Skip to content

The stages of divorce: Collect ‘em all!

THE DENIAL STAGE

When my ex-husband, Jeff, and I moved to St. Louis, he knew I was unhappy with the decor of our house, but money, of course, did not grow on trees. Except that year, it did, because he cashed in some investments and spent hours twist-tying money to a festive little potted tree. Then he gave it to me for Christmas and told me to make the house we lived in ours. He wanted me to have everything; it was almost an obsession. There wasn’t one minute of the years and years we spent together that he wasn’t striving to put the world on a string and loop it around my little finger. I learned to avoid wishing aloud, lest the poor man collapse in exhaustion from his determination to fulfill whatever request I had just absentmindedly uttered.

Case in point: he once rethrew an entire birthday party for my father because I had accidentally deleted pictures of my father and his birthday cake, then wept to the point of hiccups, like a small child, because I had so few good pictures of my dad (and also I was possibly hormonal as all hell). At any rate: Jeff duplicated the entire thing, right down to the cake and the mylar balloons. He invited everyone, and believe it or not, they came. Again. He warned me beforehand because he knows that even wonderful surprises tend to fluster me beyond repair. One of the pictures I took that day is my favorite picture of my parents; it sits above their fireplace.

Every night he was home, as he was falling asleep, he would ask if the rabbits could come sleep with us. They couldn’t, of course, but he was always trying to talk me into it. “Just for a minute,” he would plead, his eyes already closed, smiling into his pillow. He called Maisie, a fat, grumpy little rabbit who kind of hated us, his little princess; he would rabidly defend her when I implied she could stand to lose weight (though he would, when pressed, grudgingly admit that she was “curvy” or “a little portly”). Before he left town, he would put on his hat and coat and then tell Hugh the Rabbit to take care of the house while he was gone. He snuck extra treats to both of them when I wasn’t looking; I feigned exasperation, but the truth is that the sight of him trying to conspire with them always made me laugh.

He made me breakfast. He put gas in the car. He always left my train tickets under my keys. He did damn near every dish I made for seven years. He automatically bought tickets to any concert he knew I would be interested in going to, then stuck them to the fridge. He never forgot an anniversary of anything, even the more obscure ones. He supported me financially without resentment, without even really thinking about it. He told me that he knew I was a good writer, because he wasn’t a reader but he loved everything I ever wrote. He called me “J.H.,” a play off J.K. Rowling’s name.

When we were splitting up our stuff, we had enough wedding pictures for both of us, thanks to duplicate sets. At one point, while we were arranging the pictures in little piles, we both started laughing. Because isn’t this crazy? Isn’t this flat-out RIDICULOUS? And yet my relationship with this man, he of the clean dishes and the endless encouragement, had become damaged beyond repair. Can you believe that? I couldn’t either; some people still can’t.

I don’t blame them, but I know what I know—even if, for a little while there, it was impossible to believe. It’s over. And the minute those two brutal words sink in, you can move on to … well, an even worse stage! Yay!

THE BLACK HOLE SUN STAGE

Everything stood still, Hiroshima style. Batteries went dead; unanswered texts and e-mails piled up like dead leaves on the doorstep of an abandoned house. There had been a Before, and as inconceivable as it might have seemed at the time, there would be an After, too. But this was the in-between. This was the space where nothing existed but a blank and oddly numb sort of pain. Even the sorrow was static; it didn’t budge or flow, but calcified in my chest and limbs, weighing me down and keeping me still. I didn’t know anything; I didn’t want anything. I was inanimate, a sunken stone.

Everything in the refrigerator stayed where it was (but not AS it was, unfortunately for my gag reflex about three weeks later). Scooted-out chairs collected dust while silently emphasizing spaces now pointedly unoccupied. Mail kept arriving, addressed to an entity that no longer existed. This was odd; hadn’t they heard? Hadn’t the entire world heard? It had been deafening, which made the ensuing quiet all the more unnerving.

THE GROUNDHOG STAGE

But, as it turned out, people had no idea. When I finally crawled out of my hole and looked around a bit, I discovered that the sun was still doing its thing, along with everyone else. They would smile at me, ask how I was, ask how Jeff was. Did we have any travel plans coming up?

This was unfathomable. I felt sodden with what had happened, like I’d been physically dunked in it, like I squished when I walked. I still wore makeup and sported shiny hair, of course, but so do dead people; it’s just protocol. But as I put one foot in front of the other on the sidewalk, buses passed by me and stirred the air, just like always.

It appeared the buses were still running, then. Huh.

THE CRAZY PENDULUM STAGE

Negotiations and random tasks had worn me down to my last nerve, which, in its unprotected state, seemed to resonate wildly with whatever was going on at the time. A stranger just smiled at me for no reason? HUMANITY IS SO BREATHTAKINGLY AND TOUCHINGLY BEAUTIFUL! It started to rain? THE UNIVERSE SEIZES ITS EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO SHIT ON ME JUST FOR THE PLEASURE OF WATCHING ME SUFFER!

I had discovered the outside world still existed, but I had no idea where I belonged in it. And since everything in my zinging and abrasive Technicolor hyper-existence was marked extremely urgent, I felt a great deal of pressure to figure this out immediately—even if I had yet to regain the rationality required to do so. At one point, and I am not even kidding you, I thought I might get a motorcycle and become a forest ranger. Even though I am famously risk-averse (not to mention uncoordinated) and I loathe the outdoors.

This stage is likely to drive your poor friends crazy. One day, you’re explaining to them quite earnestly why you have nothing to look forward to and your life is over. The next day, you’re exuberant about your new chosen career of astronaut. “The FINAL frontier,” you will say to them, jabbing your finger toward the sky. (If you have very good friends, they won’t remind you that you passed the maximum age for military aviators three years ago and that you failed basic algebra. Twice.) The day after that: black despair. The day after that: a sudden and very enthusiastic obsession with the art of marionette puppetmastering, or God only knows what. Et cetera, et cetera.

This might go on for an embarrassingly long time. But it won’t be forever, so don’t bother wasting several hours a day wondering if you’re just going to be crazy like this from now on. I know I spent way too much time musing dejectedly that I had once been so SANE and trying to come up with scientific explanations for how mundane divorce tasks like the splitting of a cell phone plan could somehow be linked to actual brain damage.

THE HEALING STAGE

For me, this overlapped with the crazy pendulum stage, but it may not for everyone. In between fits of complete crazy-pendulum insanity (the darkest of which, for some reason, seemed to happen at the supermarket, which seems weird, but others have described similar incidents occurring at Target), I was rebuilding. Some of this was conscious—there is a REASON my apartment is decorated to the nines—and some of it was unconscious.

I read a lot of poetry. I read about science. I read about human achievements and human disasters. I read articles on crazy inexplicable particle behavior (quantum entanglement ftw!), on the development of human flight, on Chernobyl, on World War II. I related, I identified, I processed. I read about Jews crucified because they were blamed for the plague. I read about the turn of the earth and the replication of DNA. I read about despair and discovery in equal amounts. I completed a giant volume of world history and a giant volume of scientific history; I forgot most of it, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that sense of an expanding world, that instinctive seeking out of anything and everything I had not known as my old self.

There was something healing about awe. I turned pages in order to invoke that therapeutic awe in myself, the way someone will run miles to achieve a runner’s high. There was so much out there; the world was so massive in its ideas and nooks and customs and memories. After thinking so intensely and involuntarily of myself, of ME ME ME, it felt so good to stretch, to reach … and to realize that there is so much more to everything than who I am or how I have failed. And to realize that so many possibilities still remain.

As I picked up speed and regained the energy I had been devoting to my own personal tragedy, it started to feel as if my neurons were at a goddamn RAVE or something. Had I been hesitant to walk out into this crazy, amazing, messed-up world before? Had I been afraid to get my hands dirty, to touch and be touched?

If I had been hesitant before, now I couldn’t wait.

THE SUPERHERO STAGE

The superhero stage is my favorite divorce stage so far. (Perhaps more accurately, Kerri calls it the superherOINE stage.) I’m honestly not sure I have ever felt this powerful in my life. I think I could whip my index fingers out of imaginary holsters slung across my hips and shoot you dead with them. (Not that I would do that! You seem nice!) I am genuinely surprised at the lack of booming KAPOW! noise every time I flex my thumb in this scenario.

I belong to myself. I can do whatever I want. I can go wherever I want. I don’t have to take shit from anyone. “Compromise” is not a necessary component of my vocabulary. It sounds selfish, but it isn’t, necessarily; I’ve actually been doing more volunteering than ever before, because I can—because every hour of every day is mine to spend as I like.

I became convinced that I could do good for myself by doing good for others. My resume lacks diversity, so I called a children’s organization and told them I wanted to do their marketing and write their grants, as long as they were willing to teach me. As an unexpected perk, I now have access to a fantastic workspace. I have been frustrated by my inability to build things and fix things on my own; I signed up for Habitat for Humanity with the idea that I might learn a thing or two, only to discover that they had partnered with the community college to offer free classes on everything from reading blueprints to installing flooring.

I can tell you exactly when my superhero phase started. I was reading my bajillionth book on my Kindle when I suddenly thought, I wish I had my typewriter. For months I hadn’t been able to string a sentence together; I had stared at my manuscript, confounded at the idea that I had managed to produce ANY of this, much less that I would ever feel moved to revise it. For months I had felt inert, dependent on the words of others to pull me along. Suddenly, I wanted those keys under my hands again. Hell, I wanted to BLOG again, something I hadn’t thought about in so long that I had forgotten how to use Wordpress. I wanted to tell you about all of this, share all of it with you, breathlessly, at a rate you can barely keep up with, like Amelie dragging a blind man by the hand.

Not that you’re blind, of course, but you were unaware of what was going on with me. Which is pretty much the same thing, seeing as I am the center of the universe.

You would not believe how quickly these posts pour out; I have never written faster, and I was not a slow writer to begin with. I am inspired. I am the patron saint of divorce redemption. I am a phoenix. I am made of magic. I will change your life. I will change my life. I could strangle Chuck Norris with my bare hands. I won’t, because he has done nothing to deserve it, but I am just saying. Flowers pop up in my fucking FOOTPRINTS right now, all right?

I’m sure it won’t last. I’m sure there will be setbacks; that’s okay. But I intend to enjoy it while it lasts.

I had lunch with Jeff recently and talked a blue streak at the poor man, my soup untouched while I explained that I loved my job and I was going to build HOUSES and help the CHILDREN and have an amazing RESUME. Our past get-togethers have gone well enough, but he could tell there was something different about me this time; he kept having to pull on one of my arms in order to keep me from floating up into the sky, for instance.

“Are you happier now?” he asked. He wasn’t being maudlin; he just honestly wanted to know.

That question gave me pause like none other. My God, AM I happier now? The idea had enormous implications for both of us. But when I stopped to think about it, I knew it wasn’t true.

“No,” I finally said, after setting a Guinness World Record for bread-chewing. “I’m not happier than I was back then. I’m just finally ME again, and I’m so excited about it that I’m kicking some extra ass.”

And that’s why I wrote this post: because I have gotten so many heartbreaking e-mails since I wrote that list of divorce advice. I really didn’t expect that, considering that I’ve been blogging for about four minutes, but people like Loralee and Moosh and Avitable have been kind enough to spread the word. The response has been … humbling, and sad, because so many people separated yesterday, or the day before, or last week, and holy crap life is so wrenchingly hard sometimes.

I wrote this post because I want to tell all of those people that they will come back, and it will be amazing, and I am so excited for them. When they get there, I hope they let me know, because it will make my day. I’m thinking of all of you, future superheroes. Hang in there.

28 Comments

  1. Hänni wrote:

    Amazing post. You put into words, so eloquently, the things I haven’t been able to adequately express. The line about shiny hair and makeup and dead people–it’s quite haunting.

    It’s strange to think divorce can be a good thing, isn’t it?

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 8:45 am | Permalink
  2. Bethany wrote:

    This is wonderful — so brutally honest, yet so hopeful.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 8:47 am | Permalink
  3. Ern wrote:

    Saying that you wrote something kind of similar to what I wrote is like comparing chicken scratches to a Van Gogh. Reading your writing makes me never want to write anything again, because what’s the point? I’ll just point everyone over here. But at the same time it DOES make me want to write. When do we get to read your book?

    Cheers to feeling more like yourself again. It is the most incredible feeling in the world.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 9:39 am | Permalink
  4. I don’t doubt your superhero abilities. With every post of yours I read, I feel more strongly that a friendship of mine that I thought was damaged beyond repair might possibly be fixable after all. What you’re writing about doesn’t even have anything to do with this friendship (except in that this friend had an affair and got divorced) but your writing is so full of hope and optimism that it’s making me think, “Maybe…”

    I’m so sorry that your relationship with Jeff became so damaged that you couldn’t stay married anymore. I’m so glad that you were able to stay friends, and that you’re coming back to you.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  5. tara wrote:

    I love you.

    Thank you so much for this.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  6. Jen wrote:

    Hanni: I wish nothing away. Good, bad, whatever. This probably speaks of an irrational egocentrism, but oh well.

    Ern: You’d better keep writing. I like having a divorce buddy! And there’s no reason to be jealous of Van Gogh–I mean, the man cut off his own ear.

    Bethany: I don’t know the details of your situation, obviously (though you are making me VERY curious, heh), but if it can be repaired, I’m glad to hear it. And really you have to tell me all about it sometime! :)

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  7. Angella wrote:

    I, for one, am glad you’re back. Not just blogging, but back at taking life by the horns. Loved this, my friend.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  8. Tess wrote:

    Seriously, this almost made me cry. And I’m not even broken up or divorced recently or anything like that. But you are just so darn…encouraging. It’s really quite inspiring.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 5:40 pm | Permalink
  9. Here is how it really happened: I saw your post twittered by Torrie of iprettymuchhateeverything.com and I e-mailed it to Casey/Moosh because I’ve been reading her stuff and lately she’s been having difficulty and I thought man, she has got to see this stuff. She then spread you all out. All I’m saying is, I twitterstalked Torrie, I dabble in blogging at this point, and I am glad you’re back, even though I missed you the first time. And have you read eat, pray, love by Elizabeth Gilbert? Torrie even posted the divorce advice post TWICE. I just want some credit as a total blogstalkerlurker type who can’t decide if I want to do this or not.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 7:41 pm | Permalink
  10. Jen wrote:

    Oh! Torrie and I are friends. I didn’t realize she had linked to me. I don’t check stats or anything, so I was just going on what commenters told me.

    I’m sorry to hear that Casey/Moosh is having trouble. I met her briefly in San Francisco once … not sure whether she remembers that, though. :)

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 9:33 pm | Permalink
  11. Avitable wrote:

    Casey is the one who sent me your post initially. You put things so clearly that things I might not have otherwise understood are simple as can be. That one post may have been a perfect post. Nice job.

    Wednesday, November 4, 2009 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  12. Bethany wrote:

    Me again. I remembered I wanted to ask you if there were any non-fiction books you particularly enjoyed reading, and would recommend?

    Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 8:32 am | Permalink
  13. Kerri wrote:

    It’s been amazing to me to be able to identify most of these stages in myself, and even before you wrote this, to know I was hitting personal stages of grief and healing before I could properly recognize and categorize them.

    Right now I’m most definitely in Crazy Pendulum Stage but swinging so close to Healing that I can taste it. On my best days, I can really feel it. Feel me, rising from the ashes somewhere deep below.

    Also: I think we superheroines (and superheroes, too!) need capes.

    Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  14. Moose wrote:

    This is an amazing summation. (And beautifully written, of course. I can practically hear your fingers racing across the keys at warp speed, finishing a 3000 word post in 7 minutes and 12 seconds.) I missed the superhero stage, but maybe that’s because mine wasn’t an official divorce. But similar. Maybe.

    I think I’ll go out and buy myself a cape.

    Friday, November 6, 2009 at 12:59 am | Permalink
  15. schmutzie wrote:

    This weblog is being featured on Five Star Friday – http://www.fivestarfriday.com/2009/11/five-star-fridays-edition-78.html

    Friday, November 6, 2009 at 8:07 am | Permalink
  16. mollykath wrote:

    I almost couldn’t breathe reading this post, probably because I spent 2008 living this post. I still haven’t been able to really blog about it, but holy god woman, you did it for me. Amazing.

    Friday, November 6, 2009 at 11:09 am | Permalink
  17. I too, spent 2008/2009 living this post. I was married for 36 years to my college sweetheart. Reading this and your divorce advice (which I found through Avitable) has helped me immensely. Bless you for your insight.

    Sunday, November 8, 2009 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  18. Jen, I’ll tell you the story via email! Just reply to this comment so I have your address, and I’ll assuage your curiosity. :-)

    Monday, November 9, 2009 at 4:51 am | Permalink
  19. Johanna wrote:

    I actually just saw Jeff yesterday morning – he is cruising through the Okeechobee canal right now, as we speak, with my ex. What a cosmic connection we have – my ex is together with your ex!(as in boating together. And drinking I’m sure) Anyway Jeff looked exactly the same as when I last saw him about three years ago, in his past life when he was with you.

    I totally agree on the last stage you described. I’m still in it and loving life! I can do whatever I want (as long as I show up to work on time and get my daughter to and from daycare every day, but other than that..) I just got the nation’s third fastest time in a slalom competition while driving a vintage 1952 Jaguar. How’s that for a superheroine?

    Take care, girlfriend. I enjoy your writing immensely. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

    Monday, November 9, 2009 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  20. sarawr wrote:

    Oh, I’m so glad you’re blogging again, but so sorry to hear about the divorce. (Although the superhero side-effects sound kind of all right.) Maybe I should pay more attention to Facebook.

    Monday, November 9, 2009 at 9:05 pm | Permalink
  21. Jen wrote:

    Johanna, I burst out laughing at your clarification that our exes are BOATING together. Otherwise, well … now that would be a scandal …

    I talked to Jeff yesterday and he says that you have the best daughter ever. I think he might be gloating that he met her first. Whatever, I’ll get to it, dammit.

    I’m so glad to hear you’re doing well!

    Tuesday, November 10, 2009 at 12:05 am | Permalink
  22. dani wrote:

    Welcome back! You are an inspiration right now and though I’m sorry about the circumstances that have brought you back here, I’ll take inspiration where I can get it.

    Tuesday, November 10, 2009 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  23. Patricia wrote:

    Thank you! I just found out two weeks ago that I’ll be going through this myself…good to have a guidebook to follow. thank you again.

    Tuesday, November 10, 2009 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  24. Loralee wrote:

    I love this blog so much I want to do naughty things to it and get knocked up to trick it into marrying me.

    (Don’t judge me)

    Friday, November 13, 2009 at 8:57 pm | Permalink
  25. anne wrote:

    Brilliant, brilliant, and bravo!

    I found you again via Shannon C., who specifically pointed this post in my direction. It’s been a year now since I left my ex; our dissolution was far different from yours, given that the relationship I was in was abusive, but all of this that you say? It’s true for me too.

    Thank you so much for writing about it all so cleanly and clearly and truly.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  26. Wow! Wonderful writing. It was very moving to read about the experience of divorce from this perspective.

    Monday, November 30, 2009 at 9:27 pm | Permalink
  27. kim wrote:

    i’m at the verge of ending 9 years, 7 months of a relationship (not married) and this post gives me hope. i can make it. even though it seems like there’s no way some times… how long does it take to become a superheroine?

    Tuesday, March 9, 2010 at 5:30 am | Permalink
  28. Playboymommy wrote:

    While I am not lucky enough to be able to continue a friendship with my ex, I had tears streaming down my face when I read this. I read your other post about how you and your ex ARE able to remain friends and it made me really wish that I was able to do the same with mine. Even though he’s caused me more hurt than anyone else, he’s also the one that made me happier than anyone else for 10 years. It breaks my heart that I don’t have that person in my life, but neither of us are the same people we were during that 10 years and some of us handled it gracefully and became stronger for it and know that it was for the best, and some of us didn’t. I hurt and cried for a long time because I thought that we were “meant to be together”, but it is more than obvious to me that we were NOT :) I’m still lucky enough to remain close to his amazing family. He quit seeing/taking care of our two awesome boys 4 1/2 months ago, which angers me to no end, but we still go to his parent’s house for all holidays and see his mom way more than he does now. I wish I had this to read when I first got into that relationship, before I got married, and during and after our seperation and divorce. Either, way I have this now and will use it for the future. I honestly don’t really think I’ll be getting married again in the future, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still believe in love. Thank you so much for this wonderful post. :)

    Saturday, April 17, 2010 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Trephine › Happy Monday! Here, have some metaphors. on Monday, November 16, 2009 at 1:19 am

    [...] it.” It seems to me that since I really have nothing better to do, and I am currently in my superhero phase, I might as well become more [...]

  2. The Trephine › Happy Old Year. on Tuesday, December 29, 2009 at 5:25 am

    [...] too. Because you offered so many great memories, I have decided that I am willing to overlook That Other Thing. (Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.) All of our troubles [...]

  3. [...] consider it a testament to the power of the superhero stage that I hadn’t even left Missouri before deciding that I was going to charm this boy with my [...]