Everything in me just stopped, cemented in time, but only for a moment. “What’s this?” I asked staring at the papers he plopped on my lap, but I already knew. His face said it all.
“I want a divorce,” he said, and the floor just dropped away, and I was hanging there, paused in mid-air. Then the heaviness took me, and I could feel myself falling, knowing there must be a bottom and bracing myself for the blow.
“I’m done, Mary…”
“How? We’re supposed to work on this… I don’t want a divorce…” Everything in me turned to sadness and the room shifted to dark. I began to cry… quiet gulping cries from the ache in my chest and my belly.
And then I could feel the bed beneath me. And my eyes opened to the light in the room. I was lying there in our king-sized bed, alone, his side empty and made. Did he leave, yet? I need to see him before he goes… Downstairs, he was sitting on our couch, putting on his shoes. Thank God…
“Hey! I’m heading to my Mom’s…” He said not looking up. “Painting today… I’ll be back late.” I knew it was just a horrible dream, but it felt so real and the ache in my belly lingered, heavy and sour.
“Can I have a hug?” I said in a small voice. His smile was always warm, always comforting. I needed that. I needed him, to smell his skin, feel his warmth. He walked over and wrapped his arms around me. I nuzzled into the crook of his neck, felt his soft heat on my lips, as I kissed and inhaled the sweet of his skin.
I didn’t want to tell him about my dream. Something in me wanted to keep it a secret, the way I do with so many things in my life. It’s as if they’re literally embedded in my chest, and I have to pry them out. This dream, the fear it invoked was just the same.
I took a deep breath and pushed out the words, “I had a bad dream…” I still felt the tears in my throat, “…you wanted to divorce me.” His hold around me tightened. I didn’t want either of us to ever let go.
“I never want to divorce you, Mary… I want us to grow old, and I want to be by your side, always, the way Pop-Pop and my Mom-Mom were.” Part of me knew this, but part of me knew life doesn’t always go according to plan, especially in the face of change.
In the last few months, he’s been the one asking if I’m happy with our marriage, fearing I might leave him. It’s not because I’ve said I want to leave or even that I’m thinking about it. It’s because I’ve been shifting, becoming more grounded in who I am and what I want out of life. It took me 40 years to finally respect myself and value my own wants and needs. Now I’m figuring out what those are, and it’s shaken the boat quite a bit.
As much as I’ve been able, I’ve shared my growth with him. I’ve expressed that I’m not happy with big parts of our life, our dynamic, and I want a lot to change. But that doesn’t mean I want everything to. I wouldn’t give up our life. I just want more.
My fear in this process is that he won’t like who I really am, or that we’ll grow apart… we’ll just want different things, and our worlds, our views won’t mesh no matter how much we work on them. And it’s this clash that I fear, that we fear, will break us. I think that’s where this nightmare came from.
About a week before that dream, we had a pretty big argument about parenting and anger. Our styles are vastly different. His approach lies on the hard side and mine lies on the soft. Both can be effective. In fact, they can be wonderfully complementary if done well. The trouble is, we’re often not doing it well. We’re still figuring out how to mesh these very opposite approaches. And while that’s normal, that can also cause some kaboom.
We were down the shore, standing in the kitchen, and our 12-year-old daughter was sassing, giving attitude about I don’t even remember what. I was sternly telling her what the issues and expectations are, and then Jason stepped in. He was fed-up with the back-talk, as was I, but his anger was in control, not his rational parenting mind. In the middle of my talking, he cut in. His face was tight, his teeth were showing. I don’t remember what he even said, and then… Thwack! He cracked his palm with the back of his hand. Even though he didn’t hit anyone, I felt it slice through me like a searing hot knife. I felt like I was just backhanded and my body was suddenly filled with shattered glass… my skin spilled hot all over.
We talked about tapping each other out in these cases, when our emotions are getting the better of us. Everyone has these moments. I certainly go over-the-top from time to time and rage out of anger, but over the years it’s been an issue on his end. “Whoa…” I said and put up my hands like I was pushing them apart. “I think we all need a time-out.” Previously, he and I had agreed on the “time-out” as a tap-out queue. The idea was that it would allow us time to calm down and get back into our rational frontal lobe, back to successful parenting. It was too late, though.
“I’m going to finish what I have to say!” He barked at me and continued to yell at our daughter.
I suddenly felt like my whole body was bound. I couldn’t breathe, so I walked out. I needed a time-out. I needed to calm down, or I was going to break down and cry or rage back at him. In the yard, I breathed and cursed and tried hard to calm myself, but he came out before I was ready and we argued.
“I’m so f_-king sick of all of this!” I screamed at him and continued ranting and cursing about the whole situation. “Go ahead and get angry at me for speaking my mind! I don’t give a f_-k anymore!” My head and my heart felt so scrambled; I couldn’t make any more sense than that.
Part of what I was so sick of was his anger, but it was also the dance, the feeling of struggle, the walking on eggshells, and my fear of setting boundaries and speaking my truth regardless of how it’s received.
Nothing felt easy, joyful, fun. Even when I was enjoying a moment, I was always hyper-vigilant, waiting for the problem that I’d feel the need to fix. I had been struggling to get out of this undertow for way too long, and my only reprieve had been momentary sips of air. I hadn’t touched bottom, and I was tired of treading, tired of fighting.
Back inside, he said he was going to leave and even began packing his bag. This was just an extension of our pattern, the dance. He didn’t rage back at me and force me to back down, so all-or-nothing was the next move. I stopped him, called him on it.
“You flip out all the time, curse and scream, and have always just walked out when you need space to calm down… and now, when I do it one time, and not even to your level, you’re going to just pack up and leave?”
I didn’t want him to leave. I just wanted him to hear me, to hear that I honestly disagree with his approach… that I’d like us to come up with other tools together. And regardless of whether it’s effective parenting or not, I needed him to hear that I can’t handle his rage. He knows I have PTSD and that some things affect me more strongly than they might affect someone else (story below). Maybe another person wouldn’t have felt such a searing reaction to him hitting his hand. And maybe that’s not fair, but it’s a fact none-the-less, and we need to accept it.
If we can’t agree on parenting, can’t we at least agree that if something hurts the other, we should try not to do it? I asked him to at least stop for this reason even if he’s not convinced he should parent differently. Eventually, with active listening, we resolved the moment, but this is an ongoing project. It’s scary because we have a lot to figure out, and sometimes it feels like we’re in quicksand.
And that’s okay. Progress isn’t a straight line, and happiness isn’t a destination. I’ve written multiple stories (below) about our maturing relationship, our issues, and how we’re navigating the often choppy waters. We float every now and again, but a wave will inevitably come by and topple us. We have to work to stay afloat, to keep our heads above water, in the sun and fresh air.
It’s not these individual issues that scare me. I don’t expect there to be a final solution or for things to suddenly become easy. What scares me is that our differences may be too great in the end. As we grow, we may not want the same things, even if we want each other. Can a marriage survive that?
Right now, most of life feels like something we need to fix or something we’re obligated to do. We rarely go on dates (maybe 2 times a year, at most), and we don’t play anymore… we don’t do things solely for the fun of it. We don’t explore life. Sure, we’re 43. We hit middle-age… two kids… two cats… and now a dog… and a tree just fell in our yard eating up a few thousand dollars we don’t have. Things happen. The ocean never stops rolling in. And we’re the adults, so we’re supposed to be the puppet masters of it all. But does that mean we just stop experiencing new layers of life?
It feels like life is leading us, and it should be the other way around.
Our issues in the bedroom came up on our trip as well because they fall into the same boat. I want more there too. We both do, and we often talk about it. But it tends to take the form of negativity and disappointment. The whole mood becomes melancholy. That’s not s_-y.
I told him that I want more because, like most people, we tend to do the same handful of things over and over… tried and true… in our limited allotted time slot. I’m not talking about specific acts or toys, and I’m not saying I want to invite others into our bed. I tried that before I met him, and while I’m bis_-ual and feel a pull toward exploring that part of myself (stories below), what I want is more connection to him. I want a partner in every way.
So what is there to add, if not things? There are times that he can touch my arm in the kitchen and turn me on more than if he kisses my breast in bed. That’s because it’s not the thing, it’s the mood, the energy.
It’s perception and attitude on both our parts. I contribute to the negative stew just as much as he does. And the focus then becomes about making the other happy because they’re not, or it’s about to the orgasm… it’s about the things we do, not how we do them and the emotion behind it. That fills the bed with pressure instead of passion.
Since I said that to him, he began acting strangely… hesitant, unsure, smiling more. Something about that made me feel like I couldn’t trust him and that along with my own fears probably sparked that bad dream.
Logically, I know he’s acting that way because he’s afraid and uncertain of his actions. I know he wants us to be happy, he wants to “get it right.” But this isn’t something to get right. It’s something to play with, explore, feel. It’s the difference between having a beautiful singing voice and having a voice that gives us chills. “Getting it right” is like trying to write a story by using a formula, or like expecting to understand how much a mother loves her children without ever being a mother.
We need more space for us… more space to add layers and textures. We’ve bought into the idea that life is supposed to look a certain way. And that’s simply a fiction. We get to write this story.
We both fear that we’ll want different things and drift apart, but that fear is likely what will help us grow together.
While we were at the shore, standing in the middle of the ocean, schools of skate fish and minnows swimming by our feet and dolphins hopping the distant waves, I said, “I want to learn to scuba dive… will you learn with me?” The look on his face was as if I told him that I want to dive into a shark tank naked.
“Ah… I’ll learn to scuba dive in a pool, maybe, but I don’t want to be in open water where sharks can eat me.”
I chuckled, “I don’t want to be eaten by sharks either… but I do want to dive in open water with experienced divers. I want to see what’s out there.” I could feel my blood rushing through the avenues of my body, taste the salt on my lips, the cool ocean on my skin. The idea excited me.
“I’ll think about it…” He said as a private puddle jumper flew down the length of the coast.
“I want to learn to fly too,” I told him, gesturing to the plane. “And I want to save up to go on a yoga retreat at Kripalu, and I want us to take vacations in places like Machu Picchu.” As I talked he hopped waves and looked into the distance. I swam closer and wrapped my arms around him, “What are some things you want to do?”
He kissed me and smiled… “Ah… I’d like to take a World War II tour and visit the Philippines, and I want to do more Jiu Jitzu.”
His ideas weren’t on my bucket list, but that didn’t matter. They were just as wonderful. And maybe somewhere along the way, we’d both hit the same spark.
On our run this morning, two weeks later, he was struggling. He’s been going to Jiu Jitzu almost every night, so his legs were tight and burning, and he kept having to stop and walk. Normally, I’m right there with him, but the past few runs have felt too easy for me. My heart rate wasn’t getting high enough… I wasn’t getting out of breath… I was getting stronger.
“You can run ahead,” he told me, but I didn’t want to leave him behind. Why can’t he just pick it up a little? But I knew why. We’re not the same person. We’re in different places in our journeys, even in our runs.
The next time we stopped to walk, I ran ahead. I wasn’t going to leave him behind, though. I was going to run out and then run back to him. There’s no reason we couldn’t finish out the run together. I just needed a little more than he did, but I also needed him, and I found a way to have both.
In all aspects of life, we don’t have to be on the same path or go at the same pace. We can take moments to veer off and explore alone or together… taking trips, learning skills, exploring other worlds… we can have vastly different ideals and goals… we can be who we are and clash and kaboom… and then we can come back, just as in love, and continue our journey side by side. Because at the core of it all, we should all want more, we should all keep moving and changing, building and growing. There’s no reason we can’t have everything we want and be everything we are.