On July 1, 2010 my marriage of almost 13 years with two children officially ended. For those who have been through or are going through the process of divorce you know that this journey, which for me was unwanted, begins much earlier than that, but now over three years later I finally sat down to think about what I learned from this journey. Much like some of my earlier posts about my learning about myself, the world and God from my son who is on the autistic spectrum I hope that perhaps others may be able to find some light in the midst of their dark times in their own journey. An unwanted divorce causes a crisis that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, but even though it is an unwanted journey there are gifts that do come along the way.
1. There is some wisdom that is only learned through pain and suffering. My divorce was the third of three major transitions in my life in a very short period of time. In the spring of 2009 one of my personal dreams had died. I saw myself going on to do PhD work to teach at a university or seminary. For several years this had been a direction that I had put considerable time and energy into preparing for this possibility and had applied to several programs over the period of a couple years. In 2009 I received a rejection letter from the final program I had applied for, a program that I was fairly certain that I met all the criteria for, and I sensed that this dream was not going to happen. I attempted to care for myself during this time period, meeting with a counselor and trying to take good emotional care of myself yet even as resilient as I am this did take a toll on me personally. The second transition was due to the church I was serving at that time, it was a congregation that had experienced a lot of conflict in the previous four years and I knew that another conflict was on the horizon in the fall of 2009 due to decisions made within my denomination. Dealing with conflict, especially as a leader, for any extended period of time is very draining. It was in the fall of 2009 that I also learned that my wife was not satisfied with the relationship. In this time of broken dreams, conflict and a distancing spouse I went through an emotional breakdown, and just as Brené Brown can joke about her breakdown becoming a spiritual awakening, mine in its own way was very much a spiritual awakening. The experiences of heartbreak, betrayal, depression and anxiety, shame and weakness forced me to go through a process of re-learning who I was, how I related to others and the world, the process of forgiveness, the way in which I would relate to God, and the sympathy I was able to show others.
The wisdom that comes from going through a time of intense pain or suffering is a slow process, and it is not the type of learning that we actively seek on our own. It is not the reason we go through a difficult journey, instead it is a gift that we realize along the way. It takes a while to be able to accept it as a gift because it comes at a cost-a cost that involves re-examining who you are from bile to bones, to the very core of your identity. It is not a gift that comes all at once, rather it is more like a slow process of awakening physically, spiritually and emotionally and which I will touch on in many of my other points. You didn’t ask for this wisdom that came at a cost but it is now a part of you, a gift that you can share with others.
2. The process of rediscovering yourself. For fifteen years (two years of dating, thirteen years of marriage) I had invested so much of my identity into my relationship with my ex-wife and my relationship with my children. I was deeply in love with my ex-wife and still love my children more than words can express and to make the relationship work I had given away a number of pieces of myself over the years, it wasn’t intentional-we all make sacrifices for the sake of relationships. I feel that I was a good husband and a loving father who had poured himself into the family and I didn’t realize how much of me was defined by my sense of living out these roles. When first my wife began to distance herself from me and later left the relationship and later when the agreement we came to on parenting left my son living with me and my daughter living with my ex-wife and we would have times where both kids would be with one parent or the other-I found myself for the first time in fifteen years having to live with just me for times. I had poured so much of myself into raising kids and into my work as a pastor I had not made space (nor felt I had the money at the time) to pursue hobbies, to take part in many of the activities I enjoyed and without either my family around me or, initially, a congregation to be a minister to I had to find who I was again. I had to learn new things, I had to learn how to date again (honestly, not sure I figured it out the first time and I certainly have had my share of lessons this time around), to learn how to take care of myself and to give myself permission to spend money on myself. I had been a natural giver who found his joy making other people happy but I rarely would allow myself to do the things I wanted to do or to buy the things that I wanted. In hindsight I probably hoped that my wife and children would want to give back to me the way I enjoyed giving to them, but that wasn’t the case. I also came from a family that one of their primary ways of expressing love was to give gifts and so I didn’t understand that not everyone has that same experience.
Three years later, and I came to this realization well before three years, I genuinely like who I am. I’m far from perfect and I still have the occasional dark day, but most of the time I’m comfortable in my own skin. Nice guys may finish last, but it is more important to be who you are than to win. I am a nice guy, I am always looking out for other people. Don’t get me wrong I am a very mentally, physically and most of the time emotionally strong and resilient person, but I have always had a soft heart. One of the reasons I don’t carry and use cash very often is that if I had cash in my wallet I would give it away. Because I am a nice guy there have been many times in relationships and in my work life that I have been taken advantage of because I genuinely have wanted to make other people happy. I could become a jerk and say I’ll never be taken advantage of in the same way again, but that wouldn’t be me (nor would it be healthy-even if it is a common male way of avoiding vulnerability). I had to come to the point where I could admit to myself, I genuinely like who I am most days. I am proud of the way I have handled adversity, I am proud of the father I am and I am enough. I also had to arrive at the point where I was OK being alone and not trying to fill the emptiness with someone else. I would love to find someone I can share my life with again, but I’m not willing to settle just to have someone next to me.
3. You can do everything right and still fail. This may sound like a really depressing lesson to learn, but failure is not the end of the world and it doesn’t define the future, in fact it may open up new possibilities. Marriage for example takes two people committed to working at it, no matter how one person tries they cannot by themselves hold a marriage together. You can go the extra mile and the mile beyond that, and perhaps even the marathon beyond that and things may not work. And maybe this sounds self-centered, but most people have been in the situation where you’ve had to try to make something work and failed. Sometimes the best thing you can take out of a situation is what did you learn about yourself, your gifts, your weaknesses, your habits, etc. that you can use in the future. I can look back without any regrets that I didn’t try hard enough to save my marriage. Yet, before going through my own divorce I did think that, ‘if someone just tried harder, loved more, was more patient, etc.’ they could have made the relationship work. I have no such illusions anymore and it has helped me numerous times in the last several years as I have worked with people not only in the midst of divorce but in the midst of many other crises that come up in life.