Tuesday, September 07, 2010

25th wedding anniversaries and helping divorced friends

It was bound to happen. I was in eight weddings and had forty friends who got married in 1984-1985. Naturally that means the last two years on Facebook have been minefields of silver anniversary well-wishes. Jon and I limped across our finish line at 25 years—no party, no exotic cruise, no trip to Greece (that was our goal).

How can I explain what it feels like to watch those go by? One of my college friends congratulated a mutual celebrating friend on her wall "We celebrated our 25th last year. Isn't Jesus good to keep us together no matter what?" and I felt stupid reading it. Did Jesus forget about us? He could only hold so many marriages together and we just happened to be one of the ones he skipped? And what is the implication? That all marriages that have Jesus will be kept together?

It's not that I'm unhappy that other marriages are celebrating their accumulation of years. It's just that the tallying up is over for me. I feel like I'm a high school drop out watching people go off to college. Like I tied my tubes and everyone is having baby showers. Like I foreclosed on my house while all my friends are burning their paid-in-full mortgages.

Not only that, I'm hanging out with a vulnerable crowd. There's no path marked for how to support someone going through divorce. If your spouse dies, people know what to do. They make meals, they come to the funeral, they tell you all the wonderful things they remember about your spouse, they remind you that it wasn't your fault, they repair your car and house if you lost a husband, they mother your kids if you lost your wife. The deceased spouse becomes "hero-like" in memory, with everyone agreeing that it happened too soon, that the person will be missed, that he or she was even better than they actually were, that the marriage partner left behind was lucky to have been married to such a wonderful person...

Divorce doesn't work that way. Everyone wants to identify a villain (whose fault is this tragedy?). Or they want to prove a lack of commitment (whether to Jesus, vows or spouse). They don't know if they should remember good things about the marriage or focus on the bad stuff they now see more clearly. Should you be sad for the person saying, "I'm sorry about your divorce" or should you say, "Good for you! Taking your life back!" Perhaps you always felt like one partner was a jerk and you are relieved for your friend that she's out of a bad situation. Can you say that? Is that disrespectful of marriage as an institution? Or might you even feel like saying, "Idiot! How did you let this happen?" when you discover your friend turned out to be a bad spouse.

I got a wonderful email yesterday from someone who knew me years ago on a homeschooling board. Her sister is going through a horrible divorce. This acquaintance has been reading my blog over the years and wrote to me to find out how she could support her sister during this challenging time. I wish more people asked that question! Unfortunately, I don't have a set of items in a list as advice. But I do have some general principles to keep in mind.

Divorce isn't always horrible. Leaving a troubled marriage (especially at first) feels like relief. Identifying the relief and empathizing with it is a great place to start. Even underscoring it for the person when he or she feels badly about divorce is supportive. You can say stuff like, "It must be nice to wake up in the morning and know that all the thoughts in your head are yours, that no one else is wandering around in your mind telling you what to think or do or be." You can say more stuff like, "Isn't it a relief to finally be free of pressure, doubt, control, betrayal, hurt, violence, game-playing, cruelty, blame (pick one)?"

Instead of focusing on how hard it is to be divorced (as though that is the only narrative that goes with divorce), focus on the benefits and help your friend remember them. "You get a second-chance at making a great life" and especially for those leaving long-term marriages you can say, "You'll fit two lifetimes into one! What will you do with this gift of a second 25-30 years?"

Validate the personal journey that led to this moment: "I know and trust you, so if you say a divorce is the right thing for your family, then that's all I need to know. How can I help?"

It's also supportive to identify the strengths in the divorcing person. It takes a lot of courage to walk through the legalities of divorce. Planning a wedding is all fantasy, romance and ceremony. Executing a divorce is paperwork, courtrooms and colorless legal protocols. Some of the strengths necessary: Staying vertical when you're in grief; carrying on with children and chores despite losing a partner (or conversely, not getting to live with those children any more and learning to live with loneliness); starting a new career or working a new job or going back to school or increasing one's work load; mastering the legal process and understanding it; facing the scrutiny of others and not giving in to it.

Which leads me to the most heartfelt point. There's no way around some sense of failure when divorcing. So if you are one of those good friends in a divorcing person's life, be someone who highlights successes: success at getting out of what was not a healthy situation, success at filing paperwork, success at navigating these choppy waters with kids, successfully staying married during years of challenge, success at raising children, successfully facing hard truths... Divorce isn't a big invalidation stamp, either. There are often plenty of happy memories in divorcing families. These don't need to be rewritten. They need to be embraced as part of the complexity of life.

Lastly, the best thing about divorce is the opportunity to find what you didn't have before: emotional peace, security, intimacy, optimism for the future, relief from depression or fear or anxiety or abuse, love, partnership, self-respect, maturity, safety. We all want these, married or not. And there are plenty of marriages that get credit for years accumulated that don't have them. Divorcing people are those who say they won't live like that any more. They should get a little credit for that... even on their Facebook walls.


karen said...

Thanks Julie for saying so much here. I really appreciate your blog. I do have a question though. What about the people who are going through a divorce they do not want; not that any of us want a divorce. I mean when the divorce is initiated by the other person and you do not want the marriage to end. I have a friend in mind as I ask this question. It is so hard to be supportive of her as her husband divorces her after multiple atrocities he has committed against her yet she does not want a divorce. Any words of wisdom for this one? Thanks. I appreciate your wisdom and discernment.

julieunplugged said...

Even people who file for divorce usually "don't want one." There are partners who sometimes leave marriages without divorcing and the other partner is left with the mess (to initiate the divorce herself - or himself). My mom went through that.

I think the only way forward in that context is to recognize that you no longer have a marriage if one partner is choosing to leave it. The marriage is *already over* if he has committed atrocities against her. What she is feeling is that she doesn't want to be the kind of person who's best option for the future is divorce. She's' resentful that he's destroying her imagined future as a member of a longterm marriage.

But the thing is: he has already torn up his husband card. She doesn't have and will never have the marriage she signed up for. He's destroyed that possibility - killed it. By staying married, she doesn't protect herself from divorce. Rather, she will be living as an emotionally divorced woman trapped in a legally confining marriage.

Divorce is her only means of regaining her self-respect and dignity (to stay with him would not preserve a marriage, but would continue her role as a target for mistreatment and cruelty).

I think we are so used to believing in marriage as an institution, we forget that the institution is supposed to confirm and protect partnership, shared burden, mutual respect, honor, and love. If those are gone, then all you have left is a legal document that requires property and income to be equally distributed between the partners.

I think it's like grieving a death, really. The death of a dream. :( Hugs to her and you.

Allison said...

wow, Julie, so insightful and powerful, it makes so much sense to me. forwarded it on to some friends who so want to support me right now but just don't know *how,* like you say!

thank you for your words.

Ed G. said...

The money quote: "I know and trust you, so if you say a divorce is the right thing for your family, then that's all I need to know. How can I help?"

Susanne Barrett said...

I have several dear friends who are going through divorces now. With my closest friend (the one I told you about), I told her almost verbatim what you advise: "I know you, and I know how you agonize over every decision, so I trust you when you say this [a divorce] is the best thing for you and your family."

I feel much better about talking to her, knowing that I said something that may be helpful....

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