Happily Ever After Marriage: Q&A with Author Sarah Hampson (Part 1)

Happily Ever After

I wasn’t looking for a self-help book (ugh) as I wandered aimlessly through the bookstore that day, but somehow ended up perusing paperbacks about surviving and thriving after divorce. That’s when I found Happily Ever After Marriage: A Reinvention in Mid-Life by Sarah Hampson, creator of The Globe and Mail’s hugely popular divorce column Generation Ex.

The book immediately appealed to me – the author telling her own story of being a bride in her twenties and divorced with children in her forties, along with a balance of storytelling and reporting on the realities of what Hampson called “a new rite of passage in mid-life.” A few pages in and I realized this was no self-help book; it was a find-yourself book.

Sarah Hampson’s insightfulness meant the world when mine had fallen apart. I related so much to what she candidly, warmly, humorously and wisely wrote about embracing the traditions and the transitions of life. Happily Ever After was my go-to read the summer my marriage ended and the inspiration, comfort and camaraderie I received within its pages will always be with me. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I was thrilled to interview Sarah (@hampsonwrites) about her column, her book, and about how embracing change at mid-life, no matter how difficult, can lead to inspired reinvention and all exciting new pathways to emerge.

Where did the idea for the Generation Ex column come from?

Sarah Hampson: I had been writing interview profiles for the Globe a long time. A new life section was starting and I remember sitting at my kitchen table thinking I should write about divorce because it seemed everyone around me was going through the same thing. That was in 2007, so six years had passed since I left my marriage and five years since the divorce was finalized.

I pitched the idea for Generation Ex, a column that would explore the social phenomenon of divorce and how it’s changed from being taboo to being a contemporary rite of passage to maturity for women. I wanted to use my own experience and the experiences of others to write about divorce in a way that I thought would be helpful. The column was initially supposed to run every two weeks, but it immediately became so popular with readers that we did it weekly.

And Happily Ever After Marriage came out of that?

The book deal arrived one year after Generation Ex debuted. Because the column went through the roof, literary agents came out of the woodwork saying I should write a book since the topic obviously resonated with so many. Although it was a different creative exercise than knocking off a column every week, the research I’d previously done very much helped in terms of putting the book together.

Was it difficult to put your personal experience out there for so many people to read?

When I started writing the column, people would say, “How can you write about your personal life in such a public forum?” I mean, gee, it was only Canada’s leading national newspaper. At first, I received quite a bit of criticism in the online comments along the lines of “What’s wrong with this woman?” and “Thank God she’s not MY ex!”

I felt that I’d already worked through a lot of my feelings about being divorced by the time I pitched that column in 2007. I’d gotten through it, survived it, and taken the time to explore my own emotions – and I think that this served me well in trying to be graceful and fair about it. I never thought that I was writing the column to be vengeful; that would’ve been too easy. I was simply writing out of the knowledge that I’d gained with the purpose of trying to better understand the emotional archaeology of what underlies our decisions to marry, to divorce and then to survive the divorce.

 It’s interesting that you use the term “survive” – as if some don’t make it out alive.

In the immediate aftermath of my divorce, there were some crazy difficult years where things were up and down. My ex-husband was not terribly helpful financially or in his parental responsibilities for our three boys. But I refused to let an unhappy marriage – and of course, not all 18 years were unhappy – dictate how I would go forward with the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be poisoned by my own difficult experience. I think it was an innate survivor tactic. It didn’t make sense to go forward for the next part of my life always feeling resentful or angry or disappointed. In a way, I think that saved me and allowed me to transcend that difficult period, to make sense of it by writing about it.

What role has your now-grown sons had in helping you to move forward?

When I think back to the decision-making process that went on in terms of leaving that marriage, I remember feeling that I didn’t want my boys to think that’s what marriage was. Not to suggest there was anything horrible going on, but it certainly wasn’t harmonious. There was a lot of controlling, a lot of emotional manipulation in the marriage and it wasn’t what I wanted them to think it was supposed to be like. I didn’t want them to think that a mother who was slightly depressed or upset was normal.

Now my boys say they learned a great deal from watching me, seeing how strong I became as a single parent, stabilizing our lives and my career. In a way that’s a good thing. But I also wanted them to them to believe in marriage and see how family matters. One of them is married and one of them is engaged to be married in the fall so I’m pleased about that.

How do you feel toward your ex-husband now?

There are times I get upset when he doesn’t do things you’d expect a father to do for his sons, but I no longer feel anger at him. If anything, it’s revisited upset. It’s doesn’t last long, because it really doesn’t have much to do with anything anymore. The boys are doing well and getting on with their lives.

Sometimes, I feel a little badly that my ex made the precipitous decisions that he did. He’s had a tumultuous life; he remarried someone 23 years younger, started another family and now he’s divorced for a third time. I feel a degree of sadness for him. He hasn’t taken the time to know what great kids he has and doesn’t benefit from having good relationships with them. That’s unfortunate. It’s hard to look at someone who was once your whole world and see that they haven’t made a success of their life.

I hadn’t seen him in years until he came to my son’s wedding last year. It was cordial. My son had asked if I would be okay with him being invited and I said of course it is, he’s your father. Their relationship really has nothing to do with me anymore.

What did you learn most from your divorce? 

I married young. I’d always worked outside the home and was a working mom, so it wasn’t like I depended solely on my husband but still, I had to come to terms with my worries, my ambitions and my ability as a parent. Those are the things I had to learn about myself and focus on in the aftermath of the divorce. It’s made me who I am, it’s made me so much stronger and it’s made me a more interesting person – even to myself. I think that if you want to be happy, you have to be willing to make difficult decisions like getting divorced. But then you need to learn to live with your decisions and learn how to survive them too.

Your book helped set the tone for me post-divorce, especially the importance of being gracious and taking the high road when it comes to your ex. How did you manage it?    

Choosing to take the “high road” is partially about being a parent and wanting to protect your kids from the harsh reality about their dad. There have been times I may have crossed that line, and I think it came from the hostility I felt towards him for not stepping up and doing what he was supposed to do. But I think generally, I’m the type of person who’d rather be thoughtful about relationships than vengeful.

There’s a part of me that wanted to view my marriage and divorce on a higher level. That comes from a place of knowing that life is such a beautiful thing and you can choose to see the beauty in life or focus on the hard things. I don’t want to be on the lowest common denominator. I don’t want to be angry. I don’t want to be confrontational. I want the motif of my life to be generosity of spirit.

We all know people who were divorced in mid-life and just never got over it. The truth is, we only sabotage ourselves by holding on to that anger and we risk missing out on the good things that are around the corner. Just as there are unexpected bad things that make you think “how the hell did this happen to me?” so too are there unexpected good things. You just have to remain open to that possibility.

NEXT: “Life has a way of offering surprises you could never have predicted.” Sarah Hampson talks about finding love over 40 and giving marriage another try. 

 

Q&A With The Chump Lady

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Lemonade, anyone? A new research study by Binghamton University reveals that women betrayed by unfaithful partners end up in stronger relationships later in life.

After surveying more than 5,000 women in 96 different countries, researchers found that although a woman may “lose” her mate, she actually ends up the winner in the long run. Not only will she experience personal growth, she overcomes being cheated on with a higher mating intelligence that allows her to make better decisions in the future.

That “winning” is the foundation for an empowering new book called Leave a Cheater, Gain a Life by journalist, cartoonist and relationship blogger Tracy Schorn, aka The Chump Lady. Chump Lady is a wildly successful blog that combines sass and satire with solid advice that champions self-respect. Think about it. Much attention is focused on serial cheaters’ unmet needs or their challenges with monogamy. Chump Lady has changed the conversation by lampooning such blameshifting and putting the focus squarely on the cheated upon (“chumps”) and their needs.

I was thrilled to have an opportunity to interview Tracy about the origins of her blog and her new book – a fresh voice for “chumps” seeking a new message about infidelity as they find the courage to start all over again.

How did “Chump Lady” begin? Was it a way of dealing with your own betrayal and if so, what was the turning point for you in deciding to turn pain into something positive that could help others?
Chump Lady: My experience with infidelity was in 2006. I’d been married six months. Eighteen months and several more D-days (the ugly surprises known as Discovery Days), separations and false reconciliations later, we were divorced. When I went through it, online support was hugely important to me, however, it was unfocused. The blind leading the blind, really. The happiest and sanest people I found were divorced. Even when I was healed up and remarried (in 2010, to a fellow chump) — I was still out there trying to give advice to other chumps. The why isn’t my own making sense of it (I had made sense of it – he sucks), but more from a sense of injustice that the advice for infidelity out there was so universally AWFUL and assumed reconciliation.

chumplady_400x400My husband said, “You should write a book.” That seemed like too much of a commitment, so I thought, I’ll start a blog. Just a brain dump of everything I learned about infidelity and chumpdom, so other people wouldn’t repeat my mistakes. I initially thought of it as a clearinghouse. Hey, I’m done with this crap, but please skip ahead. Hope it helps you. The blog became very popular quite quickly. Within 3 months, I was invited to write for Huffington Post Divorce and that in turn, brought more readers. People wrote to say how much it helped them, so I kept at it.

Do you think “Chump Lady” comes from a place of anger or acceptance? 
CL: Both. Anger at the Reconciliation Industrial Complex, which assumes entitlement as natural and that chumps’ default position must be winning back cheaters and Making the Marriage a Good Place to Be – AND acceptance. I had a MUCH happier life after I left a cheater. I’m very happily remarried. Yes, as a squidgy, middle-aged, twice-divorced, uber-chumpy woman in her 40s. If I can get to the other side and have a good life, anyone can.

I wouldn’t have thought being a “chump” was a badge of honor. How do you define it?
CL: “Chumped” is how it FEELS. You feel stupid, conned, played for a fool. The term “wayward partner” is offensive to me – cheaters do not lose their way; their manipulations are deliberate and chosen. Adults have agency. “Chump” is also a way of taking language back; to take a slur and make it a term of empowerment. Okay, I got played. I was a chump. And now I’m mighty.

Chump Lady is very funny – is it important to get over betrayal with a sense of humor?
CL: I don’t know how to write about infidelity any other way. It IS absurd and comically pathetic. Also, humor is a way of asserting power; of turning things on their head and looking at them differently and laughing.

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You have a colorful vocabulary, like “cake” for instance. What does “cake” mean?
CL: Cake-eating or cake means having the marriage AND the affair, and trying to maintain that position of advantage. But I didn’t make up “cake” – that one is on all the infidelity boards. I do have other terms that are uniquely Chump Lady — kibbles, untangling the skein of fuckupedness, etc.

One of your most popular features is the UBT (Universal Bullshit Translator) which debunks articles about infidelity. Why do we still buy into myths like “he cheated because you didn’t give him what he wanted?”
CL: Because it gives chumps a sense of control. When your world has fallen apart, control is a very seductive commodity. If I did something wrong, then I can FIX it and stop that terrible thing from ever happening again! It’s much harder to feel vulnerable and powerless because you trusted someone and got played.

You must receive a lot of mail. Have you heard it all or are you still surprised by things people tell you?
CL: I’m still surprised. I do get a ton of mail, but certain telling details still catch me up. Like the cheater who took his mistress to Disney World instead of his kids; and the chump had to spend the Disney savings in the money jar to buy groceries. I still get pissed off at those things. Which keeps me writing and lampooning narcissists.

What would you say you’ve learned most since becoming the Chump Lady?
CL: That people are very, very resilient. I’ve read tens of thousands of stories, and people bounce back from the most horrific stuff. I think the saddest stories I read are from people who were cheated on while pregnant, and divorced cheaters with infants or high-risk pregnancies, or toddlers at home, who are physically and financially vulnerable on top of everything else. When those people make it, I cheer. I LOVE the “tell me how you’re mighty” stories.

holly_petraeusI’d say my other takeaway is that no one should ever be a stay-at-home mother unless they have a trust fund. I hate to come down on the mommy wars; I worked part-time when my son was little. I just think to take yourself out of the workplace is a terrible risk. The odds of divorce are 50/50. Now factor in disease, disability, early death? You should always have a way of supporting yourself. (And before the Men’s Rights people beat me up — I think stay-at-home parenthood sucks for men too: she cheats and gets alimony because she was out of the workplace.) Chumps who are financially vulnerable have fewer good choices. I want everyone to have good choices. Infidelity and divorce can still be overcome, but in my opinion, it’s much harder without a safety net. You gotta be very scrappy in court.

What do you hope readers get from reading your book?
CL: I hope my book is exactly what it advertises itself to be — a survival guide to infidelity. I want chumps to protect themselves after infidelity and focus on THEIR needs over those of cheaters.

Lastly, what are your thoughts on monogamy? Is it achievable?
CL: Of course it is. Cheating isn’t a monogamy problem, it’s a character problem. The reason people feign monogamy and then cheat is to maintain an unfair advantage — you invest all your resources in THEM, you play by the rules, and they keep their options open (cake!). That’s a character issue. Don’t use and abuse people. We are created to bond with one another, and trust is the social glue that holds us all together. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. And I think it will always be aberrant and painful when people violate those norms.lovemonkey

I think everyone should love again after infidelity. I don’t necessarily mean being coupled up again in the traditional sense; I mean don’t let a cheater be the last person you ever invest in. Go engage with the world, give of yourself and “gain a life.”

 

Tracy Schorn’s book Leave a Cheater, Gain a Life: The Chump Lady’s Survival Guide (Running Press) is available now. 

When The World Ends

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Facebook just reminded me that five years ago today, I wrote this on my wall:

“But don’t you worry ‘bout a thing.”

…I was echoing lyrics to a Dave Matthews Band song called When the World Ends.

The irony in this is ridiculous because 72 hours after posting it came the annihilation of my 20-year marriage.

At first, I was mad that Facebook threw that tidbit back at me. I don’t need a reminder of my naïveté in the finals hours leading up to Destruction Day. Especially not this weekend. I remember all too vividly how things unfolded, thank you very much.

But a few hours later, I realize maybe there was a serendipitous reason I needed to see that message today.

As the 5th anniversary of that milestone circles around once again, I must remember that while my relationship ended, my world did not. Sometimes, the universe just has to shake you up to wake you up. It may have felt like free-falling at the time, but I’d eventually land on my feet and everything would be okay. Better, in fact.

Five years ago this week, I survived the end of my marriage. And really, I didn’t have to worry ‘bout a thing.

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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.

 

A Matter of Trust

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Fragile ballplayers prone to recurring injury are said to have glass knees or glass shoulders. When I felt ready to get back into the dating game, it was with a glass heart. To avoid pain and the risk of someone new re-shattering what I’d been piecing back together, I held back my true self.

I have always been a very expressive and communicative person; for better or worse, it’s impossible for me to hide my feelings. If I like you and you are important to me, I am all-in on our relationship. That’s why keeping a safe emotional distance from other people sapped a great deal of energy. I wasn’t used to functioning with a protective wall around my heart.

“How do I let down my guard and learn to trust again?” I asked my counsellor.

“Trust a new partner, or learn to trust yourself?” she challenged.

Ugh, she was right. It wasn’t that I was distrustful of the opposite sex as much as I was distrustful of myself. I was still sore about being blindsided; that my intuition hadn’t warned me of impending danger in my marriage.

Or had it?

You know when your car starts making that weird engine noise and you tell yourself, “Aw, it’ll go away” and then turn up the radio to drown it out? Yep, that was me. After much soul searching, I faced the truth: all of the obvious, neon warning signs had been there, but I just had failed to pay attention in my marriage. 

Maybe deep down I knew something wasn’t quite right but I suppressed it, content to smooth out the rough edges as “normal ups and downs.” I was too busy fulfilling my role, too laser-focused on raising two kids, starting my own business and fluffing our home nest to see what was really going on. As with a weird engine noise, the things we don’t pay attention to always get us in the end.

I was mad at myself. I was mad at whatever little part of me didn’t pay attention, didn’t protect my heart and allowed me to settle for less, believing that certain behaviours were perfectly normal. If I didn’t trust my radar to detect the warning signs with the person I was married to for 20 years, how was I supposed to trust it around complete strangers?

First of all, my counsellor said, there was no use in beating myself up. I may be a nurturer, but I didn’t have to bear the weight of responsibility for another person’s decisions and actions… it had been a two-person marriage after all! Secondly, although my heart had survived this trauma, I couldn’t keep basing my decisions in fear if I was to move forward with a new relationship. Yes, I risked more heartbreak in the future, but if I didn’t let down my guard and open my heart, I risked closing myself off to love.

So I started to focus on trusting myself again. And that’s where the healing began.

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Violations of trust are painful lessons that we can turn into opportunities for profound personal growth. One good thing about what I’d been through, my counsellor assured, was that I could now trust myself to recognize those flashing warning signs when something was off. I was now in a brand new state of awareness.

I remember reading somewhere that when it comes to trust, “Life gives you the process through your experiences; people provide you the opportunity to practice.” In the dating world, people were going to do what they were going to do; there was little I could do to control it but that sure didn’t mean I’d have to put up with it.

I had to trust in my ability to acknowledge and call out unacceptable behaviour; to see things as they really were instead of blindly making excuses for it or brushing it off. If something didn’t quite add up or seemed like a flimsy story, I could assert myself by taking a closer look at the situation and if needed, ask for verification.

(And by the way, a woman who stands up for herself doesn’t have “trust issues,” she believes that she deserves honesty and is worthy of her own trust.)

My intuition has never failed me; my mistake was in choosing to ignore that inner voice. By checking in with it and asking it for confirmation, I regained trust in myself and, not surprisingly, those protective walls around my heart started coming down.

Part of my journey has been learning that by trusting others, I am actually fine-tuning my intuition. As I met new people socially and allowed myself to be vulnerable, I not only deepened my ability to trust my own instincts, I found a safe place to open myself up to love.

The Power of Three

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“Congratulations, you have a Million Dollar Family!” A well-meaning relative celebrated the news of our son’s birth in 1998 as if we’d won the gender lottery – one girl and one boy. Serendipitous symmetry afforded us the portrait of a perfect, happy, family: a mom, a dad, a daughter, a son.

Being a unit of four is certainly great in a lot of ways. Four chairs fit nicely around a square restaurant table. In the car, everyone has their own seat without anyone forced to sit on the hump. No one gets outnumbered in arguments. Hotel rooms with two beds are easy to book. Even pizza slices neatly into eights or twelves.

But then, quite suddenly, there was three of us.

While the kids continued to have a relationship with their father, there was just three of us living in a home built by four. Over the years, the kids and I had plenty of opportunities to hold down the fort just fine while my ex was away on business. I’ll admit I cherished those times. Instead of spending evenings apart in our own separate quarters, we would inexplicably gather together in one room to watch a video, share a snack, cuddle or talk. The three of us laughed more, it seems, because things felt more harmonious and relaxed. Or maybe it was just me.

But things were different now. With their father gone, I was hypervigilant about being the lone captain, keeping close watch on the bridge so that our ship stayed upright. I hoped the kids didn’t doubt that I could handle it on my own. If they did, they didn’t let on. I constantly assured them that we’d be fine and that we were still a family although dad didn’t live here anymore, but yet I worried they felt a void at home.

I grasped onto the Power of Three. After all, a three-legged stool is just as sturdy as a chair with four legs and I wanted to show the kids that our new home life could be just as good, if not better, than the one they grew up knowing.

For writers, the Power of Three is a principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying and easier to remember (“Veni, vidi, vici” or “Stop, look and listen”). Stage and screenplays are written in a three-act structure. In fact, a great deal of our cultural upbringing is made of triplets and trios: Three Musketeers, Three Little Pigs, Three Wise Men. Three is also a mystical number, if you are inclined to believe; in numerology, it denotes joy, inspiration and a moving forward of energy.

As quickly as I removed photos and mementos of the past from our home, I replaced them with subliminal reminders of the Power of Three. We have a curio shelf containing three miniature vases, three gold ornamental apples and three bamboo hedgehogs. Over our fireplace mantel is metal wall art featuring three tall trees, flourishing.

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At the time, my Mama Bear instinct used the Power of Three to protect, comfort and reassure, but looking back, I question if it was entirely the right thing to do. I wonder if it was actually my way of closing ranks; of not only proving myself as the steadfast parent but trying to shut out my ex by saying, “See? We didn’t need him anyway.” Perhaps, perhaps.

Fortunately, my daughter and son showed amazing resilience and coping skills as our household went from four to three and, since my new partner joined us, back to four again. Even if I made a few missteps in my parenting choices post-divorce, I am able to forgive myself because of the two extraordinary human beings who continue to live and thrive under this roof.

We may no longer be considered a Million Dollar Family by some people, but my kids are a reminder that I hit the jackpot.

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.