I got married at 24—young, by today’s standards. My husband and I were crazy about one another from the beginning. Like we moved in together after a few weeks, went backpacking in China on a whim, and got married a year later kind of crazy.
Twelve years and eleven months into our marriage—two kids and three houses deep—sh*t hit the fan. For the purpose of this essay, it doesn’t really matter which one of us cheated. It doesn’t really matter which one of us was harboring secret addictions. Do you know anyone whose life has never been touched by infidelity or substance abuse at one point or another? I don’t.
What matters is that our marriage blew up in our faces. One day we had never mentioned the word divorce in the context of our relationship, and the next day we had. Many times.
We filed the papers on our 13th wedding anniversary. It was a day filled with every kind of awful; I felt completely unmoored from the person I was and the marriage I had practically grown up inside of. Who would I be now? Would we each survive the heartache? Perhaps custody battles would be in our future, or fights over where to live—nearer his family, or mine. What about child support for our then three-year-old daughter and six-year-old son? And what about future marriages, blended families, tense birthdays and Bar Mitzvahs as our lives spiraled far out of one another’s orbit but remained—because of our kids—in the same galaxy?
But we didn’t have a chance to find out, because we withdrew the petition for divorce one month later. There were so many reasons. And even after our betrayals and missteps, there was no denying that I loved my husband and he loved me. Love for our kids held us, too; we took a hard look at what they would go through if we split and concluded that if we could somehow make it work, an intact — if imperfect — marriage might give them a better life.
I won’t sugarcoat it, though. The entire year after that was a hellish emotional rollercoaster. The anger, resentment, and shock came and went and came again without warning. We’d be wonderfully in love one day and full of rage and grievances the next. I think we even freaked out our poor couples’ counselor, who may or may not have ever seen a relationship as bipolar as ours. I wanted it to work, but for a long time it wasn’t clear to me that our decision to stay together had been the right one.
Now, a few years later, our everyday lives are stable again and I’m glad we stuck it out. Our relationship is different, though; there’s a certain innocence lost that we cannot reclaim. That throw-all-caution-to-the-wind love that started us as a couple is gone. But gone, too, are the lackluster patterns we had fallen into as parents of young children; in their place we have a more realistic, more honest relationship that I believe will serve us for many more years. It’s been a hell of a ride and here’s what I learned along the way.
Unhappiness is not necessarily a crisis.
One day you may suddenly find yourself unable to tolerate the hideously loud way he eats toast, or the thrum of his restless leg that shakes the breakfast table, or the fact that he opens the fridge, or doesn’t open the fridge, or cleans his plate, or wastes half his dinner, or breathes, or exists. Because, gentle soul, you hate him right now.
It’s beyond the scope here to parse out the finer points of hate vs. resentment vs. anger. Suffice to say that your attitude toward your dearly beloved may, at one point or another, feel like hate. If—alright let’s face it, when—you find yourself here, I recommend that you pause before concluding that the marriage is over and running to the courthouse. I’ve made plenty of decisions in moments of intense feeling, only to wish later that I’d breathed for a second — or a week, or two — first.
Beyond pet peeves, there are legit things you may dislike about your partner. The truth is that it’s OK to be unhappy with them and with the relationship sometimes. It doesn’t mean your love is bankrupt, or that the future holds nothing but bleakness, strife, and crying yourself to sleep. In any long-term relationship, you will want to leave at some point but that does not necessarily mean you should.
Let me clarify: Don’t stick out an abusive marriage just because you said the vows and promised to stay. In that case, you can’t stay just for the kids, or just for money, or just out of fear that you’ll never make it on your own/ never find someone else/ die with no one but your cats to find you.
But it is normal to be supremely bored sometimes, bored with everything from where you choose to eat dinner on those rare date nights to what happens in bed afterwards. You can hate your marriage for a whole month — or even longer — and still land on the other side of it all remembering why you married that person in the first place, and how you love that expression on their face when they’re amused by the kids’ Dumbledore impressions, the way they’re up first to boil the water for your Earl Grey, and their particular, earthy scent.
In other words, hold tight and see what happens. It’s tough to change your mind once divorce papers have been signed, the house sold, the custody arrangements detailed, and the emotional lives of all parties ravaged. Some surveys suggest that up to 70% of people who divorce regret it eventually.
And by all means, do something about your unhappiness. Seek couples’ counseling. Seek counseling just for yourself. Take time alone away from the kids. Leave the room when your partner eats toast. Just remember that feelings ebb and flow, and you will feel and survive some degree of discontent – and the relationship might, as well.
Figure out how much of your unhappiness actually has to do with your relationship.
Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until your marriage is imploding in your face to contemplate what needs to change. There were unsustainable parts to my life and my marriage in those days that I shake my head at now. What I needed to do: earn more of my own money, spend time with friends, ask for a greater investment from my husband in childcare and chores, and learn to really love and accept myself. Only one of those actually concerned him. The rest were for me to deal with.
I had let the roles mom and wife take up not only all of my relational space, but all of me. Trapped by a life that I had absolutely participated in creating, divorce felt like the only way to free myself. Actually addressing the ways I was unhappy or unfulfilled was.
Divorce is a crap ton of paperwork.
Filing for divorce is just the first drop in a sea of hassle, heartache, and paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork. Not to mention a mediator—if you’re lucky. Divorce attorneys and litigation if you’re not. Never assume that you and your soon-to-be-ex-partner will split amicably, or that you’ll always do what’s best for the children and never, ever resort to pettiness or base instinct. Divorce can elicit the ugliest monstrosities from even the kindest and most well-intentioned parties.
During the month between filing—and then withdrawing—the petition for divorce, I went through bouts of rage and revenge fantasies followed by adoration and longing, followed by despair that would turn to rage again. So did my husband. That fabled common ground from which to fairly split our assets and responsibilities? We couldn’t have found it on a map.
It’s also expensive.
Supporting two households is more expensive than supporting one, and in our case this meant that everyone’s standard of living would take a nosedive. We realized we’d have to sell our house and move to a new school district if we split. My kids would spend less time with me, and more hours in after-school programs or with babysitters. Those changes would have been hard for all of us.
Sometimes divorce is the answer, and support systems can help.
If you know that the marriage is un-salvageable and that you and your children will be better off down the road, you should part ways. When faced with divorce, I considered joining the organization, CoAbode, which connects single mothers to help share housing costs and childcare. Food assistance, health insurance, unemployment benefits, and disability insurance are all designed to help people undergoing hardship.
And you should call upon your own support network, too. When I thought I was headed for divorce, my parents, thankfully, were there. They offered me options, help with the kids, financial relief, and—many, many times—a shoulder to cry on. Even though I felt immensely lonely in my failing marriage, my parents showed me every day that I wasn’t truly alone.