Love Tips from a Divorcee: Wanna Stay Together? Pick a Fight.

Cat_Fight

Image Source

Note for folks who don’t know me personally: Despite the title of my love advice series, I’ll be referring to a husband now and then. No, I didn’t forget the prefix, I’m married again! But once a divorcee, always a divorcee, so the title stays. Plus, it serves as an appropriate warning to readers to proceed with caution.

The first fight I had with my husband, Victor, felt significant. By that point, we’d been together almost two years without a single fight. Naturally, our not-fighting streak made us feel superior. Clearly, our love was divine, and we’d be the first couple in history to avoid conflict altogether.  But lurking in the back of our minds was a suspicion that we were earthly, not godly creatures and thus bound to annoy each other at some point.  We weren’t sure when it would happen or why. The anticipation became mildly stressful. Maybe a fight would break the spell and drag us by our hair from the honeymoon castle. We’d have to either break up or resentfully deal with one another, but we’d surely never drink from the sweet nectar of new love again.

Turns out it was fine. I won’t go into details because it was the boring kind of fight that seems dumb to outsiders but very important to the couple. I will say that it took place at Burning Man because of course it took place at Burning Man. They have a Relationship Survival Guide for a reason.

I’ve always taken lack of conflict in a relationship as a good sign, assuming that it’s the result of a strong compatibility. Then again, my relationships have always tended to be low conflict, even those where my partner and I were poorly matched. This shouldn’t be surprising; I’m like the Roger Federer of conflict avoidance.  Turns out that’s not a good thing. While ugly fights are damaging, so is avoiding them at all costs.

This was an important lesson for me in my first marriage. I’ve written about it before, so I won’t rehash it much here except to stay that my ex and I almost never argued or complained about one another. It seemed mature to let the small stuff slide because it was mostly small stuff. So when things went awry, I felt blindsided.  I expected divorce to be prefaced with years of yelling, broken dishes, public intoxication, shredded clothing, sleeping with strangers, and so on. That’s how it went on TV (curse you TV, fooling me again!). In our case, it felt like we went from placidity to divorce in a blink.

Our story makes sense after learning about the research conducted by John Gottman, Catherine Swanson, and James Murray. They observed 130 couples having a conversation about problem areas in their marriage and categorized their behaviors to make variables. By plugging the variables into a mathematical model, the researchers could predict whether or not a couple would get divorced with 90% accuracy. Bananas! Just watching the way they talked about difficult topics with one another was enough to predict their fate.

One of the most interesting findings was related to what they call the “negativity threshold.” It’s defined as “the point at which negativity has an impact on the partner’s immediately following behavior.” In other words, it’s the amount of shit you will tolerate from your partner before you react. People with a high threshold will put up with your dumb ass for years before complaining. Those with a low threshold will gripe about you failing to respond to a text with the sufficient number of excited emojis.

You’d think that couples who cut each other some slack would fare better in the long run, but the opposite is true. It’s the couples who sweat the small stuff that last. While it seems counterintuitive, it makes sense. Often when we think we’re letting things slide, we’re really just burying them on top of a bomb set to explode at a certain level of grievances. After the inevitable explosion, you’re dealing with the fallout from months-to-years’ worth of resentment.

Successful couples detect problems early and continually try to fix them.  They deal with the small problems before they become big problems. Also, they often have high standards for the relationship and feel entitled to a certain kind of treatment.

It sounds like the takeaway message is that fighting is a good thing. I’m not sure that’s right, though. A better one is more nuanced than that – something like: fighting isn’t great, but biting your tongue could be worse. Ideally, you learn how to address relationship problems without it devolving into a fight. The way you communicate is important. For example:

Communication

Not to say that being a high maintenance naggypants is a good thing. Surely maintaining reasonable expectations of your partner is still healthy. You should voice your grievances when they arise, even if somewhat petty. But if you find issue in every little thing, you likely need to chill the eff out.

When I think about it, it didn’t take Victor and I two years to fight. Our relationship got started with a fight. We’d been dating a few months, and he hurt my feelings by cutting a date night short. I hadn’t seen him in a while, and I was giddy about that date. He showed up, and it totally met my sky-high expectations. Yes, winning at dating! Then, he told me he was leaving. We’d been hanging out a couple of hours, probably a shorter amount of time than I took to get ready for the damn date. I was shocked and hurt, but instead of telling him this, I tried really hard to pretend like that I didn’t care because… psshhh, it’s not like he’s my boyfriend, he’s just some dude I’m seeing… he’s too young for me anyway… I’m a grownass woman who can be alone, in fact I prefer it because I’m so independent and feminist… plus, I have so many friends who love hanging out with me for way more than 2 hours… I could probably find another boy who’d hang out with me RIGHT NOW if I wanted to because I’m SO MUCH FUN and not insecure or needy AT ALL… whatever, I’m gonna live my life and YOLO, weeeewww!

When all of these arguments failed to convince me that I wasn’t hurt, I decided he was stringing me along, and my sadness morphed into anger. I shot off a sloppy email where I tried to convey the contradictory message that he hurt my feelings, but not because I care or anything… it’s just like, etiquette man. I was still trying to save face and protect my cowardly heart. It was a very dumb email. Even though the email makes me cringe to this day, it needed to be sent because it opened up the conversation and made us talk about our feefees. That’s when we realized that our feelings were mutual, and we could stop being babies about expressing them.

So “fights” can be a good thing, if done consciously.  If you find yourself bickering with your partner and feeling envious of that calm, level-headed couple, console yourself with the fact that the odds of staying together are weirdly in your favor.

Advertisements

Love Tips from a Divorcée: Lesson 3: Play It Cool, Motherfuckers

Very little of my adult life has been spent in the dating world. My MO has been to hurl myself from one relationship to the next, leap frog style. Here’s a breakdown of my relationship status over the past 15 years.

Relationship Status 15 Years

Footnote: Long distance relationships get their own special category because it’s kind of like being single but with an emotional security blanket.

Trust me, therapists have a field day with that diagram. Let’s examine why you can’t be alone, Sarah. Are you afraid that if no one is around to witness your life and compliment your hair, you’ll cease to exist? It would explain the blog.

Due to my inexperience with dating, my advice series thus far has focused on the relationship side of love. The relationship books I’ve read do the same, glossing over the messy business of courtship in favor of the messy business of partnership. The attitude seems to be that people are pathologically drawn to each other against their will, so let’s focus on helping them not destroy themselves when it happens.

There is, however, one piece of dating advice I do have: Play it cool, motherfuckers. Play. It. Cool. From the little I’ve seen, people seem to screw it up by being overly anxious in the beginning and appearing desperate. Or they swing too far the other way, too freaked out to even approach their love interest. Common denominator = not playing it cool.

There is a tiny element of nuance to this rather obvious advice, so hear me out. Playing it cools means communicating the following two things to that maybe-special someone in your life:

1. I really like you and think you’re neat.

2. I’ll be 100% A-OK if nothing pans out between the two of us.

For those of you who have a hard time with words, here’s an example you can follow, free of charge:

Pick Up Quote

Taking this advice isn’t as easy as it appears. There are two major pitfalls to avoid.

Pitfall 1: Don’t be an Asshole

First, you’ve gotta learn the art of playing it cool without being a jerk. A lot of people who play it cool overdo the second part of the equation. Instead of conveying that they’d be fine on their own, they communicate that they don’t give a shit about you. They make plans and then flake last minute. They shower you with attention, ignore you, and then just as you’re about to split, they shower you with attention again (and repeat). They play on your jealousy by flirting with or talking about other pretty ladies/handsome men. Basically, they play those agonizing dating games that make singles everywhere conclude that dating is the worst part of the human condition, just above dying.

Human Condition

Because most of us are insecure dimwits, these games are alarmingly effective. Even so, I’m not recommending them because a) side effects include being the object of resentment and bad karma; and b) it’s asshole behavior and we are already up to our eyeballs in assholery in this world.

So, don’t forget about part 1 of the equation. Let your maybe-special someone know that, although you’re just getting to know them, so far you think they’re the cat’s meow.

Pitfall 2: Don’t be a Poser

Now that you’ve learned how to not be an asshole, you need to figure out how to avoid being disingenuous. This occurs when you’re trying to convey the second part of the equation, but you don’t mean it. For this to work, you have to actually believe that you’ll be fine if things don’t work out. Because by and large, people can tell when you’re faking it.

Boy:         If you don’t mind, I want to take it slow for a while. Just have fun, you know?

Girl:          Me too! Anyway, if you were to have a baby, what would you think of the name Madison? Just wondering.

Boy:         You sure talk about babies a lot.

You must genuinely convince yourself that being with this one person isn’t the most important thing ever. Because it’s actually not. I’ll admit that this is tricky when you’re really into someone. If that’s the case, it DOES seem like the end of the world if it doesn’t work out, and it requires having ninja-level confidence and security in yourself to not take it too personally.

I’m forever working on acquiring those ninja skills, and it looks like it’s gonna take a while. But I’m fortunate because my personality flaws seem to work in my favor for once. If you’re one of my roughly 3 internet fans, that means that you’ve read my last post and know that I’m a novelty-seeker. This means that I’ve mastered the first half of the equation – letting someone know that I think they’re neat. I get spastically excited when I meet a new person that I like, and I’m not too shy about letting them know it. At the same time, my “isolator” tendencies make me pretty good at communicating the second half of the equation since, in the beginning, I’m skittish and afraid of commitment. One might accurately point out that this behavior is insane and bipolar since it goes something like, “Hi new person, you’re fantastic and adorable, love love!” …followed immediately by… “Whoa, easy tiger, don’t get the wrong idea.”

In dating, I deal with these competing impulses by erecting barriers to keep a relationship from happening too fast. These barriers usually take the form of an ex I’m still involved with, an ex I’m still getting over, or my pressing need to “find myself.” Mind you, this isn’t something I do consciously as a dating strategy. It’s taken a certain level of introspection for me to be able to look back on my life and recognize the pattern. Also note that I did not claim to be good at accomplishing part 2 of the equation. Rather, I’m good at blocking myself off in order to convince both myself and others that I’m happy being alone. And that’s cheating. Dangit.

I feel like I keep giving advice that I cannot follow myself. I suppose that’s part of the conceit of an advice series written by a divorcée. Do as I say, love monkeys, not as I do.

Featured photo credit: Dean, James Dean By Jlmaral (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/); Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jlmaral/

Love Tips from a Divorcée: Lesson 2: Mommy Issues & Why Your “Type” Drives you Crazy

In dating, we place a lot of emphasis on finding the right partner. Dr. Ty Tashiro takes this to a whole new level in his book, The Science of Happily Ever After. He argues that you can greatly improve the odds of finding lasting love by being choosier about whom you date. Scientific research shows that the strongest predictors of relationship success are not the couple’s communication skills or compatibility, it’s the characteristics of the people involved. So if your strategy is to wait around for your manic pixie dream girl to find you and sweep you away on a quirky adventure, you’re doing it wrong. You’re just as likely to be visited by the one and only flying spaghetti monster.

Equally Plausible

Equally Plausible

When it comes to the important business of choosing a partner, doesn’t it make sense to put a little thought into it? Not leave it to the whims of the vengeful gods? Dr. Tashiro suggests that you look for the following traits when selecting a mate:

  • Agreeable guys and gals – their ability to empathize makes them good at intimacy both inside and outside the bedroom
  • People with a secure attachment style – they’re capable of forming healthy emotional bonds and providing their partners with both support and space

And avoid these folks if you can:

  • Novelty seekers – they’re exciting but they get bored easily and are prone to cheating and/or leaving
  • Neurotic people – they’re hilarious but their emotional instability makes for a lot of drama

In reading this book, my first thought was, “Crap, am I undateable?” I’m a nice lady for the most part (+1), and the internet says I have a secure attachment style (+1). But nothing gets me more excited than new, shiny things (-1), and I’m generally anxious and fond of Woody Allen movies (-1). I’m a solid 50/50 bet.

My second thought was this: This dating strategy only makes sense if you are willing to settle for a loveless relationship. Sorry science, but love wants nothing to do with you and your lecturing. I do believe we can use science to understand why we feel and behave the way we do. I’m more skeptical of our ability to wield this knowledge to our advantage. How many of you would give your left kidney to be attracted to that nice, stable, cute (wo)man who asked you out? But alas, you fear that being with this person would doom you to a sexless, passion-free existence for all eternity. But that gypsy punk artist with the gambling problem and anger issues…bow chica bow wow…you’d tattoo his face on your boob if he asked you nicely.

Daryl_Dixon_(TV_Series)

Way hotter than Rick

The unfortunate fact is that we tend to be most attracted to those individuals who make us the most crazy. Opposites attract, right? But why? Why do many people date the same type of “wrong” person over and over again? And why do people find themselves having the same kinds of arguments in their relationships year after year?

One theory behind this phenomenon is Harville Hendrix’s Imago relationship model, which posits that we are attracted to people who embody both the best and worst characteristics of our parents. Why would we do such a horrifying thing? I’m paraphrasing, but Dr. Hendrix explains that it’s your subconscious brain messing with you. It’s trying to recreate the parent-child dynamic in an effort to right the wrongs done to you in childhood.

Your parents need not have been abusive, alcoholic monsters for this to apply to you. Have you been around a child lately? Their little hearts are black holes composed entirely of vulnerability and need…and love. No parent is capable of meeting a child’s mountain of needs all the time. Even if your father was Mister Rogers, he messed you up a little bit. Maybe you felt like he was paying too much attention to Henrietta Pussycat, and it hurt your feelings. Yes, we’re that fragile.

Let’s say you had a very controlling and anxious father who fretted over you all the time. You may grow up to be what Dr. Hendrix calls an “isolator,” someone who needs a lot of space and pushes people away. Your goal in a relationship is to make sure you maintain your independence. You’re a lone wolf on an island, doing it your way, taking less traveled roads, dancing by yourself, so on and so on.

On the other hand, maybe you had a neglectful mother who was always too busy for you. As a result, you may become a “fuser” with an insatiable need for closeness and affection. Your hidden relationship agenda is to receive constant reassurance that you’re worthy and loved.

The sad irony of the situation is that these two types tend to be magnetically drawn to one another. Nightmare ensues. I lie in the isolator camp, which means that if I sense that someone is trying to get too close to me too fast, I go straight to crazytown. It may look something like this:

Out Loud Inside Brain
Fuser Boy: Hey Sarah, I haven’t heard from you, so I thought I’d stop by and surprise you with some flowers because I love you and you’re beautiful! You’re so selfish. Why have you been ignoring me? It’s been 3 hours. Aren’t you still attracted to me? Where did the love go?
Isolator Sarah: Oh hi. Flowers. Yeah, that’s so nice of you. Do that again and so help me, I will tie those thorny stems together and strangle you with them. Sweet, sweet murder.
Fuser Boy: I picked these out because of that one time you mentioned you like the color yellow. By the way, are you busy tomorrow? And by tomorrow I mean the next 14 days straight so we can do nothing but cuddle and stare into each other’s eyeballs while talking about our childhoods.
Isolator Sarah: Thank you. Oh gosh you’re the sweetest. I’m so busy right now. Work, it’s the worst. But I’ll see if I can wrestle in some free time. Don’t you see, he’s trying to possess you in order to gain access to your spine because that’s where your soul lives. He wants it for his collection of lady souls that he hides inside a creepy shoebox. Launching Operation Sabotage Relationship in 3…2…1…

Obviously, we do not intentionally seek out partners who are guaranteed to drive us crazypants. We think we’re simply seeking out individuals with good qualities such as intelligence, compassion, and a Beyonce butt. However, this just isn’t how we operate. We like what we like; it’s really hard to control.

So what to do? This blog is supposed to contain advice, I realize, so here we go. I suggest you do your best to follow Dr. Tashiro’s advice. Seek out nice, secure, and emotionally stable folks. If you can’t convince one of these rare unicorn people to date your dysfunctional ass, then you better get on with the business of figuring out what your mommy and daddy issues are. Recognizing your pattern is the first step to altering it. The one thing I’m absolutely convinced of at this point is that long-term relationships only succeed if you approach them consciously.

Being conscious in your relationship means you are vigilantly self-reflective. You constantly investigate your own motives, feelings, and actions, and you do so as honestly as possible. This means acknowledging some of the less than awesome parts of yourself, but hopefully in a forgiving, gentle way. You then learn how to catch yourself before you unthinkingly give into your negative patterns. You work to grow past these things and do better. Because at the end of the day, finding the right partner is not going to do it. You gotta learn how to be the right partner. Yes, your lover person is messed up and annoying and sort of stupid sometimes. So are you. But the difference is, you can’t change them, can you?

Footnotes: I feel like I’m picking on Dr. Tashiro, but I certainly don’t mean to. I greatly enjoyed his book, which is entertaining, well-researched, and well-written. His arguments are more nuanced than I make them seem here. If social science and relationships interest you, definitely give it a read.

Information about the Imago relationship model came from Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix and Helen Lakelly Hunt.

Photo Credits:

Featured Image: By Neil Moralee; (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/) Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/neilmoralee/

Zooey Deschanel: By Cindy Maram/Dig In Magazine (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Flying Spaghetti Monster: By Gavin St. Ours from Baltimore, MD, USA (FSM in Charm City  Uploaded by Trockennasenaffe) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Daryl Dixon: By AMC Network; Source: http://www.amctv.com/shows/the-walking-dead/cast/daryl-dixon

 

 

Love Tips from a Divorcée: Lesson 1: Your Partner Isn’t Walmart

Relationships have been on my mind quite a lot lately. In the past couple of years, I went through two separations – a divorce and a regular ol’ breakup. These relationships did not slowly fade away nor did they meet an explosive end. Rather, we chose the long, hard road of analyzing the situation to death as we tried to fix our problems (read: fix the other person’s problems).

When making decisions about life and love, one typically hears the advice to “follow your gut.” But my gut’s broken. As a trained researcher, I tackle my personal problems the same way I do my work assignments – with lots of data and input from experts. I employed a three-pronged strategy:

1) Read lots of books about psychology, love, and relationships written by people with fancy degrees;

2) Get counseling – both the marriage kind (that’s right, we’re responsible) and the individual kind; and

3) Watch a lot of romantic movies. [Side note: Do not watch romantic movies when you’re going through a breakup. Especially the Notebook, Drive, Blue Valentine…basically anything starring Ryan Gosling. Comparing your current or ex-boyfriend to Ryan Gosling will not fix the fundamental problem at hand – that you are not and never will be dating Ryan Gosling. It’s better if you accept this fact now.]

Since I spent about a college tuition’s-worth of money on these things, I believe I’ve earned the right to call myself an expert. To those who say you shouldn’t take advice from someone who clearly sucks at relationships, I say, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, advise.”

When I think about the amount of time and energy I’ve spent thinking over these things, I want to drown in a puddle of my own humiliation. I could’ve conquered Spain in that time. Or at least learned Spanish. But then again, it wasn’t exactly time wasted. I feel good about the fact that I fought to keep those relationships together; it just didn’t work out. (Participation ribbons all around!) Also, I do feel that I learned a thing or two about this whole messy business of relationships. Not wanting this wealth of knowledge to go to waste, I plan on hammering out a few love lessons for you here.

To begin, I want to write about the unrealistic expectations we place on our partners. I’ll start by quoting two of my favorite celebrities, Dan Savage and RuPaul:

RuPaul:      There’s also the idea that we humans, especially in our culture, think that one person is going to be everything for us, like a Walmart, where there’s a hardware department, there’s an automotive department, lingerie…In my experience, it’s not true.

Dan:            It’s actually a very dangerous myth – that one person can be all things emotionally, sexually, intimately for another person. It leads people to be disappointed in their relationships, in all of them, because they believe that this person should exist to fulfill all of their needs, be their best friend, the best sex partner, the best this, the best that, to be everything. Be their fuckin’ Walmart….and one person can’t be your fuckin’ Walmart, and when you stop expecting that, you’ll be happier in that relationship.

(From episode 419 of the Savage Lovecast)

Now personally, I’d like to think that my partners treat me like a Target store, not a Walmart, but no matter. The point is that never before have we expected so much from our significant others. Maybe your spouse is a sexual gymnast, father of the year, and money-making machine. But he’s been emotionally distant lately, and by golly, right now that’s the only thing preventing you from true happiness.

If I’m reading these psychology texts correctly, they would summarize this impulse as such: we want our partners to be our parents. Wait, what? Ew. But think about it. In childhood, our parents were charged with meeting all of our needs and making us feel whole. As adults, we seem to expect our partners to take over that job.

As if this weren’t difficult enough already, each one of us has a unique set of expectations that is shaped by our culture, upbringing, and past experiences. Some of these expectations are based on gender roles like: Man fight bear, mow lawn! Woman wear lace, bake cake!

Others originate from one’s upbringing: what are you crazy, Sunday mornings are for pajamas and cartoons, not church! Some are related to childhood baggage: daddy never told me I was pretty, you tell me I’m pretty! And still others come from wherever the fuck: If you really loved me, you’d dress up like a naughty panda who escaped from the zoo to rummage through my dirty dirty garbage.

PandaBear_PD

Oh yeah.

Do we communicate these expectations to our partners? Hell no! That’d be way too easy. Often they remain hidden even to ourselves. All of this makes getting into a relationship akin to signing an invisible contract. You’re expected to know and do X, Y, and Z. However, you won’t figure out what X, Y, and Z actually are until your partner is either burning with rage or withdrawing into cold silence. Most of us don’t react gracefully when our partners fail to meet our standards. We typically respond in one of the following ways:

  • We condemn: “You’re such a sad dummy caveman for feeling the way you do.”
  • We educate: “Aw sweetie, you’re a little slow, but when I explain it better, you’ll feel the way I do.”
  • We threaten: “Think like me, or the puppy gets it.”
  • We ignore: “What were you saying, let’s get back to that panda costume.”
  • We analyze: “The reason you feel that way is because your mother was a rabid succubus who forgot to breastfeed you.”

These strategies are meant to invalidate your partner’s point of view, so that at the end of the day, it’s your needs that are getting met. What self-serving vampires we are.

How to avoid this maddening mind game? Two broad recommendations:

  • Check those expectations: It’s impossible to have no expectations. If you have no expectations, you likely have no standards. I also believe it’s impossible to have only rational, reasonable expectations. You’re battling against years of conditioning and human nature here. However, maybe just remember to give those expectations a reality check. Ask yourself: is this expectation reasonable? Has boyfriend been pretty awesome in other ways? Can I get this need met somewhere else? Remind yourself that the task of making another person feel whole, fulfilled, and loved for years is no small matter. Hell, it’s hard to do for a whole day. So cut your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend/dungeon slave a break. Don’t treat them like Walmart – treat them like your friendly neighborhood Goodwill. They got a lot of the stuff you need. Yes, some of it smells funny and doesn’t fit right, but they’re doing the best they can with what they were given. And you never know, maybe next week, they’ll get some new stuff.
  • Communicate those expectations: While having unrealistic expectations is its own problem, expecting your partner to have telepathic powers certainly doesn’t help the situation. It’s just plain silly to criticize someone for letting you down when you’ve never told that person what it is that you want. You may think, “We’ve been dating a trillion years, they should know me by now,” or “it’s not the same if I have to tell him what I want, then it feels forced.” That’s not fair. Remember, you and your partner are not the same person with identical thoughts and needs (thank goodness, that’d be gross). No, you’re a special little snowflake with special little snowflake needs. What may seem obvious to you may not be obvious to someone else. Apply the lessons from Kindergarten: Use your words. Listen. Repeat. If you got no word skills but you really care about your relationship, go get counseling. Good counselors will know how to help you find those words.

Extra credit:

While I did not flat out plagiarize, most of the ideas expressed above came from the book Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix and Helen Lakelly Hunt. I don’t do it justice, the book goes much deeper into this and other topics. It discusses the drivers behind romantic love, the reasons it typically falls apart, and steps to take to try to make it last. There are even exercises you can do with your partner. The only caveat there is that some of the exercises are so painfully embarrassing that you may die trying them. For example, one exercise involves pretending to be yourself as a child while your partner pretends to be your parent. You then speak to your ‘parent’ about the ways that s/he hurts you, and healing ensues. See…awkward. But power to those who can power through that kind of stuff.

Good luck little love monkeys.

Photo credits:

Featured image (shopping carts): By Jim (http://www.flickr.com/photos/alphageek/121953651) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons; Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alphageek/121953651

Ryan Gosling Photo By Raffi Asdourian (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons; Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/46958049@N00/13522475605 – Text was added by me.

Panda: http://creativecommons.photos/image/he

First comes love, then comes…

As I alluded to in earlier posts, my hiatus from blogging life was due to a little wittle meltdown. Like many of life’s misfortunes, the instigating event was nothing unusual but searing nonetheless. (Hint: it starts with ‘d’ and rhymes with schmizorce.)

I’ve been wrestling with this for a while – if and how and when to write about it. I genuinely feel more comfortable calling it “schmizorce” than its real name because the word still makes my heart curl up into a tiny ball of sad. So why do I feel the compulsion to write about it at all? Would it not be safer, saner, wiser to avoid it altogether? Stick with less messy topics such as How to Make the Perfect Salami Platter or 9 Steps to Sculpting Sexy Armpits. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know how to do either of those things.

Although terrifying, there’s something liberating about sharing what a mess you’ve made of things – admissions of failures, weaknesses, and insecurities. I recently came across Lea Thau’s podcast, Strangers, in which she gives a raw account of her own excruciating experiences with breakups and dating in a series called Love Hurts. Listening to it you think, “Holy moly Lea, I don’t even know you, and you’re getting all emotionally naked for me!” But this is the exact reason her stories are so engaging and endearing. Listening to them made me just want to track her down, give her a big hug, and braid her hair while I shared my own tales of woe. Her show proves that the more intimate and personal a story is, the more relatable it is. I know that some people find these public confessions cringe-worthy or maybe crass. To them I recommend the fairytale pretend-land that is Pinterest. But to me there’s nothing more depressing than seeing a perfectly executed and photographed brioche made from scratch.

This line of thinking makes me want to write about my schmizorce in an open and honest way. (First baby step would probably be: spell out the d-word). There’s one thing holding me back, however – the fact that it’s not just my story to tell but also that of my ex, Schmitchell (not his real name). Because I do not have the luxury of hating him, I would like to protect his privacy and feelings. This is a good thing for both of us. So instead of giving you a sincere account of my heartache, I’m going to cop out and give you only vague details of my thoughts and feelings on the subject. I’ll be heavy-handed with the jokes, so we don’t veer too far into train wreck territory. You won’t learn much but nobody gets hurt. When I get better at this writing business, I might find a more graceful way of navigating the art of confessional writing. Until then, here we go…

D…D…Divorce was not exactly a milestone I hoped to accomplish by age 30, so needless to say, it was quite the err…curveball. “Curveball?” you ask before lecturing me about the predictability of my situation due to the ever-rising divorce rates and how we Millennials are doing it wrong because we’re all spoiled idiots. But like everyone who gets married, I thought we were an exception. What could possibly be so hard about fusing yourself to another human being for a lifetime? [Note: People do tell you all the time that it’s “hard work,” but they never quite elaborate. Methinks conspiracy.]

I had another reason besides hubris for thinking I might be on the winning side of the marital coin toss. Prior to Mitchell, I never had dreams of getting married, good little feminist that I am. That meant I wasn’t doing it for the “wrong” reasons. I did not have a general desire to just get married already, nor was I marrying into money, nor did I have a uterus screaming, “Me hungry for BABY!” No, I was doing it for the “right” reason, love. Mad love. The kind of love where people get irritated at the sight of you and your pretend fights over who loves the other one more (No, I love YOU more…No that is metaphysically impossible because I have just invented a new kind of love for you that’s never existed, and it’s way bigger than any love this planet has ever known…No, I love you more than that even…yeah we were gross).

For the first time, I was swept away by the romanticism of marriage. The idea that I may still remain lovable ‘til the end of my days, even as my flesh balloons and I begin flinging crazed rants at “young people” and their stupid trendy pants. The only differences between marriage and shacking up in my mind are the societal approval and the commitment to try one’s damndest to make it work. No fleeing allowed at the first signs of weakness. No BS lines about how “it’s not you, it’s me. Thy light shines too bright for mine eyes.” No dummy, you’re gonna have to elaborate, self-reflect, and get your ass to counseling. Grow the hell up already. There’s something very comforting in that.

But in our case, when the first signs of marital discord arose, we didn’t follow those rules so closely. I won’t elaborate on Mitchell’s behavior, but for my part, I chose instead to: a) flee the country I was living in, b) throw tantrums and whine at friends for hours months, c) wallow in a well of self-pity, and d) compose psychotic letters that I thankfully never mailed. Just kidding! I did yoga. Lots and lots of yoga [cough].   In my defense, the whole divorce thing wasn’t my idea. When Mitchell first uttered the D-word in an argument, my world collapsed. This was probably our fifth argument ever, and the D-bomb made an appearance?! I was stunned. We had planned a trip to Malaysia the next morning, and against all reason, I decided to go alone. I spent the week wandering through the country in a weepy stupor, feigning interest in the sites around me as my emotions did somersaults. One minute depressed, the next elated and self-righteous, the next in denial. Total crazypants.

I realize that under some circumstances, divorce is a welcomed occurrence, making one’s heart erupt into an impromptu Turkish dance party. Or as Louis CK put it, “Marriage is just like a larvae stage for true happiness, which is divorce.”  And perhaps I’m overdramatizing it by making it seem worse than a breakup sans court orders. Clearly, I can only speak for myself. This heartbreak was my most crushing.

Although my marriage was short-lived, I believe its end has been more difficult than past breakups because it represented the death of something greater than a relationship. Ok stop that – I can feel your eyes rolling and hear you saying, “It’s just a piece of paper, man.” Is marriage more significant than other relationships, and if so, why? My answers are: yes maybe, and I have a few ideas.

Marriage shapes your identity in a way that other relationships do not. Although subtle, I remember feeling a sort of shift in my status as a married person. Level up. I would have never guessed that would happen until it did. People view you and interact with you differently. They seem to honor your relationship more. Men leave you alone. Women seem more comfortable around you, or at least coupled women do. I can’t explain exactly how this is felt, but you feel like you have a more solid standing in the world. Perhaps you internalize the message that people are sending you, the message that at least you got one thing in life right, marriage. Lea Thau talks about this in the final episode of Love Hurts. I can’t say it better, so I’ll quote her:

Married people have this clear place to stand in the world…and the rest of us are just getting bumped along by the masses on the sidewalk trying not to get swallowed up or crushed…Outwardly, married people can seem sort of untouchable. Like who can question you when you have a husband? And I know because I used to have one. And you know what, I’m sorry to say this, but I did have a slightly smug sense of superiority that I was never aware of until I didn’t have it anymore, when I was suddenly single.

Smugness – a side effect of getting that societal pat on the head. Yes, although I wouldn’t have recognized it at the time, I felt a bit smug too if I’m honest. So when divorce happens, not only are you dealing with the loss of a partner, you’re also struggling with the shame and humiliation of losing that status. You’ve been demoted. Booted from the golden club of marrieds. Worse, you can’t even claim to be single anymore. No no, there’s a whole separate category for the likes of you. A new box to check:

marital status

Jeez, even single folks these days have to identify as “never married.” I’m especially neurotic, so I experience a sort of meta version of shame around this – I’m ashamed of failing at marriage, yes, but I’m also ashamed of being ashamed about it. Double shame pancake, no good. Divorce is a lot less stigmatized than it used to be, and I know logically there’s no shame in it but still, there it is.

To me, the other reason divorce feels traumatic is that marriage is fraught with the future. It’s the structure which you build your future hopes and expectations around, so when it collapses, those fall with it. They were never real to begin with, only in your head, but you miss them all the same. All long term relationships have this to a degree, but it’s the promise of forever that sets marriage apart.

It’s not all sad bananas, though. Silver linings abound. The experience helped me appreciate that hey, I have friends, and hey, they’re AMAZING. Oh love! This was true not just for my inner circle of friends, but also those I hadn’t felt so close to. People who had never opened up to me before started sharing their own stories of heartbreak. Their kindness and honesty helped me feel less frightened and alone. And they seriously stroked my ego, lavishing me with compliments and praise (Sarah, it can’t be! You are gorgeous and perfect and very much non-divorceable!!) I’m ever so grateful. In particular, I’d like to thank Jeannette, Lucey, Kelly, and Aaron for the depth of patience, love, and generosity they showed me during this time. Thanks also to Mitchell – while we both had our less than shiny moments, he was very kind and compassionate to me the whole way through. That’s just his way .

Another silver lining to having your life go off track is that it forces you to reevaluate yourself and your priorities. It’s helped me recognize some of the obstacles that have been holding me back, and I feel more motivated now to actually get to work tackling them. It is the beginning of something new, and that something is still open and full of possibility. More and more often, it’s starting to feel exciting, this potential for a fresh start. I’ve always been a fan of fresh starts, although I concede that having an emotional breakdown may not be the best strategy for accomplishing it. [Note to self: when you feel the need to spice up your life, try traveling].

This is a bit of a heavy subject for one of my early posts, but I can’t help myself. In the works: relationship tips from a recent divorcée (i.e., how not to do relationships). Look forward to that.

 

Featured image is my own.