The Search for Beauty in Divorce

Comments 35

Six short years ago, my wife was selfishly choosing her emotions over the wellbeing of our family. She was breaking her promise to love me and to honor our marriage in good times and in bad. She was failing me, and our son, and I blamed her—angrily—for quitting on me. For quitting on us.

Her leaving, resulting in an empty home, the loss of half my son’s childhood, and genuine fear of my unknown future, was the most painful and life-disrupting thing I’ve ever been through.

First, my parents divorced when I was too young to object, making my life harder than all of my friends’. A long-time source of pain and sadness, and my wife knew it.

Divorce wasn’t on the table. We’d said it a hundred times.

But there she goes. Choosing another life over ours. She was running toward something she wanted and felt good about. Her life was IMPROVING, while I was crying in the kitchen, dry heaving into the sink, and feeling certain no one would ever want to kiss me again.

It was almost like I wanted to die, and the shame and feelings of failure that brought are indescribable. I was officially NOT ME anymore. I was some pathetic, sobbing, broken imposter.

She did this to me, I thought and felt.

Not felt, like a purple bruise or a hard slap.

I felt gutted. Betrayed.

I felt rage.

I didn’t want anyone physically hurt—that’s not my way—but I wanted to burn something to the ground. I had a couple of places in mind.

When you hurt that much, you stop caring about things you previously used to. Self-preservation matters less because dying would at least solve the pain problem. When it seems like the worst thing just happened to you, it can make you feel as if nothing else can be taken from you. You’re not afraid of new pain, because nothing could hurt worse than what you’re feeling now.

The worst thing I have ever known—bringing a pain I couldn’t have survived too much longer than it lasted, and forcing me to adjust uncomfortably to an entirely new life I’d never wanted or asked for—was divorce.

Divorce—in and of itself—was the enemy, and an evil thing.

And my ex-wife—the betrayer; the quitter—was the one who forced me to endure it.

The anxiety would make me puke sometimes. Tears would stream down my face.

“That fucking bitch,” I’d choke out.

And then I’d vomit again.

The Road Back to Life

I was dead.

My heartbeat remained. I could move around and talk a little. But I’d lost several months, maybe even a year. What I was doing wasn’t living.

I had ONE ultra-focused mission: To make sure I protected myself and my son from ever experiencing a pain like that again.

My new top priority was to NEVER feel dead again. I’m not sure I could survive it twice.

Divorce hurt me as a little kid.

Divorce hurt me as an adult.

Divorce hurt me as a friend, as several of my social relationships faded away.

Divorce hurt me as a professional, as I couldn’t focus at all on anything being said in meetings, nor could I care about work projects.

Divorce hurt me as a father, as I saw my son half as much as I had before, and I no longer had any control over who he was around, how safe he was; and that I now had to wear the Scarlet Letter of divorced dad in a million life situations where I assumed everyone—friend and stranger, alike—thought I was a shitty father.

Divorce was my new enemy. And I needed to understand it. NEEDED to.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle,” Sun Tzu wrote in “The Art of War.”

It was an idea I’d already accepted. So I went to work on understanding divorce.

I did that right here.

I wrote stories. I wrote stories about my marriage. Little moments that stood out to me, and then I wrote about what I was thinking and feeling about them at the time, versus how I thought and felt about them today.

I read books.

I asked questions. I asked so many questions. Sometimes, just to myself while I stared at the ceiling waiting for the pain to stop.

And I just kept writing as I discovered new ideas. I was uncovering so much about myself, about people, about love and relationships and marriage, and it was empowering to find that new knowledge.

If I UNDERSTAND what happened to me, then I don’t need to be afraid of it happening again, I thought.

I became addicted.

I needed answers.

It was the only way to save myself.

How I Saved Myself

I used to creepily stare at myself in the bathroom mirror for longer than I imagine most sane people do. Like a cliché movie scene you don’t want to watch.

I didn’t recognize myself, because I felt like an entirely different person, and I think that made me see an entirely different person.

I actively sought UNCOMFORTABLE ideas—things I didn’t necessarily want to hear; things that opposed ideas I’d accepted as gospel truth my entire life; things I didn’t WANT to be true—because I’d spent my entire life swimming exclusively in comfort and familiarity, and all that had done was deliver the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

I had to try something else.

Why did my wife choose to end our marriage and leave? Is she evil? Crazy? Out to get me?

Is she stupid? Is she a con artist? Is she a monster?

Is she a bad mother?

Is she a bad person?

All that mattered was the truth because the truth is what I needed to understand to protect my future self from divorce, or from hurting like this ever again. I wasn’t afraid of any answers as long as they were true.

My wife wasn’t evil.

She wasn’t crazy.

She wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt me. There was no credible evidence of any of those things.

She wasn’t stupid, nor a con artist, nor a monster.

We still interacted all of the time, because our son was going back and forth between us every two or three days. We HAD to cooperate so that he always had school clothes, and lunch money, and whatever he needed to feel safe and loved.

Not only was she NOT trying to make any of that extra-hard on me, she—just as she had in our marriage—took on the responsibility of leading the way in knowing what he needed, and taking steps to make sure he had whatever that was. Doctor appointments. Meetings at school. Clothes. Supplies. Birthday and Christmas presents.

She did everything possible to include me in anything meaningful going on with our son.

She was the furthest thing from being a bad mother.

I met her when I was 18—a freshman in college. I’d known her for 16 years—more than half of my life that I could actually remember. My son’s mother was NOT a bad person.

So how could this be? How could this happen?

I’d just stare into that bathroom mirror. Until I finally recognized my true enemy.

It wasn’t my ex-wife.

It wasn’t divorce.

It wasn’t God, or the Universe, or Life.

It was me.

The worst thing that had ever happened to me didn’t happen to me because my wife quit on me and tried to hurt me. My son wasn’t gone and growing up a child of divorce because of my wife’s selfishness.

The worst thing that had ever happened to me happened because of me.

Because my wife HURT—just as I was hurting right then—for years and years. And not only was I the source of that pain, but instead of listening to her and trying to help her NOT HURT anymore, I used pretty much every opportunity she took to try to talk to me about our marriage as some kind of personal affront, and accused her of always finding new things to complain about.

I was the source of her pain. Thus, I was the only one who could stop the hurt, and help her heal. As her husband, I must have seemed to her like a reasonable person to seek help from RE: the biggest source of pain and fear that SHE had ever known—again, just as I was feeling right then.

She came to me for help, and I told her that her concerns were a figment of her imagination.

She asked me to help her stop hurting, and I told her that the things she was telling me were painful were NOT things that actually hurt people, so something must be wrong with her. I told her to get help. I told her to stop blaming me for her own weaknesses and poorly thought-out arguments.

Without even trying to be an asshole, I transformed all of the pain and relationship-killing behaviors I caused into something my wife was responsible for.

I BELIEVED the story I had told myself about her selfishness and mismanaged emotions.

I BELIEVED I was the good guy. The victim.

I BELIEVED divorce was evil and a plague on society.

I BELIEVED women everywhere were growing dissatisfied in their relationships for superficial reasons, and then abandoning their husbands and breaking families because life didn’t deliver them the Cinderella fairytale ending they’d hoped for.

It felt true. All of it. Because from the inside of my life, that’s how I experienced it.

But what really happened?

She persevered through 12 years of the person who had promised to love, serve, honor and protect her for the rest of her life, ignoring most requests for help.

She remained hopeful that she’d eventually find the right words to break through. The ones that would help me see what she already knew to be true. The ones that would effectively communicate how much she hurt on the inside—how afraid she was—just as I felt right then, staring into the bathroom mirror taking stock of all that I’d done.

I believed a story about myself that wasn’t true. That—because I tried to be a good person who loved others and didn’t hurt people—I was by default a good husband.

I believed a story about my wife that wasn’t true. That—because years and years and years and years of pain piled up in moments big and small where the ONE person she had let into her life to be with forever, and had trusted to love her deeply, turned his back on her, or ran away any time she talked about feeling sad or hurt or unhappy. She didn’t QUIT. She reluctantly submitted after THOUSANDS of moments where her partner demonstrated both a lack of competence and/or desire to help protect her from the kind of pain that turns you into an entirely different person.

The kind of person you no longer recognize in the mirror.

I believed a story about divorce that wasn’t true. That—because I felt so hurt by it and saw so many other people hurt by it—it was evil.

Divorce isn’t evil. It’s just bad. Like cancer.

Divorce isn’t a plague. Broken people accidentally hurting each other in their most important relationships is. THAT’s the plague.

Divorce—as ugly as it feels to me, and as uncomfortable as it makes me philosophically after a lifetime of believing Marriage is Forever—is a tool for people who are otherwise out of options.

It’s a lifeline.

An emergency escape hatch.

It’s inconvenient. Because the thing I want most in the world is to help people avoid accidentally harming their relationships, which I believe will lead to fewer divorces and more forever-marriages.

It’s inconvenient. Because divorce has caused me more pain than anything else I’ve ever known.

And as I’ve railed against divorce, and lifted up marriage as virtuous and sacred, I’ve accidentally piled on even more.

Because divorce is bad, but some things are worse.

What causes more pain than divorce?

I never recognized it because it was never happening to me.

But just maybe, the trappings of a faux-happy marriage—the kind that look good to everyone else, but are silently killing one or both members of it—wreaks more havoc. Maybe that causes even more damage, and more pain.

Everyone and everything is a little bit damaged.

Perfection isn’t part of the human experience.

But when we know we are a little bit damaged and love ourselves anyway; and when we acknowledge our imperfections, but still courageously step up to light up the darkness—I think that’s about as close as we get to perfect.

In the uncomfortable, gritty, raw, unfiltered muck of real life, both the beauty and the pain often keeps out of sight.

I was lost.

And I found my way back by learning how to find both the beauty and the pain that isn’t obvious to anyone not looking for it.

You must find the pain. If you don’t see it, you’ll feed it, and accidentally hurt the people you love—and yourself.

I see you, people suffering silently. You’re brave and amazing.

And you must find the beauty. Covered up by all the rage and fear and anxiety and vomit and tears.

If you don’t see it, you’ll lose hope.

I see you, people committed to being a force for good when it seems like you’re constantly being shit on for doing so. You inspire me to carry on. You fuel me to give more. Thank you.

The most beautiful things are those that persist despite all of the horrors happening around them and all of the ugliness trying to cover them up.

The most beautiful things ARE NOT those things unmarred by nicks and scratches.

The most beautiful things are those that radiate so much good, that whatever imperfections inevitably exist, we never even notice.

35 thoughts on “The Search for Beauty in Divorce”

  1. Ahh,love this Matt! Well done.

    “She came to me for help, and I told her that her concerns were a figment of her imagination.
    She asked me to help her stop hurting, and I told her that the things she was telling me were painful were NOT things that actually hurt people, so something must be wrong with her.”

    If you just read your words,you may see how they apply to everything,our marriages, our politics, our divisions, racism, sexism, faith. We cannot seem to listen to one another, we ask for help when we are hurting and so often it just seems to fall on deaf ears. We’re quick to speak up and dismiss others, “you’re such a victim” or “you’re just crazy.” But what do people want more than anything else in the world. Simply to be seen and heard and known. It’s a terrible tragedy, not just in the realm of marriage,but all across our society.

    1. ” Simply to be seen and heard and known. It’s a terrible tragedy, not just in the realm of marriage, but all across our society.

      I was thinking about this during the weekend. The way it came out in my head is: I would like a witness to my life. Doesn’t sound quite the same but I read your words and they resonate on roughly the same frequency. 🙂 We have expectations that we turn into disappointments into anger and resentment and soon we are walled off and shut down, and yes, it does seem to be accelerating.

      A word I like a lot lately (two words?) is open-heartedness. Takes bravery and strength and humility and love. May we all be those things.

  2. This landed in my inbox at just the right time. It resonates with me on a very personal level right now. Thank you.

  3. WOW … This absolutely broke my heart to read … AND , simultaneously resonated with me on almost a primal level … Articulate, authentic, life-changing insights, once again.

    Thank you for sharing, Matt …

  4. I am about to hit the six year mark of my divorce… And I read that, and absolutely broke down crying. Deep chest heaves crying.

    It wasn’t long ago that I said to someone about dating/marriage again… I can’t go through that pain again.

    That excruciating, break down everything in you and about you… Pain. But, one has to hope.
    Hope for second chances at love .
    And hope for courage to be vulnerable…

    Great post Matt. That’s some getting real

  5. This was hard to read. I left my husband 6 months ago with our kids. More or less the same kinds of reasons. A lonely marriage that I couldn’t fix alone.

    Tears me apart to read the kind of pain I left him in. Even now, and maybe for the rest of my life, I’ll feel like shit about it. Was there anything else I could have done ? I keep asking myself. I tried damn near everything.

    As always, your posts get straight down to the heart of things. Thanks Matt,

  6. Matt, I liked the faux-happy marriage bit. I see a lot of people doing this and hoping somehow it will finally be real and joyful.

    I tell the people I work with “The relationship you are longing for will be found through your vulnerability with the other person. You won’t find it by hiding your scars and warts.”

    Thanks for another good one.

  7. Without minimizing the gut- and spirit-wrenching impact of divorce, I am coming to think that sometimes two people who really love each other simply may not be able to make a life together that is nurturing and cherishing for either of them. And then, as terribly sad as it is, maybe then the kindest thing is to separate your paths. (sighs)

    I’m not trying to take anything away from Matt’s post here or his message on this site. But I’m coming to understand that sometimes, even after many years, two people may have desires and goals that are simply irreconcilable. 🙁

    1. I’m not inclined to argue with that as I might have five or six years ago.

      Relationships are about alignment and connection. When two people walking together begin to skew apart, the connection breaks.

      Sometimes that happens by accident and neither of them WANT it to. THAT is who I’m generally focused on because I think that’s most divorce and the story of my marriage in a nutshell.

      If two people veer away from each other because of very purposeful, very specific paths?

      Do I think it’s a little sad? I guess. If children are involved, do I hurt for them? Definitely.

      But do I support people escaping unhealthy and dysfunctional situations to pursue healthy and functional ones?

      Yes. Yes, I do.

      1. Thank you, Matt. For context, I’m talking about people with no young children (though I think that even adult children can be significantly hurt by their parents’ divorce) – I think children are *always* involved, sadly. I’m also talking about cases where there’s no abuse, adultery or addiction.

        My only disagreement is that it can be a lot more than just “a little” sad. But sad can be ok, in spite of our culture’s attempts to wipe out sadness and pain in every form.

  8. I just stumbled in here after falling down a link rabbit hole (I *think* it was about conflict resolution? Who even remembers now) and I have been reading all your old posts like a deranged madwoman. I’m not even divorced, you’ll probably want to kick me , but I’ve been married for twenty years (*gets out of range*). This is the most fascinating shit I’ve read in a really LONG time. Sorry, I just had to blurt that comment out- now I’m going back to read more…

    1. I appreciate that. Hopefully not because you think I’m the world’s biggest asshole.

      But even if that was the reason, I’d still appreciate your time and interest. Thank you very much.

  9. Your blog is amazing. There is so much great content here. Have you ever thought about recording them and publishing your posts as a podcast? I could listen to your stuff all day.

  10. Pardon the diversion to a different topic, but I have a question.
    2018 has been the most T.V. watching-est year I’ve had in the last 2 decades, but maybe it hasn’t all been a waste.
    This week I have seen two programs-
    One where a woman’s close relationship with a gay man was depicted as an emotional affair.
    The other a character was convinced the only way to have a workable relationship was to have an open relationship.
    Personally I am somewhere in the middle. I tend to believe other meaningful relationships with both same and opposite genders girds up the individual and we can actually derive more meaning and pleasure in their romantic, primary, familial, relationships.
    Im curious as to other peoples thoughts on the topic. …?…

    1. I think in part, that besides the practical reasons of “who has time for friends”, that really in American culture we dont know how to have genuine, authentic relationships with others.
      This thought is along the same vein as women in our culture often having a goal of marriage. Most of our relationships are goal oriented.
      Whether that is marriage, or some sort of social gain, most people dont tune into or invest in others simply because it doesnt serve our individual needs and desires. That doesnt mean you have to force yourself to spend time with people you dont like, but I think it does mean that we forget how to just be with others around us.
      And that being and living with others around us- where we get to express play, or deal with differences- that is such a big part of being a whole, healthy human being.
      (Which is essential to being in a whole, healthy relationship-no?)

  11. Divorce feels like a death been there done that I wrote a book on it got it published it’s called When the Honey moon is over published in 2012. That was my way of healing It was fiction but real if you know what I mean. I enjoyed this blog post continue to work on self and allow God to dig out the roots God Bless and take care

    1. Hey Holly.

      Would you be willing to share a link to your book?

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Means a lot.

      I’d love to see what your experience turned into, writing-wise.

      1. sure the title of it is When the Honeymoon is Over and you can order through Barns and Noble or Amazon It’s by yours truly Holly M. Jewell (: I’m trying to learn my way around this site I didn’t get a notification when you messaged me back sorry I just so happened viewed the conversations on the site. LOL

  12. Some things are worse than divorce, yes. Some things are worse than being alone the rest of your life post divorce. I know this much is true. Thanks for writing!

  13. Matt — This article seems that you are taking all of the blame for your divorce. You go from “that fucking bitch” to “it was all me” — isn’t there some blame on each side? It does not seem so!

  14. Lamont Hernandez

    Newly divorced. Thanks for the piece. I’m still in the lost, dry heaves, deathly afraid phase.

    1. I’m really sorry to read that. It is the worst feeling I’ve ever known and I didn’t know if or when it would end.

      I don’t think there’s any chance that I could do something to help, but if you think of anything, please say so.

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