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Top Ten Signs You Might Be Dating an Ex-Wife

1. She’s flat-out terrified.

2. She has no game whatsoever. This girl not only fails to remember to wear hot underwear, but she will also strike up a conversation while perched on your toilet (just to PEE, of course—she’s still a lady). She may also discuss her cycles with you, regardless of whether you happen to be trying to eat lunch at the time. Come to think of it, this girl is not really for the faint of heart.

3. She doesn’t want to get married. She doesn’t want to get married. She doesn’t want to get married. Do you hear her? Because she doesn’t. And if you want to, like ever, like even when everyone involved is ninety-eight years old and a marriage would be really beneficial purely for estate distribution purposes, you can just move along, buddy. You may think you don’t want to get married. But deep down, you might. You might. Don’t you go getting all mushy in the eyes, because she’s watching you as one watches that possibly zombie-bitten, expendable character in the mall, waiting for you to turn.

4. Every story she tells involves this one guy who occupies her every mental diorama in a neutral but persistent manner. It’s like that game where you add “in bed” to everything, except you add “with my ex” to everything. “This one time, in Iceland (with my ex) …” “So I was at Baskin Robbins (with my ex) …” “And anyway, so there I was, wearing my wedding dress and standing in front of a pastor, ready to exchange eternal, lifelong vows (with my ex) …” Sorry. It’s not intentional. You’ll probably have to get used to it. If it helps, pretend that [FILL IN EX’S NAME HERE] was a … I don’t know, a golden retriever or something. Doesn’t that make it more fun? “This one time, I was at a bar, making out (with a golden retriever) …” Okay, so it doesn’t work in every context. Or maybe it does, depending on the bar.

5. She loves her cat. Listen, that cat may be a dumb little critter incapable of actual emotion, but that cat was THERE for her. Don’t judge. Bonus points if you feign affection for the cat even when the cat is clearly resentful of your very existence. Oh, man, the divorced ladies love their cats. If you have any idea what you’re messing with, and if you value this relationship at all, you’re a cat person now. Aren’t you. AREN’T YOU. Are you sure? Because if not, she could just shut the cat in the bathroom so he doesn’t bother you … No? Good answer. Goooood answer. Now lie still … very still … shhhhh. The cat doesn’t like it when you interrupt the nap he’s taking on your face.

(She loves her rabbit, too, but he is not the resentful type and he does not nap on faces, so it’s not really an issue.)

6. Did she mention she doesn’t want to get married? She is just checking.

7. She hesitates to admit to you. The next time she and you run into someone out in public that she knows, could you crawl under the dinner table a little faster? And next time make sure the toe of your shoe isn’t sticking out under the edge of the tablecloth, will you? Otherwise, people will think you’re her boyfriend, and then they will ask questions, and honestly, she can barely ask herself those questions right now, much less field them from someone else. How are you at imitating a potted plant when cornered? Fantastic!

8. She’s … a little oversensitive to domestic conflict, and possibly somewhat paranoid. Did you just look at the wet towel she left on the floor in a disparaging manner? Did your nostrils flutter slightly with disdain? What do you mean, you don’t know what she’s talking about? Your eyes definitely shifted toward it a little. More like a twitch, really. Your eyes TWITCHED toward it. And your nostrils, they flared … or at least they opened slightly, oh so very slightly, just one tiny and almost undetectable step in a time-lapse photo collection of a flower blooming. And she saw. SHE SAW.

9. She is highly averse to planning for the future. What do you mean, what does she want for lunch? Are the two of you even going to be dating by lunch? It’s only ten-thirty. You want her to be your date to a wedding in two months? Oh, that’s precious. She could be eating monkey brains out of a bowl in some third-world country in two months for all she knows. Life is unpredictable! You never know! Just trust her on this one!

10. Her expectations can be a little … unreasonable. What, you didn’t know that you’re supposed to bring her a fork with her grilled cheese? You didn’t even MAKE her a grilled cheese? You keep forgetting that she doesn’t watch television? You don’t stick her keys in the fridge next to her lunch so she doesn’t forget her food in the morning? You didn’t realize she can’t sleep under a mere SHEET like some kind of … an animal … in the woods … who has found a sheet and is sleeping under it? You didn’t realize that she vastly prefers Cherry Coke to plain old Coke? Good grief, you are TERRIBLE at this game. What’s your name again? Actually, scratch the “again,” just … what’s your name in the first place? Nevermind–the two of you can talk about this later, once you’ve run to the store for tampons.

In which I become that cat lady.

So, like literally six days after my life fell apart, I decided to get a cat.

I think you will agree that there is never a better time to make such a decision than when you are romantically heartbroken, with an utterly uncertain future and nowhere to live. This is truly the ideal time for a visit the Humane Society; it says so right in their pamphlet. When Jeff and I were negotiating everything, I actually ASKED, as in, on my LIST OF DEMANDS, if I could get a cat, because having a cat to snuggle with would make me “feel better about this whole divorce thing,” especially since I was leaving the bunnies behind for the foreseeable future. No red flags there! Carry on!

Technically, I did have somewhere to live; it just didn’t have anything in it yet, seeing as I had just received the keys from my landlord about two hours prior. Jeff by no means had pressured me to leave, especially considering that he was never home anyway, but at some point in the proceedings, I had locked onto the idea that I would find a sunny studio somewhere with hardwood floors. You know the kind–with crown molding and crystal doorknobs and darling little keyholes. I had always wanted to live somewhere like that, with a cat.

And guess what? I totally made it happen! I’m … just not sure it turned out to be the hottest idea to fulfill both aspects of that fantasy in the same day.

I walked into the Humane Society, completely dazed. You know that beginning to a movie, the one where some disheveled girl who’s been through some as-yet-unrevealed zombie-invasion hell wanders into a charming little gas station with the tinkling of a doorbell, and you can tell she’s not quite right? That something has clearly Happened, even before the cute gum-cracking cashier with the Southern accent recognizes the severity of the situation? I think that was probably me. I was all, “I am here to get a cat,” as if this was the only English sentence I knew. (Come to think of it, there’s another dead giveaway that you’re about to watch an unpleasant killer-cyborg type of plot unfold: a stranger who quite suspiciously appears to be programmed to just say a few key sentences over and over again while trying to act normal.)

In my defense, I am famous (some would say notorious) for spoiling my pets, and I don’t think any of the friends who were too polite to argue with me at the time really expected me to do any harm to some poor homeless animal by, like, squeezing it too hard while staring blankly into the distance, JUST AS AN EXAMPLE, HA HA HA HA. Also in my defense, I HAD asked a Humane Society employee, over the phone, whether I was required to take the cat home that same day. I was reassured that this was not the case.

I was given a number and directed to the cat area. I studied each animal in turn, looking for signs of hardiness. After all, this poor feline would be expected to serve as the sole emotional outlet for a woman who was still crying at stoplights, so “rugged” seemed like a fairly key adjective. Not to hate on the available cats of the Humane Society, but frankly, none of them seemed like sidekick material. Most of them were sleeping, for instance; I think you will agree that this was not exemplary of the kind of roll-up-your-sleeves gusto required of a divorce sidekick.

Crushing disappointment had already set in by the time I turned around and saw him. He was the only cat I hadn’t seen yet, and you guys, he was PERFECT:

This gigantic cuddly tabby won me over in about a second. He was strong; he was handsome; he had personality. People, he was cat-boyfriend material—we’re talking the kind of cat-boyfriend who will don a varsity letter sweater in order to put a corsage on your wrist and take you to the dance. There was alert gazing! There was purring! There was the kneading of my sweater! I immediately had the most mature and well-adjusted reaction possible, which was to plonk down in a chair right in front of his cage and glare at everyone while clutching my paper number in one hand and petting him through the bars with the other. “You really … like that one, don’t you?” people would ask politely. And I was all, “What was your first clue? MOVE ALONG, PLEASE.”

By the time my number came up and I jabbed my finger in his direction rapidly and repeatedly, like, THAT ONE, I WANT THAT ONE, AND YOU BETTER GO GET HIM FOR ME NOW, RIGHT NOW, BEFORE SOMEONE TAKES HIM AWAY, the getting-to-know-you process was really more of a formality. They handed him to me, he head-butted me hello and then commenced kneading my shoulder with his paws, and I said, “I’ll be back for him on Wednesday.”

“Oh, no, I’m sorry,” the attendant responded. “We don’t allow anyone to reserve an animal.”

Alarmed, I explained that I had called and asked beforehand. She repeated their policy and politely explained that whoever I had talked to obviously had their head up their ass (though not in so many words). After a moment of back-and-forth, it became obvious that I had to decide whether I could live with the possibility that he might be gone when I came back in a few days. And really, since I was quite objectively aware that he was the most perfect and wonderful cat that had ever existed on this earth, that outcome seemed like a strong possibility.

“Well … I … guess I’ll take him now!” I said brightly, as if I had so much as a piece of furniture back home. Or, you know, a litterbox, even. About three seconds later, they took my picture, standing there, holding him. I don’t know how it turned out, but I’m sure I looked terrified. Very newly single girl clutches the cat that she is utterly unprepared to take home and stares into the lens with a tremulous smile: yet another successful adoption story in which a cat finds its forever family!

Lest you think I’m exaggerating my state of mind, I give you this: once they put him in a box and handed him to me, I just walked right out the door with him, without paying a dime. You guys, I actually STOLE a CAT. (Please join me in my childish delight when I observe that one might call this … catnapping.)

I walked out to the parking lot, put him in the front seat, and sat behind the wheel without moving for a good seven minutes. Then I drove to PetSmart. You haven’t lived until you’re dragging a box with a cat in it around the pet store, flinging litter liners and cat food and cat toys and cat litter into an overflowing cart. At some point, I realized I had not adopted the cat in question, but stolen one, but by then it was way too late to go back. Who knew when this thing was going to poop? I WAS IN A DESPERATE RACE AGAINST THE POOP.

Inconveniently (and rather cinematically, if I do say so myself), it began to pour down rain, which is how I found myself soaking wet in front of my building with two armloads of cat accoutrements and a meowing cardboard box. I learned a lot that day: mainly, to never, ever buy the forty-pound tub of litter, as someone who lives in a third-floor walkup. I walked into my utterly empty (and by utterly empty, I mean devoid of so much as a roll of toilet paper) apartment, threw everything down, let my new and horrified cat-boyfriend out of the box, and started apologizing profusely.

Did I mention I was going out of town that weekend, and was in fact already late?

I poured him like nine bowls of cat food to tide him over for the next two days and got ready to leave; he kept cowering and trying to climb into my lap. Finally, I just called my parents, told them I was going to be late getting home, and sat against the wall, on the floor, with him curled up in a lap that was too small for him. We sat like that for a long time, both new here, both thoroughly freaked out. In a flash of inspiration, after taking in my empty surroundings, I named him Finito Garante, which is really terrible Italian for “guaranteed to be over.” (Jeff, may I remind you, is severely allergic to cats.) The whole day just had that feel: There’s no going back now, is there. “I’ll call you Nito!” I told my cat-boyfriend. Then I headed to my hometown to see my family for the first time since the Decision had been made, in order to reassure them that I was all right.

When I returned home about forty-eight hours later, I had about nine messages from the Humane Society telling me I had stolen a cat and—I am not making this up—THREATENING TO SEND AN OFFICER TO THE PREMISES if I did not contact them immediately and turn myself in. And I was all, listen, if you took your job that seriously, you wouldn’t have given someone like me a cat in the first place.

But that cat has slept in the crook of my arm ever since then, so I’m glad they did.

He can, at times, be convinced to sleep away from me, on his side of the bed, like so:

Good night, Nito.

Yet … somehow … in the morning, when I wake up, it’s more like this:

Oh, good MORNING, Nito. I don’t even know how we wind up like that without me waking up.

He also loves to help me work. Sometimes, he can be cajoled into a reasonable helping position, from which he can review manuscripts and offer creative input. (Well, when he actually has his eyes open … which is never.)

Most of the time, though, he is … rather unhelpful.

No, Nito, that’s perfect. You’re not in the way at all.

Usually I just give up and work around him, which is why my work space looks like this a lot of the time:

Not that he’s, uh, a spoiled little cat-prince or anything.

It’s ridiculous, how much having him has helped me. I would slog through a confusing day of realtors and insurance papers and God knows what else, and then I would crawl into bed and hug on his big furry self like a little kid lost in the woods with a teddy bear. And he would start purring immediately, and his tail would start patting me in a slow, sleepy rhythm, and we would fall asleep like that, content if not always particularly victorious. Even now, he greets me when I come home every day, and there is something profoundly healing about that, even if he is just a grubby little parasite when you get right down to it. Hey, who isn’t?

Anyway, it’s a good thing I don’t send out Christmas cards, or I would have some choice words for you: Nito, me, Olan Mills, matching sweater vests. Don’t act like that wouldn’t be awesome.

Types of Personal Ads: A Reference Guide

PRETENDING TO BE TOO COOL FOR PERSONAL ADS BUT PROBABLY JUST LAZY
I am too amazing and complex to be summed up in paragraphs so I won’t even try. You should similarly recognize the futility of this exercise and just message me, hopefully with considerably more effort than I just exerted.

ALMOST COMICALLY INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM ANY OTHER HUMAN BEING ALIVE
I like fun. I enjoy going out, staying in, and eating food that tastes good. I also enjoy snuggling and laughing. Sometimes I watch movies. I live in a house and have a job. The first thing people usually notice about me would have to be my smile, my eyes, or my unique inability to pick myself out of a lineup. (My friends could, though, and they claim I am attractive, with a great sense of humor.)

PRETTY OBVIOUSLY TRAUMATIZED
I’m looking for a girl who won’t use me as a sugar daddy, cheat on me, lie to me, steal from me, send me a breakup video of her peeing on my toothbrush, later reveal herself to actually be a tranny, or kill my cat and hang it from the light fixture for me to find when I come home. NO GAMES. Please reply with subject line “I’m real” or I will just assume you are a spam-bot.

NOT REALLY MAKING ANY SENSE
27/M/yourtown HWP DDfree LOL EOE sound good hit me up peace j/k

WILDLY AND ALMOST POIGNANTLY OPTIMISTIC
I am looking for a woman to come over to my house and give me a blowjob while I’m playing video games. Please arrive dressed in a trenchcoat with nothing underneath (garter belt will be provided). When you are finished, don an apron and high heels, bake me a cake, frost it with a personal message (just make it out to Jerry), and then leave immediately, leaving only several nude Polaroids of yourself behind, preferably ones of you making out with the optional stripper I am willing to hire for the occasion. I will consider all applicants but I am more likely to select you if you send me your phone number, a good picture of you, an in-depth essay on your merits (resume also acceptable), and $50. Good luck.

SHAMELESSLY WORKING SOME KIND OF POSSIBLY OCCASIONALLY EFFECTIVE MARKETING ANGLE
I can’t wait to find a woman to spoil. I’m looking for someone who likes to be showered with rose petals like the queen she is. I love buying expensive gifts, giving daylong massages, and making dinners from scratch to serve by candlelight. Compliments to you will stream endlessly out of my mouth, even when I am sleeping, because I will dream only of you. The only thing I ask in return is that you allow me to occasionally stop painting your toenails just long enough to bask in your glow like an ancient South American sun worshipper.

NOT PARTICULARLY FAMILIAR WITH THE THEORIES OF DR. FREUD
I’m just looking for a girl who is attractive enough to meet my standards. I work out constantly while simultaneously sitting on a motorcycle that I have attached to a parachute so that I will have something to rev loudly while skydiving. My hobbies are cars, muscles, protein, and shark-wrestling. I’m so virile that I have to use custom-made lead condoms, not that the regular ones would be big enough anyway. You can only see me kissing one bicep in the picture but I assure you that the other one is bigger. If you know how to handle a real man and you aren’t fat or ugly, hit me up.

SHOULD MAYBE NOT EVEN BE HERE RIGHT NOW
I am looking for someone to restore my belief in love and teach me about the power of second chances now that my marriage has fallen apart. Or at least it will probably fall apart, because she not only told me it’s over and walked out of the room a few minutes ago, but I can also hear her packing a suitcase right now and rounding up the kids to take them to her mother’s house. My ideal woman will be patient, forgiving, and willing to help me put the pieces of my heart back together right after we mop them up off the floor they are currently splattering onto.

PROBABLY BLUFFING SO DON’T EVEN WORRY ABOUT IT
Hey, you. Yeah, you. I can see you. Are you her? Are you the one? I’ve been looking all over for you, and I know you must be out there. It isn’t creepy that I’m addressing you directly, is it? Because I feel as if I have known you all our lives, and I know that you must be looking for me too. Message me, and let’s see where this goes! I can’t wait to meet you, and I do mean YOU, the one sitting right there, looking at her computer screen.

ACTUALLY PRETTY DECENT
I find a creative way to demonstrate that I am smart and funny, rather than requiring you to take my word for it. While I know what I want, I’m happy to demonstrate my reasonable expectations by avoiding gagworthy phrases like “the one” and “soulmate.” My picture is larger than four pixels and also from this decade, I trust you to get my jokes, and I don’t mind poking fun at myself. I am rare, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be smart enough to pick up on that without me begging you to believe me. I don’t take any of this too seriously, and I’m aware that the odds of this working out aren’t great, but I do not consider myself too good to put forth a reasonable effort, nor do I demonstrate a pathological fear of wasting my time, so I’m happy to give it a go. I am clearly okay with it not working out anyhow, seeing as there is obviously a lot more to me than my love life. Unfortunately, this amazing impression of me you’re getting has more to do with my innate writing ability and shrewd approach to representing myself well than any of my actual attributes as a person, but … well … it’s a start. Isn’t it?

I love you.

“My love of [you] is in me, moving in my heart, changing chambers, like something poured from hand to hand, to be weighed and then reweighed.” –Sharon Olds, “High School Senior”

I build the version of you that I love inside of me, even though you’re right in front of me. I think everyone does, often without knowing it, and they get upset when that inner version disagrees with the truer, fleshier version, which has the advantage of being incarnate but is, quite frankly, unknowable, unstable, and unpredictable. I get upset, too, like anyone, when I am stung by disappointment or surprised by some mismatch between the working model of you that I carry within me and who you are being, to me, right now.

But even in the worst and most devastating of partings, the consolation prize is incomparably valuable: a new imaginary friend, made out of the best parts of you, that can walk with me for the rest of my days, saying exactly what you would say and doing exactly what you would do, were you ever and always your very best self.

The beauty of you, the things you do well, your areas of mastery: they are mine now. I have not stolen them from you, but I have copied them over months and years, and I will faithfully keep them on file.

I know the joke you would make, here, and it makes me laugh. I know the advice you would give, here, and it calms me. I stand up for what’s right and you agree with me, and even if no one else can see or hear you, it makes me stronger; it lends me power. Long after you are gone, your companionship remains one of my most treasured possessions. You let me see myself; you keep me company; you remain my true friend.

Regardless of where the real you has gone next, regardless of the harm you will do or the mistakes you will make, you are safe with me. I protect you in defiance of the things that are wrong with all of us, the things that we cannot help, and it is an honor to be your steward.

You are the smirk on my face as I walk alone, on the sidewalk. You are the rueful shake of my head when I make that habitual mistake, the one you hated, you know the one, and then I have to laugh, because oh my hell, it drove you nuts. You are the smile around my toothbrush in the morning, punctuating some passing thought that touches down to rest with me for a moment, a welcome visitor, before flitting away again. You are my party anecdote, a man made legend, and deservedly so. I share you, and in that sharing, your past efforts–those valiant efforts that nonetheless could not fix what needed to be fixed–can now at last be made victorious, as a toast, as a punchline, as a celebration.

Loving you has made me more than myself. It has made me us.

And despite my hopeless humanity, I will try, upon our meeting years in the future, to have lived up to those good parts that you kept, so that you can recognize me, the way I promise to recognize you.

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.

Some divorce advice, from me to you.

FOR THE DATING/ENGAGED

Don’t marry anyone you wouldn’t feel comfortable divorcing. If the love of your life plays the victim, if they hate all of their exes, if they say nasty things about people they used to date, there is a very good chance that person will do the same to you someday, should you find yourselves on the wrong side of some very alarming statistics. As you walk down the aisle, if you can’t count on a romantic future together, you can at least count on a romantic future that doesn’t involve property damage, the spiteful withholding of pets and/or children, and restraining orders filed on behalf of the overdramatic.

Plus, anytime anyone asks about your ex and how it’s going, you can say, “Oh, he/she is great. A++++++++, would divorce again.” Oh, come on, that’s funny.

Because it’s like eBay? Get it? Nevermind.

FOR THE HAPPILY MARRIED

Have your own friends. Have your own bank account. Have your own life. Investing in your marriage does not mean you can’t continue to invest in yourself as well. The people in your own individual social circle, the ones who belong to you as an individual, may very well wind up carrying your couch up three flights of stairs. Couches are heavy, man. Make some friends.

Don’t ditch your family just because you’re working on your own family now. If things don’t work out, your family will assemble a mean kitchen island for you, and your dad will hang your shelves. (If you did ignore them, say you’re sorry and that you’re so thankful they’re here. If you do it sincerely enough, they might buy you something. I’m just saying.)

FOR THE UNHAPPILY MARRIED

Do what you can to fix it, obviously. Obviously.

FYI: Your horror at the idea of “becoming a statistic” reveals your perception that you are somehow better than everyone else—that you assumed yourself immune to the sorts of problems that have plagued half the married population. Your desire to not become THAT PERSON, the person who gets divorced, is revealing an elitism in you that you still don’t see, not yet.

Guess what? Turns out that you are not that special, and neither was your relationship, no matter how much you enjoyed conceptualizing it as a fairy tale (I’m looking at you, psychobrides). Mmmm, humble pie! It’s delicious! When you’re done chewing, decide what you would do if everyone you knew died of the swine flu tomorrow and thus there was no one around to see what happened next. Then do that.

FOR THE DIVORCING

It’s no one’s business; feel free to tell them so. This doesn’t make you rude; they were rude to ask. Well, unless “So, are you guys still sleeping together?” doesn’t count as a rude question in your book even when it comes from your smarmy boss—in which case, I have some likeminded people I’d like to introduce you to. Maybe they’ll start conversing with you instead of me.

Cheesy music can really cheer you up. The cheesier, the better, really. Let Destiny’s Child offer you a strong moral message while also providing a beat to dance to in your new apartment. Note that your pets will not, in fact, throw their hands up at you, even if you entreat them to do so. Technically, they are not independent women, so I suppose this makes sense.

Try to let people help you, if they’re able. You have your pride, yes, but you are only one person, and there is a lot to do. Don’t worry—divorce is really common. Surely you’ll have your chance to pay it back in some way, for someone, later on down the road.

You have to do what’s best for you, as an individual. Nothing I’m about to say trumps that. Don’t lose sight of what you need. Don’t compromise your future out of guilt or a sense of obligation. Your greatest responsibility is to yourself (along with any children you might have). The ability to look out for yourself is not something admirable or special. It is your basic duty and yours alone. There is a difference between caring and vulnerability. Focus on the former.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re weak if you still love your ex. Hate is weak—and, paradoxically, hate is also exhausting and consuming. If you choose to do it this way, if you choose to love, be aware that some activities, like yelling your heart out to fuck-you anthems on the radio, will lose their fun. But the ability to give your ex a heartfelt hug the next time you see them will be worth it. No one is suggesting that the two of you become golf partners, but any civility you can manage is only going to help you in the future.

Don’t let anyone shame you for maintaining a friendship with your ex. If people handled rejection better and learned to stop butthurt in its tracks before they slashed anyone’s tires, maybe they would grasp that it’s a little absurd to become mortal enemies with someone you once called your best friend. This is your life; this person was once your most important thing; the two of you are adults and may do as you please. Don’t follow social protocol just because the inability to fit the two of you into a box makes everyone else uncomfortable. They’ll get over it. Upon saying hello to the two of you at a party, they’ll also get a sort of deer-in-the-headlights look as they mentally review how the extent to which they trashed your ex to everyone you know. It’s probably a little wrong to visibly savor this, so at least try to feign ignorance.

If you left them, have some patience. That probably hurt. A lot. No one in that kind of pain can be expected to behave well all the time. Maintain your boundaries, but do it as gently as you’re able.

If they left you, think about whether you really would have wanted them to continue the relationship out of guilt or obligation. Contemplate the far-out notion that they are rejecting what happens when the two of you combine your strengths and weaknesses, not rejecting you in your entirety as a human being. Blasphemy, I know.

It takes two, of course. Be the bigger person, but grasp that you can’t keep this situation friendly by yourself. Practice due diligence, turn the other cheek, and then drag the asshole to court if that’s what you have to do. (I hope for your sake that it isn’t; I have worked at a law firm, and I can tell you with certainty that no one will win.) If your ex is hateful toward you, do your best not to escalate the situation. You would be surprised how often, if you offer the benefit of the doubt, the other person will say, “I’m sorry. I’m just feeling hurt and upset right now, and I’m not thinking clearly.” If they don’t, perhaps you failed to follow the first piece of advice in this post. Ah well. Just do what you can.

No matter how you play it, the two of you will have bad days. You had bad days when you were together, too. It happens.

Even if you wish no further contact with your ex, treating them maliciously is a waste of everyone’s time. You won’t feel better, and they won’t miraculously develop an appreciation for your side of the story. That whole maxim about the flies and the honey? Remember it. Even if you’re motivated entirely by your own self-interests, cruelty is a poor choice; it’s honestly just lousy strategy.

Don’t let anyone reduce your marriage to a mistake. People want it to have been a mistake because they have determined their own current marriages to be not-mistakes. The concept of a marriage that was doomed from the start is designed to protect them, not you; in precious few cases is it really that simple. Tell anyone who tries to wave off an entire era of your life with one dismissive gesture that you wouldn’t change a thing. It might help to point out that you used to ride around in first-class suites to places like Bangkok and New Zealand (and, in fact, thanks to a generous ex, still CAN ride around in first-class suites to places like Bangkok and New Zealand). If such privileges were not in your marriage arsenal, I assume you’ll come up with something.

If you can’t say that you wouldn’t change a thing because it’s not really true, try to get to a point where you realize that it actually is true. The past few months or years are a part of who you are. Surely you learned SOMETHING, accomplished SOMETHING, experienced SOMETHING worthwhile during that time. Don’t wish yourself away.

You could always just not say anything, of course. Don’t feel pressured to defend yourself or your marriage. People can think what they want; what you think is more important. If you have a little time, though, it would be nice if you could share some insights, if only for the benefit of the next divorcing person to come along.

Resist the temptation to reduce your own marriage to a mistake. Hindsight is not, in fact, 20/20, and I can cite research to prove it. Your demise as a couple will seem so obvious in retrospect; recognize that this is false, a cognitive trick designed to protect your ego. Celebrate what was good. Don’t cling to it, but celebrate it. Perfection is not a prerequisite for something to be real and true in its own way. Nor is longevity.

While you’re celebrating all that good, don’t forget that it ended for a reason. This stuff generally doesn’t happen on its own. People don’t get into a fight over something inconsequential, like who ate the last bagel, get carried away, and oops, they’re divorced. Rejoice the good parts all you want, but don’t forget why you’re where you are. I mean, you’re going to feel like a total jackass if you have to divorce the same person twice.

Recognize that appreciating the good will make the whole deal a little sadder. Tossing aside your emotional armor can be painful, but some wounds need to hurt longer to heal well. If you wait a little longer to climb back onto your feet, it may save you years of limping around. Hot damn, that’s profound. Write that shit down.

Feel free to claim that you were a victim from the first date onward, as long as you don’t mind having this exact same relationship over again with someone else. If you’re looking for something a little different though, if only for the sake of variety, it might be best to acknowledge your role as a willing participant in the partnership. If you married your father/mother and your father/mother sucked, or if the two of you exhibited codependent behaviors of any kind, now would be a fantastic time to look into that.

Say you’re sorry. Ask to be forgiven. Forgive the other person if you can. Forgive yourself while you’re at it.

You will feel better sooner than you think. I promise.

FOR PEOPLE WHO KNOW A DIVORCING PERSON

Say it with me: “I will not assume.”

Don’t take anything personally, even if “anything” includes nine unanswered e-mails and the forgetting of your birthday. Sorry.

Be supportive. Let them decide whether they want to talk about it. Forgive wild fluctuations in emotion and opinion. One day your divorcing friend will want to be a forest ranger! The next day, a nun! One day, your divorcing friend is totally fine, and over the whole thing! The next day, whoops, still depressed. Nod, smile, and be patient. Let them work it out.

This will probably take longer than you think it should. Don’t make a sad person feel guilty or self-indulgent for being sad after whichever calendar date you have deemed appropriate. Otherwise, remorse will bite you in the ass when it’s your turn. Lo, trust this blogger regarding that of which she speaks, for she has learned the hard way.

FOR COMPLETE STRANGERS WHO MAY BE UNFORTUNATE ENOUGH TO ENCOUNTER A DIVORCING PERSON

Sometimes people kick things in public while cursing under their breath. Try not to judge them.

FOR THE HAPPILY DIVORCED

First of all, congratulations. That certainly wasn’t easy, was it?

Invest in yourself. Think. Read. Learn. You stand at a joint in your trajectory; flex it, experiment. Take advantage; you have little to lose. If you need a little courage or inspiration, read this book. Get excited; you now have the keys to an entire realm of possibility. Who are you? Who do you want to be?

If you want to meet somebody, be somebody worth meeting. Burn that wick at both ends by following your own interests and doing something with yourself: not only will you meet people who share your common traits, but you will also care less about whether you meet someone in the first place … seeing as how you went out and got yourself a fulfilling life and all.

There’s a reason you find a relationship the moment you stop looking for one; being okay on your own is the best way to attract healthy people.

Feel free to have a whore phase. I salute you! Please use a condom, though. You aren’t in Kansas anymore, and some of the flying monkeys, while in possession of an enviable level of energy, flexibility, and skill, also have herpes. Other than that, knock yourself out. You’ll probably learn something, and if you don’t, I assure you that once or twice, something will happen that is hilarious enough to cause at least one of your girlfriends to shoot beer out of her nose.

Speaking of which, be patient with your parents. They’re adjusting too, mostly to the fact that you’re a slut.

When the REAL dating begins, take it slow. You’re in no hurry. Avoid the impatient, the aggressive. Be honest with yourself and with the other person in terms of what you can handle. If they decide they want more than you can offer, don’t take it personally, and resist the urge to make promises you can’t keep.

If you do meet someone special, via sluttery or otherwise, go back to the beginning of this post. I can’t promise it’s going to work out any better this time, but it can still be okay. In fact, it can still be better than okay. No future is certain, but the fact remains that there are still countries you haven’t visited. There is still so much to see. Enjoy your life, and do it with someone you care about, and the regret you’re so afraid of will be impossible, even if you wind up getting divorced nine times. Which … okay, you should probably try not to do that, but, you know, whatever. It’s not a contest, and it’s not the end of the world.

FOR EVERYONE

Be brave. Be kind. Take care. Good luck.

In transit.

After I saw it a few months ago, just floating there in the sky, everything started to change.

I spent almost the entire year before that in relative unhappiness. I had nuked my entire life flat and moved to California with a guy I had known for four weeks. I did this because I didn’t think it was a mistake, because my instincts told me to jump.

It wasn’t a mistake. But oh, starting over has its price.

I knew it would; I still remember the last time, years ago now, that I moved to a city where I didn’t know anyone but the man I had arrived with — how I became convinced I had wrecked my life, how I wept almost daily in the bathtub out of loneliness and fear. I remember how I longed for some kind of source of familiar comfort in my own life, some carved-out nook to curl up in, and had found nothing. You do eventually find some beginning point to chip away at, and what you unearth will be nothing less than all-encompassing revelation, but I hadn’t known that the first time.

No friends. No hobbies. No rest. No time for anything amid the tsunami of romantic and professional transition, with those same old reliable instincts telling me to respect the exhaustion permeating my bones, to bide my time on moving forward. I bore it as patiently as I could. If I have cultivated any form of discipline over the course of my life, it’s the patience to endure the desolate landscape of in-between, where there isn’t much air and very little to grab onto.

I’ve learned not to flinch away from the suspense, not to give in to the temptation to just grab a story by the arm so I can make something happen already.

People have gotten entire academic degrees just to make something happen. People have entered marriages, had babies, and gotten divorces just to make something happen. So much of the rhetoric of our culture is built around going out there and making something happen that I sometimes forget I’m not my own personal deity, a mistake for which I have paid dearly.

So I waited. I met the train every morning, rode into the city, detrained in an orderly fashion on the other end, waited for the crosswalk man to light up a few times, and arrived at my desk. Hours later I did the whole thing in reverse. I did this a seemingly impossible number of times. All the while I waited for a pattern to emerge, waited to make a trail long enough that I could look back and feel as if I’d gotten anywhere. The future has to arrive eventually; that is what it does.

Sometimes, in those involuntarily contemplative moments we all must endure on the train platform, I thought maybe I could hear it coming.

The Divorce Tourniquet: First Aid for the Freshly Wounded

I’ve written about divorce — oh, have I! — and a heartbreakingly common message I get in my inbox is something along the lines of, “You don’t know me, but my life is falling apart right now. Thanks for writing about your experiences and making me feel like someday I’m going to be okay.” And every time, I root for those people.

I’ve long moved on from my divorce, and my memories of what it felt like to be so full of sorrow, to be brimming to the point that I stole a quick cry every time I bent down to tie my shoe or turned my back to stir my tea at the kitchen counter, are fading.

Before those memories disappear entirely, I want to root for those people one more time, out loud. Brand-new divorcees of the world, I’ve got seven things to say to you:

BE PROUD OF YOURSELF

You’re battling a bogeyman that some people would do anything to get away from, that a lot of miserable people decry with histrionic fervor. Right now, somewhere, a man or woman is tolerating treatment that erodes his or her humanity just to avoid the experience currently hitting you in the face with a sledgehammer.

These people, the ones who still need their lives to be a story that makes sense, say it loudly, so that the monster under the bed will hear: Divorce isn’t an option. Well, you’re making it an option. You’re making it an option like a fucking badass. Maybe you found yourself dumped into an arena against your will, facing that monster gladiator-style while the deadbolt slides into place behind you and you clutch whatever weapon you can find in terror. Or maybe you dragged that fucker out by his ankle and have tackled him out of sheer rage about everything that has happened in the last months or years, everything that made you feel broken, alone, or so bored you could scream. Either way, you are fighting, for yourself and often for your children, and that is hard.

You’re making your world from scratch, and that requires tirelessness and bravery. Be proud of yourself.

DON’T GET NOSTALGIC

I’ve said it before: Two happy people do not wake up one morning, get into a playful fight over the last bagel, and wind up in court. Something got you here, and I’m willing to bet it wasn’t “No, I love YOU more! No, YOU hang up!” Divorce isn’t a masked man who pops up out of the shrubbery and demands that you hand over your happy relationship. Divorce is your relationship, or at least what your relationship has become in this moment. Nothing has been done to either of you that doesn’t happen to couples all over the world. If you want to work it out, work it out — but with honesty and an extremely discriminating eye for eliminating the issues.

And before you moon over those wedding photos, remember that it’s easy to look happy when someone else has done your hair, your new mother-in-law has just given you a really nice rice cooker, and a photographer is waiting in the wings to Photoshop out the zit on your nose. It was easy to look happy when you were still in the youthful business of condensing your better moments into something everyone could see.

Your life right now is no accident, and you can’t afford to lie to yourself about that. Don’t get nostalgic.

REMEMBER THAT THIS IS YOUR FIRST TIME

Maybe you miss your spouse. Maybe you miss your house or your children. There are a lot of very logical reasons for your distress, for the feeling that you don’t know what to think about or where to put your hands, but remember that unfamiliarity causes a great deal of distress on its own, regardless of context. You’ve never been in pain like this; you have no idea how long it’s going to last; your life experiences thus far have not yielded a map out of this dark maze. Remember your first breakup, how you thought you’d never heal, how you thought you’d ruined everything? Yeah, like that — except this time society agrees with you, because unlike other breakups, this is a breakup we’ve been taught to pretend will never happen, a breakup we aren’t allowed to accept as a standard part of learning and growing.

People have asked me if I’m afraid to get married again out of fear of having to go through divorce all over again someday, but I can’t imagine any divorce being as bad as the one I endured, because at least half of my misery came from the utterly false notion that I had permanently damaged myself and my life, that I was a ruined human being. If I ever get divorced again, I will have an enormous advantage over the last time: Experience will have taught me that I will be just fine.

You are nowhere that you’ve ever been. Remember that this is your first time.

DON’T MAKE ANY BIG, CRAZY DECISIONS

I know you’re going to anyway, but … I just … later you’ll … oh, well. Your hair will grow back, I guess. Just be aware that your opinions will oscillate wildly for the next year, or two. You’ll be so sure of something only to later realize that you were speaking out of pain, or fear, or anger. It’s okay to have those feelings, but try let them marinate for a while before deciding they’re worthy of action. Don’t make any big, crazy decisions.

IT’S OKAY TO BE SOMEONE ELSE NOW

Every day is going to make its mark on you no matter what, unless you’re okay with living a life devoid of personal growth. Every experience changes you — that’s just part of the process of becoming one of those badass senior citizens who fart anytime they want and are willing poke rude people in the sternum on the bus. You’re only stressed about the change now because you think that the new you is the unhappy version, but that’s not forever; grieving always sucks even when it’s time to move on and do just that.

But eventually, you will feel better, and you won’t mind your new perspective so much. In fact, if you’re like many people I know, you’ll struggle a lot less with fear than you have in the past, because you’ve seen firsthand how tough you can be, and you finally trust yourself to handle whatever comes your way.

You will never be the same, but that was never the deal. Every heaven or hell on earth you have ever set foot into has resulted in someone else walking out the other side. It’s okay to be someone else now.

LIFE IS NOT THE SUMMARY OF YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES

Life is not the summary of your circumstances. You can be more. Reach outward, just a little, even if it just means making a point of looking around you. You can be the observer of things that have nothing to do with you. You can be someone else’s good day. I know you don’t have a lot of energy, but even a small gesture, a glance upward, can make you feel better. I developed this practice of reaching outward during my divorce, and I’ve kept it, and it enhances my happiness still. Because I’ve looked around, I know a lot of little things, like the fact that the train I ride to work every day, in my new life, was manufactured when I was five years old.

I like to think of it being made while I went about my business in kindergarten, having no idea that commuter trains existed. I like to think of it shuttling people back and forth long before I got here, its doors opening and closing and people pouring in and out while I grew up and got married and got turned around and suffered the devastating loss of my marriage two thousand miles away. I find it deeply reassuring that reality is defined by so much more than what I feel like today, that it is not my sole responsibility to stand here and make this train real, that it doesn’t have to matter so much how I feel.

Look up. Learn something. Life is not the summary of your circumstances.

YOU REALLY ARE GOING TO BE FINE

You really are going to be fine. Look at the divorced people around you. Are they living in some urine-scented alley somewhere, drinking whiskey for breakfast and spending the rest of the day sitting on the sidewalk with their backs against the wall, staring into the middle distance with bloodshot eyes while they hold up a sign that says WILL WORK FOR LESSONS ON HOW TO CHANGE THE FILTER IN THE FURNACE BECAUSE MY HUSBAND ALWAYS DID IT SO I DIDN’T KNOW HOW AND NOW I’M HOMELESS? If you don’t know any divorced people, consider me your token divorced person; feel free to refer to me that way at parties. I am fine.

I am better than fine, actually. I am healed, and happy, and excited about the future. And I have faith that someday, not so far away as you think, you will be, too.

I’ve been stuck at Stage 2.5 for like … twenty years now.

STAGE ONE

I will be happy when I’m not so cursed. Why does the universe insist on subjecting me to my own individual laws of thermodynamics in which my life is empirically more difficult than everyone else’s? I don’t understand why I had to be born into this particular body, with this particular life, in this particular first-world hell. My existence is rife with misfortune. I’m starting to get another canker sore, for instance. And my shoelace broke. And my brand-new iPhone screen is cracked. Great. Why can’t I just be a blind orphan leper or something?

STAGE TWO

I will be happy when everyone else becomes as enlightened as I have become. Life is a festival of wonders for which we should all be grateful, idiots, so what’s with all the bitching? If the world’s population didn’t amount to a giant conspiracy to drown me in negativity, life would be perfect. People need to stop gouging out my poor defenseless eyes with their unsavory Facebook statuses and snobby Tweets. Why does everyone else have to make my existence so unpleasant when it doesn’t need to be? Also, does it count as genocide if they’re Republicans?

STAGE THREE

I will be happy.

How to Win at Arguments

BEGINNER

First things first: Criticize the timing of the argument. This clever ploy distracts your opponent by forcing them to focus on something they can do nothing about, instead of the problem they initially complained about. The trusty standby is “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” or “Why am I just hearing about this now?” but feel free to lay it on a little thicker: “You could have brought this up before I moved all the way to Iowa with you six years ago.” If you can imbue the current time frame with an emotional significance that implies your opponent should have been especially considerate of your feelings on that day, that’s also helpful: “I can’t believe you want to talk about this on Arbor Day.” People are always choosing the absolute wrong time to bring up your flaws; any caring human being would have the decency to wait until you were in the mood to hear that you’ve fucked something up. Encourage them to remedy their infraction by building a time machine, a laborious and consuming task that will leave no time for conflict, nagging, or snide quips about your inability to shower regularly.

Feign amnesia. You can’t be guilty of what you don’t remember. Who knows whether that statement is logically true or not, but it sounds good, like something someone would put at the bottom of a movie poster depicting Jason Bourne and some explosions. When faking amnesia, it’s important not to seem incompetent or dysfunctional, as that might cast you in an unfavorable light as an unreliable historical witness. A simple, but elegant way to sidestep such a pitfall is to pretend it is completely absurd to be expected to recall a dead-baby joke you may or may not have made in front of a certain someone’s parents at the dinner table twenty-four entire hours ago. Accuse your opponent of holding grudges, keeping score, or any other activities that associate a clear factual recollection of historical events with petty spite.

Simply put: lie. That screaming call to your wife from your mistress? Wrong number. That $500 you spent on shoes? There’s obviously a decimal point missing on your credit-card statement. Lying is such an obvious antidote to reality that some people foolishly forget it even exists. It’s also perfectly legal unless you’ve been sworn in by a bailiff or are provably damaging someone’s livelihood or reputation. No one ever said anything about criminalizing your ability to lie in your own damn kitchen, which is one of the thousands of inalienable rights America’s troops continue to so bravely fight for, probably. Free yourself from the shackles of the truth; they’re only holding you back in your thundering charge toward victory. Square your shoulders, stand up tall, look your opponent in the eye, and say bravely, “I have never seen those panties before in my life.”

Escalate the drama with a meta plot twist. Oh, someone is angry at you? Dazzle and confuse your opponent by getting angry at them for being angry. If your partner is a dignified individual, your willingness to embarrass yourself with this ploy can only be advantageous, like a magical trapdoor that cuts right through the hard deck of tactical engagement. They’re hurt and horrified that you emptied the checking account? Well, you’re even more hurt and horrified that they suspected you enough to snoop through bank statements when you hadn’t ever once given them any reason not to trust you that they could confirm with 100% certainty at that particular point in time. Ensure that your wishes are respected in the future by reminding them that it makes you really upset when they criticize you and that you’ve asked them repeatedly to stop doing it. If you own any fire hoses or tasers, consider augmenting your request with aversion therapy.

INTERMEDIATE

Deflect responsibility by blaming the other person for your actions. Your partner should love you, trust you, and continually monitor you for misbehavior, correcting you immediately and boldly should an unfavorable tendency arise, instead of just letting you do what you’re doing like some kind of pussy. Remember: Anytime anyone lets you get away with anything for any length of time before starting lame arguments, that person has essentially acted as your accomplice, and everyone knows that the only thing worse than a jerk is someone who puts up with a jerk. Make sure you remind your opponent of his or her failing in this regard with comments like “You should have pulled me aside and explained to me that you don’t enjoy being humiliated and degraded at dinner parties,” or “Look, no one made you go on a police chase with me” and “Well, I don’t remember anyone knocking any guns out of my hand back at the liquor store.” For emphasis, never forget to add, “I’m not a mind-reader.”

Ask for examples/criticize your partner’s inability to forgive and forget past infractions. This is an especially clever one-two punch of strategy. The beauty of this tactic: If your opponent refuses to honor your request for past instances of this “pattern” of bad behavior they’re claiming, their accusations seem baseless and unjustified. If they do honor your request for examples, they can be painted as unreasonably bitter and resentful people who tally up your every mistake to be used against you later. This move was probably invented by Chuck Norris; it’s that triumphant. “Name one time I murdered any of your friends and buried them in the basement,” you can say adamantly, and the minute they take the bait, that’s your cue for sarcastic jokes like, “What, you’re the district attorney now? Got an entire legal brief all filled out, do you? Excuse me — I didn’t realize we were in a court of law!” [Note: Does not work in an actual court of law.]

Pretend you were just about to criticize them for something even worse. “I’m glad you brought up my lack of punctuality,” you can say, leaning forward in your chair and pulling off your glasses for emphasis, “because I’ve been meaning to talk to you about your halitosis, which smells way worse than my lack of punctuality.” If they say something like, “Can we stay on topic? I was trying to talk to you about how late you were for my mother’s funeral,” say sarcastically, “Oh, so we’re just going to talk about what I do wrong? How convenient.”

Agree enthusiastically … and very melodramatically. Nothing confuses an opponent like wholehearted agreement: “You’re right. I guess that sometimes, I do leave the little foil cap from my yogurt container on the countertop until it curdles. I guess I’m the worst spouse in the entire world. I guess maybe I should just give myself twenty hangnails or slam my face in a door a thousand times. I guess you deserve somebody better than a pathetic loser like me. I don’t even know why you’re still here. Maybe you should just leave.” Your annoyed opponent will reflexively attempt to disagree with you … which they can only accomplish by telling you that you aren’t so bad after all! Abracadabra, motherfucker.

Apologize … but for the wrong thing. Not everyone is a careful listener. Try your luck with a bait-and-switch apology, like, “I’m sorry … that I’m not perfect,” or “I’m sorry … that you’re a nitpicking whore.” Mumble the last few words if necessary. For extra style points, throw in the mind-bending “I’m sorry my apology isn’t good enough for you.”

ADVANCED

Listen. Review your internal footage and realize that you, without fail, assume you are right. Recognize the alarming uniformity of this assessment. Consider the problem at hand, which likely represents a minor cultural, philosophical, or personality difference, and suggest solutions. Form a plan of action, and thank your partner for being candid and for caring enough to work on this relationship with you. If the cultural, philosophical, or personality difference does turn out to be major, you should probably break up and find someone who agrees with you on the important things, so you can be happy in your relationship. Downsides include a lack of claim to victimhood, the painful acknowledgment of personal flaws, and limited opportunities for theatrical flair.

IF ALL ELSE FAILS

Threaten to kill yourself. It’s a bit of a non sequitur, sure, but when you think about it, suicide is the ultimate tantrum, and its advantages are legion. For starters, dead people can’t lose arguments, so your opponent is likely to feel threatened by your guaranteed (if costly) victory. Second, your threat to kill yourself will convince the other person that you care a whole lot — that this is not just a relationship that’s important to you, but a relationship worth dying for. Meanwhile, their caring for you will cause them to fight even harder for the life you are so selflessly abandoning in the name of love. It’s like a Catch 22 of caring, and logic puzzles like that can keep people conveniently and frantically occupied all night long, you sly dog. If you’re the type to fling yourself to the linoleum and sob, railroad tracks are the logical choice. For a more sophisticated poetic metaphor about being pushed over the edge, any tall structure will suffice. Staplers should only be used as a last resort.