I sit to write about divorce and feel the twist of it in my belly, the prolonged smoldering. For after two and a half years of fighting to get back my marriage—like I’ve fought for nothing else in my life, I acknowledge it was never mine to keep. On the nearly deafening day two and a half years ago when my husband left, entrapped as he was in past baggage that entraps him to this day, the marriage was gone. The details of the situation matter little in this essay, because the majority of us already know how it feels to be in an intimately close love relationship—with spouse, child, parent—that is beyond our ability to mend or transform. For a million different reasons, this is so. Most of us are sufficiently familiar with the rending that we fill in the experience reflexively, almost archetypally: the random public tears, the times we put down a story or turn off a film because it cracks us open again, the thoughts that set our heart racing the moment we wake, the sinking feeling sparked by old memories we once cherished as good. Etcetera and etcetera. Love goes on. But the relationship is lost, at least any form of it we recognize.
As I sat at the banker’s desk notarizing a document I needed for the divorce process, I smiled and engaged with her chatter about the weather, sunlight warming the window next to her desk. Inside, I struggled to steady my churning stomach and keep back tears. How can it be, so many months later, that it hurts like this? How can it be that the gains my husband and I made in these many months haven’t ended the stalemate? Futility and frustration are bed mates who squirm and kick and steal our covers, and eventually we must move beds to get a little sleep.
My nature as a thinker and theologian is to plumb for meaning and truth, and the effluence these years has proved a gusher: Old Faithful in my soul. I try to parse out meanings in this newest stage in what has been a marathon of moving on, letting be. A stage that lands each step with awkward, heavy finality: divorce. What does it mean to concede a fight that probably turned long ago, and not in my favor?
I have embraced reminders from wise friends to value my relationship with myself. This has been the most important guidance. Our relationship with self is our first human relationship and our last, and we must take care of ourselves in ways no one else will, because no one else can. We are the stewards of our own emotional and psychological landscapes, our physical health. So after months-long efforts of compassion and openness toward my husband, it is now, as my friend Kimberly said, “time to offer the hurt parts of [my]self the same compassion.”
One of our core human struggles, it seems to me, is in knowing when mercy, forgiveness and love for another starts to bleed over into self-destructiveness and codependency; and on the other hand, where healthy self-love starts to bleed over into arrogance, egotism, and a reactive self-protection. As intimacy deepens, I believe each of us struggles on this continuum. At least everyone I’ve met. No matter how many memes we read proclaiming “true love doesn’t hurt,” we wrestle with the pain of love as intimacy deepens. Whether it is love of a partner, a child, or a close friend or family member, love often hurts. It demands emotional and psychological exertion like nothing else. It exposes to us aspects of ourselves that are painful to see. It shines a light on our desire to control, when in the end, the will of another person is eternally beyond our sphere of influence. It challenges us to confront our illusions about the beloved as we sift out person from persona, and this is always hard work in intimate relationships. No, choosing to love other people in non-selfish and non-manipulative ways, pains us at times—because heart exercise, just like body exercise, can hurt.
The balancing act of other- vs. self-love will be our work until we reach enlightenment. In the meantime, human love abrades us, refines us, and becomes one of those tight little birth canals from which we emerge into fuller humanity. I have yet to meet a walking human perfection-of-love who loves in ways that never hurt. My world is peopled by run-of-the-mill human forms of God-emanation who suffer the growing pains, the stretching along continuums of love and growth—the kind who get anxious, moody, incontinent, sleepy, disappointed, angry, gassy, depressed, confused, dehydrated. The plain old bipedal messes and miracles that we are. And our valiant efforts to deepen love despite the struggle that it is makes us all the more miraculous.
I am a better person for having loved my husband; a wiser, more compassionate, and far more patient person. And he is a better person for having loved me. Might this make our relationship not a “failed marriage,” but a successful one? Only, of course, if we redefine success along perimeters of mutual personal growth and progress toward transformation. I am in the process of scrubbing out and rewriting the definition in my own cerebral dictionary.
People from unhealthy religious traditions or long-held family traditions that shame divorce have a tougher time of it, no question. When I was younger and ending an abusive marriage amidst my own unformed religious worldview, the shaming was crippling. By now, I have worked past that particular barrier. I know that people graced with marriages where both partners want to stay, are truly fortunate. That is not to say they don’t toil at it or sacrifice, just as one can’t say divorces are always the result of laziness. Many of us toil, but only some of us grow old together. The most important word is “mercy” and allowing each relationship to be unique without comparing. At times I have heard married folks who stayed together dismissing divorced people as if they are somehow marginal, or at best lacking stick-to-it-ness. To these, I say: Can we not just count our blessings and practice mercy? Mercy for those whose marriages endure, and mercy for those whose marriages don’t. Just mercy. There is no certainty what we would do if placed in another person’s shoes.
This includes practicing mercy for ourselves. There have been many pieces to the puzzle of putting myself back together after the sudden and unexpected rending of early 2015. Each day, a few more pieces fall into place. I am surrounded by a strong current of friendship that carries me toward healing. Contemplative practice reminds me daily of who I am at my core, and it is so much more than this tabulation of experiences—losses and gains, betrayals and friendships, marriages and divorces—that will end with my last drawn breath. The years of my life in this body will end—every spoken or written word, every action of my limbs, dishes washed and plants watered, every funny or deep thought. But my True Self, the self emanating from the eternal force of Love that births and sustain all things, will go on; the self that is united with the True Self at the core of every other creature. Only in so far as my experiences deepen my awareness of this essence and my unity with God and other creatures do they matter. To that end, all experiences consciously lived, are gain. Even marriages that end in divorce. I have been reminded through my marriage that now ends, that the force of Love in me is strong enough to forgive devastating actions, to allow and even nourish the slow arc of transformation in another, and to root for the completion of my husband’s transformation process more ardently than any other living soul. Therefore, in the course of this experience called marriage, an experience of my very physical person, I have connected with my True Self, my eternal self. Without the visceral experience of the limited human relationship with my husband, I would not have seen it so clearly. Could this be the genius of Incarnation?