On a sunny June day in 2009, I attended the wedding of my former wife, Anne. The small church in Chapel Hill, N.C., contained many people who were at our own wedding 14 years earlier, including my mother, who sat beside me. One person who had not been in attendance that day was our 11-year-old daughter, Lillian. My heart swelled with pride as she delivered a reading from "The Velveteen Rabbit" as part of the ceremony. My former wife and I have often laughed about the readings we chose for our own wedding, which all, somehow, had to do with not getting too close. Khalil Gibran’s "On Marriage" included the evocative phrase, “make not a bond of love ...”
In fact, over the years, I have experienced a deep bond with Anne, particularly now that our relationship has more to do with parenting than a failed romance. Ten years ago, when we were still trying to salvage our marriage -- we’d spent years in couples counseling -- our therapist asked us, “Why would you want to be someone somebody settled for?” Why, indeed? The only answer we could honestly give was the love we each felt for Lillian, who was then 3. We didn’t want to ruin her life by getting divorced.
But we weren’t happy and couldn’t remember a time when we gave each other the kind of intimate connection one needs from a lifelong romantic partner. Although our daughter was still young, we feared she would become ever more aware of the disconnect between what we were saying and what we were living out on a day-to-day basis. We didn’t divorce “for her” -- it caused Lillian confusion and unhappiness. But we also knew that staying together would not have guaranteed her happiness, either. And we resolved to do everything in our power to keep our marital catastrophe from becoming a parenting catastrophe.
That summer of 2001, Anne said to me, “Well, there’s no person I’d rather be divorced from than you.” The mother of all backhanded compliments, I thought at the time. A decade later, it turns out, truer words were never said. Our now 14-year-old daughter is flourishing, Anne is happy in her new marriage and, though this will sound odd to some and worse to others, we’ve thrived in divorce. In fact, I dare say we’ve found true love with one another -- without the romance. In some ways, then, our love story begins with our divorce, rather than ending with it.
By the time we exchanged vows, it was obvious that I was ignoring some basic facts about the relationship. We had more or less stopped having sex. Over the years, we joked that the Gibran quote should have read, “Make neither love nor a bond of love ...” We had trouble pushing one another to confront our problems, particularly in the bedroom, related as those were to our own fears of conflict, confrontation, taking emotional risks and hurting one another’s feelings. On the day I proposed to Anne, I had more or less talked myself into being engaged. Anne had been pushing in that direction for months. Though she was still only 30, she believed, not unlike Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally," that the dreaded 40 was just around the corner. She wanted to have kids. She’d decided that I would be a suitable father and life partner. I, on the other hand, had no such clear vision. I was 29, still in graduate school and slogging through my dissertation. I didn’t have strong feelings about being a father. But, I reasoned, many of my closest friends were already married or engaged. Anne was smart, funny and a good-hearted person. I felt warmly toward her family, and her family welcomed me in turn.
Beneath these more mundane considerations was my tendency to ignore my own feelings and to assume that whatever ambivalence I felt about marriage owed to my immaturity and lack of focus. This enabled me to do what I’ve always done so well -- dismiss my own desires as questionable. Having pooh-poohed my doubts, getting engaged seemed to make sense “on paper.” So, as I went to meet Anne on an unseasonably warm January morning in 1995, I felt exhilarated. Not because I was delirious with joy to spend the rest of my life with my true love. Instead, I finally had clarity about a profound life decision. When I met Anne that day, I said, “I think I am ready to be engaged now.” Talk about words that will ring across the ages in the annals of romance.
I trust I am not the only man who has found himself "helplessly dependent on the mercy of a redeeming mother-angel-lover," as Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk describes it. Once Anne turned out to be flesh and blood, a human being with foibles and not an angel sent from heaven to deliver me from my own unsatisfied emotional needs, my discontent began to pervade the relationship.
Years of work in therapy, of low-level resentment and mutual frustration led us to the moment when our therapist asked the question we could not answer. There is a form of loneliness perhaps worse than any other, the loneliness of being in the wrong relationship. Once we recognized that clearly, the decision to end the marriage was clear. And though we have had our ups and downs since then, one of the true gifts of the divorce has been the way my relationship with Anne matured. Thankfully, we’ve never really fought about money, we’ve managed a joint-custody arrangement quite smoothly, and we’ve generally been on the same page about our daughter. And to our surprise, sorting through the conflicts that do arise has not only served our co-parenting. It’s has also deepened our own connection. We’re now more honest with each other. We’re capable of getting mad and then getting over it.
One form our mutual love has taken is a capacity to root for each other, to revel in one another’s achievements, to wish only the best for one another. That's what I experienced during Anne’s recent wedding. As my mother and I witnessed the exchange of vows from the back of the church, the truth of the moment became crystal clear – Greg loved Anne in a way I never did. I knew this already, but it was that moment when I could feel the depth of Greg’s love for Anne down to my fingers and toes. (Can a Jewish atheist have such a religious experience?)
Parenting without the weight of the marital failure has been freeing. The feelings of a relationship ended are not neatly secured in a trash bag, disposed in a dump, never to be thought of again. Fragments remain. But they need no longer control us. And what’s left is a deep, abiding love.
Recently, Anne and I were having lunch together and I shared with her some relationship struggles I’d been having. Anne listened attentively and offered some useful insights; she certainly knows me and my history. As we were parting, not sure how to end the conversation, she said, “Well, good luck with that!” I’ve been chuckling about that for days. Anne is a dear friend. More than that, a family member, even if there is no such legally recognized category for us. But that part of my life is not her problem anymore. I take profound solace in the clarity that Anne’s little parting sentiment represents. Anne’s presence in my life has been a gift, and not just because we had a daughter together whom we love more than anything. It turns out that Anne was the best person I could hope to have been divorced from.