Friday, December 2, 2011

Emancipation Day

“How much would you pay to get out of jail?” – Older Sister

My ex-wife moved out of our (now, my) house a year ago today.  My clearest memory of that day is the sound the front door made when I closed it upon coming home from work.  Without rugs or furniture nearby, it was a hollow sound that echoed off of the now emptied living room to the immediate left of the door.  I hate that sound.  I remember inventorying the house, what had been left, what was now gone, and exhaled, deeply, that the months of low level sniping and bickering, which sometimes spilled over into the most venomous arguments I had ever experienced, were now over. That two people with modest savings and no children could argue so bitterly spoke more to the raw feelings of hurt, betrayal and a sense of opportunities (and time) lost than anything else. Emotionally and psychologically, the next few weeks were blurry.  In the light of the following day, I discovered that enormous caches of “stuff” I assumed would be taken were still there.  I unearthed treasures from boxes that had lain unopened for years, discovering random goodies like picture frames, Post-Its and other minutiae.  That first weekend was spent cleaning the master bedroom I had never slept in and had been left dirty and dusty and the master bathroom, scrubbing discolored grout and wiping away what seemed like years of soap scum out of a shower I had never used.  On Monday, the locksmith changed the deadbolts and a week later, we had to meet at the MVC to clean up the title and registration on our cars.  We fought, but somehow got things taken care of, even though my hand shook as I wrote the check to pay for my half of the fees.  A quick stop at the gas station to switch the license plates later, it was the last time we saw each other.

Winter was bleak.  Some kind public workman carved deep gashes into the curbside lawn in front of my house and before anything could be done about it, a post-Christmas snowstorm blanketed everything in white.  And then another snowstorm.  And another.  December bled into January without my noticing.  One shitty year begat another like lighting one cigarette off the butt of another.  A misread gas meter resulted in a huge overcharge from the power company, mole hills got turned into mountains because what little ability I had to cope was continually being depleted by random emails from my ex-wife demanding this or insisting upon that. When the cable inexplicably died, the three days it took for someone to come out to repair it felt like forever because I just wanted to stare at a TV screen and embolize my mind. 

When I wasn’t going outside to push a shovel against what seemed like a never ending mountain of snow, the tape loop in my head was set to repeat, the song it played was “fairness” and the lyrics asked how it was that a woman who spent 90 percent of our marriage grossly overweight, highly intoxicated and emotionally abusive was walking away with an alimony check, a portion of my pension and my retirement funds.  My sister, similarly situated as the main breadwinner in her own failed marriage, told me to ask myself “how much would you pay to get out of jail.”  It was instructive but not entirely satisfying.  I accepted that in the karmic sense, I deserved some punishment.  I was not a model husband, I broke my vows, I checked out emotionally, I withheld affection and for all of that, I was certainly willing to pay my debt; however, I could not get past the idea that the sentence did not match the crime and further, that my wife’s own failures were not only going unpunished, but were being financially rewarded. 

Personal outlets offered little relief.  Dating was a cruel joke of incompatibility and stumbling starts, of overly monitoring my own words or carelessly oversharing intimate personal details that made women recoil.  Having not dated since before Bill Clinton was President, there was a Rip Van Winkle element to the experience – gone was the structured phone call/dinner/movie and in its place, a more erratic construct of text messages, emails and toneless communication.  A lunch over President’s Day weekend with a yogini devolved into a deep dive into my own navel and 20 minutes of advice from her about the benefits of “rebirthing” (don’t ask), a brunch in Philadelphia fell flat when I casually brought up my marital infidelity and a woman who had been part of the Seattle WTO protest in 1999 had hung up her anarchist flag and turned into a rather docile (and uninteresting) dinner companion. 

“Solitude makes us tougher toward ourselves and more tender toward others. In both ways, it improves one’s character.” - Nietzsche

And in all of this, there was no support system – no family nearby, and no close friends to commiserate with. A Christmas morning trip to the clothing donation bins felt surprisingly empty and even though I should be tithed by the women who check out romance novels from my public library after donating my ex-wife’s collection, clearing away all of that errata from the house did little to help me reach the closure I desired.  Even things that felt good, like giving away 30 rolls of wrapping paper for “Toys for Tots” at my gym were quickly forgotten.  As winter dragged on, my overriding memory of that time was being cold and being cold because I was being frugal because a check that should not be sent to a person who did not need it was taking money out of my bank account and not heating my home.  Anything I could not do I made into a daisy chain of connection back to the fact that my ex-wife was being unjustly enriched with money which, when we were married, was never good enough for her. 

The energy I expended just to keep afloat always threatened to run out.  While I had made back of the envelope estimates of what my living expenses would be while we mediated our divorce settlement, the reality of living on a meager wage after the mortgage, alimony, power, cable, phone and other bills had been paid was a different story.  It became embarrassing to beg off dates because I did not want to drive far away when gas was close to $4 a gallon or rationing Chinese food over multiple days to make my budget stretch a little farther.  Compounding this was the ever present (and literal) chill in the air.  Cold seemed to blanket my drafty home and I spent my off hours huddled under blankets and swaddled in fleece.  In all of this, I was hard on myself, hard on myself for staying so long, hard on myself for negotiating a shitty settlement (even though I had no leverage), and hard on myself for making mistakes and compounding those mistakes with bigger mistakes. 

But in that solitude, the slow budding of a future began to take root.  After the freefall of the first few months, I began to get my sea legs.  Once I saw that I could survive, albeit modestly, on my income, I realized I just needed to be smart with my money.  The snow ended in January, and although the cover it left did not fully melt well into February, by March, temperatures slowly crawled above freezing and a faint glimmer of normalcy started to creep into my life.  The divorce crept closer to completion with the finalization of the settlement agreement and the pesky emails abated.  And in that solitude, I began to see and feel a small but significant change in my own mind. 

“If it has anything to do with the guy at all, it’s something she didn’t notice in the profile originally (such as has kids, drinks too much, is a little too far away) or more likely, since the first email, she went on a date with a guy she met earlier and it went well so she’s focusing on him, or it went badly and she’s giving up for a while, or she was drunk when she wrote the first time and can’t think of anything cute to say now, or her brother is in trouble with his gambling debts again and she doesn’t have the energy to flirt right now, or her husband came home and she can’t get on the computer…”  L.L.

Ironically, the true pivot point for the transition from winter to spring came about from my failed dating experiences and an unexpected email from a member of my ex-wife’s family.  I met a woman entirely by coincidence one day and, after we met, asked her out.  We got to know each other over the phone and in random text messages, she was sweet if a bit awkward, probably less so than me, but after several months of flailing about, I felt legitimately hopeful that I had, at a minimum, found someone whose company I would enjoy (and vice versa).  Our first date was not great.  The familiarity and sharing that had defined our telephone calls were absent, the light hearted text messages did not seem to have come from the same person.  I was a little surprised at the lack of in person connection but had also been on enough first dates by then to be open to a second, and willing to credit the pre-date chemistry and explain away the in person awkwardness as first date jitters. 

When the inevitable denouement came (grounds: different points in life – example used: she did not like routine (but had a full-time job.) What?), I took it as a sign that I needed to step away from dating for a while.  The timing was perfect.  We had turned the calendar from March to April and instead of dissecting email responses (or lack thereof) it suddenly became liberating to *not* worry about whether or why I was not finding compatible dating partners.

“<Person> has a family, you’re not in it anymore, let <Person> ask them for help.” Other Older Sister

The other tipping point was more deeply personal.  A member of my ex-wife’s family contacted me in a desperate state and asked for my help.  I was inclined to give it but was unsure what the ramifications would be and whether it was my place to interject myself, so I called my sister.  Her advice was as simple as it was blunt (see above). It was the advice I needed to hear and I took it, with a caveat.  I did not think it was right to allow this person to twist in the wind but I could not call my ex-wife, the shitstorm it would have stirred was not something I wanted to deal with, so I called her sister, who I had always had cordial relations with.  I spoke with her husband; forwarded the email I had received and hoped to leave it at that, but the person who reached out to me called.  It was a painful conversation because I had to tell the person I could not (would not) help them and that they needed to get help from their own family.  I cried, the other person cried, there was a finality in the tone that felt like this was the last time I would speak with someone from my “former” family and in that too, was great sadness, because I was so fond of them.  That day was the emotional nadir of the year, there is not even a close second.

“It is going to be awful for a while, but then it won’t be anymore.” Carolyn Hax

In this emotional funk, I did what any primordial man would do – I grew a beard and headed into the cave.  I had been making a mental checklist for some time about the many home improvement projects I wanted to focus on and had blocked off a 10 day vacation (weekends included) to accomplish them.  Without the background noise of online dating or any real connections to people outside of work or my gym to distract me, focusing on getting those projects accomplished suddenly made my world feel much clearer and manageable.  I even snuck in a day trip to my hometown (3 hours away) for my nephew’s birthday party and felt good and happy about seeing my family.  Certainly, this was not the dead of winter anymore.

The timing turned out to be fortuitous.  The weather was perfect and the investment of time I made in planning my projects really paid off.  My home’s third bedroom, which had been used as a nursery by the former homeowners (complete with a cartoon motif on the wall), had been unused for more than four years by my ex-wife and me.  For less than $100 and two days of good hard work, the walls were painted and the room took on an entirely different look.  An extra desk and $30 chair from Target turned it into a mini-study. I chuckled to myself that what had sat unused for so long could have been changed with such little effort, but then again, I wanted to frame it as a more positive development of shedding the bad memories of what my house once was into something it could be.  Little by little over that week and a half, smaller things also changed.  Mats and throw rugs were switched out, shower curtains changed and furniture rearranged so that the house began to take on a different look and feel. 

The good weather also gave me a few days to spend on the outside of the house, firing up the lawnmower for the first time of the season and applying a good power wash to the home’s exterior to scrub off the winter’s grime.  The bare earth that had been exposed the day before Christmas and never patched was re-sodded and grass began to grown where I had stared at brown dirt.  More importantly, it just felt good to be active, to see the planning I had busied myself with come to fruition and to accomplish these tasks without say, pouring a bucket of paint on the carpet or leaving an enormous mark on the wall from moving furniture.  Over those 10 days I was reminded that no matter how difficult those first few months felt, no matter how angry I still felt, how wrong I thought the outcome of the settlement had been, I had my life back, something that could not be quantified by money.  It was a very instructive time, a time where winter’s hardship dissolved into spring’s glory and a time of great personal happiness because I was clearing away the remaining physical memories of my ex-wife’s presence in my home and truly making it my own. 

As spring turned into summer, I felt like I had turned a major corner.  Although there was one last spasm of electronic conflict with my ex-wife, the divorce became final in July, and because she had, by agreement, filed and I had not contested her complaint, we did not even have to go to court.  I received some stamped documents in the mail and that was that.  The first few months, where privation and uncertainty had combined to whittle my frame down to next to nothing began to fill itself out again, as salty snacks and sugary treats helped me pack back on the weight I had lost in the black hole of winter.  With warmer months came a more positive outlook, bills were less onerous and work, which had been my foundation through all of this, remained challenging and intellectually enriching. 

By the time a second and then third vacation were taken, more “to do” list items had been checked off – the master bedroom got its own fresh coat of paint (although not the new furniture set I had been hoping to buy), the frame around the front door and railing did too (something long overdue and visually appealing), a thick layer of insulation was applied in the attic and around the yard the fruits of my labor were rewarded with a brilliant display of plants in bloom, making after work lounging in the backyard visually appealing and peaceful.  I even dipped my toe back into the waters of the dating pool, and although the outcomes did not change much, the experience was less negative and I put far less pressure on myself to magically find someone who would make me whole. 

By fall, a new normal had set in and for that I was (and am) quite thankful.  Although natural disasters like Hurricane Irene (followed hot on its heels by a two day downpour that seemed to be more intense than the hurricane itself!) and a freak October snowstorm tested my mettle, they also did not seem like the end of the world; having survived that first winter when things looked so bleak, these experiences did not seem as daunting.  Outside of scheduled vacations, weekends turned to smaller projects that, little by little, continue to transform my home.  In my own life, I treated myself to a new computer and began blogging and more actively tweeting (@scarylawyerguy), which afforded me a creative outlet I had long desired but never made a priority. 

“Once you have some time on your own, you are going to meet someone who is just as twistedly perfect as you.  I will bet you a bottle of wine, that you will have a girlfriend on your 42nd birthday.” – The College Girlfriend

As I closed in on the year anniversary, I began to reflect back less and look forward more, and in that, the most important transformation is taking place.  While I cannot lie and say I never experience a twinge of anger or bitterness about my divorce, those times are few and far between.  For the first time in as long as I can remember, I have plans to make for my future and how I want to live it instead of just focusing on surviving today.  While I recognize that can change in an instant, I do not dwell on that fact.  I have to plan for the future and not worry about things that are out of my control. 

The last remaining parts of the post-divorce paperwork still need to be finalized (that sting I will feel 20 years from now is a slice of my pension being taken away), and there are still some of my ex-wife’s things at the house, though what was once a sprawling mess that (literally) covered the dining room and living room is down to a manageable 15 boxes segregated in the corner.  Even though dating is still hit or miss, I have learned a great deal about myself, about where I failed in my marriage and how I want to be a better person to the next person in my life.  At home, I am already mapping out what home improvements I want to make in 2012 (and 2013!), have a stack of great books to read and ideas and thoughts to put down on paper.  At work, I remain deeply appreciative for the job I have and the issues I get to focus on.  I think it is far too easy to become consumed in one’s own suffering and something I have come to value this year is the fact that, relatively speaking, I have it pretty good. 

"What you're counting on is your resiliency - that no matter how complicated life gets or how great a challenge you will face (turning 60 percent of your fundage over to your ex-wife), you will just bear down and beat the problem." - P.B.

But most importantly, my time and my life are now my own and no longer under anyone else’s control.  If I want to sleep in until 9 or do a load of laundry at the crack of dawn, there is no one there to tsk tsk me for doing so.  If I want to spend five hours writing a blog post or three hours at the gym, no one questions me for how I spend my time.  It might sound horribly selfish to be that zealous about one’s freedom to do as he or she pleases, and in that, there is a fair point to be made that maybe being married was not something I was happy being anyway, but as Barbara Kingslover observed: “A non-functioning marriage is a slow asphyxiation. It is waking up despised each morning, listening to the pulse of your own loneliness before the radio begins to blare its raucous gospel that you're nothing if you aren't loved." I was being asphyxiated both by an uncaring spouse who did not support my goals and aspirations and my own ambivalence about being married to her – not to the institution of marriage, but to *her*. 

If you have not lived that life, you cannot know the level of despair you feel when there appears to be no way out. It cripples you emotionally and deadens you to anything positive in life, to a future, to hopes and dreams and sucks into its vortex your will to live.  I realize now I could not have gone on living that life.  While winter was not uniformly awful or summer pristinely great, what has happened from then until now is a slow transition out of a deep and painful emotional chasm toward a brighter tomorrow.  Even now, a year later, there are good days and bad, but the vestiges of my old life continue to fall away and in their place is a future that is entirely mine to control. 


  1. I really enjoyed this. There's hope, even in the bleakest-seeming situations. Thank you for writing!

  2. "I think it is far too easy to become consumed in one’s own suffering and something I have come to value this year is the fact that, relatively speaking, I have it pretty good."

    "the vestiges of my old life continue to fall away and in their place is a future that is entirely mine to control."

    I'm glad to hear it. I also think this is your best column yet: honest, well-written, humbly voiced, engaging, and lyrical.

  3. I enjoyed reading this as well. Too often we only hear the woman's side of the story, which is often fraught with a pile of meanness and crap. I hope all goes well for you. I know that you will meet someone that is perfect, the key to that is you won't even notice you did at first, because once you stop looking, that is when the magic happens. And run-on sentences too. :D

  4. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience so honestly.. I am now where you were. I hope I can get to where you are.

  5. This post makes me feel very sorry for your ex-wife.

    1. Thanks. I'm not sure she'd agree with you, but I appreciate the sentiment. Our marriage was unhealthy for a long time (and for a lot of different reasons). I think we are both better off on our own.