Maybe you knew it was coming; maybe you were trying to save your marriage or ignore the problems, or hold out for some miraculous shift. Or maybe you had absolutely no idea the sh*t was about to hit the fan.
Regardless, one day, the person you’d envisioned navigating life with, raising a family with, growing old with, unilaterally desecrated that fantasy by walking out. It’s not the same as making mistakes, which can be apologized for, rectified, “worked on.” It’s over. You will be living without your partner. If you have children, you will raise them separately or alone. You will contend with a cascade of complications that seem to have no real pay off, just drain you of energy and resources — more expenses, co-parenting, shuttling kids, fielding heartbreaking questions of hows and whys. Of course your spouse will have to deal with some of that too but he chose this path, she had the opportunity to make a conscious decision — yes this is worth the price it will cost me. You had no choice in that matter.
So your partner is gone. You have choices now. But none of them are awesome. You can’t behave how you’d like to — lash out, sabotage, go crazy, burn the house down (unless you’re willing to spend some time in the pokey or the looney bin.) You can’t beg and plead and demean yourself, compromise your dignity in an attempt to salvage the relationship (ok, you can and might resort to that, but someone I know — ahem — tried that and it was a demoralizing waste of time.) You can’t just say f*ck it all and go eat, pray, love (unless you’re very wealthy and childless.)
Your spouse had the velocity of moving toward something, some vision that he or she was inspired by, or some idealized person who assuages moments of doubt, fear, grief and loss. The spouse who makes the decision to leave is empowered, looking out to a world full of options, shackles broken. There’s adrenaline pumping and the lure of possibilities.
In contrast, here you are, having had this new life thrust upon you. You are paralyzed. You know this shouldn’t feel like the end of the world, but it does. You know that millions of people go through this and end up ok, but you don’t feel ok and then you feel bad about not feeling ok. You know you should buck up and move on, but you aren’t totally convinced that this is reality, that it’s not just some nightmare you’ll wake up from. You can’t communicate to others what exactly you are going through because you are struggling to make sense of it. You are just trying to breathe and process and slow things down just as everything around you seems to be accelerating. You’ve been left behind.
The thing is, it’s all perception. You watch someone walk away and you feel left with your lot. But, in reality, the world is still just as much yours as it is anyone else’s. You’ve taken a hit, yes. And you may be reeling or saddled with being the responsible one. You’ve got a lot to deal with in the midst of an event that shatters self-esteem, stability, trust and perhaps even will to live.
Hey, I get it. I really get it. I am that person; I was that person who was left behind. And the only thing that has given me any sense of peace is seeing all this as part of my path and looking at my life as my own — not in relation to my ex, not in pursuit of fairness, not with a wide judgmental lens reflecting on how things were supposed to be vs. how they are. It’s in the day to day. Recognizing that I do have choices I make daily that reflect my own values.
It gets better.
Beyond just realizing you will survive. You remember what interests you in this world, what your passions are. And maybe you are too strapped with mundane obligations to pursue anything exciting right this moment, but you start to envision a future that is inviting. And when you’re really back in your skin, you remember how lucky you are to have this life and your children and your friends and extended family and just to be alive and breathing. And you start to appreciate that you’re not feeling anxious all the time, that you can laugh without hesitation, and experience entire days without awareness of your station in life.
You stop being the person who something was done to. You start creating a life you love, piece by piece, and it’s authentic and genuine and fortified with the strength of your experience and sheer will to transcend bitterness and disappointment — to step into the world fully. You thought you could never risk losing again, but now you know you can handle anything; so you dare to be yourself, dare to try new things, dare to love again.
I’m never going to present divorce as some path to enlightenment or positively transformative process. It’s just too damn hard, especially for the kids. But, life must go on and as with so many traumatic events, at some point it’s critical to stop being defined by this. The shift is subtle but profound — from passive victim to sovereign human being. The process of creating a life on your own terms, in your own time, with the resources you have and the tools you’ve acquired begins the moment you choose to shed your identity as the “left behind spouse.”
First published on The Huffington Post