They arrived at the cafe carrying little. They carried purses. They carried laptops. They carried books: "Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends"; "The Emotional Affair." They carried tissues. They carried cups and saucers up the worn, heritage stairs of the coffee shop. A small rectangle of chocolate rested on each saucer. They rotated rings on their wedding fingers, or worried the pale ridges where once they had sat.
Without exception, their wives or husbands had told them they were not in love with them anymore, that they were disenchanted with their marriages and wanted out. For most of them, it came as a complete surprise; all of the people around the Sunday table were "dumpees." The "dumpers" did not need a group.
I never wanted to join their ranks -- but life doesn't always give you what you want.
My wife and I met in 1992, after I won a prize in a literary magazine. My wife's then-husband was the editor of the journal, Prism International. He and I became fast friends. His wife was gay. Eventually, I offered his wife an ear if she ever needed to talk. She and I met at a reading I gave a few months later, and I had sprung-socket eyes, I swear.
Seven years later, after she'd adopted my biological kids, my wife and I, along with other Canadian couples, sued Canada's federal government for same-sex marriage rights. After a three-year fight, we were victorious and, in 2003, just after our 10th anniversary, we wed, the coolest group of daughters and dragmaids at our sides.
In 17-plus years, I had never imagined, not even for a sliver of a second, that my wife and I would part through any means besides death -- that's how happy and bonded I believed we were. If anyone had asked me my favorite thing, my answer would have been to spend time with my wife. Doing anything.
Only days before she started making noises about leaving me, my wife and I were renewing our vows during a horse-drawn carriage ride under the Eiffel Tower, and while the horse hooves clopped their way along the cobblestone side streets of Paris, I was swooning. I was delighted at how fresh our love still was. We were not symbiotic or enmeshed, but independent, free and happy. Our relationship glowed with health. When we had issues, we had meetings and solved them, and nothing went along unresolved.
Then came the shock -- and the unraveling.
Separation is not big news when it happens to someone else. Where I live, in Canada, about 40 percent of marriages are headed in that direction (America is slightly higher). But when it happens to you, separation is huge and the opposite of commonplace. Marriages -- in some cases dazzling, phenomenal, nurturing marriages -- die as if struck by cars. Crawling out of the wreckage can take a surprising number of years.
Had I seen something coming? Only over the last few months when my wife became oddly, breakably happy in occupations outside our home. Things between us quickly went from bad to horrible, both of us on a gerbil wheel of act and react and react to the reaction and react to the reaction to the reaction. After six months, I finally came to grips with the fact that she had transferred herself -- like a bank balance -- into another future entirely. We parted. OK. What next?
I was already seeing a therapist and an energy healer, but I needed more, more. Still, I didn't want to be among the losers at the divorce group -- spilling their deeply personal, private and unnerving truths. But I needed help. I was awash in grief.
So I went every Sunday to the little cafe, and there were always stories that made my story sound a little less compelling. There was always someone who had it worse, whose pain was more fresh. But there was also someone a few months or years further along, who was beginning to thrive. And far from being losers, these were accomplished and bright people, wise and perspicacious.
They gave support. They gave shoulders to cry on. They gave company.
At the divorce group, we talked about the futures we planned but did not achieve: the babies we were trying to conceive, the kayak trip planned for mid-summer, the retirement in the south of France, the housing upgrade. We talked about realizing that we would not grow old with our beloved. We talked about our worries for our children and the embarrassment and pain of becoming broken families. We talked about our longing and our spite. We talked our own blindnesses to matters plain as day in front of our faces. We talked about our human capacity to believe that people are mostly good at heart even though all the evidence -- all the evidence -- demonstrated this to be magical thinking.
I felt stupid for the things I hadn't seen and recognized as my relationship was going down the tubes. But the folks in the divorce group insisted I hadn't been stupid. Not stupid, just deceived. I hadn't been wrong to be so trusting. Trust was the backbone of any healthy marriage. I hadn't been wrong to love well and deeply.
We measured success in small changes: whether or not we wept at the grocer's, the gym, the dry cleaners. Whether or not we'd given into pleading with the beloved to come back, or whether we managed to keep our piteous begging at bay. We measured success by when we did not miss our beloved for a minute, an hour, a half-day, a whole day. We measured success by the curious sound of own unfamiliar laughter, lifting in bubbles around us.
Each of us played "what if." What if I had been a better wife/lover/cook? We sifted through our 18 or 25 or five years together with magnifying glasses, seeking the one moment where we could have altered this terrible future.
We had lost our wives and husbands. We had lost our best friends. We had lost sex. We had lost our children. We had lost our animals. We had lost our homes. We had lost our furniture. We had lost our gardens. Our incomes had severely plummeted. There were new therapists to pay, and lawyers to pay, and moving costs to pay. Some of us had to replace even the spices in our cupboards and the toilet brushes behind the bowls. We moved without screwdrivers, without our art, without our shampoo.
All of us longed to stop obsessing over our exes. Most of us were reluctant to call them that. We understood, most of us, that our partners, disconnected as they had become, nevertheless also hurt. No one, we believed, could walk away from a long-term marriage without pain and regrets.
We missed many things. We missed, mostly, not hurting, that innocent state in which we had lived our lives.
I understood what the divorce group said when they told me that the only cure for the wreck of my marriage was time. So time I would give it. With their help, I trudged on. And when I felt I couldn't go any further, in addition to their other burdens, they carried me.