers (our support system). They also ensure we never allow ourselves to become complacent or lulled into a false sense of security believing that nothing and no one can ever sink us. 

Perhaps most important, we can use what we’ve learned about past icebergs to avoid future ones. I now know that icebergs make themselves look the way we want them to while being secretly composed of something entirely different. They can shape-shift over time to keep their underlying nature concealed. And they should never be underestimated; after all, you can sail alongside an iceberg for years – decades even – and have no clue about what they’re hiding.

At the same time, I don’t suspect that everything on the horizon is a threat. Just the opposite. By trusting that I am now better able to spot the dangers, I can relax, take in the scenery and appreciate the beauty that surrounds me. I also don’t need to worry about my ship capsizing, because I have been through it before. It showed me that I have the ability to tread water and stay afloat. I can keep my head above water. I can swim. I can do more than I ever knew I was capable of doing.

Even after hitting an iceberg, there is no way to guarantee it won’t ever happen again. Nor is there any way to prevent others from making the same misjudgment (Oh, if only we could plant red flags on people to give fair warning!). But what we can do is chart a new course for ourselves. After all we’ve been through, we have certainly earned a stretch of smooth sailing.

The Ghost Light

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Superstition has long been part of the theatre world. While it’s bad luck for an actor to whistle backstage, it’s good luck to wish them to “break a leg.” And no one dares utter the name “Macbeth” lest they summon a curse on the entire production.

There is yet another supernatural narrative: the ghost light. This lone, bare-bulb lamp is left burning all night in theatres believed to be inhabited by the souls of dead performers, production or building maintenance staff so that the ghosts don’t get mischievous while the theatre is empty. The ghost light’s mythical glow is said to allow spirits to perform onstage in the wee hours, appeasing them and preventing any negative energy from haunting the venue.

This reminds me of the ghosts of the past that haunt us after divorce and what we can do to keep their unwelcome existence at bay.

In the week leading up to my daughter’s recent college graduation, I began having nightly dreams about my ex-husband as a result of feeling anxious about encountering him at the convocation. In some of the dreams, we are still married although something feels “off” about the situation, likely disillusionment simmering just below the surface; in others, I am churning with fury and raw humiliation, openly confrontational about his betrayal and the grief it caused.

While the ghosts of marriage past do not make appearances as often as they once did, they are nevertheless still lurking in my psyche. I found that blogger D.A. Wolf experiences a very similar kind of haunting, as she writes on Divorce Whirlwind:

“The ghost of my ex has reared his (fill-in-the-blank) head once again. Not so much in my conscious daily life, but surprisingly frequently of late – like a shadowy presence trying to steal my happiness – in my dreams,” she writes.

“We delight in scaring ourselves with traditional tales of haunted spaces or, for that matter, haunted hearts. But ghosts in real life – especially when they’re alive – are far less entertaining than a two-hour film or a series of hair-raising stories. Ghosts in real life pop up when we least expect. They frighten us from their shadows. They remind us of harm that was done. To my annoyance, they dare to make their presence felt when I am asleep, and my consciousness puts up fewer barriers to fear.”

One good thing about the bad dreams is that they do not occur as often as they once did, but when they do, I am able to link them to feelings of anxiety or inadequacy in my waking life. It certainly helps to brush them off more quickly.

I don’t think of my ex very much. Our divorce was settled years ago and since our children have reached early adulthood, we have had very little interaction. Personal distance has allowed me to let go of a certain degree of anger and move on. Of course, some things still come up now and then – a memory surfaces or his name is mentioned in passing – but even those moments don’t stab me in the heart the way they used to.

In fact, it didn’t occur to me until three days after it passed that it was just the sixth anniversary of D-Day. The date didn’t loom darkly as it had in previous years, nor did I sink into self-pity on the occasion itself. It simply came and went like any other weekday and I didn’t bat an eye. Yep, I’m pretty proud of myself.

Some subscribe to the idea that only time helps pain to subside, but I think it has to be more purposeful than that. It just might be about what we do to keep our protective ghost light burning. It’s very much within our control to keep our stage lit to chase the apparitions away, and when that light isn’t on, we give whatever creeps in the shadows of our mind permission to haunt.

My ghost light is love. I have a great deal of love flowing through my life, and it powers every aspect of who I am. Whenever possible, I choose to have a positive attitude. I look for the best in people and always try to be kind to others as well as to myself (it’s hard but I’m getting there). Love fuels the pride I have in caring for my family, my home and my business. Love even reminds me to stop now and then to take stock of everything I have to be grateful for – including my divorce.

Yes, I am grateful even for that painful experience because it not only woke me up, it brought new and unexpected gifts into my life. It helped me to discover how resilient and resourceful I am. It brought me greater peace, greater happiness and most importantly, greater love. How can I not be thankful?

The more I focus on all of the good, the stronger I become. I choose to bask in that kind of radiance and keep my ghost light burning day and night, knowing that it is only light that can chase away the darkness.

Things Will Be Different Next Time

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Harry: You ever miss being married? I bet you were great at it.

Erica: Sometimes. At night. But not that much anymore.

That’s a scene from the lovable Something’s Gotta Give. If you’ve never seen the movie, put down your phone or step away from the computer and do yourself a favor: go watch it. Right. Now. If you’ve already seen it, then you know that the question Harry poses to Erica is one that nearly all divorced people ponder at one time or another: you ever miss being married?

Yes, I do miss it. And yes, I thought I was pretty great at it.

First of all, let me make it perfectly clear that I do not miss being married to my ex. Secondly, I am in a loving and fulfilling relationship with my partner. Living together as a “we” certainly satisfies the things I craved when it was just “me.” We truly enjoy one another, even if we’re doing yard work or pushing a cart through the supermarket, and it’s wonderful to have someone who just gets when you need a hand, a hug or a back scratch. Life is good and I am grateful for every moment.

But we are not married.

One day, God willing, we will be and I get excited just thinking about calling this man my husband. Although we are monogamous and have merged our lives, I’m looking forward to the day we will make our commitment permanent. So how can I be sure that my second marriage will be any different than the first? A lot of it has to do with how much I’ve changed and learned and grown.

I’m older and wiser.

Humorist Helen Rowland once quipped, “A bride at her second marriage doesn’t wear a veil because she wants to see what she’s getting.” Ain’t that the truth! Remarriage is not a decision to be taken lightly, especially considering that I already took a huge leap of faith once and fell flat. But back then, I was young and foolish – I barely knew who I was, let alone who I was marrying. I am now 26 years older and I’ve been through that stage. The next time I make vows, I know it will be in the voice of the person I am, not the person I want to become someday.

I realize that romance doesn’t come automatically.

Here’s a major difference between my love partner and my ex-husband. In the wake of the divorce, my parents helped to redecorate my house to celebrate my new life. Part of that included stringing beautiful blue twinkle lights around the outside deck and pergola. When my ex spotted them, he immediately questioned why the “silly” lights were there since it wasn’t Christmas (that was the last time he stepped foot in my house, btw). Yet, when my partner saw them, he loved how romantic they looked and to this day, we switch them on nearly every evening to bask in their glow.

Like roses, romance will die unless you tend to it regularly. I thank my lucky stars that my partner is a romantic like me because not only does he put in the effort, he recognizes when I do the same. No, every day is not Valentine’s Day around here, but we do make a point of doing tender things for one another: text messages, date nights, holding hands, taking turns bringing coffee to bed and looking forward to just being together at the end of the day. We work at keeping a spark because we know how cold life can be without it.

I can recognize and respond to my emotional triggers.

We all have baggage that we bring to relationships. The late, great Nora Ephron, bless her heart, had a brilliant perspective on it. “One good thing I’d like to say about divorce,” she wrote, “is that it sometimes makes it possible for you to be a much better wife to your next husband because you have a place for your anger; it’s not directed at the person you are currently with.”

I am the first to admit that there are times I let residual issues affect me emotionally. Early in my current relationship, I put our future in serious jeopardy by aiming my ire and insecurities at the wrong person. Since then I have learned to identify my negative triggers and know when it’s time to grab them by the horns and drop kick them to the curb. They don’t have a place here and certainly aren’t a genuine reflection of how I feel about my partner or even how I feel about myself.

I view time as a precious commodity.

This summer, my partner and I joined his family in celebrating his aunt and uncle’s 50th anniversary. It was a joyous occasion in every regard but one: I realized that he and I will never reach the same milestone. When you get married at 20 as I did, your whole life is ahead of you. You walk down the aisle into this big, blissful unknown with much to look forward to. While there are no guarantees in life, for most young newlyweds, ‘til death do us part is still a long way away.

When you find love later in life, things are different. You both come into it with the realization that it’s important to cherish the number of years you get together, whether it’s three or thirty. That eliminates the carelessness that comes from taking time for granted.

I’m in a much better place.

Without a doubt, this is my most deep, meaningful and honest relationship. Know what else is great? After 40, life looks and feels different; there is a new mindfulness and maturity present. We both know we’ve grown into the people we want to be and know we have chosen the mate we want to enjoy life alongside. With that comes mutual respect, along with acceptance, appreciation, affection and kindness. We both feel blessed. I’ve never been so sure that a high-level marriage isn’t about a gold band or a piece of paper, it’s in the way you treat each other every day. We’ve already got a head start.

In the year after my divorce, I was sure I’d never want to get married again. Like Erica in Something’s Gotta Give, there wasn’t much about it that I missed and I enjoyed most things about my new life as an independent, single woman. Much of that bravado was likely my ego talking, a defense mechanism to protect myself from getting hurt again.

Soon after I met my partner, I knew I had been wrong. Like Harry says in When Harry Met Sally, “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” medium_p1010240

While divorce may break you, it also makes you stronger in the places that were broken. That includes your heart and your capacity to give someone your all.

Having been married before, I’m certain that I want to do it again. I know that I deserve real love, lasting happiness, and another chance to get things right.

Thanks with an “Ex”

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“Gratitude: Mixed Media” by Isa Tyler

I carried around my hurt, anger and resentment for so long that the weight of it felt normal. Despite all I’d read about forgiveness being for the forgiver, I just couldn’t reach that point. I still struggle with it; even now, I’m not sure I will ever completely get there.

One day, I confided to my counsellor that I felt far too consumed by toxic thoughts. Of course I had every reason to be bitter; I had done what I was “supposed” to do and my marriage still fell apart. I had been fully committed to our home and family and yet, it wasn’t enough to hold it all together ‘til death do us part.

My counsellor suggested that I replace my hostility with gratitude, even going so far as to write an unsent thank-you note to my ex. Thank you? Thank you for what? My blood pressure spiked.

She reminded me how my nature as a nurturer meant that I would’ve never walked away from my marriage. It’s simply not in my DNA. To quote Audrey Hepburn, “If I get married, I want to be very married.” In my book, taking vows meant accepting a lifelong gig; it was not fathomable that we would divorce, let alone me instigating a split.

I had to reconcile my relationship values with knowing that my life is much closer to what I always wanted it to be on the other side of divorce. Okay, maybe my world did need to be shaken to the core so that I could grow and redefine myself. But even if my marriage had an expiry date, something cataclysmic still HAD to happen in order for me to admit it was over. And for that alone, my counsellor said, I should thank my ex.

She suggested that every time I feel my anger rising, I should say a quiet thank you instead because it will help me let go. So I do. And it’s opened me up enough to let the light of gratitude in. It’s only a start, but now I can say…

Thank you for revealing the truth about our marriage.

Thank you for teaching me that not all relationships are built to last.

Thank you for helping me to realize that it’s better to become who I want to be instead of trying to fix who I could’ve been, should’ve been or never really was.

Thank you for freeing me so that I could go out and find the love I was meant to have.

Thank you for presenting me with an opportunity to discover that I am so much stronger and resilient than I ever imagined.

The Head and The Heart

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“We are never fully prepared for the depth of emotions that losing a loved one brings. If the death is unexpected, it will be a huge shock.  The causes of unexpected deaths are wide and varied, but irrespective of the cause – the fact is that you will not be ready for it. Those that are left behind often feel stunned, and suddenly find themselves living in a surreal world without their loved one.

“At the other end of the spectrum, an expected death brings different emotions. Even though you are prepared for it and have said all that you can say, including your goodbyes, it doesn’t make it any easier. Often the lead up to death  can be excruciatingly painful and stressful to all those involved, so your loved one’s departure could result in an immense feeling of relief.”

(From “Dealing with Death, A Personal Perspective” by Donna Raynel)

If you substitute the word “divorce” for “death” in the above passage from Ms. Raynel’s website Not Alone, you may be able to see how the two life experiences are closely related. Like the newly bereaved, I went into survival mode upon the unexpected death of my marriage. Despite going through the motions and ensuring that our daily routine still continued, I lived on auto pilot those first few months. I did what I had to do so that the kids and I would get by. And to survive the pain.

It wasn’t until I went for a tarot card reading that I realized I may have been productive intellectually, but I was low functioning emotionally. The first card I pulled from the deck was the Three of Swords:

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That’s a scary looking card, and the powerful, piercing imagery is ominous. But the meaning, as it was described to me, is quite enlightening. In tarot, swords often have to do with our mental function. Translated, it’s about managing difficult emotional circumstances (like death or divorce) where we have to make tough, headstrong decisions. It signifies the interaction between the head and the heart energies.

My intrepid tarot card reader explained it this way: picture a cartoon brain and a cartoon heart about to depart on a road trip. The heart is a wailing, weepy mess, so the brain protectively says, “It’s okay. I know that you’re in no shape to drive. Hop in the backseat and I’ll steer us along until you’re up to the task.”

The cards didn’t lie: I was certainly in survival mode. I busied myself with mental tasks – dealing with lawyers, realtors, bankers and the like – so I didn’t have to feel too much. But seeing the Three of Swords revealed an undeniable truth. It was time to allow my heart to get back into the driver’s seat and start the grieving process, even though it was going to hurt like hell.

As in coping with death, there would be no short cuts on my personal divorce journey. I had to feel it to heal it.

Awakening From the Dream

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“A Perfect Vacuum” by Jeremy Geddes

The first week I slept in my marriage bed alone, I was afraid to dream. I only know this because in the wee hours between falling asleep and waking up, I saw and remembered nothing. In hindsight, of course, it was likely my subconscious shielding me. I was already going through enough turmoil in my waking hours that even my exhausted brain needed a break from its constant processing and reanalyzing of events.

Eventually, the first dream I had was a vivid one. My ex had packed a bag and left our home on a routine business trip. Shortly after, I turned on the TV and heard the news that his plane had crashed. Surprisingly, I was not shocked. I didn’t even feel all that sad. In that moment, the only thing was the realization that he was gone. He was not coming back and I would just have to deal with it.

My brain was catching up.

Dreams have played an important role in my grieving and healing process. Not coincidentally, the gentle but wise counsellor I sought out for guidance used the phrase “awakening from the dream” to describe the soul-wringing process I was going through. For the previous 20 years, I had been contentedly focussed on my responsibilities and roles on a daily basis. But in reality, I had been sleepwalking, playing the “good wife and mother” while assuming my partner was holding up his end of the deal. The image we projected and protected of having a good life, family and home was merely an illusion. Even I was fooled.

Take comfort in what has happened, my counsellor assured, because once your eyes have been opened, there is no going back. There is no more pretending and no more sleeping. You won’t let yourself be fooled again. Instead, the end of the dream had brought with it a brand new sense of awareness. My true self was waking up.

About This Too, Was a Gift

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Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.

This poem by Mary Oliver really captures how I feel about my divorce, especially all of the personal discoveries and life experiences that have come since. Even though my marriage is over, I gradually started to appreciate (yes, appreciate!) this ending as a new beginning. It’s true what they say: this is the part where you find out who you are.