As I so rarely do, I walked into therapy yesterday with a plan: I wanted to talk about that divorcing couple I know, and how their experience is forcing me to think about my own.
“It’s almost like I feel I’m not worthy of supporting this girl,” I told my therapist. “Even though my heart is telling me to take her side and that he’s an asshole, I look at that as me calling the kettle… You know, pot-kettle-black.”*
“So you feel unworthy of listening to what your heart is telling you to do?”
“Yyyyyes? I feel like I have no right to get mad at him for cheating, because I cheated. I have no right to get mad at him for lying, because I lied.”
And then, somehow, I ended up confessing all the horrible things I’d done in the weeks leading up to my own divorce.
“I want to make it very clear,” I told her – twice, “that there has not been a single day wherein I’ve wished I was still with my ex. But I am ashamed of how I did it. It almost seems like it would have been easier, emotionally, to stay in the marriage for a while, maybe even have a couple kids, then both realize we were unhappy and divorce mutually.”
“And you feel like it would have taken time to get to that point? Like you couldn’t have just told him you were unhappy back then and split on better terms, even if you hadn’t met Doug?”
“I don’t think I knew I was unhappy back then,” I began. “Or… I don’t think I had the guts to make that call.”
Doug was the catalyst – before we were even sleeping together. I met him, and I realized that while I could be content with my husband, I could actually be happy somewhere else.
When I was with my ex, I was saying things to my friends like, “The best part of my life is over” – and here I’m, what, 24?
My therapist’s eyes widened as I put this all into perspective for her.
Or, when I got back from my honeymoon, I told my friend Beth that I was glad it was over, because now I wouldn’t be expected to have sex every night. And this newlywed phase is supposed to be the best part of my marriage, right? I think I just didn’t realize that it could be any other way.
My ex was the opposite of every other serious relationship I’d ever been in. I met Doug, and it was like waking up and realizing I’d been betraying myself; hanging around with him was like coming home. He was funny, we could joke around; my ex was so sensitive. And once I saw that – once I had something to focus on, like, “If I get out of this, I can have that,” my integrity pretty much flew out the window.
It wasn’t that I was actively cheating on my husband. Instead, I pushed him away and made his life hell, hoping he’d be the one to make the call. I would go out drinking after work, and come home only after I knew he’d already left in the morning. Or when he was working graveyards, I’d have friends over, then make sure they left and I was in bed before he got home. And then when we were in the same room together, we’d just fight – horrible screaming matches, with really low blows coming from both sides. And I kept this up until I finally got him to see that I had no interest in staying in the relationship, so he ended it.
“Because if you had just been the one to end it, what would that have meant?”
“It wouldn’t have met anything. But I’d tried to end it once before, about six months before we got married, when one night I realized I couldn’t spend the rest of my life dealing with his jealousy and his moodiness. And he’d cried and promised to change, so I took it all back.”
“So you had already tried to do what your heart was telling you to do, and it hadn’t worked.”
“Right. So this time, I think I thought if I just tried to break up with him, he wouldn’t have believed me…”
“And it sounds like he wouldn’t have,” my therapist reassured me.
“So I didn’t bother. Even with all of that horrible fighting and rebelliousness, it took a good two months to get him to make the call. And at the time, I didn’t even care what I was doing.”
“You just put your head down and barreled through, doing whatever it took to get to the other side.”
“Exactly. And it was only afterwards, looking around at the wreckage, and feeling so ashamed to even talk to my family or my friends, that I realized how horrible I’d been.”
“So is it possible,” she asked, “that you can acknowledge that you did those horrible things – because at the time, it was the only way you knew of to do what you needed to do – and also believe that you’re a good, honest person?”
I was surprised and delighted when I heard myself tell her that yes, it is possible. In fact, I realized, I believe all of that already.
*In college, when I was sort of dating this guy who was still sort of trying to work things out with his ex-fiancée, he told me about an argument where she came back at some accusation of his by simply saying, “Pot. Kettle. Black.” To this day, I can’t actually formulate the whole saying, because her ingenious cliffs-notes version is so burned into my brain.