"Leave before there is nothing left to leave."
Ask a Divorced Person, Round One
Last month, I asked readers to submit their questions for a panel of divorced people to attempt to answer — and for people willing to answer those questions to tell me what they feel they are particularly equipped to talk about. I was frankly blown away by the number of divorced people eager to share their experiences, which, I think, is a testament to how little we talk publicly and privately about the full experience of divorce, and the idea that getting divorced sucks, but being divorced is a different experience altogether: one that’s complicated, and dynamic, really fucking hard, but also, for a whole lot of people, the beginning of a new era of self-definition.
What you’ll find below is our first attempt at putting together a layered and conversational advice column on divorce. All the questions come from readers, and all the answers do, too — in this case, a “panel” of seven divorced people of different ages and genders and sexual orientations and time married whose experiences equip them to offer some form of advice to the specific questions answered here (you can find their brief bios below). I found their answers quite empathetic and vulnerable — but also moving, and provocative, like describing the contours of a secret that’s only shameful if you let it be.
As I said in the initial post: If you find yourself in a relationship that’s resistant to change, if you’re continuously unhappy, and yet you’re terrified of the prospect of losing the safety net of marriage — here’s a place for you to submit questions anonymously, which will be answered by a panel of divorced people of different ages and lived experiences.
And if yourself want to be part of that panel — here’s where you can volunteer your services (you can be as anonymous as you’d like). We’ll do a second round in the months to come.
We've been having the same fights for years, we have two small children, and we're stressed to the max. I've suggested therapy numerous times with no success. I'm tired. When my husband asked if I cared enough to fight the other day, I couldn't answer him. I don't know if I don't care or if I'm just too tired to care *right now.*
So my question is: How did you know it was time to throw in the towel?
OAW: No one wants to call it quits without a “good” reason (infidelity, other forms of abuse, etc). But severe dysfunction isn’t the only reason to leave. If most of your days don’t provide at least some brightness, there is no time to waste waiting.
The best time to move on is before the children have no positive role models left to help them understand relationships. Leave before there is nothing left to leave. Life is fleeting and you have little human beings who are depending on you to show them the good stuff that is possible when people are supportive and loving. You are signaling this isn’t happening for you despite your efforts and while therapy isn’t the answer for everyone, a blanket refusal to try it is a strong indicator that change is not likely.
The ah ha moment is not often recognized until after you have moved on. Start making your plans.
WH: You have named your threshold in your question. You’ve suggested therapy with no success. Therapy is not a magic cure — it’s a recognition that your current abilities to communicate and work together are tapped out (or close, or in danger, who knows) and it feels valuable to have a third party actively listening and helping sort through the disconnects. If your partner can’t meet you there—can’t meet you in a willingness to try and get closer to the source of the problems y’all are facing — what are you expecting to find if you dig to generate more patience?
Before kids, what were the things that kept you together? Can you still reference and find those connections? If so, does it give you a way to find shared goals or shared desires? You are tired, and that’s unlikely to change quickly, so if there’s no shared context or shared willingness to work with a therapist, it’s unlikely you can conjure a fix. I’d be wary of calling this “throwing in the towel” though, so much of this is giving yourself permission to name things accurately and make the best decision you can with the info you have. If you’re tired and your partner seems to be treating your relationship as a given rather than a shared commitment, you are meeting them where they (potentially subconsciously) are by naming it.
LW: The process of deciding to divorce can be endless, and part of that is because there is no clear way to think about what you want without moving through the shame that comes with ending a marriage. The cultural narrative that a marriage that ends in death is a success and one that ends in divorce is a failure is so strong that it can be really embarrassing to admit that you want out. The only way out of this is through, and it can take a while.
Our minds can get really distracted by this shame, but our bodies don't care what societal norms are keeping us in place. You're tired, and that's fair. But how does your body feel when you think about staying or leaving? I thought I had IBS for three years, but it was just my body screaming at me to leave my marriage. When my ex asked for a divorce on the phone when I was across the country, the knot in my stomach disappeared and never came back.
What do you daydream about? I remember spending a night at a friend's house near the end. She lived alone, and I woke up early in her comfortable bed in a clean, spare room that was all her own, with a pretty floral duvet and a breeze streaming through the open windows, and I wanted that so desperately that I cried. My body knew what to do. My brain was ashamed and afraid and tried to talk me out of it. You don't have to think your way to a good reason to leave — the wanting to leave is enough, when you let yourself feel it.
How hard is it *really* on the kids? Like worse than just watching their parents barely tolerate each other? Or better?
DO: The answer nobody wants to hear is, “it depends,” but that’s the realest answer I have, whether you’re looking at the physical logistics of living between two homes or the emotional fallout. Even if divorce isn’t a “very special episode” topic anymore, it’s naive to expect that the realization that people who claim to love each other can walk away isn’t going to leave a mark on kids. If we move forward with that understanding though, I think we can work to mitigate the damage.
Obviously, I’m not talking about situations of abuse (physical, emotional, etc.), but those situations that seem so common, “we just grew apart;” “Mommy and Daddy love each other very much, but we just can’t live together anymore.” When you’re in a state of mutual loathing, divorce can feel like “taking care of your oxygen needs first,” but to kids, it can feel like someone just yanked off their mask.
The bottom line is that staying in a “bad marriage” can suck and so can divorce. What has helped me — now that my kids are older and we’re 12 years away from the divorce — is allowing them to talk about the ways it hurt them, acknowledge the role I played, reassure them that they’re not doomed to have bad relationships, and make sure they have the support they need to feel capable of healthier relationships. (i.e. therapy).
WH: it definitely depends, but there it is possible to mitigate the worst harms, in my experience. the biggest benefit I think is that an unhealthy marriage has a lot of impact on one's ability to be a present and healthy parent, and changing those circumstances can (but obviously not will) allow you to find more capacity for parenting and loving your children. even if splitting one household into two is a ton of work and confusing for the kids, the long term impact of having healthy parents is more valuable than unhealthy “stability.” that said, every kid is going to be different based on personality and their needs, and as with everything in parenting, so much depends on how things unfold and what safety the kids have in asking questions and expressing emotions.
RW: I think kids are more resilient than we often give them credit for. I know that I was really worried about the impact it would have on my son, but he’s eight now and I don’t think he actually remembers things before. But he knows he has now three (a mom and stepmom and then his dad) who love him.
EGC: I agree with what everyone here has said: it definitely depends on the situation and kids are absolutely more resilient than we give them credit for. When we decided to divorce my kids were almost 8 and 3 and we decided that no matter how we felt about each other, we were going to do everything we could to keep things as normal as possible for the kids. We worked really hard at that and now, three years later, I can say that my kids are completely adjusted to our “new normal” and we have what we like to call a Very Modern Family: 50/50 custody but still do things on the weekends together as a family (soccer games, parties, out to eat, etc), and we even vacation together.
My kids now see 2 parents who love and adore them and who really like and respect each other, which wasn’t quite the case while we were married. I know our situation is rare, but it works for us. I think there is no one way to define what a family looks like and a family doesn’t necessarily all have to live in the same house. So many people look at divorce as an ending: the end of a marriage, of course, but also the end of a family. For me, I look at our divorce as the beginning of building a stronger and more loving family. It’s definitely not easy all the time, but totally worth it.
How do you deal with financial precarity after years of financial and material security? I sacrificed a good chunk of my earning years for this marriage; my husband always told me he’d take care of me (I *did* work, but needed flexible jobs, aka retail, and never had to worry about how to pay bills while I was with him). Because of a pre-nup, I will probably not have access to his assets if we divorce.
But I don’t want to live in a gilded cage any longer.
Another iteration of this question:
I want a divorce. But HOW can I afford one? I’ve been at home with kids for almost 6 years and feel that my earning power is even more diminished than it was as a fledgling marketer years before kids. Debating career change, but is that a terrible idea?? I also live in Southern California and can’t imagine moving, cost of living is exorbitant but I have an extensive support network of friends and a little family that I am loathe to give up.
LW: I was more afraid of the money thing than anything else. My ex made significantly more than me; we owned a home together; I grew up without much money and recognized the ease that two incomes can provide and I was really scared to walk away from that.
Without knowing your exact situation, I will say that, for me, two things proved true: it wasn't nearly as bad as it was in my head (although this is a privilege and not true for everyone), and there is absolutely no price I'd put on freedom.
In the months before we separated our accounts, I did stock up on a few things I was weirdly worried about, including a new winter coat and boots and bras and underwear (that shit is expensive) so don't ignore or feel guilty about the anti-nesting instincts that might take hold as you prepare for a single income! I did spend the first two years post-divorce living in a very run down apartment with two much younger roommates with water pressure so bad that I’d go to the gym just to shower, but it was $500 a month and I’ve never been so free in my life. All I owned fit into my sunny little bedroom, my roommates watched my cat so I could say yes to every travel opportunity, both work and personal, and I had a soft place to land and funny stories to tell later. The things that feel like regressing are really just the pressures of capitalism and “society” and you’ll find that you give fewer and fewer fucks the further you move away from the decision to leave.
OAW: Some years ago, at age 28, I started college. I really wanted to go to medical school but believed that I was too old for that to be a reality. I was married and had a five year old and we were supporting two families and struggling. I went to a college counselor who helped me look up stats (in a large book) that showed that in 1982 women my age were getting into medical school and based on my GPA and life skills it was definitely worth going for it. It really is never too late to begin again. Your career, job, and earning potential aren’t fixed by your age or the fact that you have little people to provide for. Don’t be stuck because you can’t imagine a new and better life. Get concrete information so you know your options. There are lots of resources out there to help you see the path forward.
This vein is for anyone (is there anyone?) who got divorced after discovering later in life, in the throes of an otherwise happy, mid-length marriage filled with equitable coparenting of still-small people and a satisfying sex life, that they were queer: how did you make the choice to give up one happiness for another, or one love for another? Were you able to do so without bitterness or spite entering the picture? Did you hang in there an NOT get divorced while experimenting with ENM [ethical non-monogamy] or anything first? Please help, lol.
WH: My ex-partner was in this position (she realized she was queer). i will not speak to her experience, but I will say this is not at all uncommon, I’ve met so many people who were in similar situations. if the marriage is truly equitable, your partner will hopefully be happy for you to have a better understanding of yourself, but will definitely need time to process and ask questions.
LW: There are so many anyones! You're in good company. I (a cis woman) realized not long after I met my ex (a cis straight man) that I was bi. We were together for 12 years total, and while my queerness was not why we got divorced, being both free and fully myself was the most fulfilling and joyful part of the aftermath for me. You are happy in your marriage; I was not. You have kids; I did/do not. So I can't answer your question from my own experience. But I can ask you whether you are seeking a new relationship (or a chance to explore sex and realtionships that you didn't before) or whether you are seeking how to be most yourself in the world.
Queerness, as you know, is not dependent on your current partner. Can you express that now? Can you be out in all the spaces where you currently exist? Can you embrace the parts of yourself that you're discovering and learning about, and can you keep doing that as you grow older and become more and more your truest self? Divorce was a catalyst for that process for me, but a new job similarly provided a way to be out in a space where nobody had known me before — who I wanted to be was just who they thought I always was.
You can be queer and stay in your marriage as is or you can be queer in an ENM relationship or you can be queer and be divorced and single and thriving or you can be queer and find a love beyond anything you thought existed with a new partner. Where and how can you grow and thrive as the truest and best version of yourself? That question, by the way, extends to all the things that make you YOU. Are you more outspoken than you were when you met your current partner? Have your values shifted or solidified? Do you now love the parts of yourself that the world has told you to hate since you were small? If you’re trying to spread your wings, does your marriage make you feel cramped or does it give you infinite space to grow into the person you were meant to be? And if it doesn’t give you space, is your partner open to fixing that, or do you have to leave to fly?
RW: I was married to a man for 9 years and thought I was probably bi (but never really talked about it). The more I thought and thought it moved from a “I think that I would like to understand this part of me” to “I KNOW something is there and I need to go after it.” I now identify as a lesbian (and am married to a woman!) and I know it’s much easier to say that you should lean into that feeling than to do it. I thought about non-monogamy as well but I knew in my heart that was a short term fix that would probably lead to a lot of hurt and actually drawing out what I knew deep down: that I shouldn’t continue to be in a straight relationship.
For me also (which may not be the case for you!) I realized that I was saying I was happy, but what I really meant was that I was not miserable. I am an entirely different person now! When I first got together with my now-wife I told her I wasn’t that cuddly or into holding hands. I was wrong! It turns out I’m just…gay. Exploring and finding your true and whole self might be a light that helps you cast on things to see a little more clearly, just in a weird way.
I am at the stage where I am tearing down the family home, waiting to move to a smaller house. Our pictures are off the walls, our curtains are down, my youngest daughter & I are sharing a mattress on the floor. The house feels big and echo-y and not at all like it used to. The move date keeps slipping whilst more furniture is sold or taken and the house becomes even more foreign. I feel like it is symbolic of the death that needs to take place (of the relationship, of the 'shape' of our old family unit, of my hopes for the future, of the societal expectation of us) before we can re-build, and I am very much living it with my two daughters. I can't shield them from this, and I try not to shield them from anything. In fact, I find it makes it worse for them — that disconnect between what they feel & know is true, to what their parent say — so I just pull them closer and tell them what I know: that this IS okay, that this is just stuff and shapes and expectations, and that we still have love and safety and family.
I think I'd love to hear about people's experiences of co-parenting and single parenting. I find this exhausting and I'd like to know, when did they start to feel happy again?
What did the re-building look like for you?
How long did the dismantling last?
When can I expect to be done with this grief?
JAGD: I re-read Marge Piercy’s “To Have Without Holding” over and over and over again. I have to remind myself that I am learning to love differently every day, that there was no specific date on which the unraveling began and that there will not be an end date at which the unraveling is finished. On the more practical side, if you’ve read Alison Gopnik’s The Gardener and the Carpenter (on parenting approaches) it really helped me when I realized that I was being a gardener when I parented but was a total carpenter as I tried to help myself recover/move on. Once I saw that project as gardening, it felt easier. I literally use these words with my kids to remind us all that we are growing our lives every day.
DO: I don’t think there’s an exact timetable for grief, but I promise you, there will be a day when you will stop and realize that the pain that was acute and ever-present is gone. And before that happens, you get glimmers. For me it was when the kids and I started building our own traditions, especially around holidays, and really choosing to do things based on what we wanted, not burdened by expectations around what we “should” do.
I was a SAHM, so honestly, single parenting wasn’t really much more tiring than solo parenting, because my ex kind of checked out even when he was home. I was used to handling all kid and household things myself. What I missed most after my divorce was having someone around who didn’t get anxious and freaked out when appliances stopped working, or who knew how to turn off the breakers in the basement. And, yes, I did eventually learn to deal with all that on my own, but tbh, I still hate it.
The dismantling was brutal, so much so that I ran right into a terrible relationship with an old college friend who I knew had a drinking problem. I was worried that I couldn’t make it financially on my own, trying to get my freelance writing career back up and running, and I glommed onto the idea that at least he could pay half the mortgage. PLEASE….learn from my mistake. You CAN do this. I often think of the line in Kung Fu Panda, which I’m sure is culturally appropriated from somewhere else, but it has always rung true to me: “You will meet your destiny on the path you take to avoid it.”
I was terrified of abandonment. Terrified of being alone. I knew I was a good mother, but somehow over 12 years of marriage, I forgot that I used to always rely on myself to get shit done. I would say it took about three years for me to get my feet back under me financially, to where I wasn’t panicky. And then maybe another two to where I felt secure-ish. But it did happen.
I don’t know what your custody situation is like, but I lucked into a very 1960s arrangement where my kids were with me all the time except for every other weekend and Wednesday dinners. (I say luck, but it really boiled down to agreeing to less child support and no alimony.) The first weekends without my children were agony, but within about six months I tried to see the child-free time as a chance to recharge so I could be a better parent when they were with me.
WH: Rebuilding for me was the slow and ongoing realization that I could prioritize myself — and that when I did, I had more energy for my kids and more capacity to be present when I had them. One specific memory is a Saturday when I was alone in my new place and realized I was free to spend an entire day in bed reading, if I wanted to. My grief was lessened every time I saw how the things that brought me the most joy and sustenance were things I had long not had space for — or “permission” for — in my marriage. Divorce was not easy; the two years after my separation were extremely difficult. But it was punctuated by moments where the freedom and the joy was immense in a way I had not experienced for years, and I was able to work to center that more in my life.
RW: I think the rebuilding is really an ongoing process. I knew that I made the right decision but still struggled a lot with just feeling like divorce was embarrassing or that I would mess my kid up forever. But the rebuilding really is beautiful. We have a lot of expectations about a fairy tale or the way marriage and adult life is supposed to go, but letting go of that is really freeing. I also went from absolutely dreading the time my son was with his other parent to realizing I could enjoy me-time and not feel any mom guilt! I actually think getting divorced and moving to shared custody really helped me find my balance as a mom and a person. I hate to admit that because it might sound bad, but it’s the truth.
EGC: The rebuilding was, and continues to be, a super scary process, but as with anything, it gets easier and easier with time. At first I was really spiraling, especially the weekends I didn’t have the kids, because for the first time in a really long time I had to figure out who I was: I wasn’t a wife anymore, and I wasn’t at work on the weekends, and I didn’t have my kids….so I wasn’t actively being a mom—but with time, I am starting to figure it out. I was 38 when I got divorced and now I am 41 and I am truly embracing this new chapter.
LW: Thank you so much for sharing the story of breaking down your family home. My ex lived in our house for ten months following our divorce, while we waited for a good market to list it, and when he finally moved all his things and we hugged goodbye and I watched the giant moving truck pull away, I went back inside and started cleaning. I started in the very top corner and cleaned every surface until I reached the front door, and all I could think was, "I am washing the body after death." The house-as-metaphor is so real, and your kids are lucky that you're walking through it with them.
The grief is also so real. The unmoored feeling is so strong. It took me a full year to move from loneliness to aloneness, and being lonely is hard. If you're contemplating divorce, you already know it's going to be difficult, so I think what I want to say here is how much joy and growth and fun can be intertwined with the grief.
Divorce, like any major loss, strips you down to your essence. And a bad marriage (or even a mediocre one, or one that we've simply outgrown) can make you smooth over that essence or tamp it down, and breaking away means you get to be any and everything you want to be. Cut your hair. Paint your bedroom pink, even the ceiling, Say yes to every single invitation you receive. Say no to everything and be alone as much as you want. Eat only turkey sandwiches for dinner for six months straight. Date as much or as little as you want. Have sex with near strangers and rediscover what you like and don't like. Lean on your friends and family and let them care for you. Get a dog, or make your ex keep the dog and get a cat. Do whatever you want to do for the holidays.
It's not that I wasn't crying on the floor during this time — I was. But it was also really fucking fun. Feel all the joy you want to feel at making a hard decision that you know in your bones is right, and look forward to thriving once the dust settles. Divorce can bring up a lot of shame, but once you work through that and start to realize you’re not going to be ashamed of anything like this again, you’re pretty unstoppable.
OAW (aka older and wiser) is a 5 times married, 4.5 times divorced woman who has been single, married young and poor, single parent young and poor, married with stepchildren, married after kids fledged and now launching a late life single life.
WH a white dude who married early (23, wife was 21) due to religion. We separated in 2016 (eight years into the marriage) after I had burned out due to overwork and she (separately) realized she was queer. We had two young kids at the time and have tried our best to amicably coparent since. Divorce is the thing that allowed me to take care of myself and become a much better parent for my kids.
DO is a straight white latinx woman living in the northeast who’s now been divorced for as long as she was married — 12 years. She’s living proof that you can not only survive a divorce you never wanted, but find a way back to a warm, caring co-parenting relationship with your ex — and his 2nd ex-wife and his current girlfriend.
LW, a cis white bisexual childfree 42 year old woman in the northeast, went through an amicable divorce six years ago and wants you to know how much goodness there is on the other side.
RW is a queer woman in Texas who was married to man and had the whole thing - the kid, the house, the high paying job. I got divorced and came out at the same time, and switched careers to work in public service. I’m now happily married to my amazing wife and am so glad I’ve been able to create a life that makes me genuinely happy.
JAGD survived an extremely high conflict divorce; two kids; the oldest parent in the room; trying to rise from the ashes.
EGC is a straight white woman in her early 40’s with two kids who is proof that it is possible to have a good divorce and a healthy, friendly, thriving co-parenting relationship.
Have additional advice for any of the question-askers above? Please share in the comments below — but also try and model the same sort of non-assholeishness and generosity of the advice-givers above.