Brandy Jensen, The Outline’s associate 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 wanted to write to you because your past mentions of your own divorce in your column have been immensely comforting to me as I go through my own. I come from a Catholic family in which divorce is still viewed as one of the most awful things a person can do or have happen. I know people have made it through divorces without their lives being irrevocably ruined. However, I am still struggling to trust myself in this new phase of my life.
My divorce was definitely a good thing, as most divorces are. My ex was controlling of my time, punished me emotionally for my mistakes even as I made efforts to apologize and fix whatever had gone wrong, and did not help around the house.
Pretty soon after the divorce, I started a relationship with a truly wonderful person, or, I think they're wonderful? They show up for me by offering (and actually following through!) to run errands for me when I am overwhelmed, are great in bed, make me laugh, and my friends like them. All signs point to yes, this person is wonderful and good and trying very hard, but I still feel uneasy. We don't fight, but that might be because I am afraid of rocking the boat. In my marriage, when I asked for help, I was given empty promises on a good day and was yelled at on a bad one. So, my mental calculus still leads me to believe that asking for anything isn't worth the risk.
There were a lot of early signs in my marriage that should have indicated I had no business marrying my ex before we had more pointed conversations about what we both needed. Because of that, I find myself worrying that there must be signs I'm missing in this relationship. And there's also the guilt of finding something fulfilling so soon after my break up, like I didn't take enough time to really earn this. Yes, it's still relatively new and we're nowhere close to talking about moving in together, but all data indicates this is a serious relationship. We're planning a road trip together and our dogs are friends. This is all good, but my brain is determined to find a flaw in it.
How do I give myself room to let this grow without obsessing about whether I am making the same mistakes I did before — or whether I deserve this at all?
Although I’ve mentioned my divorce a few times in writing, it’s not something I talk about all that often with my friends. If I mention it, people tend to either annoyingly downplay its significance or give it unwarranted emotional weight. Divorce is somehow both underappreciated and overdetermined.
It seems as though the latter idea — that divorce can be ruinous — is something you are struggling with. It’s hard to admit you’ve made a mistake, especially mistake so grave that the government had to be involved in undoing it. Besides being painful and sad, divorce is often very embarrassing, and a lot of that has to do with how we view quitting things. Americans are very enamored of grit and determination, which means that quitting anything gets a bad rap. It’s understood to be the purview of dilettantes or the morally weak. This could not be more wrong.
Quitting something big — school, a job, a marriage — is a full-throated articulation of what you want. Your divorce was you saying unequivocally that you wanted your life to look different, and you wanted to share it with someone else.
That is a confident decision. The problem, of course, is that divorce in particular has a terrible way of being the one decision that undermines our confidence in our ability to make good decisions at all. So, at least in my case, we tend to fixate on the past. We pore over every fight and every wrong turn like it’s an obstacle course we’ll have to run again. We try to pry lessons from what you carry out of an old life, because if we’ve learned something from that chapter, then it was worth it. But the notion of lessons and chapters at all come from the way we overlay narrative structure on our lives, which for the most part don’t contain fresh beginnings or tidy ends, but simply keep happening. This goes on and on and at some point you looked back at your life — the accumulation of things that happened and things that didn’t — and wondered how you got there. The only real lesson is that you had the courage to do something about it.
Besides, the problem with thinking that failed relationships can teach us lessons that we can take into new ones is that those new relationships are with other people. Try to identify patterns of behavior that trouble you, sure, but also try to remember this new person is not your ex. Since relationships by definition occur as a process of reactions and negotiations with another, your new relationship will never be like your marriage. It will almost certainly be better in many ways (you get more emotional support, more help with chores) but worse in others (you could walk in on this person genuinely chuckling to an episode of The Big Bang Theory.) The only thing I can guarantee is that it will be different.
You need to remember that this is what you wanted. You wanted a different life, and so you chose one. But now, as it is starting to take shape, you are asking me if you really deserve it. It’s a rare thing, to choose what you want; for women especially, so much of life is spent convincing ourselves to want what we were allowed to choose. You are asking me for permission to be happy. I can’t give you that — only encourage you to stop asking.
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