How to Survive a Divorce
As told by Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.
I remember in February 2011 being in the greeting card aisle in CVS looking at Valentine’s Day cards, when I was confronted with three rather contradictory realities: 1) Valentine’s Day had always been my favorite holiday next to my birthday 2) after celebrating Valentine’s Day with the same person for fifteen years, I was aware that it would officially suck that year and god knows for how many years following, and 3) it was impossible to find an appropriate Valentine for one’s ex-husband, even in this day and age of “congratulations on your divorce” cards.
Sure, Valentine’s Day is the ultimate manifestation of the commercialization of intimacy, the quintessential formulaic holiday. But, it doesn’t matter; I think I love Valentine’s Day because I’m passionate about every shade of red and hot pink, all things chocolate, and uninhibited expressions of love and desire. I’m comfortable telling people I adore that I actually adore them. In junior high and high school, we had carnation sales, and I longed to be the girl with the biggest bouquet; we all wanted that, so we sent flowers to each other, and I think some of us secretly wanted to send them to ourselves to be sure we got even more.
For me, divorce was an excruciating process and an unusually simple event. On December 21, 2010, Mark and I joined millions of couples the world over when we gave our marriage a vote of no confidence. We stood before a judge with our attorneys in between us, in boy, boy, girl, girl order, and we recited to the judge what he wanted to hear. I wore a hot pink v-neck cashmere sweater, maybe four shades lighter than the electric pink Shamask silk dress I wore to our wedding on June 29, 2003.
I stood there in that cavernous room in the Cambridge Court in Massachusetts, where my attorney told me that the only happy things that happen there are the adoptions, and I looked left at Mark, wondering what was going through his mind, and then I stared out the window, aware of what was going through mine. And, suddenly, I heard him speaking to me on that steamy day in June in front of 89 of our closest family and friends, as he said, “I promise to be with you through all the changes in your life.” I still believe he probably will be, though now it is from afar, for we decided to divorce with a certain sense of love and care. So much so that when Erica, my friend since well before carnation days in junior high, asked me how it all went in court, I explained that we drove to court together and went out for soup and coffee afterwards. She said, “Of course, you did!” Our wedding was not typical, so it was fitting that our divorce would not be either. The way we went about crafting our wedding with artistry and feminism and color both troubled and intrigued people, and it turns out that our split produced the same response—both the break-up itself and the way we chose to handle it.
When I began to tell my friends we were divorcing, I suddenly felt compassion for my mother who, upon sharing with friends about her divorce from my dad, encountered a bizarre set of responses and learned how much the news of divorce makes others come unhinged and unraveled. One friend told me that she was sure her husband thinks divorce is contagious since a bunch of their friends were doing it, and he was worried it would happen to them. (Trust me, in their case, it really should.)
People seem invested in divorcing couples hating each other. It is much easier to the onlooker, and I have started to think it might even be easier for the people involved. We live in a world in which it is hard to hold two opposing experiences together and embrace each of them; the comparing, judging mind doesn’t allow for that. Divorcing with love and compassion poses an important challenge: we must all at once hold the experience of connection and disconnection and touch the tenderness and tensions of both.
One particularly dear family friend shared with me her mother’s response to our divorce, saying, “I told my mom about you and Mark and she said, ‘No s***!’” It’s okay if nothing was surprising to her about our break-up, though her response made me realize something profound. Divorce is like a death—of a family we chose to create and a circle outside ourselves. Who in their right mind would exclaim, “No s***” upon hearing about the death of a friend’s loved one? Even if the person who died was 101 and died in his sleep. It would be too cruel.
The most meaningful response I got came from an unlikely source—and not because she is not a good friend. Quite to the contrary, Betsy is a dear friend from when we were five years old. But I wrongly assumed her life experience would color her ability to say what could be helpful. Her mother died when we were in first grade, and so Betsy has devoted her entire being to marriage and motherhood; both are sacred callings for her. Betsy was one of the last people I told because others’ responses kept making me not want to tell more people, and I worried about telling people in Cleveland; it always felt like an emotionally incestuous place where gossip travels faster than the speed of light. But after Betsy told me I am one of the strongest people she knows and that she was confident I would make it through that emotionally trying time, she went on to say, “Ya know, marriage is a tall order; it’s a lot to ask of people to stay together for their whole lives.” No response was more astute and more honest. I didn’t assume that because she was able to articulate that it meant she and her husband were experiencing problems; I saw it as a gracious gift of friendship that she was able to exist outside of herself and to be with me in this moment of total impermanence.
I realized my ongoing affection for Mark when we went through our house, methodically deciding how to split up our stuff, and somewhere in the midst of it, in the kitchen, he grabbed me and tickled me, and even as I clung to the legal pad with the sharp line down the middle and the words, “My Stuff” on the left and “Mark’s Stuff” on the right, I also clung to him, to a sense of us, and to the me that for so long made sense to me in our marriage. And, I burst out giggling, and we hugged. The saddest part, as I see it now, is that he never tickled me or reached out to play that much during our marriage.
And then, as would be expected given the task at hand, we proceeded to argue about candlesticks and napkin rings and glass bowls and vases and frames and all the other stuff that make up what we all want to call home. And I got pissed off when he wanted the Pottery Barn patio furniture, the Tumi luggage, and the treadmill, as all that symbolized leisure and going places. But I was planning to move across the country and he was staying in the house, so it made sense to leave some of these things behind. I knew the marriage meant something to him when he fought me on so many wedding gifts, asking me, “Why are you getting to keep all our nice gifts from our friends? I want nice things to remember this, too.”
During our divorce proceedings, we lied to the judge. We said I would be moving out within 41 days. I did not yet have a new job and was looking all around the country for work. I really did not want to have to move twice—once to move out and once more for a new tenure-track position. And, Mark needed the money that I would be giving him by continuing to split the household expenses. So, even after divorcing in December 2010, I did not move out until July 15, 2012. This means we lived together through three wedding anniversaries while broken up.
Even after our divorce, Mark shoveled me out from every harsh winter storm and continued to do the laundry, making sure I had clean underwear—something I still believe is really crucial to find in a live-in partner. And before every interview out of state, he called to wish me good luck. And, he dropped me off and picked me up at Logan airport so I could get to and from the interviews. I helped him write cover letters as he looked for new work and proofread important documents for him. Occasionally, I cooked some of our favorite meals, and we rented movies together.
We even continued to sleep in the same bed since we only had one bed in the house. But we had sworn off sex and any sort of fooling around. During those years, we occasionally gave each other a hug or held hands but those gestures didn’t carry passion as much as they carried care. And they carried the weight of a history together and a completely uncertain future. In that house that we had built together, in that relationship that we had built together, were two single people trying to feel less alone. In some ways, those days weren’t that much different from when we were married. Of course, that was the problem.
I had a husband who loved me and who I loved; I now have an ex-husband who still loves me whom I still love. The texture and flavor of the love had to change, of course, but it’s still a love. A deep-down-in-my-bones sort of love. In the folds of the years, in the crevices of memories, there’s this love. It’s the sort of love you have for someone when you’ve done something together, so basic to the human condition, so conventional and yet so radical, this joining hands and deciding to say to each other and to the world, “We’re in this together, for life.” For me, the marriage didn’t end with a shortage of love. It ended with a shortage of me feeling like I could grow and like we could grow well together. So, I couldn’t stay like that, in quite that form, but the love would remain, in a new blended way.
The process of divorce is filled with grief because it’s a sort of death. It’s the death of a family unit, a structure, a way of being, a way of having a self in the world. So much needs to be re-configured physically and re-imagined psychically. Through and through, I cared about Mark and obviously still do, but nothing in our world was set up to make sense of, or to support, two people who had great love for each other but could no longer make their marriage work. This was even more foreign to people since Mark and I did not have kids, and so we were actually making a very conscious choice to stay connected.
Mark and I worked hard to experience what the psychologist Constance Ahrons calls “the good divorce.” The problem, she says, is that this sort of divorce is invisible. Making it visible and understandable, she argues, would challenge everything society holds sacred and dear about marriage and the family. While she writes about the importance of the good divorce for the sake of children, I am here to say that children need not be part of the picture for a good divorce to be a worthwhile thing to aim for.
But, perhaps, it’s not even a good divorce Mark and I were looking to achieve. Good implies morality, and I am not sure marriage and divorce are necessarily about that as much as we are led to believe. It’s more like we wanted a kind divorce, a divorce where what is said and what is remembered is filled with decency, integrity, compassion, and hope. I know people who cannot say a kind thing about their exes, people who cannot even utter their ex’s name, or when they do it is filled with disgust, rage, contempt, vengefulness and revenge. I recall that after my divorce I went on dates with men who had been married for many years and spoke so negatively about their ex-wives, basically trashing them and the marriages. All that did was reinforce one thing: I would never, ever want a second date with those men.
In my courses at the university, when we talk about divorce, I try to explain to my students what psychologists, therapists and sociologists have been saying for years: that divorce is indeed a process, not an event, which often has origins as disturbingly early as courtship. So, even if you cannot stay married, it is often possible (perhaps with exceptions of things like domestic abuse) to hook back into the reasons you connected to your partner in the first place, and find care for him or her and or yourself. It is possible to cultivate the conditions where you can remember your ex-partner fondly and she or he can think well of you. In this way you do not wipe out whole years of your life. It is possible to divorce with love.