“The funny thing about divorce is that it doesn’t actually kill you.”—Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun.
Like September 11th or the Kennedy assassination, you never forget where you were the moment it happens. You never forget how you heard the news, what you were doing, even what you were wearing.
It was Christmas Eve, 2000 and I was in a flannel nightie getting ready for bed in the house we had bought in the woods of upstate New York ten years earlier when we’d left New York City for the adventure of country life. The daughter we had adopted two years earlier was asleep in the next room. I was used to my husband being very attentive, especially sexually, and it occurred to me that he’d been uninterested in sex, or even in conversation for the past month or so. This wasn’t like him. At the very least he was usually angry with me about something, fuming and raging but relating in one way or another. For the past month he’d simply been bland and almost formal. I remember feeling uneasy and asked him casually why he’d been so distant lately. I expected to hear some mumbled answer about pressures at work, or lack of sleep due to the constantly active baby I had pressured him into adopting a couple of years ago in an unconscious and misguided attempt to save our marriage, or how angry he was at me about something or other.
“I want to leave you,” he said.
If you’ve ever heard these five words-and if you’re reading this I bet you have either heard them or said them-you know the feeling of sheer terror that accompanies this particular announcement.
At first I thought he must be kidding. This was the man I assumed would never leave me-he man I’d married because he’d never leave me, the devoted husband who despite his often explosive behavior seemed totally dependent on me, and totally in love with me. At least he told me constantly that he loved me. That must count. The next day was not only Christmas but also my birthday and I was expecting a surprise of a different sort.
“There’s someone else,” he said, naming a coworker twenty-five years younger than me who’d been his best friend at work for years. “I’m in love with her.”
It’s strange how clichés that you’ve heard countless times on soap operas and TV movies stop being clichés when they’re spoken to you personally. This was not a cliché I’d ever expected to hear from him.
Like watching jet planes slamming into the World Trade Center, I was in a state of disbelief. Not denial-not yet-just disbelief. Actually I’d never been told anything before that seemed less likely. The sensation was strange, like some weird crack in reality had occurred; things as I knew them were not what they seemed. I entered a world like Dali’s where watches and worlds, my world, could melt and slither away. It was like being told very matter-of-factly that someone dead had come back to life, or that Copernicus was wrong-the world really was flat.
“But I’m fifty-five years old, we just adopted a kid, we spent my inheritance,” I whined piteously. “How am I going to survive alone? I’m too old to find someone else. I don’t have a job. It’s not fair.” More terror. Being dumped at thirty-five is one thing-the world is wide open for thirty-five-year-old women-even forty-five isn’t all that bad-but fifty-five? Being left when you’re past fifty is like falling into a black hole in space. My life-my past life-passed before my eyes, but now there was no future-I’d never envisioned a future without him.
“But, but, I thought we were going to spend our old age together, I spluttered.”
He looked at me as if I was speaking Urdu. I know about a million women have had this experience but it comes as a revelation to all of us. All of a sudden you realize you have no idea who this man who you call your husband really is. He certainly isn’t who you thought he was. All of a sudden the soft-hearted guy who cared about my every ache and pain, who ran to comfort me when I cried, who supported my career and loved my mother became totally invulnerable and hard-hearted. This time my tears left him unmoved. His instant withdrawal from caring about me was the worst shock. One minute I had a best friend, a partner, an us-against-the-world mate, the next minute I had an enemy. No matter how bad our marriage got in other areas, sex among them, we’d always been each other’s cheering section, each other’s mutual admiration society. We didn’t have one of those marriages that had deteriorated to hardly speaking. We shared everything, didn’t we? Guess not.
Instantaneously losing that special place in your husband’s heart after decades of marriage is worse than a slap in the face. It’s a knockout punch. Being dumped is so profoundly traumatic and disorienting it’s amazing so many of us live through it.
As I later found out, he’d been planning his exit for a long time with the support of various family members, his shrink and of course, his girlfriend. I, however, hadn’t been privy to these plans and neither has anyone else who’s been dumped. That’s why we’re in such shock when it happens. We’re literally “the last to know,” for a good reason-no one told us.
This must be worse than your husband dying, I thought. At least then you can remember the good times and know that you were loved.
“I’m searching for authenticity,” he explained in a flat tone of voice. “I have to lead an authentic life.”
“ Authentic? Gimme a break. Oh yeah, it’s real authentic to leave your wife and kid just after you adopted her.”
“I’m not leaving her,” he protested. “I’m just moving. I’ll see her all the time.”
“But this is your house. You’re leaving both of us. What’s all this authentic stuff about?”
It’s not that I don’t believe in “authenticity,” if that means discovering who you really are and being true to yourself, but if it comes without integrity it’s not worth much. In any case “authenticity” was the kind of psychobabble word that sounded like it came from his shrink, let’s call him Dr. Twofaced, who had once been my shrink and who had counseled us together as well. Double betrayal. I’d always suspected this guy didn’t like me. In fact my husband had started seeing Dr. Twofaced after I stopped for lack of progress.
“I don’t know who I really am,” he replied waving his hands around. “I feel that I’m always pretending. I need to find my true self.”
“Yeah,” and you’re gonna find your true self with HER. “What is she going to do, hypnotize you?”
Actually it seemed she’d already done that. I later found love letters from her to him gushing about how much she adored him, desperately wanted to be with him, longed for him. He was going through the old cliched midlife crisis, with a wife who took him for granted and didn’t want to have sex with him, and a younger woman who threw herself at him adoringly. I wanted to scream that if it hadn’t been for me he would probably be ON welfare instead of working for it. I’d actually gotten him every job he ever had, including his current one as a caseworker where he met the WWW. This does not stand for World Wide Web, but Wicked Witch of the West whom she somewhat resembled in fact-if Margaret Hamilton had taken steroids for the role. My husband couldn’t have cared less about her looks. One of the qualities I’d always loved most about him was his obliviousness to womens’ looks. I’d always had a weight problem which didn’t bother him. He was a rare male bird in that department. What he went for were women who looked “intelligent.” This girl was no dummy. All my feminist consciousness went out the window when it came to the WWW. I sneered openly to friends about how ugly she was. I felt vindicated when people would say, “he left YOU for HER.” There are no lows to which I didn’t sink during this time.
Since The Wizard of Oz is one of my all-time favorite movies I’ll call the WWW Almira in this book, for Almira Gulch who played the Wicked Witch. I’ll call my husband Zeke, for the farmhand who played the Cowardly Lion, because when given a choice he took the cowardly way out. My daughter will be Dorothy because she was an innocent child caught up in a tornado not of her making and tossed into a strange and scary land. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, however, she has shown great courage and imagination in navigating that landscape, even though she’s suffered more than any of us. My older foster daughter, Tina, will be Tina. She wants her real name used.
“She’s my soulmate,” he said in an agonized tone. “I can’t leave her.”
“I thought we were soulmates,” I sniffled.
I felt like I was on As the World Turns, except with worse dialogue.
They had been best friends for years while I obliviously assumed that’s all they were. But she was in love with him the whole time, I now was sure of that. All of a sudden her behavior when I periodically ran into her at an office function made sense. She would act really strangely, trying to get away from me, and avoiding eye contact. He insisted their affair, however, had just started. I believed that maybe the sex part had just started, but the emotional affair had been going on for a long time.
“I thought we were best friends. Didn’t we share everything? Didn’t I support your artistic aspirations? Wasn’t I was always your biggest fan?” I whimpered idiotically.
He shrugged, as if that was all in the past and was no longer important. “You didn’t understand me,” he complained, like the proverbial neglected husband. “You never even listened to me.”
“What?” I responded. “We talked all the time.”
“No we didn’t,” he protested. “You talked, I pretended to agree with you.”
I thought about it. Damned if he wasn’t right, the sneaky sonofabitch. He got away with it because he never “yes deared” me, a transparent ploy men resort to when they want their wives to think they’re paying attention. He was very convincing in his role of communicating husband, and I wanted to believe that we were actually communicating.
“Are you in love with her?” I asked, like an idiot. I was hoping it was just an affair that would maybe go away.
“Yes,” he said, unapologetically. He made it clear that this relationship wasn’t about sex, that they hadn’t even had sex. Somehow this was supposed to make me feel better. She was his “soulmate.” It still makes me want to gag to write that. I was laboring under the illusion all those years that I was his soulmate. Actually I was his cellmate.
If you’ve been dumped, that pivotal moment when you hear the truth will be stamped on your consciousness forever. A huge chunk of your adult life, maybe all of your adult life, which you considered happy, or at least comfortable, all of a sudden morphs into something else-a fiction. The life you thought you were living wasn’t the life you were actually living. Memory changes, reality changes, your world changes. All the clichés of divorce suddenly apply to you: “He became a stranger,” “I was the last to know,” “How could he do this to me?” “I thought we would grow old together,” “I wasted the best years of my life on him.” My life, which was chugging along seemingly happy, or at least peacefully, could have instantly turned into an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show” entitled, “Younger Husbands Who Dump Their Older Wives For Younger Women After Adopting Babies,” or something equally convoluted. If we’d all been on the show I would have shrieked, lunged at Alina and torn her hair out, slapped him silly and wrung his neck, then dissolved into tears and begged him to come back for the sake of our little girl. Break for commercial as security guards storm the stage to break us up. Luckily there were no guns in the house or I might now be keeping Jean Harris company in Bedford Hills Prison.
By the way, just in case you thought you had a really heart-wrenching divorce sob story, I probably can trump it. I was fifty-five-years old, about to be left for a younger woman, living in the middle of nowhere, in a house on a dirt road which got snowed in during the winter, with a hyperactive two-year-old, no job, no family, an ex who didn’t make enough to support us both, and no prospects of finding anyone else because I was too old and had a little kid. I could go on but I’ll spare you. I just want you to know that I speak from experience when I say if I could survive anyone can.
I ran out of the house that night, left my husband with our child and took off for my friend Kathy’s house. Kathy lived in a luxurious Tudor in a ritzy suburb of New York City. Her squishy leather couches and sparkly clean kitchen were reassuring. My house, like my life, was a mess. Kathy had been divorced for a few years and knew the ropes intimately. She listened to me sob endlessly, hugged me and dragged me out to eat Chinese food, and see the only movie in the area, Quills, a weird, gruesomely fascinating movie about the Marquis de Sade (the movie least likely to comfort someone who’s just been told her husband is dumping her for another woman). But, it took my mind off my misery for a few hours.
She lectured me about the reality of divorce.
“You’re not going to believe this, Erica, but Zeke is going to become a different person. That sweet, nice guy who you counted on to take care of you is going to try to screw you to the wall. He will become someone you totally won’t recognize. Remember, he’s got someone else now, and she’s pulling the strings. She’s going to control him and your child. He’s going to try to screw you when it comes to money and everything else. You’d better call a lawyer-today.”
A lawyer. Omigod, how could I need a lawyer? We had always prided ourselves on not fighting about money. Even if we did fight about everything else, including sex and our daughter, how could I need a lawyer so soon?
I didn’t believe Kathy. I knew my own husband, didn’t I? He wasn’t like that, he wouldn’t treat me that way; we’d lived together for eighteen years, been married for fifteen of them. Even if we’d always fought, he’d been my defender when it came to the outside world; he was my champion, my best friend, and my shoulder to cry on. I was sure I knew what he was and wasn’t capable of. Leaving me for someone else wasn’t in his lexicon. I just couldn’t absorb what had happened. Zeke had a leg up on me because he’d wanted a divorce for years. He’d occasionally threatened me with divorce, but I never believed him. I never considered the other woman scenario.
Of course everything she warned me about came true, but luckily she was around to shepherd me through it. That night Kathy listened to me weep and moan. She got irate on my behalf and even called him and told him not to leave me, which was really going the extra mile. She became my divorce guru and later my Internet dating guru. She saved my life many times, starting that night. The idea for this book was born when a few years later, I realized that to survive a messy divorce you need at least one girlfriend like Kathy.
I wish I could say I was so outraged by his infidelity that I went home and tossed him out in a rage like any self-respecting cheated-on wife would do. No way. I was so terrified at the prospect of losing him and going through years of feeling like I felt now-as if someone had set me adrift in a small rowboat with no oars on the open ocean-that when I got home I launched a major campaign to get him to stay. I tried desperately to hang on to him. I found to my surprise that I really didn’t care that he’d slept with someone else. He could have slept with half of upstate New York and it wouldn’t have bothered me a whit. What I cared about was that he was in love with someone else. I found that unacceptable.
I used all the powers of persuasion I possessed, which were pretty powerful since I’m a world-class arguer. He agreed with everything I said like he always had, but kept on saying he wanted to leave. I enlisted allies such as Wendy, the friend of mine he most respected. She happened to be a shrink, which helped. He told her that his girlfriend was his “soulmate” and didn’t she think it was worth it to give up everything when you found a “soulmate.” Wendy told him that his daughter was his soulmate and he owed it to her to try to save the marriage. He protested that she would be better off if he was happy. Somehow he overlooked how her mother being close to a nervous breakdown was bound to affect her, but hey, he’d seen the Bridges of Madison County and didn’t want to wind up like Meryl Streep (he actually told me this). Personally, I thought it was pretty noble of Meryl to stay for the kids, but that was back in the thirties. People don’t do that much anymore.
For a year while our marriage went through its death throes, we seesawed back and forth. He was too guilty to actually leave. He was waiting for me to give him his walking papers. In the meantime, he tried to make me as miserable as humanly possible so I’d throw him out. He sulked around the house barely speaking to me and blew up at me regularly for minor offenses. At times he’d claim he’d stopped seeing Almira and we’d go back to pretending to be comfortably if not happily married. At least I was pretending. He just went around looking miserable. Other times he’d go back to the authenticity argument and talk about leaving again. I even tried to be seductive and have regular sex with him, but it never lasted. I just couldn’t keep it up. In my crazed jealousy I’d drive by Almira’s house regularly to see if his car was there. When I caught him there one day I acted like Erica in All My Children and made a huge scene, which ended with her running out to my car yelling at the top of her lungs, “I didn’t want to fall in love with a married man, but I luuuuuv him, I luuuuv him.” How could he resist such adoration? I’d never felt that way about him, nor had anyone else.
We went to a succession of clueless marriage counselors. It’s not surprising that so many marriages break up after counseling.
Our marriage dragged on for more months while I continued to be in denial. When he was in one of his “I’m not seeing her anymore” modes I’d go back into married couple mode and feel like we were a family again. Despite our constant fights, being married was a warm, safe place. The thought of being cast out of that place was so frightening that I felt I’d do anything, put up with anything, to keep him. Then he’d go back to “I want to leave you,” and I’d beg him to stay. One sunny summer day, he threw his jacket in my lap as he got out of the car to get our daughter from day care. A love letter from HER just about fell out of his pocket. Talk about Freudian slips. Finally fed up, I told him to leave. He couldn’t get out the door fast enough.
Later he told me he hung around to assuage his guilt, went to the marriage counseling to pay lip service to saving the marriage. I asked why he didn’t leave before he found a girlfriend. He said, and I believe this is true for the majority of middle-aged men who can’t function without a woman, “I couldn’t have done it any other way.”
I’m glad he took so long to leave because it gave me time to prepare for his final departure. Like having a spouse die after a long illness rather than in a sudden accident, it’s less of a shock when you have time to prepare. I had moved us to Woodstock, a community where I had friends, my synagogue and a chance of surviving alone. He moved into the guestroom which prepared me for his final exit. By the time he actually left it was a relief, like the windows had been flung open releasing poison gas from the house. Nonetheless, like a loved-one dying after a long illness, the grieving process doesn’t begin until they actually die, and it wasn’t any easier because it had taken so long for him to leave.