Brandy Jensen, The Outline’s social media editor, has made a lot of mistakes in her life. Has she learned from them and become a wiser person as a result? Hahaha oh gosh no. But it does leave her uniquely qualified to tell you what not to do — because she’s probably done it.
I found your recent essay on “How to Poach an Egg and Leave a Marriage” touching and wonderful. I related to it immensely because I'm currently divorcing my husband of six years after staying unhappily in my marriage for far too long.
Here's the issue with my situation: My soon-to-be-ex husband and I grew up as close friends in a very conservative Christian culture, and we got married when I was 19. I asked for a divorce last year, and we have been separated for about eight months.
About three months ago, when I didn't feel ready and didn't expect it, I met someone new who is wonderful and exactly what I want and need at this moment in my life. But I don't exactly fit the description of an average 25-year-old; so much of my childhood and adult life until this time was tied up in religion and the fact that I got married so young. Even though I've left both religion and my marriage, everything about my life until now has had something to do with my ex-husband — even things like childhood vacations.
I'm in therapy, and dealing with all the emotional ups and downs of this new life completely separated from both of those huge things, but on a day-to-day basis the question I get hung up on is how to talk about the “before” with the new guy I'm seeing. It's not how to talk about the fact that I've been married (we've had that discussion already), but more that I find that my marriage leaks into my new relationship more than I would like. I find myself talking about my ex, something we did together, or using “we” instead of “I” when talking about some previous experience I had.
My ex and I are just now starting on paperwork to legally divorce, so it's also a very current thing in my life. It's not that I'm struggling to emotionally move on from my divorce — I don't regret asking for one at all, and don't want to go back to him. I think it's that I've never had an identity in my adult life outside of my ex, so it's not so easy to cut him out of my verbal patterns. While I originally would have expected to process this transition from a “we” to an “I’ privately and on my own time, I now have a new person in my life and I find myself cringing every time I “slip up” and talk about anything related to my ex.
How can I keep my damned mouth closed when the impulse strikes me to say something pertaining to my ex? How can I force that switch from “we” to “I’? Is that even a reasonable expectation to have of myself, or is my identity so entrenched in such a HUGE thing that I can't hope to ever move on from my past from how I talk about it?
First of all, thank you so much for the opportunity for shameless self-promotion! What a lovely way to ensure I will answer your query. Please read my recent essay here, and all of my previous columns below.
I think you have two interrelated anxieties here: one a more practical concern about language and the deeper one a question of identity. Let me tackle the former because that’s much easier: I don’t think it’s a problem at all that you are mentioning your ex a lot in this new relationship. In fact, it would be very odd for you not to reference what amounts to your entire past when talking to your new boyfriend.
I think the commonly held assumption that it’s taboo to talk about an ex is ridiculous. A person who never mentions their exes has something to hide. So please stop cringing and just embrace that this is a fact of you — one any new partner should happily abide.
But I suspect the fact of you is what you’re worried about. That your “we”-ness rather than “I”-ness is essentially cringeworthy, and leaves you struggling to catch up with your peers. This is a reasonable way to feel, especially as you navigate your divorce and read essays on the internet about it. So much of what we sell to women under the guise of empowerment hinges on the notion that one should have a discrete and legible self. One that you develop alone, and then care for and have confidence in and esteem.
The older I get the more I reject that notion entirely. Each of us is constantly made and unmade by the people we love and the ones we leave, by the communities we inherit and the ones we build. Your faith and your marriage and your decision to walk away from both are all bound up together with the 25-year-old woman you are now, as they will be in different ways with the 35-year-old woman you become.
You ask about separating your identity from your past as though that’s a thing you should even desire, let alone achieve. Every person walking the earth is, fundamentally, a “we,” and I think it’s a lonely and alienating thing to live in a world that tells us we should always be striving to be an “I.”
Besides, you only have this concern because you did in fact leave your church and your marriage. If your identity was so entangled with these things that you had no real sense of yourself and your desires you wouldn’t be writing me at all. You would still be there. You were brave enough to walk away from a situation that didn’t suit you; the next step is being brave enough to admit that you still carry things from that life.
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