The Things No One Tells You About Divorce

We had just had sex. One minute, we were kissing and pressed against each other and I was in the safest place in the world. The next minute, I was lying alongside him crying and asking, “What do people do in a situation like this?” And he was saying: “Get divorced.”

When I met Erik, I had never been in love with anyone. I was 31, and I saw him across the room at a party. My first thought was that he looked endearing, gentle, like he would never hurt me. We talked about his art and my job as a writer, and when we had our first date on a bench in Union Square we kissed for hours and held hands. I felt like a kid, giddy with excitement that someone wanted me on their team.

By the time he told me a few dates later that he didn’t want children, I was already hooked. My thinking went something like this: Some people are never lucky enough to fall in love. I found an amazing man who loves me. I should be happy.

Before we got married, we did the right thing. Like any overly analytical, Manhattanite preparing for the biggest decision of their lives, we went to couple’s therapy. Our therapist helped us realize early on that there was no compromise when it came to children: You either have them or you don’t. There’s no middle ground.

I was okay with that. I had always been ambivalent about having children at best — mental illness runs in my family, and my youngest brother has a slew of disabilities that I had always been scared of passing on to my offspring. So our therapist, knowing I was on the fence about kids and that Erik was against them, whipped out a Rilke poem from “Letters to a Young Poet” and recited it, ending with the words: “Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

That night, we left the therapist’s office certain that marriage was the way we could live into the answer.

That was close to five years ago.

The author’s diagram of divorce. (Photo: Ruthie Ackerman)

In February, Erik decided he had lived his way into the answer and it was to get divorced. That wasn’t my answer. Rilke’s poem never addressed what happens when two people come to two different answers.

I was blindsided. We had just bought tickets to Nicaragua for June. We had planned a trip to Saugerties for our anniversary. We had spent the previous weekend with friends in Rhinebeck. If we were about to get divorced, wouldn’t I have known? Wouldn’t there be clues?

When I imagined divorce, it was always a long drawn out battle — like cancer. I thought it meant hating each other and fighting endlessly until you couldn’t bear to stay together any longer. I couldn’t have envisioned it meant loving each other with all our hearts and still not being able to make it work.

Now when I look at the photos from the months (and even weeks) before our separation, I keep thinking: If I had only known what was about to happen, I wouldn’t be smiling in this picture. I’m angry with myself for looking so naively happy. How could I not have seen it coming? “Talk to him!” I want to scream at my frozen smile. “Ask him if he’s happy. Insist on going to therapy. Get your head out of the sand.”

Here are the things no one tells you about divorce: That you are going to come home and feel so eviscerated that you smell his sweaters while you cry yourself to sleep. That you are going to have an endless list of questions that never get answered and you’re going to have to find a way to answer them yourself. That you are going to be haunted by the phantom life you are no longer living, and you’ll keep yourself up at night wondering, “If we were still married what would we doing right now?” That you’re going to feel like everything before this moment has been in your imagination and that the only thing left that proves you were ever in love is a small card he gave you with the flowers he dropped off for your birthday that said, “Love, Erik.” That everyone in your life is going to tell you you’ll be fine, but you certainly don’t feel fine and don’t think you ever will.

I couldn’t have envisioned it meant loving each other with all our hearts and still not being able to make it work.

Not too long ago, a divorced friend and I were cry-laughing over Sazerac’s at a West Village bar, diving into all of the questions one faces as they go through a divorce.

For instance: what to do with your wedding photo album?

“We spent $5,000 to have the perfect photographer take these perfect photos, and now I don’t know what to do with them,” she lamented. Do you throw them away? Seal them in a box and never look at them again? Cut him out of the photo and frame the other half?

What a waste, we thought as we clinked glasses.

There are other questions too. What do you do on your wedding anniversary? How do you honor the day that once was so special and now just serves as a painful reminder?

Or: Is it okay to still wear your wedding band? (Answer: Yes. I moved mine to my right hand. Like rings on a tree, my marriage is part of my story and, although they will no longer hold their prominent position on my left hand, my rings symbolize the wisdom I have gained over the last six months.)

Having never pictured I would get married, I certainly never imagined I would get divorced. Friends would say, “Tell me what I can do to help,” and I would shake my head and wonder, “What should I be asking for?” I was so lost I didn’t even know how to formulate the questions.

What I was looking for was a support group, a place to have these kinds of questions answered and discussed on a regular basis. A place where men and women who were newly or soon-to-be divorced could come together to talk about everything from the practical to the uncomfortable.

But when I started searching for a group, I was surprised to learn that in as therapy-obsessed a city as Manhattan, it’s difficult to find one. Meetup has one, but it’s more of a divorced singles happy hour, which is a much-needed resource but not the one I was seeking out. The JCC has an option, but it doesn’t meet regularly. Other groups have high price tags of $75-$150 for a one hour session.

Then a few weeks ago, the New York Times spotlighted Elise Pettus, a “divorce saloniste,” who started her own “accidental” business called Untied after her divorce when she, like me, couldn’t find so much as a listserv to turn to.

While Untied seems to have the camaraderie and community that I’m looking for, the website also makes divorce feel sanitized and packaged in a way that doesn’t speak to the rawness of my experience. I’m not looking for motivational exercises and clothing swaps. I’m looking for real people connecting around their shared grief.

Which is why I recently decided to launch The Breakup Club (initials TBC for To Be Continued); a place for men and women who are divorcing to ask each other questions and provide support, guidance and resources. I let my friends know I was thinking about starting a group, and I’ve already received a half a dozen emails from others wanting to join. There’s still work to do— finding a space and figuring out the format will be key. But just knowing that there are others out there who are going through something similar makes me feel a little less alone. And feeling less alone – whether one is married or single — is what life is all about it, isn’t it?

The good thing is I have a job and a strong network of friends and family, all of which have helped me get out of bed on the days when I didn’t think I could muster the energy. (Read: every day.) One friend and I started a text message thread called #onedayatatime where we text each other a daily photo of ourselves with a few words about how we’re feeling or what we’re doing. Most of mine from those early days say things like “sad” and “barely making it through,” but the fact that I could manage to do anything at all at the time felt like a small miracle. Recently our texts have sounded more optimistic, with references to writing and yoga. There was even a breakthrough photo a few weeks ago. “I see a smile,” he texted after months of sad-faced selfies. I’m looking forward to the day when a smile is a regular occurrence, not an exception.

(Photo: Stocksy)

Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

2 Responses

  1. Wendy Goldman Scherer

    I really liked this piece. I remember so many of these feelings from my divorce. Currently married to #2 for many, many years… Hope the smiles keep coming.

  2. Rebecca

    I wasn’t able to come hug you in person yesterday at TBSP Tuesday, so I’m leaving you the biggest virtual hug here for sharing your heart with the world in a way that I’m sure will help others going through what you are feel a little less alone. You always amaze me, Ruthie, and today is no exception,


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.