Only you can ignite forest fires.

04/11/2011

Today is an anniversary of sorts. This day a year ago marked the official beginning to the end of my marriage. I have not talked about it with many people, at least not in this amount of detail, but I felt it was an appropriate topic to reflect on a year later. Though I want this blog focused on positive things, Thousands of Days is about a personal renewal, and this is the biggest landmark in that process for me so far.

I married very young, at 21, to the third girl I had dated seriously. I met her my first day of college; she was an RA in my dorm, and she was in her pajamas making rounds. I was enamored almost immediately, though we didn’t start dating until a year later. We got married right after my Junior year, and right after her masters graduation.

My wife and I set a habit of making Friday ‘date night’ very early on in our marriage to make sure that we always had at least one night a week together, alone. We rarely broke the habit, and this week was no different (though we bumped to to Saturday). We went to a movie (“Date Night” appropriately enough) and then hung out at a local coffee shop. We were a month from our 8 year anniversary, but all was not well. We had had difficulties from our very first year of marriage, but had both been very committed to making it work. For years though I had felt that all we shared was a bedroom and the bills. After the movie, while chatting at the coffee shop, we abruptly reached the tipping point.

We had never openly discussed divorce. The possibility had been raised in a few couples counseling sessions we had, but quickly dismissed as an option. I had faced the possibility privately every now and then over the past several years, and my wife had commented a couple of times that she was sometimes surprised I hadn’t left. But it was taboo. We were doing what we needed to make it work, we weren’t fighting, we weren’t completely miserable, and didn’t hate each other. To those around us, everything seemed fine.

My wife was now 32, and we had been talking for the last year or so about starting a family. I wasn’t particularly opposed to the idea, but wasn’t really rallying for it either. The issue had forced me to reevaluate our life, however. What would change with children? How would that work? To me it required a renewed commitment to my wife, in a marriage that was struggling. It was one thing to soldier on when it was just the two of us, but another thing to bring other lives into the mix.

Over the same period the doubts I had about my Christian faith were reaching a tipping point as well. I had always taken some solace in Tennyson’s words, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” But I was no longer interested in attending church, singing the songs, listening to the sermons, praying, and pretending that I believed it all. Several months prior I stopped attending church completely, while my wife went without me.

So in our conversation that night, I was thinking about how this dynamic would play if we had children. My wife was questioning me about the finality of my decision to leave the church, and I replied that I felt I owed her full disclosure on the fact that I didn’t buy it anymore, and was not interested in playing the part. I skipped a few steps in the conversation and jumped straight to inevitable question.

“So how is that going to work with children? Mommy takes them to church while dad stays home? Mom tells them Jesus loves them, and dad reads existential bed time stories?”

I don’t think she had thought that far ahead yet. She was fighting back tears. I think we both knew where this was going to end, but it was difficult to admit. Combined with the struggles we already had, this seemed to be the final sign that it wasn’t going to work, and for the first time we breached the possibility of divorce. We left an hour later, both in tears, and agreed to sleep on it.

When we got home she asked me if I still wanted her to sleep in our bed. I did. That night I held her for what would be the last time. “I still like you” I said, trying to provide some comfort. It wasn’t what she wanted to hear, but it was the best I could offer.

I was awake much earlier than usual the next morning, and while my wife continued to sleep, or at least pretend to sleep, I sat in a chair in the living room, staring into space for hours, my mind racing with what I knew was coming next, which I had so desperately tried to avoid. Ever since I was a kid I had admired my parents for the commitment they had made and kept with each other, and I was determined to do the same. I never imagined I would ever be one of those divorced guys who couldn’t hack it when things got tough. I was better than that, damn it. But it didn’t make sense to continue. We were getting older every day, and we were at an impasse.

When my wife finally came out of the bedroom she sat in a chair opposite me in a ball. “Have you been up thinking about things?”

I nodded. She nervously continued, “do you want to tell me what you’re thinking?”

I began to weep. “No,” I choked.

She knew what the conclusion was. Soon after she grabbed her laptop, opened excel, and through tears started asking me for figures to build a budget for herself.

“How much is my paycheck? How much is my car payment? How much is the insurance? How much is my iPhone by itself?”

I didn’t tell her that I had already built a spreadsheet of everything to make sure she would be able to live on her modest salary earlier that morning. I would have to let her learn to do things on her own from now on. That was actually one of the hardest parts of the whole process – holding myself back from helping, and letting her find her own way.

So just like that, it was over. No yelling, no ultimatums, no bargaining, and nothing was thrown. I filed for divorce a few days later.

Less than a week after the fallout, and before my wife moved out, my nine temperament had re-leveled back to positive. This was actually problematic, since my wife was still in the house (though sleeping in an upstairs bedroom). She was not so quick to recover, and I found myself feigning depression when she was around. I described it to some friends at the time as ‘trying not to enjoy my divorce.’ I simply couldn’t add insult to injury by smiling in her presence. It sounds cold, but it was like a big weight had been lifted from me, and I knew it was the right decision and believed we would both be happier for it.

We had several conversations about it after the initial shock wore off. We were both broken, and my wife pleaded with me to reconsider. But I was confident in the decision. We both wanted families, but we were no longer right for each other, and I reasoned that there was no point in continuing to waste days with the wrong person. If we were going to have families, we needed to have them with other people while we still had time to start over. It was and is my sincere hope that she finds someone new, someone she can be happy with and have the family she wants so badly.

It’s important for me to see the positive in everything, so I don’t want this to be a tale with a sad ending. It was difficult to see very far ahead during the divorce process, but a year later I liken it to a forest fire. It was devastating at the time, but it also cleared away a lot of old wood and allowed the sun to reach the soil so that new things could grow. I would never celebrate a divorce, I still see marriage as a very right and good institution which I will likely rejoin at some point. Sometimes, however, the only way to save a dying forest is to burn it down and start again a little bit wiser.

photo credit: takaway