When I was little, I used to take the goldfish bowl on our coffee table and wind that sucker down the length of the hall like a bowler on a bender. Off it would fly, water everywhere, mother rabid with exasperation, me laughing (and then crying from the butt swat), and the poor goldfish gasping on the olive shag carpet until my mother finally gave it to someone whose life lacked a two-year-old.
That’s a bit what divorce is like. There you are, swimming laps around your life. Maybe you’re bored and a little tired, but you’ve got your pink castle, plastic plants, and most of all, the guppy who shares your bowl. He may hang out in the tiki house too often and he makes an unholy mess of your carefully arranged blue gravel, but his presence reminds you that you are a cute and loveable fish. You know who you are partly because he is there. And suddenly (even though you know in your heart that it wasn’t really sudden), everything you know is gone and you can’t breathe from the shock and terror of it.
When this cataclysmic upending of your world happens, one of a million horrible-wonderful thoughts you have (in a span of minutes) is that it CANNOT get worse. Well, hello. It can. The universe may not always wear pigtails, but it can add insult to injury any old time it feels like it. For in swoops a seagull, freshly preened and glossy. Yes, this bird has absolutely no place in the living room or anywhere near your pink castle. But there it is.
Where did this bird come from? Back in your bowl, breathing again but still stupefied, you watch helplessly as she lands on the coffee table, and then takes a beady look at your guppy guy like he’s king salmon. Then swoosh, she scoops him up out of the bowl you’ve shared for as long as you can remember and off she flies. With him! And not only is he not afraid or even looking back at you, he jumps right into her snappy yellow bill and appears to enjoy it, immensely.
Your Ex has a new girlfriend, and the seagull is her. Two months after you’ve left the home you bought together 10 years earlier, where you harvested apples and got engaged and made up rich inner lives for your cats, he’s got a freaking girlfriend. She flew in and helped herself to your (Ex) husband and made herself right at home where she didn’t belong—with the person in your life who was closest to you, who listened to your dreams in the middle of the night, and who told you that you are beautiful, that he’d love you forever.
I know the whole goldfish bowl metaphor is oversimplified, and depending on what stage of divorce you’re in, it may even seem glib. But here’s the thing…
I would not have been able to be glib about giving up my partner—about the dissolution of what I thought was my whole life’s context—two months or even a year later. I can now. You need to know that the ragged terror, the horrible grief, the jealousy, the rage—they really do end. The paralysis, the apathy, the sense that we disappear when our marriage does—all of that is temporary.
Meanwhile, nutso is the new normal for a while. You’re bouncing from bowl to shag carpet, or to just shagging, and back again, and that is not only normal, it’s ok. But when your Ex has a new girlfriend, jealousy can make the shag rug feel like broken glass, though. A friend of mine who’d been married since she was 18 and was, after 37 years, happily divorcing, told me, “You are going to have a different, really intense emotion every five seconds. You’ll go from great to bawling and screaming, and then you’ll be great again. It’s ok. It’ll pass.” But even though this friend was happy to be divorcing, she still hated her husband’s new girlfriend. She knew it wasn’t rational, but she couldn’t help it. I’m guessing this is also normal, but who wants to stay in this phase forever? We want to let our Ex go. For me, that meant letting it out.
Let it out
Let it out, girl, but do it in private. Publicly, fake it ’til you make it, as the saying goes. “You are becoming the version of yourself you want to be,” as a dear friend of mine puts it. Until then, cry in the shower. Scream in the car, in an empty lot. Punch the crap out of your mattress when the kids are at school. Write in your journal about getting her in a headlock and shaving off patches of her hair. Work out hard (I highly recommend cardio kickboxing). It’s a simple matter of pride: keep it civil on social media (or stay off of it), keep it to yourself at work as much as you can, and DON’T do what a friend of mine did, which was to go to the house they still co-owned to pick up some clothes and detour into the bedroom long enough to sprinkle toilet water on their red-clad pillows.
Yep. She did that. She wasn’t proud of it; that was NOT the version of herself she wanted to be. It was a tantrum. It was juvenile, more than a little disgusting, and definitely not playing nice with her Ex’s girlfriend. But eventually she started caring a lot more about who she was becoming than who her Ex was with now. She acted in ways she was proud of, like when one of their dear cats was diagnosed with cancer not long after they ended things, and her Ex wanted his girlfriend there with them for the euthanasia. She said yes, not only because she wanted to be that version of herself, but because she genuinely could be.
The pillowcase baptism may not have been the way to go (no pun intended), but it illustrated her to herself. And it sure made for a great story later. Her sheepish telling of that story made her friends laugh their asses off, which made her able to laugh at herself.
You really do need to laugh about any part of this thing as soon and as often as you can. Laughter, like working out, boosts endorphin levels without chemical assistance and forces fresh oxygen into your blood stream. It’s literally a breath of fresh air. It clears away grief, makes recognizing the new world you’re in easier, and it bubbles away fear like hydrogen peroxide on blood. From there, the moments when you can feel your new self emerging grow longer. You become more real to yourself in this context instead of the old one. Yes, your Ex has a new girlfriend, but now you start wondering what the pond might be like too. And as you let it out, let it go, and laugh, you reach the next phase of recognition.
It isn’t her fault
It isn’t. Even if your Ex has a new girlfriend who he was involved with while you were still married, he was the one who committed to you, not her. While we’re still feeling grief and rage, we want to blame something or someone outside ourselves, and it’s a lot easier to blame the interloper than the person who was Our Person. The Seagull instead of The Guppy.
The relationship you’ve left, the one that cracked under the strain of something whether it was a fear of change, denial about being unhappy, or a role that didn’t fit one or both of you well—it belonged to you and your Ex. You shared that fishbowl. It may not seem like it, but no two-year-old in pigtails actually upended it. You outgrew it. It cracked open because on some level you and your curiosity were getting too big for it. Whether you realized it or not.
There’s no comparison
If you truly didn’t realize it, divorce is a rude awakening, to say the very least. Adding in a new partner in your Ex’s life sharpens the pain and turns up the volume on that voice inside your head that tells you “something about me wasn’t enough.” It’s almost impossible not to, but comparing yourself to her is fruitless and damaging, so try not to do it. Stop doing it as soon as you can. You are not a lightbulb. There is no replacement for you.
“Jealousy, that sickening combination of possessiveness, suspicion, rage, and humiliation, can overtake your mind and threaten your very core as you contemplate your rival,” writes author, relationship expert and scientist, Helen Fisher.
When your Ex has a new girlfriend, stop contemplating her in any way that isn’t strictly practical and strategic to moving on. The only valid comparison involves looking back on your old self, not at her. In a future a lot less distant than you think, you will look back at life in the bowl with your guppy and the gull won’t even matter. Because you will have jumped from the bowl into the pond and started swimming.
Jennifer Bent is a freelance writer and former journalist living on the West Coast. Nicknamed Verbose at a young age, she loves word craft but has to keep a short leash on her fondness for the profane. Jennifer enjoys her cat’s input on her rough drafts (talk about snark), her new guy and the freedom of being her own partner. Connect with Jennifer here.
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