In November of this year, my wife and I separated, filing for divorce soon after. The past few months have been tumultuous and painful. This is one of the hardest experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I truly believed we would be together forever. Yet, this was a necessary experience, and a good one for both of us.
This is where the rubber hits the road for my work on depression and peace. In the midst of one of the greatest pains I’ve ever experienced, I’m trying to keep my eyes open. I want to have something to share with you… because the odds are, you are experiencing or will experience heartbreak like this.
Here are 3 lessons I’ve learned from my divorce.
1. Loving someone doesn’t mean you’re compatible with them.
We learned this the hard way. Erin and I had completely different ideas of what our future would look like. The future she wanted was exciting, altruistic, and fulfilling. Mine was, too. But while both of our visions of the future were equally beautiful, they were polar opposites in execution.
Both of us tried to sacrifice our plans to accommodate the other person. But we quickly learned that you can only sacrifice so much of who you are before you become unfulfilled and lose sight of who you are.
I truly loved Erin. I believe that she felt the same about me. We had many late night conversations about how everything would be okay, because we loved each other so much, we would somehow make things work. But ultimately, romantic love doesn’t cover over every incompatibility.
Loving with the heart yet discerning with the head is an art. I believe you can be “in love” with someone and yet be a terrible match.
I’m sure many of you are rightly thinking, “my spouse and I are completely different, but we work out well!” That’s not what I’m talking about. You can be very different from another person and make the decision to overcome those differences, as long as you have core values and desires in common. Conflicting core desires was what made my wife and I incompatible.
Ultimately, I think anyone can be compatible with anyone, as long as they are able to live a true version of who they are while they are with that person.
If being with who you love means you must become an untrue version of yourself, chances are, you’re not compatible. On the other hand, if being with who you love means you must grow in patience and understanding and become a different (but ultimately better) person, that’s another story.
2. Memories can still be beautiful even after they become bittersweet.
Post-divorce, I have faced a haunting dilemma. What do you do with five years of memories?
Little things still make me cry. Movie theaters are haunting. They used to be “our thing”. Movie theater memories are bright and beautiful. Going to the theater myself or with others just isn’t the same. And it will never be the same.
I remember little things. Moments. Memories. Phrases. A funny joke we shared. A time we spent together. Something she said that meant the world to me. Memories, memories. Always beneath the surface, just ready to ripple up and release a wave of fresh nostalgia.
These memories once made me smile. They made me feel warm inside. I wanted to write her love notes and hang on to her forever. But now the memories have been touched by sadness.
If you’ve seen the Pixar movie Inside Out, you know what I mean. When Sadness touches a memory, it becomes bittersweet, a strange mix of pain and joy.
You’ll be tempted to sort the memory into one of those two categories. It’s tempting to become bitter, striking a poise of vengeful hatred toward anything and everything that reminds you of the painful past. Bitterness and anger can creep in so easily. But this doesn’t really honor the spirit of the memories.
There’s a brilliant line from an episode of How I Met Your Mother that goes something like, “People keep saying it was a bad marriage because it didn’t last. It was a great marriage. It just only lasted three years.”
Of course, whether a marriage can be “good” and end depends on your definition of a “good marriage”. However, I think there is some wisdom in realizing that just because something ends, doesn’t mean it was never good. My marriage gave me butterflies and good times, wonderful stories and good memories.
At the same time, it’s tempting to deal with memories the opposite way: romanticizing the past and wishing to have it back. While the past may have been beautiful, there is usually a good reason we move on. Nostalgia is powerful enough to make us forget those reasons sometimes. But they are there… real and true and painful.
Ultimately, to deal with past memories, we need to understand the meaning of the word “bittersweet”. Trying to throw memories away or burn them out of our minds never works. But neither does trying desperately to relive the past. There is a beautiful place of balance in between… a place that honors the past and cherishes the good moments, but bravely readies itself for brand new memories made under new circumstances with new people.
Natsukashii is a Japenese word that means “a nostalgic longing for the past, with happiness for the fond memory, yet sadness that it is no longer”. We have no word for this… but it is something we must learn to experience.
3. You have to do what makes sense for your life, regardless of what others tell you.
Over the course of my relationship and marriage, LOTS of people gave me advice. Some was solicited, much was unsolicited. Every piece of advice was different.
I’ve struggled with receiving advice my whole life. Other people’s opinions matter a lot to me. This can be a problem. I’ve made many decisions based on what other people will think—or what I anticipate them to think—rather than what I actually want to or believe I should do.
Whenever I hear someone’s opinion, I feel that I must do something with it. I must either agree with their opinion, or refute it. Any time an opinion is shared, I am immediately on the spot.
Ultimately, I want the other person to validate me. I want to be right, and I want to be seen as right. I want my decisions and opinions to be understood and approved.
I’ve realized it’s exhausting to deal with every opinion. At what point did I decide, “hey, if an opinion comes my way, I need to immediately deal with it, right then and there!” All the sudden, I become responsible for dealing with a vast amount of conjecture. Anyone can present ANY opinion at ANY time, and I will have to deal with it.
This is a pretty unhealthy way to live life. As it turns out, you know your life the best of anyone. That doesn’t mean we’re always equipped to make great decisions. Sometimes the insight of others, especially when objective, can be helpful.
But ultimately, you are responsible for your life. If you’re satisfied with the consequences of the decisions you’ve made, the opinions of others don’t matter.
I’ve learned that everyone will say something different. But I’m the only one responsible for my situation.
The end… and beginning
Going through a divorce is one of the last things I never wanted to happen. If you had told me when I was a kid that I would be divorced at twenty-four years old, I would have been terrified. Maybe that’s why we don’t get to know the future in advance.
Ultimately, everything is a growing process if we allow it to be. I’m fighting to keep growing not only in spite of pain, but because of it.
I hope this is helpful for you. If my pain helps someone like you in even a small way, it will be worth it.