Replaceable.

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I used to work at a company with such high employee turnover that management should’ve installed a revolving door in the reception area. Some business owners might have been deeply troubled to see nearly two dozen workers come and go within an 18-month period, but my boss remained unfazed.

“Imagine filling up a bucket with water,” he said, explaining his staffing philosophy. “Stick your hand in and then quickly pull it out. See the hole that’s left?”

Of course, there’d be no hole. The displaced water would instantly rush in to fill that spot. Other than a few ripples, there would be no evidence that a hand had even been there. And in a matter of seconds, the water surface would calm once again. The lesson? No one is irreplaceable.

This message washed over me again at a celebration for my daughter’s most recent college achievement. My family was there, my ex was there, and members of his family, including his new wife, were there. Since our marriage ended nearly six years ago, it marked the first time we were all gathered together in the same room.

I was certain I had my emotions well in check before the event, but what I didn’t expect was how surreal the whole thing was. As it turns out, I had a front row seat to watching my ex’s wife – my kids’ stepmother – living the life I used to lead. She hugged and chatted happily with the people I used to call family. She shared a drink with my former brother-in-law and later joined my former sister-in-law in a giggly trip to the ladies’ room. When a couple I once considered friends entered the party, she jumped up and greeted them with a warm hug. It was truly like It’s A Wonderful Life with me cast as George Bailey, forced to witness scenes of my own life without me in it.

It really hit me hard. Although my hand had been submerged in the same water for over 20 years, the water barely rippled when it got pulled from the bucket. Now someone else’s hand was in its place. My presence was not only not missed, it was as if I’d never even been there.

It took me a day or so to process my feelings. I knew I’d have to start self-analyzing in order to survive the year ahead when I will be in the same situation at least three more times. You see, my daughter is not only graduating in 2017, she’s getting married too.

I really, really envy couples who can walk in separate directions and completely move on with their lives after the ink on their divorce decree dries. Never again do they have to face the person who shredded their heart, and in an instant relive all of the hurtful things they did. They never have to hear about or worse, see what has become of their (better, happier, more successful and fulfilling) lives once they have been removed from it. They don’t have to meet the (better, happier, more successful and fulfilling) person who has replaced them and see how smooth and easy that transition was for people they once considered family.

That is not my case, nor is it the case of anyone who shares children.

Being able to define my pain was a start. Yes, it hurt to see this woman slip into the life I used to have, even if that is not my life nor the life I want anymore. It hurt to see her with others I cared about and equate that to mean that they no longer cared about me. It hurt to compare myself to her – I mean, she’s clearly much more lovable and more fun to be around than I am.

And then I began to see these painful untruths for what they were: my ego was hurt. I’m obviously special, so it seems only reasonable that once my hand was pulled out of that bucket of water, a giant hole would remain, right? Huh… what? What do you mean there’s no hole? Guess I’m not so special after all.

Quite often, ego can be our worst enemy. Its narrative is not conducive to healing and moving on. Instead, it beats you up, kicks you in square in the shortcomings and cruelly taunts you about the loss of the dream you had to leave behind.

I had to shift focus and once again remind myself that I have a new life now. The people that matter most in the world to me, my children, my partner and my family, are still at the center of that life. No one will ever change that. At the same time, I am a better, happier, more successful and fulfilled person for having left my marriage and for daring to dream of having a new life.

Once I took a deep breath, I had a second thought about my hand in the bucket of water. And then I remembered the Ripple Effect:

“The Ripple Effect is based on the understanding that we are all connected. These connections stretch like an incredibly interwoven and complicated tapestry. Each of us exists within this tapestry. Thoughts and actions are like stones dropped in a pond and they create ripples that travel outward. Everything we do and think affects the people in our lives and their reactions in turn affect others. The choices you make have far-reaching consequences. Each of us carries within us the capacity to change the world in small ways for better or worse.”

Honestly, I have no idea how my presence or my absence has affected the lives of others – so I cannot let my ego fill in those blanks. I can’t pretend to know how other people, including former family members, felt or reacted to having me sit in the same room that evening. Maybe they remembered the good times we used to have too. Maybe they still miss me in some small way.

That’s the problem with my old boss’ bucket theory. What he failed to realize is that everyone who comes into our lives, no matter how briefly, leaves an indelible mark. We can switch places; we can call in a substitute; we can be succeeded; but you and I are irreplaceable. We are not shoes, cars, iPhones or washing machines.

So, here’s what I know. When someone else is sitting in the chair you used to occupy, it is only a sign that after divorce, the earth continues to turn, the clock keeps ticking and yes, life does go on. Even when your ego is telling you that you’ve been replaced, the truth is that your personal worth and the impact you’ve made on others cannot be erased.

Looking Back on Moving Forward

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Recently, I was asked how someone is ever supposed to move forward when they keep getting sucked back into the heartache following betrayal and divorce.

I wish I knew what to say; I’m certainly no expert. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like I’ve moved forward until something happens that would have, at one time, caused me to downward spiral – and I realize that it doesn’t anymore. Oh, I still get sucked back in too. I feel anger and resentment. There are still times my self-confidence is shaky at best; there are still times I convince myself that I’m unlovable. But they are only temporary emotional ruts and I know I can gradually work myself out. These times come less frequently and to a far lesser degree than they once did.

But the truth is, I don’t really know how I got here – or even where “here” is.

There is no roadmap to healing after heartbreak, no marker that will let you know when you’ve finally reached your destination (“Ding! You’re now all better and ready for a new life!”). Thankfully, there are things like the five stages of grief that you can check yourself against – until you realize that you will pinball between denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance for years to come, if not the rest of your life.

I think the misnomer about “moving forward” is that you will eventually step over some magical invisible line and never have to feel it anymore. As if once you get past it, the hurt won’t catch up to you and the person who crushed your soul will never cross your mind. Wouldn’t that be nice? Instead, it’s more accurate to say that the pain never quite disappears, although it does dull into a manageable ache over time.

I was grateful to catch a TV interview with Vikki Stark, a marriage counsellor and therapist. Vikki was married more than 21 years when she was blindsided by her husband leaving her for another woman and has since turned her experience into helping women recover from similar situations. Vikki’s book Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife’s Guide to Recovery and Renewal offers the following, spot-on ways to free yourself from the darkest, loneliest days and start moving forward.

So to my friend reaching out for a lifeline of advice, I really couldn’t say it any better than this – in fact, Vikki’s list might be the most solid bit of post-divorce advice I have read yet, and looking back, I can see my own journey in her valid, valuable points. So take a deep breath and…

  • Recognize that the chaos won’t last forever.
  • Accept that the marriage is really over.
  • Integrate the fact that your partner has changed irrevocably and is beyond caring for your welfare.
  • Understand why he/she needs to justify their actions any way possible – including rewriting history, lying or attacking you.
  • Give up trying to get the acknowledgement and apology that you deserve.
  • Revise your beliefs in human nature. You now have learned that some people are capable of deception.
  • Believe in your self-worth. You must stop feeling discarded, empty and less valuable than the woman (or man) who has taken your place or than married women in general.
  • Get accustomed to being self-reliant and independent.
  • Expect good things in your future. Don’t assume that you will always be alone or miserable.
  • Stay positive! Stop yourself from becoming bitter or developing a victim mentality.

Incidentally, Vikki is happy, successful and enjoying a new healthy, long-term relationship. She has moved forward. And so will you.

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.