Advice from a Divorcee to a New Bride

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My daughter is getting married in two weeks, and I’ve been feeling a tug to share some motherly pearls of wisdom as the big day approaches.

Having a failed marriage behind me, it seems hypocritical to be offering advice (other than don’t marry a duplicitous louse capable of deceiving you for the duration of your marriage, ahem). I know my daughter doesn’t need any no-shit-Sherlock nuggets like “marriage isn’t always 50/50” because she is smart and self-assured and I have no reason to doubt that will continue into her married life.

Still, I’m hoping she can benefit from a bit of what I’ve picked up in my experience. So, instead of marital counsel, I’m simply offering some real-world, been-there-done-that relationship wisdom: woman to woman. Taking a page out of Oprah’s “What I Know For Sure,” here’s what I’ve learned over time about…

Forgiving on a daily basis. Some people think it’s only the big hurts that require the act of forgiveness, but the truth is, it’s the little things that you need to forgive quickly and frequently. I’m talking about the irritants that get under your skin but in the big scheme of things, are merely tiny nuisances resulting from the daily friction of two humans cohabitating. Are there socks on the floor or nail clippings in the sink (again)? Did he eat the last of the leftovers you were saving for lunch? Before it sets you off, take a deep breath and forgive. By all means, mention how it makes you feel, but don’t let it get the best of you, escalate into a fight, or hold it over his head. So let it go, let it goooo. Here’s a tip: instead of focusing on the laundry list of why he bugs you, focus only on his BEST – what you love most about him.

Realizing that resentment has a snowball effect. While the dangers of something small growing into something big might sound contrary to the above, my point is actually about communication. Resentment stems from unmet expectations. If there’s something you want badly but aren’t getting – maybe it’s feeling appreciated, accepted or adored – it can leave you unfulfilled. This is where snowballing resentment picks up steam and leads to feeling hurt, drawing negative conclusions and finally, bitterness and lashing out. Before it reaches that stage, try to think about the source of your resentment and if any (unrealistic, perhaps?) expectations contributed to that snowball.

Owning your emotions. You are responsible for your own happiness. Read and re-read those words. It means that how you respond to situations is completely within your control. It’s no one’s job to make you happy and no one has the total power to make you sad or mad – so stop blaming others (ahem, your significant other) for the way you are feeling. Sometimes you’ll be sad just because you’re feeling sad, and sometimes it’s because you’ve read or heard something depressing, you’re worried about work or family or money, you’re stuck in a dark place in your head, or shark week is in its final approach and the despair, anxiety and chocolate cravings are welling up inside. None of that is your partner’s fault. All emotions have value (remember Inside Out?), but they aren’t merely triggered by another person but how we choose to respond to the situation. When you’re tempted to take your anger or frustration out on your significant other, stop and consider its source before you snap at him.

Putting your partner first* in the bedroom (*most of the time). As we get older, our relationships progress, our bodies change and our lives grow more complex. Sex evolves too, and because the stars will rarely align perfectly and spontaneously the way they used to, you have to make your physical relationship a priority. It won’t always be easy to fall into your lover’s arms, especially when he wants to make love and you are nowhere close to being in the mood, but it’s important to shut the world off and let yourself give in sometimes. Even when (especially when) you don’t feel like it. Here’s something that’s always resonated with me: as much as women need to feel loved to have sex, men need sex to feel loved. So on those days it’s difficult to turn off that busy, multitasking mind, get out of your head and instead, focus on your lover and the sensations of your own body. A few minutes of pleasure will do wonders for your relationship and your personal well being the other 23.5 hours of the day.

Not losing the “me” behind the “we”. Always cherish the things that make you special, including your unique interests. It’s great that you and your beloved share so many things in common and love spending time together, but keep personal space for the hobbies, activities and interests that rejuvenate your love for life. Never let anyone tell you that you’re selfish for wanting to take time for yourself. Separate interests make you more interesting individuals. The only caveat I would add is that your hobbies should bring you joy, enhance your life and your relationship. They should not cause a rift, veer into obsession, be an excuse to get away from one another and worst and most painful of all, used to cover up nefarious activity. Keep doing what you love, and it will help you not to lose sight of who you are. You’re worth it.

Finding your way back to your love story. After eight years together, my daughter and future son-in-law already understand relationships have its ups and downs. But there will be deeper ruts later on; times when you stall out and start to question whether you made the right choice or if you’re with the right person. Heck, you might wonder if you even like that person. That’s the time when you need to make a trip into your mental library and check out the Story of How We Met. Re-read its pages as a reminder of why you chose each other in the first place. There is a reason you have worked hard and invested so much to get to where you are today. Good memories will spark more positive things about one another and those little bricks that laid the groundwork for your relationship. Use it as a path to find your way back together and you’ll realize that you don’t fall in love only once, but in fact, you need to fall in love with each other over and over again.

Being vulnerable. My last and maybe most valuable piece of advice comes from what I’ve learned most not in marriage, but divorce and the years that have followed it. True intimacy with your partner comes only by being emotionally vulnerable. No two ways about it, being honest about the way you feel, your fears and your needs is the glue that will hold it all together. On the flip side, shame and secrets are silent saboteurs that close us off from one another and put up the walls that prevent us from closeness.

Looking back, my marriage always lacked true connection, and as a result of missing out on that level of intimacy, I wasted years feeling lonely, inadequate and unfulfilled. You deserve so much better than this. My advice is to work at being vulnerable as a way of connecting with each other. Be brave and put yourself out there first. Start by realizing that inside, we each want to belong and to feel worthy of love and acceptance. If you and your partner can meet somewhere in the middle with the understanding that we all come from the same place, you can create a safe space to open up and let love in.

 

What I’m Made Of

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Art inspiration from http://www.stonestories.org

“I hope you understand that I’m not leaving you for someone else,” he said with a straight face, even though we both knew it was a lie.

Perhaps it was his attempt at self-preservation, as in, don’t go run and tell your lawyer I’m leaving you for another woman so you can bleed me dry. Maybe it was to protect his still-married mistress from whatever shenanigans I, the betrayed and scorned, might try to pull. And then there was the off chance it was actually for the sake of my dignity, as if, in some twisted way, that revelation was supposed to bring me some comfort. It didn’t.

Just a week earlier, he spilled his guts about that affair plus all the ones he’d had before. Then he packed up and left. Later, he said he’d be willing to come back and give our marriage another try if I wanted save our family. He gave me another week to think it over. Then he tacked an ultimatum onto it. If I didn’t take him back before the allotted time was up, he just might be tempted to fall back into bed with her next time she was in town.

They say you don’t really know a man until you’ve divorced him. They’re so right. I never learned so much about the person I was married to for 20 years as I did in those first few days.

But truthfully, I also didn’t really know who I was until I was divorced either. In fact, here are a few things I learned about myself:

I deserve better. As someone who had her entire life planned out and fall neatly into place since high school, the unexpected end of my marriage was not only painful, it was hard to let go of a dream that would never be fully realized. However, I immediately recognized that I was deserving of a much better marriage and a much better husband than one who’d threaten me with even more cheating if I didn’t take him back by his deadline. Thanks to his unacceptable bad behavior, I was able to redraw my boundaries and told myself that “I want what I deserve and I deserve what I want.” In divorce, I reclaimed my worth.

I am not afraid anymore. While most people rank public speaking and death as their greatest fears, for me, discovering my husband’s infidelity (nightmares had plagued me for years – go figure) and subsequent divorce was at the top of my list. But then my marriage ended and I managed to survive the worst thing I could have possibly imagined. Oh, it was a dark and scary time for sure, but it was also a chance for me to grow and to gain a new perspective. I became braver and more independent because of it. If I could face what I’d been most fearful of, there really was little left to fear.

It’s okay to take time for me. The first time my kids left to visit their father, I wasn’t able to hold back tears. I couldn’t believe our life had come to this. The silence at home was deafening and I dreaded not knowing what to do with myself. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read. I didn’t have the energy to go outside. But at the same time, I felt guilty just wasting this precious time when I had the world at my disposal. I soon realized that after 16 years of being a mom, spending time alone would take practice and that it was healthy for me and the kids to be apart. While I’ve never been great at self-care, I tried to look forward to opportunities to relearn what I enjoy and get reacquainted with who Barb is. By starting to “date” myself, I realized just what a great catch I am!

I have a resilient heart. Despite the pain and sadness enveloping it, my heart has never lost its flicker of hope and compassion. Just 48 hours after he left, my ex returned home to see the kids after work. Knowing he’d be hungry, I whipped up a sandwich for him. It might have been wifely instinct, but the gesture came from a surprising place of kindness and empathy knowing we were both hurting. That is just who I am. I am grateful that my heart never gave out or gave up on me. Even while healing, it demonstrated more compassion toward others and an even greater capacity to love those who mean the most to me. My heart never once stopped believing that I would someday love and trust again.

I am my mother’s daughter. I can’t overstate how much my parents did to support me and my kids in that first year of divorce. My mother was everything. Even though she was hurting too, she scooped us up, hugged us, fed us and comforted us;  offering gentle counsel or a listening ear, holding us together and presenting us with a welcome distraction or a helping hand. She had a calming effect on me in the midst of total chaos. I have always looked up to the women in my family as remarkably strong and wise individuals and at a time I felt my weakest, it lifted me to know that I was cut from the same cloth. The love, faith, compassion and strength of my mother helped me to rediscover my own.

Jennifer Garner Speaks (Some of) Her Truth

Jennifer Garner’s beautiful face is all over newsstands this week, as magazine headlines herald her first candid, post-divorce interview since the demise of her 10-year marriage to Ben Affleck.

I have never been a huge fan, but am reconsidering that stance after being impressed both by what the actress said and what she didn’t say here.

Conducting herself admirably, Jen does not shy away from unavoidable questions regarding the lurid details of the high-profile breakup while still upholding her ex-husband’s privacy and generously acknowledging that he too, is dealing with his shame and pain. She does, however, use the Vanity Fair interview to demystify the fairy tale of her marriage without further sullying what she still considers sacred.

As a celebrity, Jennifer Garner has a platform for spilling her guts to the point of decimating her ex, but she keeps it in check knowing that a tabloid is not the forum to express the depth of her grief and grievances. She speaks her truth, at least a well-controlled portion of it, while still taking the high road – which means choosing to do what’s right even when it’s not the easiest.

I found that out early in the legal process. When filing for divorce, I wanted an opportunity to speak my truth by citing the reason my marriage ended. Not only because it would ensure an expedient judicial process, but because I wanted there to be an honest, God-as-my-witness record of what had transpired. However, I was strongly advised against that by a lawyer who urged me to instead choose a prolonged separation and a “no fault” divorce to spare anyone, especially the children, from ever knowing the full extent of the situation.

Gee whiz, I thought, if a court of law isn’t the place to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – when else would it have a chance to be made known?

The answer, as it turns out, is never. The judge doesn’t want to hear it, your friends don’t want to hear it, your children don’t want to hear it, your ex’s new partner doesn’t want to hear it, and frankly, neither does yours.

As I came to realize, you need to make peace with the fact that the only living person who knows, and will ever know, all of the intimately gory details of your divorce is the person that you’re divorcing. I guess that’s why I found it particularly gratifying when Jen Garner disclosed that Ben is “still the only person who really knows the truth about things. And I’m still the only person that knows some of his truths.”

I read that as a wink-wink to anyone who has ever found themselves walking a tightrope between talking about the truth and taking the high road. Yes, of course there is much more I can say, but I won’t. Oh, but if only you knew.

Perhaps that is enough, then; to simply acknowledge that we live with unspoken truths that are very real, even if we are restricted from ever fully revealing them.

Celebrity or not, we may have more story to tell, but sometimes it’s best if we never do.