Surrendering little things you love about yourself will only leave you feeling empty.
I turned 19-years old a month before I met the man I would marry just 10 months later. Back then, I used to love to go out to clubs to dance and have a couple of drinks with my friends (the drinking age was 19 where I lived). But, my boyfriend did not drink. He also didn't dance. So I gave them both up. They seemed like little things to forfeit at the time. And yet this was exactly when I started laying the groundwork for my divorce.
I was raised in a family that would drop a well placed expletive when we were frustrated or excited. "Sh*t" is a rather multi-purpose word it turns out. But, my boyfriend did not curse. So I gave up that way of expressing myself. At the time, it seemed like just a little thing.
A couple of months before our wedding, I suddenly had a deep knowing that I shouldn't marry this man. (And this was not pre-wedding jitters.) But, you know what? I talked myself out of that deep knowing. In my 19-year-old brain, I rationalized that I had to marry him no matter what my inner wisdom said because I'd given him my word that I would. I reasoned that keeping my word was the most important thing I could do. I believed that ignoring my innate knowing was just a little thing to sacrifice in order to keep my word.
After we were married, I continued to make a long string of small changes that denied who I was. I justified each of these as being just another little thing (the compromises of partnership perhaps). The problem was that all of these little changes added up to a very large hole. And in that cavernous space, I could hear the echo growing ever louder of my inner voice telling me: this marriage wasn't right for me. The marriage was slowly but steadily chipping away at me. But I had given my word, so I just kept going. After all, we were fairly well off, almost never argued and I was able to pursue my education. I would eventually graduate with my Ph.D., land a plum job, and teach a class at a major university as an adjunct professor. Life was looking pretty "fine", wasn't it?
Then, after 5 years of living this way, out of the blue, I started having panic attacks. Amazingly, at the time, I didn't understand the fear underlying my panic. Now, of course, I can look back and see the real me sounding the alarm, scared that she was going to die.
But I didn't even let the panic attacks stop me. No, sir! I had given my word "until death do us part" so I continued to stuff my rising fear (along with just about every other emotion I had) and began pasting a smile on my face every day. This was my new strategy. Fake it 'til ya make it.
Despite the ridiculous forces smile on my face and my outward efforts to hold my life together, my body started to fall apart inside (those repressed emotions take their toll) and catastrophe started to assault my world over and over. In a span of just 4 years, I developed TMJ so severe I was unable to open my mouth more than a few millimeters for months and months. I was in so much pain that I could barely speak, chew, or open my eyes. I spent months on a liquid diet and ground my way through at least 2 "non-destructible" bite guards while I slept.
After I started to recover, I was then in a car accident that compressed my spine and made it difficult for me to sit for more than a few minutes at a time. I had meetings at work where I was laying on the floor with my feet up in a chair. It looked weird, but I could be productive. I was that determined to make everything work and convince the world that my life was "fine".
Next, our beloved dog died of bladder cancer. Then, I had a miscarriage. But I was left alone in my tremendous grief because to my husband, everything was fine, he didn't want kids any way. The next year, just 10 days before Christmas, my sister died unexpectedly. She was only 32 and I was inconsolable. But again, I was alone in my grief.
The false smile on my face became harder and harder to maintain. But I kept trying. Trying so hard.
The next year, another horrible car accident that broke my sternum. Recovery was tough because it was clear that I was an "inconvenience" to my husband. And then, a year after my sister's death, my grandmother died.
Grin and bear it. Grin and bear it. ... Grin and bear it. And I did, until the day I woke up and the world itself was no longer "fine".
September 11, 2001 — the day when the hole ripped in our country was even larger than the hole I felt inside myself. Nothing was fine. And for the first time in my adult life, I could not paste a smile on my face. And in that moment, I realized I could not longer pretend like nothing was wrong. I didn't want to be with this man. I never did. My husband was the person who told me what was happening that dreadful day and I realized I didn't want to talk about it with him. I wanted to try to make sense of what was happening with my family and friends (with those I loved and felt loved by) and he just wasn't one of them.
Life had been aligning crisis after crisis to try to get my attention. There were many excruciating years. But those circumstances built the structure for my decision and provided opportunities for me to wake up and reclaim myself.
And when I did wake up, on September 11th, it became clear to me that keeping my word was not the most important thing. Things were not fine. Our marriage was not working for me. Having a pasted on smile was not how I wanted to live any more. I wanted more for myself and for my life. I wanted to live in a way that was fulfilling to me. I realized that I needed to divorce my husband and also the caricature of myself that I had become. I needed to find "me" again under the rubble. I needed to find the framework of myself that I had abandoned almost from the moment he and I met.
Dr. Karen Finn is a divorce coach and advisor helping people who are considering divorce make a smart decision about staying or leaving their marriage. You can join her anonymous newsletter group for free advice or email her at Karen@functionaldivorce.com for a free consultation. Don’t let the worry about divorce ruin your life, help is available as soon as you’re ready.