What to say?

I have been fortunate enough to have more than a few people express how I have helped them to understand what their friend/sister/relative is going through while they struggle through their divorce. Some have even said that it has helped them talk about it, or just listen, and really mean it.

I am more than touched. I am grateful and thankful for their words of encouragement, and knowing that somehow I am helping somebody out there, who is involved with a divorce in a variety of ways, is a silver lining to what is a pretty dark cloud. If nobody really talks about it, if nobody tells the story in realistic terms, how will anyone know what to do? What to say?

It all starts from that point. Just being willing to help, to listen, to support is the biggest step.

It makes me think back to the early days, when the idea of getting divorced was still new and incredibly scary for me. The things that people would say at the beginning, just upon hearing that it was happening, slowly changed as time went by and the reality of the process became more clear.

Divorce takes time. Sometimes a lot of time…

For many the story got old, almost boring, and it wasn’t very creative since you hear about this type of thing happening everywhere. Why should it be so special, or remotely interesting, just because it was happening to me? For some, it was clear to me, that it wasn’t moving along fast enough so I could “just be done” and maybe focus on something else for awhile – usually something that they found important or exciting in their own lives.

I get it. Really, I seriously do.

Divorce can be a pain in the ass and boring as hell, especially if it’s not happening to you.

It’s more than difficult to listen to the same problem over and over again, even if new details emerge along the way, or side story lines come out of it like an episode of “As the World Turns”. There is only so much “drama” anyone wants to deal with, especially if it isn’t their own drama.

Unless they are the type of friend who feeds off of your pain and struggle, almost enjoys being in the trenches with you. They’re out there, believe me.

The friend who needs to feel needed, close up and personal to your problems, a cheerleader, your confidant. Those are actually the people you need to limit in your life during this stressful and painful time. Nobody needs a cheerleader, telling them to smile, cheer up and have fun! Trying to lift you up out of your funk, to be fun again, while sweeping it all out the door. Or worse, there’s the Church Lady from SNL friend. That’s the one that corrects you when you stumble and slip back into your old habits, for just a moment, and refer to your spouse or family as intact in the present tense.

“You mean your ex-husband, don’t you??” usually said with arched eyebrows and pursed lips. Thanks for that reminder, I almost forgot that the fabric of my life, that defined who I was, was unraveling after twenty-five years.

Good catch.

But from it all, I’ve come away with what I consider more than a few do’s and don’ts of what to say to someone going through a divorce, maybe more don’ts at this point. Because, let’s be honest, people are stupid. They mean well, most of the time, but they don’t make a habit of thinking it through before they speak sometimes.

When these phrases come out, phrases of hope or motivational quotes waiting to be made into a meme posted on your Facebook page, I sort of nod my head, like “yep, that’s one I hope to never hear again”.

Maybe my reaction to some of these may seem over-sensitive, maybe someone else would be able to let it roll off of their back, but like everything in life one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

And one person’s devastation is another person’s shoulder shrug. It’s all relative.

In the beginning, I heard the standard “you’re still young enough, and attractive, you’ll find someone soon I’m sure” – what exactly is ‘young enough’? And attractive? And why the push to find someone soon, if at all? What would make me so excited, or so desperate, to try this again?

Or “you’ll fall in love again and probably be married in five years!” First of all, why is the bar set at five years? Is this some sort of national average of divorced middle-aged women found in a recent study? You’d better have a graph to back that up.

As if I should be chomping at the bit to get back out there and date again, after twenty-five years with the same person, I should be looking for my next husband at the grocery store, or the gym. There are people out there who won’t even consider getting another dog once their beloved friend dies after many years, but a new spouse? Easy fix.

What’s the big deal??

No need to take a step back and figure out the new direction of your life. There should be no time to think about it, catch your breath and figure out what you really want your next step to be, you don’t want to overthink it. And don’t even consider that maybe you may not even want to go down this road again, that you may be happier as a divorced single, because you’re a woman and you need a man in your life! Time is a-wasting! No girl, you get back out there and shake it!

Isn’t this the dream of every middle-aged woman??

After the divorce was final, the comments were more indignant and less sympathetic. Almost dismissive. “You got a good settlement and got out of an unhappy marriage, you should be happy!”, “you made a twenty year mistake, accept it and move on” (that one was from a medical professional, believe it or not) or something similar. How does a ‘good settlement’ replace the last half of my life and my solidly formed identity?

And what exactly is considered a good settlement? Is it just about the money, the assets you’ve negotiated to keep, just the material things? According to what most people have said, I would guess it is just about the money.

It’s not about the loss of your identity, that you’ve worked to create over the last twenty five years. The loss of family and friends that you shared for half of your lifetime.

It’s not about now having to think separately about the very things that you did together as a family, splitting your children in half with visitation, holidays and insurance coverage. It’s not about your unknown future that is now hanging on some sort of string, and yet still tethered to someone for the unforeseeable future that you can’t even stand to be in the same room with now.

But hey, the money’s good, am I right?

It’s been a year now. I have been fully divorced for a full year, and while the comments have slowed down or had less of a chance to be uttered around me, they still manage to poke into a conversation when you least expect it.

“Yeah, a lot of people are getting divorced now, it’s everywhere.” (translation: you’re not that unique) Just because it’s a common occurrence, and can happen to anyone at any time, doesn’t make it any less devastating or life changing for the person going through it.

But thanks for being so condescending, that helps.

“At least you’re not married to that jerk anymore and now you can do whatever you want with your life!” (translation: you’re free now, completely free! what’s the problem with that?) While that statement is true on some level, it also glosses over what that life of ‘freedom’ will possibly look like. The assumption is that your life will somehow magically improve exponentially now that you’ve “cut your losses”, life will be full of opportunity and fulfillment. You will become that beautiful butterfly and the world is fresh and new!

Obviously, this ignores the fact that you still have children to take care of and consider with each life choice you make, who are also dealing with a great deal of change and loss. It filters the reality that you have had to move (again) and uproot your entire life, basically going back to the starting line and trying out a new path, now in your fifties, when you thought you already had that mapped out with someone.

Chances are that you’ll have to take at least a couple, or maybe even a few, years just to get your bearings and figure out what that new shiny future should/will look like, and then time to figure out if you still have time to make that new future happen, whatever it may be.

You’re no longer twenty five and fresh out of college, living in an apartment with roommates, partying on the weekends. You’re an adult with people depending upon you to function and get stuff done, and not just your kids, people from all points of your life.

“You should try a new hobby, something to get excited about” (translation: avoidance of your feelings is the best cure and will give you something else to talk about. Finally!) I tried the “new hobby” idea in the beginning, that’s what most of the divorce advice on the internet tells you to do. I took a sewing class, inquired into ballroom dancing, joined a different gym with a personal trainer, diligently researched the possibility of going back to school to get my masters, and volunteered in new areas to get more involved in my community, all to hopefully distract me enough to have a some sense of normalcy.

But here’s the thing, I can’t fully commit to learning anything new, or giving of my time, when my normal life is no longer working. It is no longer “normal”.

I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t get excited, I just couldn’t make it work the way that everyone promised me it would. I couldn’t do any of it with the same dedication and drive that I would usually bring to a new venture. I was only able to half-ass most attempts, that lead to me eventually quit, and that made me feel even worse. “I can’t even do (insert new hobby/interest here) right.”

“So when are you going back to work?” (translation: why are still sitting around, and not contributing to the world?) I heard this one almost from the beginning. I’m sure the idea was keeping busy will help you feel better. You’re divorced now so you need to fill in those hours that you used to be a stay at home wife and mother, be productive!

Here’s a newsflash, this is my job.

My job didn’t change because I got divorced. I didn’t divorce my kids, I didn’t divorce my responsibilities to my children, or to the home that they should grow up in. Yes, I can and will eventually go back to work, but I’ve been working for twenty years in the same job and I’m damn good at it. The challenge now is to find a way to dovetail those skills into a meaningful (financially lucrative) career or job. And this is definitely not the right time to force my kids into another new adjustment, having me gone all day everyday, to satisfy some status quo of what a divorced mother should be doing with her time.

Yes, I am very fortunate that I was able to negotiate a way to maintain this standard of living for my children, to keep something in their life normal and familiar, I completely admit that. But I am not going to give that up just to satisfy some insensitive idea that I need to prove my worth to the world by working outside of our home. Or that I need to pull my financial weight in this divorced relationship. If being unavailable to them everyday for 8 to 10 hours a day somehow proves my worth, makes me appear more productive and valuable in society, I’d like someone to show me the flowchart on how that makes my children grow up to be happier, more productive and secure adults in the end.

They may be old enough to not really need me, but they do need me. Especially now.

There are probably more than a few that I am forgetting, or have chosen to conveniently erase from my memory for good reason. But the idea is the same, isn’t it? We just need to think before we speak sometimes. Maybe put yourself in that situation – and I know, that will ‘never happen to you’. That’s the comforting mantra that we all repeat in our own head, isn’t it? You know how I know that?

Because that was my mantra for twenty years.

But just for kicks, put yourself in that person’s shoes, at this time in their life. Of course, you don’t know exactly what they’re feeling, or how they’re dealing with it, but you also don’t know what it’s like to die and yet you go to funerals and give heartfelt condolences to the grieving families. You don’t have to know exactly how it feels to be empathetic, you don’t have to have the same experience to understand how devastating this is in any family.

A simple hug, a warm smile, a basic “I’m so sorry to hear that” goes a long way. Sometimes just listening while they are ranting, crying, losing their mind is the best you can do, and that’s enough.

You don’t have to know what to say, sometimes you don’t have to say anything at all.

 

 

 

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Unpacking the boxes

One thing that seems to reappear repeatedly over the last six months, is the idea that once you are divorced, and “enough time has passed” that you should be “over it” and get on with your life. The amount of time is a sliding scale, depending upon who you’re talking to, it can range from six days to six weeks to six months or more. Getting over it can relate to anything from the idea that you still cry sometimes for no reason at all, you still cannot speak his name without feeling sick, or the crazy idea that you haven’t started dating yet. What are you waiting for??

Why are you so stuck? they wonder.

At least that is what the message feels like in most of these instances. People mean well, I’m sure…or at least I hope. That would just be one more insult to this entire injury. They really do want what is best for you, what will make you feel better and make you happy once more. Divorce is often compared to death of a loved one, the grief is almost the same they say, there are stages and no two people experience it the same. The only difference is that the so called loved one is still around, alive and well, just not with you.

But I think it’s more comparable to moving to a foreign country, without knowing the language or the customs, and being expected to jump right in and feel at home almost immediately. And you’re expected to not only understand it all, but accept it as your new normal life without any further expectations or allowances. You can handle it, right?

The only problem with that scenario is that moving to a foreign country is not the seamless experience we’d all like to believe, or hope, it to be. And neither is divorce.

First, when moving to another country there is most likely a language barrier. Before you move, or even accept this journey, you realize that there will be a new language to learn and navigate. Of course, you’re usually assured by many caring souls that “everyone speaks English, you’ll be fine!”

Well, that would be lovely if it were only true.

And I think we can all agree that working with a room full of lawyers, paralegals and other divorce professionals, there will be language that will be more than confusing and anxiety inducing. It’s not your regular run-of-the-mill grocery list or coffee chat, is it?

Then there are the customs. Some countries expect a kiss on the cheek when you greet people, others expect a kiss on both side of your cheeks, some shake hands with their left hand, others with their right. Some bow, or avoid eye contact all together. There are so many possibilities, and so many nuances, to each set of customs that it can all feel overwhelming when you are first learning the ways of the culture.

It doesn’t come easy.

The same can be said for the journey through divorce, really. You go into it thinking you know how it’s going to go, how people are going to behave, believing that you will all be in agreement for the most part, and understanding where everyone is coming from basically. You will work together because you know each other and you think you share the same customs and values. But it’s not that easy, at least not usually. It may begin that way, and last for the first couple of months, but somewhere along the line you realize that you both have entirely different expectations, and the people guiding you have a completely different playbook than either one of you possess.

You all have different cultures with different customs. And you need to agree somehow.

Oh sure, there are those incredibly amicable couples who basically make up their own agreements, sign them, take a selfie with their divorce document and then go have a drink afterward to celebrate…that’s more than moving to a foreign country, more like moving to another planet! But let’s be honest, that’s not the norm by a long shot.

Then the big part comes, the unpacking.

If you’ve ever moved, which I have numerous times including overseas, you remember the never-ending packing and unpacking that goes along with moving.

Packing those boxes is easy enough. You fill each one until it’s full, tape it up, label it and move onto the next one. You carefully place the delicate items together, wrapped in paper and bubble wrap, to protect them. Sometimes you even hire professionals to do the packing, to make certain that it all gets to the next destination intact (this isn’t always a guarantee, of course, as I’ve learned too many times to count!)

But then, once you arrive in your new destination, your new foreign country, you now have the herculean job of unpacking it all and placing it where it “belongs” in  your new home. Sounds easy enough, sure. Just put it…somewhere. Of course you need to make some decisions along the way; which room, what shelf, which cabinet or drawer. It takes organization, and patience.

And time.

Usually, the normal timeline for one of our major moves was about a year to completely unpack and feel “at home” in our new location. It sounds like a long time, doesn’t it?

It’s not. It sometimes flies by, and sometimes drags by, all at the same time.

Because you still need to learn the language and the customs of this new place while you are unpacking. You still have to go on with “normal” life, grocery shopping and taking care of household details, figuring it all out as you stumble along in this new world. Your phrase book clenched tightly in your hand, panic rising in your throat almost daily, hoping to meet someone who understands you.

There is a lot of unpacking to do after a divorce.

Not just the material things from the life you have just untangled, but the memories and the moments you shared. As a couple, as a family, with your friends. They’re in boxes. Not always physical boxes, but boxes in your mind and in your heart. In the dark corners of your memory, too. Some are unlabeled, others are dusty from being ignored for so long.

In the end, you need to unpack and place it all. Sometimes you give some of it away, or pitch it entirely. Other things are too sentimental to get rid of, but too painful to keep. Those things end up in the basement, or crawl space, to be found at a later time by someone else.

After you die, if you’re lucky.

It takes time, sometimes more time than you ever expected. More time than other people expect, most definitely. Sure, some people are great at unpacking and hanging the curtains and artwork within days of moving. They’re hosting luncheons and cookouts within weeks, they’ve painted, decorated, joined clubs and planned the next holiday almost immediately. They’ve made it a “home” without missing a beat, without missing anyone or anything from their previous home. They adapt easily.

Others of us need more time. We unpack carefully, place and buy furniture thoughtfully, to make sure we will like it for a long time. We are not hasty decision makers, we don’t hang just any curtains to cover the windows or buy just any couch to furnish our living room. We take the time to research it, shop for it, compare it, to find the best fit.

We need to be sure. We want it to be right, to be exactly how we want our home to feel.

And just when you think you’ve unpacked it all, the boxes and the wrappings have been removed and everything is in it’s new place; you’ve started to smile and laugh again, you feel lighter and more positive about your future…you stumble upon another box. It was hidden in the back corner, under a rug or a blanket. It’s small, easily overlooked because it’s been buried for so long. You didn’t even think you moved it with you, or remembered that box being there.

You have to open it though, you know you do.

This box is a memory, or a scent, or a photograph that’s fallen out of a book. It’s a number in your telephone that you come across as you scroll through your contacts, it’s a wrong service call to your house instead of your ex’s, it’s a song on the radio, a name on a street sign. It’s simple, unassuming, and yet so complicated and heavy.

For such a small box it carries a lot of weight.

This isn’t the only box you’ve missed or forgotten, there will be more unpacked boxes along the way, boxes that will open whether you choose to or not. Some of these boxes just burst open, completely unexpected and take your breath away. Blur your vision, get caught in your throat, stop you in your tracks.

Pushing you back to the starting line.

Some you just stumble across accidentally, others are opened by family or friends without any realization that the contents could be toxic, unwelcome or even hurtful.

There are so many boxes that you don’t even know exist. Until you do.

So, the next time it is suggested that I should get over it, move on with my life, start dating again to find someone new, or hear suggestions that enough time has passed why am I still so hung up? I will have only one response to offer.

I’m still unpacking the boxes.