She tried to tell me

I can still hear her British voice in my head today. My dear friend, Alexia.

We became friends while my ex and I were living in Germany, and stayed friends afterward. We met at the international playgroup in the city, a very diverse international mix of mothers and children showing up to sing songs, dance and make crafts while we drank coffee and exchanged new mom stories. We had only lived in Germany for about six months when I first tried the playgroup, and it was the most glorious connection I had made since moving to a foreign country!

It was my life line and my escape.

Alexia led the playgroup at the time that I began to attend. She was warm and friendly and welcoming. I loved her immediately. I truly admired her for her strength, her wit, her laugh, her way of directing people without being overbearing, and her straightforward style of telling you exactly what she thought without crushing you. She was like a movie star in the theater of my mind.

I wanted to be just like her someday, when I grew up.

We became friends over the course of many cups of strong coffee and many versus of  “Wind the Bobbin Up”. This led to dinners together, on our own and with our husbands sometimes, and playdates with our children to play together in the back garden or race Bobby Cars down the slanting driveway. She became a constant in my world. A beacon of light. I turned toward her like a flower reaching for the sun.

She was the epitome of “having it together” in my mind.

We would talk about our children, our families, our history, and of course our marriages and husbands. How we met, what our courting/dating was like, our weddings, etc. That’s what women do to bond and to get to know each other. You can tell a lot about a person from the way they describe their relationship.

I lived in Germany for six years, and over the course of that time, I am certain that I filled her ears with my many trials and tribulations of life abroad as an American. The challenges and the struggles. Alexia was British and married to a German man, that was a common pairing in Europe. My husband and I were pretty much the exception to the expat rule at the time. We were both American and didn’t speak a word of German when we arrived.

During all of this female bonding time I am sure that I told her some of my most annoying, and disturbing, stories about my husband and our marriage. I thought it was the thing that girlfriends did, we shared and commiserated, it was a way to blow off steam so you didn’t blow off your husband’s head!

After a few years of confiding in her, one day she looked me in the eye and said, “It doesn’t sound like you’re happily married.”

I was stunned. Not happily married? I asked her what gave her that idea, of course I’m happily married! Why wouldn’t I be? Her explanation was simply that most of my stories about my husband and marriage weren’t very positive, they were sad, frustrating and negative types of stories. I didn’t really have anything good to say about our relationship, or our marriage, for the most part.

I stayed the course of defending my ‘happy marriage’, “What do you mean? Those are things that all wives talk about with their friends, it’s an outlet to share it with someone else. Everyone has their issues and annoyances with their husbands. We all do it.” Alexia didn’t miss a beat, she looked at me with her head slightly tilted and said, “I never talk about my husband that way.” And, she was right. She really didn’t.

I was quiet.

I should have taken that as a sign, a nudge, to take a hard look at my marriage and what I wanted out of it. That was over fifteen years ago. But instead, I decided not to share anymore of those negative stories with her, plus I became more aware of what I shared with most people. I covered it up, left it at the door when I came in, and only shared the good stuff.

Now that I am divorced, I can look back and search for clues, look at my mistakes as well as his, basically armchair quarterback during the replays of our entire relationship. What I should have, what I could have, done differently. I can almost pinpoint when it had started to sour, when I had begun to feel invisible and unimportant to him. I remember telling him how I felt so many times, usually in tears, and still nothing changed. I can remember the big, blowout arguments as well as all of our little disagreements, that led us to this place.

She was right. I was not happily married.

I should have looked more closely at it all at the time that she shared this epiphany with me, but instead I chose to hide it more, to bury it down deeper inside. I began to keep my attitude in check and stay positive in most public instances, not just playgroup anymore.  Even with my own family. I wanted to make certain that everyone thought, that everyone knew, that I was happy. We were happy.

They could all say that we were happy, and truly loved each other, with conviction.

But we weren’t. We were functional most of the time. Of course, we had some really great times together, and loved each other most of the time, but there were long spells of that not being the case over our twenty years together.

He had come from a widowed mother early on in his childhood, and I from a divorced family, we didn’t really know how it was supposed to work or what marriage  should look like. But we were determined and willing to go the distance, at almost any cost, to prove that we were good people with a good, solid marriage. We could live up to the American dream that escapes so many other couples and keep an intact family. We would prove it with each passing year, with each celebrated anniversary. But we weren’t really happy with each other, and it showed in some of the smallest, simplest details.

It’s not always the big stuff.

At the time, it’s hard to admit that it’s really not going the way you had hoped, that your promise to stay with each other for a lifetime may have been an overreach for both of you. We each had our own expectations of how marriage worked, how to raise kids, even how to love each other. It wasn’t very similar in most areas, any areas to be honest, and that created the first crack in our trust of each other and our love for each other that grew with each passing year. A crack that created a small valley in the early years, would eventually lead to a gaping hole between us after many years of ignoring the obvious signs.

She tried to tell me. I should have listened.

 

 

 

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Epidemic

Since we filed for divorce, and I began telling the people around me and that I come into contact with, I’ve noticed a trend. A startling trend, honestly. It’s happening everywhere.

It’s an odd topic in the first place, not one that you automatically bring up during a first meeting, or standing in line at the grocery store. But once it’s out there, it begins to take on a life of it’s own, and other people begin to own part of your story and connect it to others that they’ve heard. It makes it more familiar I suppose, easier to digest. Especially if it’s happening to someone else and not you.

But the stories get connected nonetheless. More often than not, I would hear “yeah, the same thing happened to my (fill in the blank; sister in law, friend, neighbor, cousin, etc) The stories are incredibly similar, too. Usually men in their late forties or early fifties, married for over 15 years, and she was a stay at home mom for most of their marriage.

Sometimes the story includes marriage counseling for months, or even years, but it still ends the same. He’s driving a new Mercedes and dressing like a 20 year old and she’s left fighting for her family and the life that they had, while being a full-time single parent.

The divorce usually starts off amicable (who’s fantasy was that anyway, “amicable”?) but within no time, turns ugly and spiteful. Usually once the actual numbers are on paper and the reality of losing not only half of his assets, but close to half of his salary, becomes a real thing. He is willing to leave her and their family with almost nothing, if he can get away with it. Sometimes he has even taken early measures to protect himself for this very situation.

This isn’t just one or two common stories that I’ve come across, it’s a dozen or more within the last six months. And I’m sure that there are many more that I just don’t know about.

Is this an epidemic?

The sad part of all of this, at least to me, is that all of the women I have talked to or heard about, and heard their stories, have a common thread. They all quit working once they had kids, and stayed home to raise them. They did the what most mothers of recent generations have done, they gave their all to their family – caregiver, housekeeper, manager, volunteer, taxi driver, etc.

They didn’t necessarily “give up” their jobs for their husbands, but as a couple they made the decision to have her stay at home, and mother full time for the benefit of the family. The studies constantly quoted in my early adulthood, regarding the benefits of a full-time stay at home parent (and let’s not forget breast feeding), being drilled into our heads, and possibly filling us with guilt if we chose to be working moms instead.

In most cases, they not only mother and care for their children, but their husbands too. Taking care of the details of their lives, like an executive secretary would for her company. Many of these women have been stay at home moms for close to 15 years, some even longer.

They have been out of the workforce for so long that they are now obsolete in their field. But now, this isn’t working for him, so it’s time to cut and run.

These women are trapped.

They are cornered. They are desperate for answers. They are angry and hurt.

What are we doing as a society to raise men like this? What are we telling them, as they grow up, that makes them believe it is acceptable to walk away from their family when they get tired of being in it?  To toss out a family because it no longer serves their purpose?

Because, believe me, they not only leave their wives. They leave their children, too.

When I read or hear about the statistics on divorce, half of all marriages end in divorce, I have to wonder if there is a common thread. It can’t just be a coincidence, there must be something lacking, something ignored, something we are overlooking. Is it a lack of communication? A misguided idea of what marriage really is?

Are we going into “forever” with a real idea of what that means? Or are we now living too long for that to even be a reality?

It’s become an epidemic and it has to stop. The cycle will continue with our children, and their children to come, if we don’t figure this out.

That’s a sad, dysfunctional world to live in.