It's hard for people to know what to say to me right now. I get it. It's hard for me to know what to say, too. Some ask very pointedly, "How are you?" Some nervously say, "So .... single parent ... that's really hard, right?" Some say nothing at all. And I appreciate every one of them - every awkward conversation, every stuttering question, every avoided conversation to honor my space and privacy. I love every attempt to bridge the gap between my life and theirs, no matter how awkwardly we walk across it. Because, let's be honest. It takes courage to have coffee with me right now. I'm a walking cautionary tale.
I am living most people's biggest fear. What if you marry the right person, read all the books, follow all the advice, and your life still falls apart? What if you pour your whole soul into something that shatters into a thousand tiny shards? What if you give your life completely to something that fails?
What happens next?
Friends never really know how to start that conversation, and I really don't either. I don't know how to tell them life is actually better now than it was a year ago. My family is happier and healthier. My relationships have more clarity, and while there are new stresses, old anxieties are gone. Here is what I want you to know about life on the other side of the worst case scenario.
1. It looks like relief.
Because it turns out, a dissolving relationship is actually NOT the worst thing that can happen. There is something worse: staying. Living in an unhealthy marriage is much, much harder than not being married. Single parenting is tiring, yes. But parenting in a dysfunctional relationship was a stress unlike anything I've ever experienced.
I think very often, we fear the wrong things. A failing marriage, a rebellious child, a foreclosure, losing a job, public humiliation - these are the worries that keep us up at night. In reality, hardship pushes us to grow. I'm a better person than I was a year ago. I'm more focused and more grateful. And now that I'm no longer carrying the constant weight of dysfunction, I have more energy and hope for the future. (And my husband would say the same. We were both carrying the weight of dysfunction at the end.)
2. You get to decide who you want to be.
One of my biggest worries before we separated was the fallout. Would our relationship dissolve into name-calling and court appearances? Would we start publicly badmouthing one another? Would our families hate the former spouse? Would our friends feel forced to take sides? I really, really hate conflict, and I feared I was opening the door to lifelong tension. It was a big concern for me.
What I've learned is, we always get to choose how we're going to react. My husband and I set the tone for everyone else. We still cared deeply about each other. We really had no interest in hurting one another, and we certainly were not going to air our dirty laundry to the big wide world. Let's be fair: anyone who has been married 15 years has a little skin in the game, and we decided that relationship was still sacred and private.
As a result, our friends have remained our friends. Neither of us tolerates negativity from extended family, and our kids have avoided the hurt and confusion of watching parents rip each other apart. We decided we wanted to rebuild our friendship and raise our kids together. And we have.
We always get to decide who we are going to be. Of course, I'm extraordinarily grateful (and lucky) that we agreed to the same rules, and we have both played by them. Not everyone in my position gets that option. But no matter what is happening around us, we get to decide how to respond. We don't have to live in a vortex of negativity. And for this I am so, so, so grateful.
3. Life is a matter of what you see.
I say this now, but I have been in a space where this was not really possible, and I want to honor those who are there now. But for me, a few months after leaving (and with the help of a therapist), I realized I could make my life better just by choosing what I noticed. For me, this began with noticing the taste of good, strong coffee. I really love a fresh cup of good coffee with cream (no sugar). I was encouraged to begin to notice goodness in my life, to stop and take note of things I enjoyed. After coffee, I next saw Roald Dahl's BFG, and how fun it was to laugh at something silly with my big kids. The night we read the line, "Deliver me from weasels!" I laughed until I cried. It was the first time in a year, easily, that I'd laughed out loud with my children.
There's a lot about life I can't change right now. But I can choose what I notice and where my energy is going. When I devote my energy to good, goodness seems to grow around me.
4. Gratitude grows out of hardship.
I am a better person because I've been through hard things. That doesn't mean bad things happened so that I could grow into a better person (I don't think God or life work that way), but because God is good, new life shoots out of the broken places in our lives.
I feel that sprout of new life nearly every day.
Because I once nearly had to bury my child, I appreciate him (and also worry about him) in more brutal and more lovely ways. I have patience for his tantrums, and as a family we grin at his intensity nearly every day. We all know that every moment we spend with him very nearly didn't happen.
Because I've walked that parched barren road of isolation, I am deeply grateful for the acquaintances and friends I have now. Meeting someone I hardly know for coffee does not sound like the chore it once did. Now, it sounds like a blessing. And driving 20 miles to a MOPS meeting feels insignificant. I know what life is like without those women in my life, and 40 minutes in Boulder traffic is a small price to pay to be a part of a loving, honest community. Because I've lived in a hard place I deeply appreciate normal life.
5. You and I have more in common than you think.
Pain is pain. Anxiety is anxiety. Fear is fear. You and I have more in common than we realize. I think of a friend who is happily married and financially secure, with a thriving career and beautiful family. When she talks about her struggle with long-term depression, our lives aren't that different. I've never been depressed, but I know what pain feels like. Or the tender-hearted, kind mother of three teenagers who lived for a few years in housing for homeless families. When she talks about her love and devotion to her kids, my own heart is reflected in her words.
Our lives are unique, and there are some parts of my life that are hard for others to imagine. But even though you've never been where I have, you understand my emotions more than you realize. We don't have to be afraid of knowing what to say to those who struggle. We have more in common than we think.
I appreciate every halting attempt at connection as I walk out a life I never imagined would be mine. What happens after our worst case scenario actually comes true? We get better.