Two weeks after I started my partial hospitalization program, and two days before our 12th wedding anniversary, Liz told me that she thought she wanted a divorce. She told me that she was 95% certain. I was 95% certain that she should have killed me, so that I’d never have to know.
First of all I'd just like to say that this is the hardest part of this series that I've written yet. I started to write this a year ago, in April, 2017, but I couldn't have written it then. Not like how it was eventually published, at any rate. Over the course of that year, various drafts were made available to people that either have gone through this sort of thing, or were invested in the outcome in a positive way. I considered any feedback given to me in subsequent revisions and appreciate the encouragement I received, but the words are entirely my own.
A lot has happened between January 2017 and April 2018, and I'll do my best to make sense of it all as we go.
Beware: Falling Serifs
This is part three of an ongoing series I'm calling I've Been Sad. It will likely receive some further enhancements for clarity or continuity, much like the previous installments have. This is iterative writing, and if you need previous versions, it's all available in the
git repository in the footer of each page.
We Were Born in Fire
Liz and I met the summer of 2001, when I was seeing a therapist in Silver Spring, and was quickly losing interest in getting better. In Part Two, I was living in Fairfax County, Virginia, and she was an undergrad at NYU visiting a friend for the summer in Maryland. We moved pretty quickly, but the real gasoline on our grassfire was 9/11. In the course of one day I became acquainted with her parents in Connecticut, and I was trying to get her out of Manhattan on what would end up being the last train to leave Penn Station.
She stayed with me for a few weeks in the aftermath of a tragedy that defined a generation. We were both a bit shaken up at times, but while I could see the smoke from the Pentagon, she watched the second plane strike the tower in the rear-view mirror of her shuttle. Eventually she had to go back to New York, but the cement had formed around us and would one day be reinforced by sixteen years and two children.
There were a couple of times where Liz would mention 9/11 and ask me if I thought that day was the reason we were together. I didn’t like the question. It made me wonder if she didn’t know why she was even with me or fell in love with me and was looking for an explanation? I couldn’t be mad about it or anything, because I had the same thought now and then, but I didn’t know what I would to do with any answer I might arrive at. I felt like I would end up reducing our relationship to simply wanting to feel safe and not be alone while the country drifted towards chaos.
It feels very strange to think about this. I never once saw an interview where someone contemplated the attack on Pearl Harbor as a landmark in their relationship with someone they loved. I'm sure it happened, but it's still something I don't know that I'll ever completely understand, and I don't know that I even want to.
The Great Unraveling
It was 2017, in January, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day; that magical day of the year where daycare is open and our workplace (a University campus, for both of us at the time) was closed. We went to go see Rogue One, which she had already recently seen with some friends.
Three days earlier I had my 40th birthday, and it was also two days before our actual wedding anniversary, but because our wedding was on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it just felt especially symbolic. That day? Of all the days?
She told me she thought she wanted a divorce and then I left to go pick up our kids.
The next two weeks were utterly chaotic, emotionally. I often felt deceived, even betrayed. Everything felt like a lie or a manipulation to me. My moods would swing wildly to both ends of the spectrum every day, and I felt like I needed to leave my partial hospitalization as quickly as possible to redouble my efforts in individual therapy and our couples therapy. I was doing a lot of group work and while it was interesting and helpful to spend whole days thinking about my mental health and all, I needed regularly scheduled, intense, precise, therapy sessions. Our next scheduled couple’s therapy appointment was a rough session.
Our goals and priorities in couple’s therapy would quickly change, and for the next couple of months there are many disappointing, and often agonizing, developments that get unpacked in that room. I am really impressed with our therapist though, she had to land a burning plane with no landing gear, and she actually does it successfully, much to my surprise.
She had help of course, so it’s a testament to all three of us, I suppose.
The most difficult thing to realize was that staying married to me was not an option anymore. For years I had resisted getting better for whatever reason(s), and it had gotten to the point where she could no longer tolerate not being able to be the person she wants to be. She was trying to be my wife while also fighting against the ceaseless tide of my turbulent seas. She was living most of her life on eggshells for quite a while at that point; setting aside her own wants and needs to accommodate my own admittedly nebulous demands to feel a certain way.
She resented the pressure I put on her to manage my emotions — I had somehow successfully made her responsible for my feelings, and her attempts to free herself from this were thwarted by our existing well-regimented patterns of relating to each other.
My initial reaction to this assessment of our marriage was incredulous anger. I mean honestly, she knew I was depressed and suffered from chronic anxiety when we met! This was the status quo and my attempts to get better have not been that productive. I was finally, finally working so hard, though. I was surrounded by a team of professionals that could surely get through to me somehow. I knew she was nearing the end of her patience with me and that this day could come. I think it was about a week prior to Martin Luther King Jr. Day that this even came up in our couple’s therapy session. Liz, and our therapist, explicitly put it out there that our marriage ending could be a possible outcome. That was the day it hit me: I have about six months to get my shit together or we’re through. In that same moment, I think it hit Liz that we were already done.
On that afternoon, between our birthdays and our wedding anniversary, I found out that I was out of time. There is this brief window where her 95% would work it’s way towards 100%, and while it’s hard to not blame outside influences in this, it doesn’t matter anymore. 1 She needed some distance from me, emotionally, and that has always difficult, and now it seemed impossible. When there is an empty space between us, I want to rush in and fill it. She knew that would happen, so she built a wall that I could not breach.
I would sometimes throw myself at that wall of hers. I often felt that I was going through this torturous process on my own and that she wasn’t grieving or processing all of this in a way I could recognize. It was disorienting and hurtful, and yet it was probably the right thing to do.
It kills me to write that today, but I think I know why she had to do it that way. It brings me a profound sadness to recognize that I had become someone that she needed to protect herself from, emotionally. It broke my goddamned heart.
Ask Me About My Radical Vulnerability
From the start, Liz told me she had this vision of a Collaborative Divorce, which is a real thing. In Iowa it isn’t part of legislated proper Family Law like it is in California, but the objective is similar: work together and don’t be adversaries. In our case, the other goal is to be the best possible co-parents you can be. I hated reading that goddamned word the first few times I heard it. Co-parents?
Regardless, at any rate, I wasn’t too worried about being a co-anything with Liz at the time.
"And I could make you rue the day, But I could never make you stay" All My Little Words
Until I could arrive at Scenic Collaborative Island, I adopted a posture of leaving myself wide open. I set myself up for disappointment and suffered more than a few indignities. I didn’t take the well-intentioned advice I may receive of family and friends to retain counsel and do everything I could to protect myself from this assault on my sanity and extract my wife from my life like a surgeon. I had my moments of being angry and wanting to fight, but they were always short-lived. Liz easily disarms me by being herself. It’s impossible for me to stay angry at her even if I wanted to. She’s not hurtful, spiteful, and while there were times I found her cruel, I also know that she has never done anything in her entire life to be cruel.
I was an utter mess to her, I’m sure, but I had to do it this way and let myself feel a little pummeled now and then because the alternative was going to make it even worse. At the time, I didn’t know how I could navigate this any other way. It wouldn’t be until a couple of months later that I’d finally turn the corner on any of it. I was afraid that if I didn’t keep myself off-balance in some way that I’d naturally start to fortify and begin making it impossible for us have anything that either of us wanted. I really don’t know if I could have overcome her ability to diffuse my anger so easily, or if I could have insulated myself and not made things worse.
Part of the narrative she had that I especially resented was that we were in these rigid roles that we couldn’t change. My objection to this was that I knew it could change! People can evolve and change, it happens all the time! Why must we scuttle the ship when all we need to do is to yet again, dedicate ourselves, to repairing this relationship? It was easy for me to forget the time and effort for that change to occur.
One of the underlying patterns or dynamics that we had managed to build for ourselves over the years was a contributing factor to why she had to build that wall in opposition to me. She explained it somewhat succinctly as that the two of us together were good at talking her out of her wants and needs to preserve mine. The moment she said it out loud I knew she was right even as I reached for a way to prove her point from inside my brain and change her mind again.2
I still had this idea in my head that we could fix this, and that we both wanted our marriage repaired. I felt that way until I saw the evidence to the contrary.
The software I use for handling all the various projects and tasks I am in the middle of is called OmniFocus 3. I use it on my iPhone, my iPad, and my Macs. It’s one of the most important pieces of software I own, and I use on a daily basis because it brings organization to what is otherwise an attention deficit dumpster fire. I’m not even kidding a little.
For a long time, I had a project in OmniFocus called The Marriage. I added it years ago (!) and that project was where I shoved tasks and notes to Husband Me about conversations to have, or things related to improving our marriage.
My wife and I can both point to the same day two years ago before our youngest child was born that was probably where our marriage, as we knew it, was unofficially over. I was relentlessly thrashing as I often did, craving a feeling and asking her for something she would never give me. We were right on the verge of another break-down and I had a moment where I felt like my marriage wasn’t the only thing in jeopardy. I was mere moments away from ending everything in desperation, but instead I walked it back, and resolved to find a way to get what I needed another way, and we began treading water.
After that day I had this idea in my head that we needed to “ratify” or revisit what our marriage was. I was open to the idea that it would have to end at the end of that process or that at least some pretty large aspects of it would have to be vastly different. That was a hard thing to admit to myself, but what hit me hardest was when I looked at that project in OmniFocus that I scrolled past so easily? I saw how little effort had gone into all the things I assigned to The Marriage. You’d think it would be the most important project in my deck, but those tasks weren’t touched at all!
So while I was angry with Liz for not simply saying “we’re in trouble and I want to fix it”, I had sixty tasks that sat there, apparently demanding my inattention. I’ve been telling myself that “we’re in trouble and I want to fix it”, yet those actionable steps just sat there collecting dust along with the rest of my marriage. Some of them even had flags on them. Flags!
In that moment, it stopped being a 24/7 catastrophe. It was a profoundly sad disappointment that brought me new feelings of tremendous guilt and shame — and worse still, it was one that I had participated in passively, if not demanded by my own inaction. I couldn’t blame this on Liz. She wouldn’t let me blame it all on myself, anyway, but it sure felt like I was the root cause of all the breakdowns that led us here.
Very Bad Day
Our biggest concern financially was the house we bought a year before. We contacted our Realtor and she met with us to give us an idea of what she recommend we do in this situation. We didn’t think it was likely that either of us could keep our crazy-ass mid-century marvel 4, and our Realtor was decisive and adamant that we wanted to move quickly to get out house under contract. I felt pressured on this and thought it was too soon, but didn’t see the point in pumping the brakes.
Once we were on this course, Liz took to preparing the house for showings and photos. There was a day where I came back to the house because I couldn’t find one of my medications while I was at my office on campus. I came home while Liz was leaving, and stepped inside the house and it felt like the floor itself opened beneath my feet to swallow me whole. The foyer was completely empty, and looking down the stairs to the living room it was like nobody even lived there anymore. In an instant everything vanished right in front of me.
I was a little dizzy and my pulse was loudly pushing blood through my ears. I absentmindedly walked across my living room and remembered how much I loved this house and something I said to Liz when our offer was accepted on it. I hadn’t even realized what I had been doing with my body while my mind went elsewhere.
I’ve tried to write about what happened in these three minutes several times. Every time I look at it afterwards it’s not something I want to say aloud to strangers.
I forced myself to stop what I was doing, get my bearings, and take a few steps back. In a bit of a panic, I made it back to my car. Unwelcome and completely invasive thoughts kept popping into my head at every intersection and railroad crossing, but somehow I made it to the parking garage where my friend Mari 5 would rescue me over the telephone. I don’t use that word lightly. It was a rescue. I was afraid, because of my friend Sam. Our friend, Sam. I resolved to never be in that situation ever again. It’s one of the biggest reasons I started writing about all of this in the first place. 6
Crisis averted, I sent Liz a message that I was going to stay with my aunt and uncle in a neighboring city that night. I felt really weird just saying I was going away for a while. I honestly didn’t know how long I’d be gone, and I hadn’t talked to many people in my family except my parents about what was going on with Liz and I.
When I got to my aunt and uncle’s house, I filled the two of them in over dinner. They were supportive and kind to me, and it felt good to reach out to some family and have them grab on and not let me float off into outer space. I was feeling much better that night and got some sleep. My dreams were nightmares, but when I woke up I was relieved that they weren’t real. They were even worse than my reality, and that was somewhat comforting.
I was still in the middle of grieving my way through the things that Liz had already gone through months before. She was way out in front of us, and dragging me along to this unlikely scenario where we are collaborators and raising our children together amicably. Most of the time it sounded like an absurd fantasy, in spite of my attempts to make it as difficult as possible for me to assume an aggressive posture.
She was through that storm, and she was already moving on. It felt like I couldn’t catch my breath or get a break anywhere I turned — sometimes it felt like she was actively trying to break me. She was done delaying or postponing anything she wanted or needed, especially if it was solely to preserve my feelings. She could not possibly be any clearer about that. I made some boundaries of my own, and I felt like she couldn’t believe I was standing up to her, or would do anything to make it harder for her. I was angry that she seemed to have this expectation that, even though I was no longer welcome or invested in some aspects of her life, I was expected to just happily go along with what she wanted at my own expense.
From that point on, I decided that our marriage ending was not going to be yet another thing that happened to me. I knew I couldn’t save it, and I didn’t even want to anymore; I decided that I was going to show up, and I was not going to simply continue to watch it all happen to me from the bottom of the well I had fallen into twenty goddamned years ago.
Nope nope nope, nope.
An Excursion in Philadelphia
I hatched a plan. It was risky and could easily get away from me if I wasn’t careful, but I knew what to do. I made plans to fly to Philadelphia and see one of my best friends who would babysit me for at least eight hours.
I so often felt like the pain and loss I was feeling hunted me and stalked me. It would overtake me when I was alone in the house or in my car, and sometimes I would plead with it to leave me alone — to unclench it’s jaw and let go of me. I felt like I was slowly being messily devoured by it, and that it wasn’t ever going to stop. I couldn’t seem to get any distance between myself and the grief that had my scent, the grief that would find me, no matter how far I would run.
There was a moment that day in Philadelphia where my aperture was so completely wide open, and I had nowhere to hide. I asked this painful feeling that followed me, why? Why is this happening? And, what is going to happen to me?
Only more uncertainty was the response. It wouldn’t stop, it was relentless, and I couldn’t get away from it. I begged it to let go of me. Over and over again: let me go, let go of me. And in my head in that moment the voice I heard changed, and it wasn’t even me saying it anymore. It was Liz. My wife. She wasn’t angry, and she didn’t sound hurt. But she was urging me to let go. To let her go. To let her go, because she was already gone.
“Yeah? Well, fine!” quietly as loud as I could, I was in my mind, and I stared it all down and I sliced my hand like a sword through the mooring lines of our memories and our aspirations. The hopes and dreams, and disappointments, and everything in-between were now severed. Finally, we could both shrug it all off. And then something beautiful happened in the silence of that room. I finally caught my breath, and felt some peace for the first time in months.
I cut her free. I cut myself free. But there was something unexpected that remained. I could see Liz in the distance, newly unfettered, but there was a wire visible between the two of us. On that wire, strung up like little paper dolls between us, were our children.
For weeks I was so afraid of losing something. It felt like everything. But I didn’t even know that I was afraid of losing something I no longer even had. It instantly reframed everything and I was suddenly not in the midst of an existential crisis because my marriage was ending. All that mattered to me at that point was that we are a family for the rest of our lives, and that I needed to figure out what kind of family I wanted that to be as quickly as possible, because I had a lot of work to do.
There may have been several epiphanies that day. Among them, I came to terms with probably never having a Great Love like Liz again. It just seemed so impossible to consider ever letting anyone back into my heart like that. If I had my one chance at a Great Love and I blew it, that would be a valuable lesson to not take things for granted.7
Part Four is titled Kintsugi, and it’s about being more beatiful for having been broken.
This is part three of an ongoing series I'm calling I've Been Sad.
There was an especially shitty aspect of this that I don’t really want to rehash because I think it was really shady. I flag this because it was one of a few aspects of this span of time that could have been handled much better because it lead to a little bit of gas-lighting in my opinion and I say that as someone that grew up with a Category Five gas-lighter. Really, I’m over it. I think I’m over it? I’m over it. ↩
We have a knowledge of each other that didn’t always use for the right reasons. ↩
Call me, when you can. Soon. It’s not fair. B asked for too much. ↩
I have a secret Facebook group that was also keeping tabs on me throughout this ordeal and they were awesome. They’re a great resource in general, but on that day I was especially glad. ↩
This is somewhat paradoxical — I actually have a habit of head-first falling in love fast, and hard; as deep as I can go. I think it felt so different because of just how much it hurt to be wounded so savagely, maybe just because the duration of our relationship is such that I can measure a significant portion of my life, including my career, by it. ↩