I think if you ask a woman why divorce hurts so much, she’d probably ask you in return, “Um, how much time do you have?” But there’s also the chance that she might recoil from you—unless you’re her close friend or a family member and you have a large tub of ice cream nearby—because of how intimate the answer is.
Divorce hits us at the core of who we are, in the most deeply personal ways. Prepared or not, whether we’re the initiator or not, it pulls the rug out from under us, out from under our sense of possibility, our hopes, our dreams for ourselves, our children, and our union, our own potential and the potential of our coupledom.
Divorce yanks away our identity. It drops us off the edge of what we know, and for a while, it feels like we’re going to keep falling, getting more and more lost in loss. It upends reality in all the public and practical ways, too, certainly. But that stuff is more tangible; you can define it or at least see the general shape of it. We can put more of those things on a to-do list.
It’s in the loss of the unseen—the spirit of the relationship—where self-doubt, hopelessness, and a surreal alienation from who we thought we were creep in and blind us for a while.
As if that fog wasn’t difficult enough to navigate, there are also all the little things that were unique to the two of you hiding in it. If the saying “the devil is in the details” has relevance in any life event, it’s in divorce. Those little day-to-day grace moments that were the divine of the relationship—the comfort and bliss of it—become swift, devilishly sharp memories that tunnel so quickly out of the pigeon holes we put them in. They fly at us unexpectedly, just when we think we might be okay, and they burrow in, becoming a lump in our throats.
As you’re doing dishes at the sink, suddenly you feel the weight of his* hands on your hips as he comes up to stand behind you, and your head leans back to rest on a chest that isn’t there. You’re hanging up a coat and from the cold scent of the fabric rushes a memory of him coming in from pruning trees in the backyard, tracking mulch and leaving piles of branches everywhere but delighted to see you. You open your arms for the hug that doesn’t come. You bend down to pet the cat and say something to her with his inflection, and it levels you and leaves you on the floor with her while she licks your tears. All you can do is curl up in a ball as you hear him in your mind, discussing the state of her tummy.
Maybe you wake from a nightmare and all you want is the rumble of his voice under your cheek, telling you it’s just a dream. But all that’s there are clammy sheets, too much quiet, too little air, and an aching solitude you didn’t have in mind when you said you needed “me time.”
And that’s really it. When we’re honest with ourselves, we know why divorce hurts: it comes the loss of a really wonderful dream that you had, not just about your own potential but the potential of your union, the possibility of joy and hope. We have that in common, but the intimacy of it is particular to each of us. If you’re reading this, you are likely still living in your pain and feeling vulnerable, but this is, after all, a shared experience. That’s why we’re all here—so that we know we’re not alone.
“Sometimes, we outlaw our own grief, failing to give value to our feelings; seeing the tears as intruders that must be defended against. But grief is not on a timetable and doesn’t always run on schedule. Sometimes it even leaves the station, only to double back and park again. And stay,” writes Jonathan Trotter, a contributor at The Gottman Institute.
“…So please allow grief, in your own heart and in the hearts of others. Don’t send it underground. If you’re uncomfortable with other peoples’ grief, you might want to look deep, deep down in your own soul and see if there’s some long-outlawed, long-buried grief. If you find some, begin gently to see it, vent it, feel it.”
If I am honest, even though I had released and let go of my Ex, there was for a while a tiny ember of hope glowing that we’d have another chance—that I would have a chance to do things differently. That ember was still there because of regret.
There are a million reasons for regret. There’s the regret of disappearing from the “we” to avoid the “I.” There may be regret for not being anywhere close to our best selves for a good chunk of the relationship; for being too frequently sad, angry, or hopeless during periods of our togetherness and letting him carry all of that too often. Some of us make the mistake of making our partnership the main source of our sense of accomplishment and pride and allowing ourselves to shrink into that and stay stuck there.
Sometimes we let fear stop us from finding our courage and reaching for something meaningful that’s just ours. Without realizing I was doing it, I wrapped more than a little of my identity around my Ex; I’d been chosen by a good man, and I half consciously made that my mantra for when I didn’t feel good about myself. I left him alone in the midst of us a lot; when I released us from our partnership (and then panicked), we remained friends, but even so, he took off like a wild creature finally freed.
It isn’t just that we can lose our identity in marriage (in any long-term relationship) and have to face choking fear and bewilderment when we start to find our way back to ourselves. The sharpest facet of that pain is the realization that no one took it from us; we gave it up. We fail ourselves as much as we fail our partners. It is the regret of that realization that’s another reason why divorce hurts. That and our own conscience. We can try to ignore it, but while ignorance may be bliss, it’s a mindless bliss. It isn’t until we truly understand this that we can forgive ourselves for giving up on ourselves, even temporarily.
You sit with the grief for a while. Sometimes it consumes you. And then you sit with the nothingness for a while, and it’s terrifying. And finally, when you get through the self-recognition, the ownership and the elusive self-forgiveness, you begin to see your sense of vulnerability ebbing away.
You realize that hope, like love, never really dies. They just change form, and it continue to do so. From the ashes of the hope you had for the relationship and all its potential, you have the hope that, now that it’s over, it might be reborn because you have yourself back and are strong enough to do things well this time, and then it changes form again and now you know that your hope for yourself isn’t fragile at all.
So remember, grief, hope, love—they are never really gone. They change form, and so do you. You may not get to do things differently with him, but you do get a chance to do things differently for yourself—be a different woman. However you created that chance, you did, so blot your face, lift your eyes, and go and meet yourself.
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) and the freedom of being her own partner. Connect with Jennifer here.
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*This piece was written for SAS for Women, an all-women website. At SAS we respect same-sex marriages, however, for the sake of simplicity in this article we refer to your spouse as a male.