A few weeks ago in one of my classes, two women happened to write about ex-husbands. The prompt had nothing to do with spouses, though it did ask about people’s relationships to love. What is auspicious and amazing is that, out of 28 students in all my classes, only these two wrote about ex-spouses.
What’s also amazing is the difference.
One person, student #1, wrote about her ex-husband, from whom she split only a few years ago. The other, student #2, about her ex-husband from over twenty years ago. With their permission, I am sharing part of their writings, to really show what a difference time makes.
These are very different women with very different former marriages; I don’t mean to imply they are the same. Yet something about the two of these side-by-side really spoke to me. It’s hard to know when we’ve had enough time to have perspective on difficult things in our life – even if it hasn’t been enough to find equanimity, we should still write about it. But it is also hard to keep a feeling of connection, even if we have found some balance. With distance, we can neuter our story, make it seem benign; if we are too close, it can feel very strong and we are unable to get out. Both of them have found middle ground between proximity and distance, with time, of course, but also a lot of work and reflection and compassion for themselves and their former spouses.
What I love about the writing from student #1 is how much she has gone back to own her own past and patterns. This is a powerful exploration of how we got into situations like the one she was in, without blaming herself. She's still struggling, mind you, but she's opening to herself a lot.
I'll let student #1 tell you:
...this pattern (from childhood) continued. Seek out friends and lovers who were mostly unavailable, hard to please and hard to gain approval from. And when I did get approval, I would finally feel worthy.
I sought these people out. Friends who were cynical. Friends who weren't such great friends. I wouldn't choose the lover who was walking towards me, arms open, eyes on me, smiling and saying my name. I chose to partner with the one who looked at me once, looked away and then glanced back, "who are you again?"
...And now I am sensing a shift. It feels like hate. But I would declare that I have never hated! And hate is less evolved that the direction that I am heading. I practice lovingkindness daily! And yet, as a drive along alone in my minivan, I whisper these words aloud to him, "You have taught me how to hate." "I now hate you."
Student #2 wrote about her ex from decades ago, whom she is now able to have interactions with amicably. One of the things I love that she is able to say is this – “The point is, even in the hardest moments we knew we loved each other and often that didn’t make it easier (my emphasis).”
For some reason I am thinking of my first husband and how beautiful his skin was, browned by the sun, his Italian genes expressing themselves olive. We were such good friends, such supports for each other, but we built ourselves a box that felt too comfortable and I had to climb out of it. That was such a painful time. But that is not the point today. The point is, even in the hardest moments we knew we loved each other and often that didn’t make it easier.
...I don’t want to think of loving as hard, but it certainly isn’t the easy float down the river often portrayed in our culture. And not just romantic love, all loving.
…We hurt each other and we disappointed each other and ourselves. And yet we always—what? Cared for? Respected? Well, loved each other although it didn’t always look loving.
If I were to intellectualize this, I would say that now that I have taken hold of the littlest and most hurt places of myself and secured her with me, I will no longer abide by internalizing my anger. This must be what externalizing anger feels like. It is completely new to me.
Another shift, at a school function on Monday night, as I listened to the other parents speak and as I looked around the room at their demeanor and faces, I felt a gravity shift from those abandoners to the ones who walk right towards. To the ones who thanked the teachers. You were not among this group, your silence, your jaw clenched, your judgment and reticence. I no longer find that behavior compelling. I am no longer am drawn towards that.
And what if you don't write memoir? Then you have still helped yourself heal, especially your relationship to yourself, which is key above all, ex-spouses aside.