I hadn’t intended to say much about my divorce in this space. This wasn’t so much because it is embarrassing or difficult or even especially private. But rather, I just find the whole subject to be intensely boring. There just didn’t seem to be much of interest to say.
There was one thing that caught my attention, however, that I do think merits discussion here. We got to the part of the process where we needed to tell people what was happening – they were going to start to see the physical manifestations of our separation and it seemed cruel not to let people know. And whenever I told someone what was going on, they had some version of the same response. It came from this really kind, empathetic place, but it always hit my ears funny. Almost everyone said that they were so sorry to hear of the failure of the marriage.
It’s this word – failure – that I want to interrogate a little. Why do we have this collective understanding that the only definition of success in a relationship that counts is that someone has to die before it ends? It seems absurd. I’ve seen couples who obviously hate each other nevertheless “succeed” by not divorcing. Meanwhile couples who had generative, loving relationships technically “fail” if they reach a point where the relationship no longer works.
In many ways, my marriage was my most successful relationship. Because of that relationship, I’ve had two incredible children who changed me in profound ways, I’ve found career opportunities that I might not otherwise have pursued, I met my best friend, I tried a zillion new activities that I might not otherwise have opted into, and I’ve learned how to be in better relationship with the people in my community. Counterfactuals are a tricky business, to be sure, but I truly believe that the circumstances of that marriage brought me to a place where I’m typing this out here now as part of a project that would have been unthinkable to the woman I would have been otherwise.
And all my relationships have been important, even the kind of shitty ones. It’s nearly impossible to imagine my personal growth without the people who I have loved. In fact, I learned some of the most important things about myself from my worst boyfriend. Yes, all those relationships ended, and seen through the lens of Jane Austen novels, they were failures. But if you shift the focus ever so slightly, away from endings, and toward the juicy middle bits, they suddenly look like important investments.
I have a lot of thoughts about the pressure that modern relationships are under – especially once children are in the mix. I am continually frustrated by the lack of interest and involvement from the older generations, the way our institutions set women up for impossible choices, the way our culture punishes men for doing female-coded work, the way economic forces have shifted in the last few generations, and the lack of structural support for parenthood. And to be sure, a lot of ink has been spilled by people far more qualified than me to speak on exactly how these forces shape current relationships. I only know that these issues were struggles for us, and definitely contributed to our current separation.
To the degree that we want to talk about failure, I think there’s plenty of blame to go around, both personal and social. But to the degree that we want to talk about growth, the struggles we faced in our marriage have informed a lot for me. Being in partnership has given me greater understanding both of my own expectations and patterns, and the ways I can be in community with others. By letting go of the dominant cultural narrative around love, I’m free to flip the script - to focus on the perspective, the meaning and the joy and to move on with gratitude.