Our next door neighbors recently signed divorce papers.
In the ways that divorce can be awful, it has been. The husband has been angry, betrayed, wanting retribution. The wife has been sad, confused, feeling defensive.
Lately, the nine-year-old son amuses himself by putting his Lego creations in the middle of the street and watching cars run them over. When her dad starts yelling, the seven-year-old daughter buries her head under a couch pillow and sobs.
Although the marriage lasted fourteen years, its death commenced shortly after the first child was born, when the new dad experienced, for the first time, how stressful life with kids is. Rather than forcing himself to step up, he chose to absent himself, even when physically present, rendering his wife, in essence, a single parent, albeit it one with the added level of resentment that comes from having the children’s father sitting out back on the steps, strumming his guitar, while she wrestled two toddlers to bed each night.
Of course, relationships go both ways, and the dad’s story would include chapters of resenting a wife who gives everything to the kids and nothing to him, of supporting a wife who opts to stop working and expects him to pull all the financial weight, of a wife who changes her mind midstream. He feels used.
This divorce does not hinge upon blame, though. More, it pivots on a glacial growing apart, of getting married in their twenties and realizing, in their thirties, that they have trouble liking each other, that their views of the world have diverged radically, that he wants to go to Rush concerts while she wants to design little girls’ bedrooms in Shabby Chic. As is the case in many divorces, their break-up isn’t a case of flashy drama but, rather, of slow decay.
In the ways divorce can be freeing, this one has been. Although the Rush Lover is acting as though his wife enjoyed a leisurely vacation at home these past years while he hauled himself off to the office to give and give and give of himself, I daresay a part of him is relieved. He won’t have to feel guilty anymore for puttering in the garage, building furniture, when the rest of the world wants him to tell his wife, “Your job is 24/7, and there’s no clocking out, so why not take an hour here and go for a walk?” He won’t have to feel put out anymore when his wife asks him to watch the kids so she can go get her hair done. Instead, the emotional nuances that play into good parenting and spousing—nuances that have largely eluded him –are no longer a factor, since the expectations of his fatherhood have been typed out, clearly, with set hours and boundaries, on legal paper. He now knows when he can and can’t make furniture or strum “Closer to the Heart.” He now knows exactly which hours of the week he should call out, “Okay, kids, let’s go to the playground!” The murkiness that comes from sharing a household, from not being able to decode a complicated set of encrypted expectations, has cleared.
For the wife, freedom comes from the abolishment of resentment; from no longer having to tamp down her disappointment, fear, and hopes; from realizing that, if she couldn’t figure out how to be strong within marriage, then it’s time to master strength on her own.
Despite her excitement at being free, the wife existed in limbo for some weeks after the break-up became official. He got the house; she got primary custody of the kids. With no place to move with the kids and very little money in hand, she remained in the house until the final possible move-out date. Only through the kindness of friends did she land in a perfect rental, which she is just settling into.
Currently, he has a steady flow of income from his clients; she is living off past garage sale earnings and applying for public assistance to tide her over until he sells off some investments to raise the settlement money she has coming to her. Despite these financial straits, she was holding steady, attitude-wise, until her final lawyer’s bill arrived. She had expected it to be $800. But since Ex-Husband had drawn out the finalizing of the papers, asking for meetings twice a week to change a few words, the final bill came to $3,000.
As Ex-Wife sat with that bill on her lap, moving more of her things out of her previous house, Ex-Husband walked in with a trailer load of new IKEA furniture totaling well over $1,000.
The disparities snapped her positive attitude. She had known her lawyer was inept; she had realized she rolled over too easily on some agreements; she was the first to admit the marriage had been a two-way street.
But. It. Just. Felt. So. Unjust.
A feeling that had been fomenting inside of her hardened, became shiny. In the fashion of a 1987 Women’s Studies class, she became rabid about the word “empowerment.”
Eventually, she accepted that, on some fundamental level, her final step to complete empowerment entailed financial self-sufficiency. Her plan to open a shop of “gently used” clothing and household items—the kind of shop she’d started and successfully run two times previously–gained momentum. The space is rented, partially painted, awaiting carpet replacement. Up until the lawyer’s final bill arrived, Ex-Wife had hoped to keep her stock for the shop in Ex-Husband’s garage while the store’s interior was polished.
After the lawyer’s final bill arrived, she became amenable to a mass transfer of Stuff to the half-finished shop.
So now her future Empowerment is stacked in a heap on the ratty old carpet in her will-open-one-day-somewhat-soonish store.
It’s dingy, it’s mottled with the splotches of decades, but that damp, smelly rug feels like a less toxic place to risk her future than her husband’s arms ever did.