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What I Learned When I Left My Marriage: A Personal Essay

Sitting in my office one early February morning in 2017, eyes puffy from crying, it finally dawned on me that I had no choice but to leave my marriage. Six days later, I was loading my things into a moving truck bound for my new one-bedroom apartment.

Those six days were the easy part. It would take 17 months for my divorce to be settled, and during that time I learned a lot. In this piece I’d like to share some of those experiences in hopes that I can help you avoid some of my mistakes and make your divorce process as smooth as possible.

Divorce Requires Patience

At the outset, I naïvely hoped that we could divide our estate amicably and move forward in a positive direction fairly quickly. That was not to be. There are certainly cases that have dragged on much longer than mine did, but at the time it felt like an eternity — and I had very little patience with this fact. As any good Family Law Attorney will tell you, no matter how long it takes to settle your case, it will always feel like too long.

If you are at the beginning of (or even well into) your own case, realize now that it will take longer than you want. Accepting this fact early will help you be more at peace with the process itself.

Divorce Is Expensive

Along with hoping for a quick resolution, I had also hoped for a relatively inexpensive case. After all, there was so little to fight about. What I didn’t anticipate was that the person on the other side of the case might feel there was plenty to fight about (and act accordingly).

Looking back, I could have done a better job of controlling costs on my end by not pushing so hard for a quick resolution, and not responding to every perceived provocation. Had I sat back and allowed things to play out, I would have saved myself much heartache (and more than a few dollars) along the way.

You Can’t Control the Process

When I decided to leave, I didn’t have to ask anyone for their blessing or get them to cooperate. Leaving was the easy part. My attorney often reminded me that divorce moves at the speed of the slowest party. And if that party wants to, they can force a case to move at a glacial pace. Part of this is built into the system to protect a more dis-empowered party from being railroaded into a poor settlement agreement.

...divorce moves at the speed of the slowest party

But beyond my soon-to-be-ex-husband’s delay tactics, I also couldn’t control his attorney or the courts. In fact, at times it felt like everyone else was in control of my case except me! From a distance, I can see now that there were plenty of things I could control – most importantly of all, my reactions to the situations at hand.

There Will Be Many Decisions; It Will Be Exhausting

Upending my life meant making dozens of decisions on a very short timeline. In the space of six days, I drafted a household budget, shopped for and leased an apartment, shopped for and hired a moving company, shopped for and hired an attorney, decided which possessions to take (and which to leave), and determined how to break the news that I was leaving to my then-husband. In the weeks that followed, I shopped for and bought furniture, determined who to tell about the divorce (and who to keep in the dark), decided how to handle communicating with my soon-to-be-ex-husband, and hired a therapist.

The decisions didn’t stop there. Some were important — how do I break the news to my family, colleagues, and clients? — and some were trivial — what will I fix myself for dinner? But I had to decide them all. I might have had an easier time if I’d relied more on the people in my life who were there to help me through. 

The Final Settlement Will Be Disappointing

Being a planner by nature and profession, I went into mediation with a carefully crafted offer and a variety of potential scenarios. My spreadsheets were beautiful; I knew what I was willing and not willing to give. I had even devised a method to assess how favorable or unfavorable any given offer was relative to my opening offer.

You just can't anticipate everthing.

An hour into our session, all of my planning and scenario-testing was more or less useless. You just can’t anticipate everything. What I walked away with was fair and equitable, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I was disappointed, and it took me a while to make peace with the settlement I’d accepted. In negotiation, you know you’ve gotten a “fair” deal if all parties feel they gave a tad too much and got too little in return. 

Divorce Is Painful (For a Long Time)

Even though I had the advantage of being the one who left, it still hurt – a lot, and for much longer than I thought it would. It is true that time heals all wounds, but I wasn’t willing to sit around and wait to feel better.

Working with a good therapist and really putting in effort during each of my therapy sessions helped speed my healing. Following the advice to “never get too tired, too hungry, or too lonely” also helped keep my spirits up. Making sure that I had positive things happening in my life like time with friends, time spent with family, time spent on meaningful hobbies, and effort in developing my career were also important. Finally, opening my eyes and seeing that other people had experienced the same type of pain helped me feel less alone. It happened slowly, but the sometimes agonizing pain I felt largely dissipated.

It Was Worth It

Moving through a painful experience like divorce (which is like every breakup you’ve ever had, but on steroids) can make it hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But rest assured that there is a light.

Speaking from a safe distance, I can say that leaving was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. And going through the process, while awful, was ultimately worth it. But it was only worth it because I made an effort to move forward in a positive manner. I focused on my work and found meaning there. I came back to old pursuits with new passion, and I found new pursuits as well. I cultivated closer family ties and strengthened old friendships – I worked on becoming a happier, healthier person. I’m a better version of myself than I was in February of 2017, and the lessons I learned along the way will serve me well in my journey ahead.

Divorce is hard. I can help.

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