I never saw it coming. Twice.
Maybe I was oblivious or in denial, or both. But when my ex-wife first announced that she wasn’t happy and didn’t know if she wanted to stay married, I was dumbfounded. We had two kids under 5 at the time after less than seven years of marriage, and my world was turned upside down in an instant.
I was among the 50 percent of married people who entered marriage thinking divorce was only for other people who marry the wrong person, have poor character or morals, or can’t figure out how to make a marriage work, only to end up immersed in the previously unthinkable, bewildered by how such a good thing could have turned so unpleasant.
I didn’t want a divorce. When my ex-wife first raised the specter, I struggled to hold on, to determine what the problems were and how to fix them, and to convince my ex-wife to stay in the marriage and work things out. My emotions were raw and unstable. I became depressed. I lost my appetite and energy, had difficulty sleeping, and experienced trouble concentrating at work. I went to a therapist, desperate to have someone objective with whom I could unload and discuss my predicament.
At the same time, I visited a divorce lawyer, because I knew my ex-wife already had. I dreaded the meeting. I dreaded the prospect of being a part-time father and exposing my young children to the perils of divorce.
We went to couples counseling. I vacillated between feeling hopeful and frustrated that my ex-wife seemed entrenched in her position that she was uncertain whether she wanted to remain married and non-committal toward working to save the marriage. We co-existed for several months in an awkward netherworld of fragile uncertainty. I slept in the basement. I tried to find religion, going to Jewish services, partly in search of peace and community and partly just to escape the tension of being home.
And then, gradually, things got better. We seemed to turn a corner toward reconciliation. We made efforts to be more thoughtful of each other and communicate better. We seemed to be committed to making the marriage work. But perhaps something had been broken irretrievably – or perhaps something was broken all along.
Less than four years later, after a blowup over a happenstance, comedy-of-errors incident that provoked anger, hurt feelings and resentment, my ex-wife announced she was done. Again, I was staggered. I knew things weren’t great, but I also believed they weren’t bad either, at least not divorce-worthy. We weren’t blissful, but things seemed relatively smooth, two typically busy parents of an 8- and 6-year-old, juggling parenthood, careers, finances and social lives. Two successive job layoffs I had suffered added stress, but I didn’t think they were something the marriage could not handle.
This time, my ex-wife was firm in her resolve. I tried, perhaps foolishly, to hold my ground and influence her to work things out. It didn’t work. There was no more trying — only a long march toward a slow death. During the previous divorce threat, I felt befuddled, depressed and physically sick. This time, I was more prone to outbursts of anger, which I knew were ugly and abhorrent but had trouble controlling. I was so easily set off.
I went through the stages of grief for my marriage – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance. We lived together for seven months in a state of confrontation, avoidance, resignation and disdain. It was miserable, living with day-to-day tension and knowing what was coming and the eventuality of involving our kids in a breakup. We went to mediation sessions, which I saw as a last ray of hope, but the well was dry. We worked to figure out how to separate amicably.
Finally, we made the arrangement to separate. I stubbornly, and perhaps ill-advisedly, refused to leave the married home. I just didn’t want to be the one to leave, to raise the white flag, to say goodbye and give the appearance of walking out on the kids. I also worried that leaving would create disadvantages for me in future legal negotiations.
During our seven-month Cold War, my ex-wife frequently recited the times I had disappointed her, made mistakes or bad decisions or seemed uncaring and unsupportive, adding up to being a less-than-stellar husband. Those incidents couldn’t be redeemed; they were etched into the narrative of our marriage. The more I railed against or disputed her accounts, the more despondent I felt and the deeper the hole I dug.
Like most marriages, it wasn’t all bad – far from it. We had had a delightful love story, or so I believed. We were senior year college sweethearts. We camped out for several days in Provincetown, MA before graduation, and I had never felt happier. We survived a year of long-distance romance, Upstate New York to Florida, before drifting apart because of impracticalities. Six years later, we rekindled the romance after I discovered my ex-wife had ended a long-term relationship and was interested in seeing me. We endured another long-distance relationship, this time more manageable, Maryland to New York, before getting engaged and finally settling in the same place, my ex-wife moving to Maryland. We loved each other – at least, I know I loved her.
As our marriage came crashing down, so did my beliefs about what I thought I understood about our relationship. Was it revisionist history, or the truth from one partner’s perspective? My ex-wife said perhaps we should have never married, it was all a mistake, maybe she never really loved me. Perhaps I wasn’t the person she thought I was – didn’t have the character she was seeking, not good husband material. At the time we married, I was a Baltimore Sun reporter, which sounds prestigious. By the time we separated, I had been severed from The Sun during a ruthless round of downsizing, laid off from two other jobs, unemployed, and about to start an uncertain venture as a Baltimore City teacher. Perhaps she grew weary of such instability and lack of focus and contentment. I was searching. Perhaps she gave up too much in leaving her established New York life behind, including a graduate school program, to be with me.
The separation was not without challenges and recurring hurtful feelings, but it was a great relief. However, I felt a sense of failure, shame and embarrassment to be heading toward a divorce. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t make my wife happy and keep a marriage strong? The simplest answer, as I have come to realize and accept over the years, is that love – to whatever degree there was that, and I believe there was – just withered, and without it, there just wasn’t enough worth salvaging to bind two people together for eternity.
The finiteness of love is the train that I never saw coming through the tunnel. And here’s where it seems entirely appropriate to quote Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, his song about an amusement park ride serving as a metaphor for the dark side of a love relationship, my first marriage:
…There’s a room of shadows that gets so dark brother
It’s easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love
Well, it ought to be easy ought to be simple enough, yeah
Man meets woman and they fall in love
But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough
And you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above
If you want to ride on down, down in through this tunnel of love