In March 2019, I went to the Power of Narrative conference in Boston with my close friend, Ann marie. She and I had been attending this conference for the last three years together and all year looked forward to those four days together to reconnect, talk, laugh, drink, eat, shop, write and think.
But last year’s conference weekend had a different “theme” for me, if you will. So many things were heavy on my mind, and I was also chosen to pitch a memoir-essay to a panel of editors. The essay centered around moving to the Middle of America, at midlife, and becoming a runner. During one of our downtime excursions, we ventured into a bookstore and Ann marie bought me a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s book, “Tiny Beautiful Things.” This book will change your life, Ann marie said to me. While I’m a deep believer in the power of words, I wasn’t sure how Strayed, whom I only really knew from her memoir, “Wild,” was going to change my life.
We went back to our hotel room and Ann marie read several passages and essays aloud to me. The one that struck me like a bolt of lighting was the following:
“You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.”
“Be brave enough to break your own heart.” That was powerful! You must truly have to be brave to risk hurting and ruining yourself for something, I thought.
I’ve always thought of myself as strong. But brave? Not so much. My biggest act of bravery thus far was moving from San Diego to Indiana at age 40. And even that was not an “act of bravery,” per se. I wasn’t like Strayed who decided to leave her life and hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself (now, THAT was brave). This move, in July 2016, was a decision we made as a family so my husband could take a new job. I wasn’t brave; I was going along with what was best for my family.
Yet in May 2019, I summoned courage I did not think I had and I broke my own heart, as well as breaking others. I told my husband of 19 years that I needed a divorce.
Bryan and I met as juniors at San Diego State University (SDSU). I was 20 years old; he was 22. In 2019, we knew each other for 23 years and were together as a couple for 20 years; that’s more years together than apart. We grew into adulthood together. He was my best friend, in many ways. We bought homes together. We raised (are still raising) an incredible daughter, Sophie (12). We brought home our first puppy as well as adopted two other dogs, and a liter of cats. We’ve endured the loss of pets together, as well as family members. We both went through graduate school and he went through law school. We weathered the down-turned 2008 economic crisis and endured forced furloughs while we both worked at SDSU. We went through countless jobs, in higher education as well as my shift to freelance writing. We had debt together. We paid off student loans and credit cards together. We moved across country together. We were partners, in every sense of the word. In my mind, we had a successful marriage and I am proud of that and all we’d accomplished.
Yet over the years, like so many other “normal” couples, especially ones that met and “coupled” so young, we grew apart. Our goals changed. We ended up wanting different things out of life. We talked less and less. I found myself getting frustrated at things that, for many years, I just accepted as part of marriage and life. I also unknowingly went on a journey of self-discovery and found a vulnerable girl buried deep within that needed to find her way out. And in order to do that – in order to find that person I’d been ignoring for so many years – I had to say goodbye to a relationship that no longer worked for me: my marriage.
While that may sound like an easy and an eloquently-written decision, let me assure you, it was not. I agonized over what I considered doing. You don’t just leave your spouse and break apart your family, I thought. For my entire life, I believed strongly that if you make a commitment like marriage, then you need to keep it, no matter what it cost or how it felt. I believed that strongly … until I didn’t anymore.
When I read that one paragraph from Strayed, combined with all the other thoughts that had been plaguing my mind for some time, something clicked in my mind. In order to fully discover myself, own my life and make the next 40 years count for me, I had to make a change.
I want to be very clear that this was a complicated decision. It’s not as simple as me needing a new start. I don’t blame Bryan for anything. He is not a bad person, and my decision to walk away from my marriage is not because of something he did. There was no instigating circumstance. I don’t hold him responsible for my feelings. I take full responsibility for everything that’s happened and every feeling I’ve had.
I knew the decision would be painful — for me, for Bryan, our daughter, family, friends who knew us as a “perfect” couple. But I also knew I had to save myself and be the person and mother I needed to be.
I won’t go into details about what happened after I told my ex-husband I wanted a divorce. What I will say is that while I fully wanted this new life and I do not regret my decision, that didn’t make the process any easier. It was months and months of pain, tears, anxiety, depression, grief, sadness, uncertainty, anger, shame, guilt … I broke my own heart, again and again, and I know I broke his, too.
But throughout all of that heartbreak and chaos, I remembered the one line that Ann marie read in our Boston hotel room, and she continued to repeat those same words in the months ahead when I was at many a breaking points: “You wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all.”
Divorce is never simple. Thus far, it was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made. But anytime I felt like I was not going to make it though, I remembered the simplicity of that phrase. I wasn’t trying to hurt my ex-husband or my daughter. I wanted a different life for myself and I was worthy of that new life. And I had to change the terms of one relationship to get it. It hurt like hell and it was not easy (it’s still not easy; it still hurts and I’m still grieving). But I had to find strength and courage I didn’t know were in me. I had be brave enough to break my own heart.