How To Survive The First—Worst—Year
I fly to New York to see my shrink, I walk into her office and burst into tears. I tell her what my husband has done to me. I tell her my heart is broken. I tell her I’m a total mess and I will never be the same. I can’t stop crying. She looks at me and says, “You were going to leave him anyway.”
The days, weeks, months after he or you leaves may well be the worst time of your life. Unless you’ve suffered the death of a child, or something equally horrific, make no mistake, girlfriend: Divorce is way up there on the scale of traumatic life events. Some therapists think it’s worse than the death of a spouse. A friend of mine who was recently widowed agreed. She had thirty happy years with her husband and now has the memory of those years to sustain her. She doesn’t have to suffer the pain of betrayal or the crushing of self-esteem that comes with divorce, and feels sorry for me because I do. Unlike grief after the death of a spouse, there are no acceptable ways to grieve the end of a marriage. You can’t sit shiva or hold a wake, no one will bring casseroles (although my gourmet-cook friend Mitch brought me coq au vin, which lifted my spirits immeasurably), and—worst of all—no one who hasn’t been there will really understand what you’re going through. Grieving the death of your marriage can be extremely messy, since the object of the grief is still alive—more’s the pity. Nonetheless, no matter how your marriage ended you must grieve it. If you don’t grieve you can’t move on, and moving on has to be your ultimate goal.
I wish grief weren’t so damned melodramatic, because I’ve never been a fan of melodrama, but there is no escaping the complete collapse I experienced when my husband left. I really wasn’t good for anything during that period. I vacillated between extreme grief and extreme rage. I wanted to commit either suicide or homicide. If you feel like your life is over, that you will never survive this trauma, you’re not alone. But I’m here to tell you, you will survive. Almost everyone does, and so will you.
As older women who’ve been married longer, our grieving takes longer and hits us harder. For one thing, our losses are greater. We’ve lost both our happy memories of times past and the expectation of a secure, comfortable future; in addition, we lack the resilience of youth to help us bounce back. After twenty or thirty years of a coupled life—where your mate probably took care of the traditional guy things plus provided economic security—you’re suddenly cast out into the cold cruel world of struggling to pay the bills and figuring out how to locate a plumber at 3:00 a.m. when a pipe bursts, plus trying to find both a job and another man at an age when you’re supposed to be winding down, not gearing up.
The good news is that eventually you will come out of this a happier woman. According to an AARP study on late-life divorce, we divorcées cope fairly well with life after divorce. Seventy-five percent feel divorce was the right decision for them. “Their buzzwords are ‘freedom,’ ‘self-identity,’ and ‘fulfillment.’” It’s hard to believe that this, too, shall pass, but the human organism is programmed to survive.
Levels of grief and rage vary tremendously depending on how a marriage ended. I actually know girlfriends whose marriages ended amicably with a handshake and no hard feelings. Both spouses realized they’d fallen out of love and it was time to part. If money and children were involved, they even managed to sort those issues out in mediation, without a legal battle. These girlfriends not only are lucky, but have undoubtedly reached a level of maturity to which I can only aspire. Or maybe they’re just not Jewish, Italian, or any other ethnic group given to histrionics and high drama.
Leaver Versus Left
Things are not equal when it comes to ending a marriage. One of the reasons it’s so devastating to be suddenly dumped is not just the rejection, but the shock. You have been planning your retirement in Maui, not how to fit your furniture into a small condo near the airport. He has his exit strategy laid out, and you, girlfriend, are in blissful denial. Even though studies of divorced couples five years after their breakup show that the one who was left has often made peace with the divorce, realizing that it was best for both, the one who leaves has the benefit of having prepared for the exit for a long time.
In Uncoupling: Turning Points in Intimate Relationships, sociologist Diane Vaughn explains how it happens. The leaver spends a long time, often years, gathering ammunition and supporters to justify departure. In my case my husband had his brother, his girlfriend, her friends, and his therapist supporting him. He had built a case—with their agreement and support—that our marriage had been moribund for years, that our earlier counseling efforts were unsuccessful, and that our daughter would be better off in the long run if we divorced. His therapist pointed out that he’d been mired in depression for years and wasn’t getting anywhere in therapy until he started an affair. I, on the other hand, was in la-la land, determined to maintain the fiction that things were okay, even though they clearly weren’t.
If you were the leaver, you probably had your exit strategy planned in advance—and your husband was totally shocked when you announced your decision. Men, who are usually less tuned in to emotions, tend to be even more shocked than women when it comes to being left. When you tell them you want an emotional connection, they’re mystified. They don’t understand why you can’t just accept a life of silence, TV, and the occasional roll in the hay.
It’s Rarely A Clean Break
The ending of a long-term marriage is rarely neat and clean. Often the one who wants to leave is ambivalent, not sure if he or she is doing the right thing. There’s frequently a wrenching period of leaving, returning, and leaving again before the marriage finally ends. Or, as in my case, the one who’s having the affair refuses to stop seeing the girlfriend until his wife finally gets fed up. The leaver may vacillate for years before finally making the move. This period can be more agonizing than the actual end of the marriage because, if you’re being left, you get your hopes up repeatedly, only to have them dashed again and again. If you’re deciding whether or not to leave, the guilt and fear can be paralyzing. But there is a benefit to the waffling. Just as it’s easier to have a spouse die after a long illness because you’ve had some time to get ready emotionally, it’s probably easier to have some preparation time before your marriage ends. A clean break might be the best way to end an affair, but not a long marriage.
Comic Kathy Griffin, describing how she tried desperately to hold on to her husband, dragging him to one marriage counselor after another, wisecracked on The View about the end of her marriage: “I thought I’d beat it until it was dead.”
Here are some strategies to help you get through that hellish first year.