People tell you that you’ll always remember getting married but no one ever says how vividly you’ll remember getting divorced.
You’ll remember the clothes you pulled from the back of your closet; the pencil skirt and long sleeved blouse you hadn’t worn since your last job interview, those terribly uncomfortable shoes that helped you pretend you were feeling confident, the breakfast you made but couldn’t bring yourself to eat, the way your friend showed up at the front door, with coffee, to drive you to the courthouse.
No one says how you’ll wonder all along whose life you must be living because it couldn’t possibly be yours.
And finally no one talks about how much getting divorced can teach you about falling in love.
Here are five things I learned about love from getting divorced:
I used to think love was mostly about holding on through the hard times, leaning in when you were fighting or when the connection faded and things got hard. I practiced this in my marriage, fighting to “make it work” when our relationship was tense or explosive, or when it felt unfair. I made all the sacrifices love requires, until there wasn’t anything left to sacrifice and there was nothing left to give.
What I didn’t know about love until I got divorced is that holding on isn’t the only thing you need to know how to do.
You also need to know how to let go.
You need to know how to let go of the way you thought things were “supposed” to go, the way you hoped other people would behave or be, the idea that it is your job to hold everything together. Through getting divorced, I learned how to let go of the fighting, the coercing, the pleading and the trying. I learned how to surrender to the fact that this might not go the way I planned—and that we would still all be okay.
I’m learning that letting go is not a failure of love but quite the opposite. When your heart breaks over love, you can remind yourself: Real love knows how to let go.
A broken heart is not a sign you did something wrong. It’s a sign you did something right. There is no way to halfway love people.
When I first filed for divorce, I wondered how I was supposed to end a relationship that was supposed to last forever.
I read Marianne Williamson’s book A Return to Love—and I hung on the advice she gave about love. She said relationships never end. They just change form. Every living, breathing thing changes over time. In fact, this is how we know things are organic and healthy and thriving. They change. Getting a divorce wasn’t so much about my marriage ending it as it was about giving it permission to change so that both of us could survive and thrive.
This piece of advice has helped me cope with the inevitable feelings of loss that come with change. It helped me make peace with the parts of a relationship that seemed to evaporate into thin air when it changed form, and it gave me the strength to move forward and love again without crippling fear that it wouldn’t “work out.”
It is never our job to make love “work out”—only to show up and surrender to the ways it is already working itself out in us.
After I finally made peace with letting go, I worried I had “wasted” years with a person who wasn’t going to be involved in my life anymore. I wondered if I had “wasted” my love on someone who wasn’t willing or able to receive it, or if I had “wasted” valuable time and energy that could have been spent elsewhere.
Getting divorced taught me that, when it comes to love, there is no such thing as a waste. Whatever you gained from the relationship, however you grew, whatever you invested, comes with you.
I reminded myself of this when my ex-husband and I were negotiating over the house, and the money, and the dog, and all the things couples fight over when they’re splitting their lives. I kept reminding myself that, no matter what happened, I got to take with me the only thing that really mattered: all of the true, honest, vulnerable, hard work I’d put into making this relationship the best it could be.
This was the most valuable thing I had, and I got to keep it.
I spent most of my marriage “trusting” my husband, but not trusting myself.
I thought, since love was built on trust, that questioning him, or confronting him, or talking openly and honestly and consistently about the real concerns I was having would be a threat to our love. Meanwhile, I ignored a constant and nagging feeling that something was wrong.
Something was “off” about the way I was being treated.
Something was “off” in his behavior and attitude.
Something was “off” about the way he acted with others (especially other women).
This approach hurt our marriage far more than it helped it and it wasn’t until getting divorced that I realized love always starts with trust and that you can only really trust other people as much as you trust yourself.
In fact, these days when I meet women who claim to have “trust issues” I recommend they start with learning to trust themselves first. Most of us haven’t even considered this. We ignore our impulses—those quiet whispers and gentle nagging feelings—and we wonder why we have such a hard time trusting people.
Trust yourself and you may disrupt or even shatter the fragile ecosystem of your relationship; but it is always, always in favor of real love.
I tried to be “strong” to make my marriage last. I thought that’s what love required of me. I pushed beyond my limits, made sacrifices I didn’t feel like making, constantly giving in to his requests, “pulled myself up by my bootstraps” metaphorically speaking and all along congratulated myself for being such a good wife.
As it turns out, being “strong” by itself doesn’t make for a very sturdy love.
Getting divorced taught me to cry, to grieve, to let go, to give up, to “fail” beautifully, to try and fall and to make a mess of things. I learned how to be soft enough to admit my weakness, my shortcomings, to speak up when I reached my limits, to ask for what I wanted and needed, to admit when I was tired and needed a break. The only reason for love to be strong is so it can also be soft, and as it turns out, getting soft has also made me unbelievable strong.
When all is said and done, divorce is not something I would wish for myself. It’s not something I would wish for my worst enemy. But I am learning that the end of my relationship had a great deal to teach me.
I’m thankful for my broken heart, if only because of what I learned. It’s taken me a long time to learn who I’ve been all along.