Ending My Fairytale Marriage Was The Best Thing I Ever Did

Photo: Boiko Olha / Shutterstock
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Everything is calm now, inside my head. All the mental yelling and screaming and rattling of the cage is done. All the panicked 'get-me-outta-here's have quieted down. There is nothing left but blanketing silence because this marriage is done.

We started dating two days after high school graduation.

We each had a handful of high school relationships before that. His were pretty innocent, mine was fairly traumatic. But still, it was high school, how serious could any of it have really been? Sexually, we both were each other’s first. We went off to college together, got married immediately after, and moved to California to work nonprofit jobs and save the world. We had a child, one that we both waited years to have and wanted whole-heartedly. Then, we imploded.

So many times over the years people said “awwwww” to our story. They found it so enchanting. To them, we were the quintessential All-American, fairytale romance; the scenario people push on their kids as the ideal marriage prototype.

Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love, get married, and only have sex with each other. They have a baby, are good citizens, and live “happily ever after” until they are rocking on the front porch together in old age. How precious.

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Only it doesn’t actually work out that way.

At least, it didn’t for us. By marrying the person we’d been dating since we were 18 years old, neither of us ever had a true sense of ourselves as adult individuals outside of our connection to each another. There was never a fully developed him. There was never a fully developed me. As a result, we always resisted the us.

The idea that someone can decide so young who and what is right for them and then be expected to stand by that decision for the next 60 odd years doesn’t seem romantic, it seems wrong. And I’m annoyed by anyone who hears the story of our coupling and finds it enchanting.

To those people who say that they are shocked that we’re splitting up, really? Because when you reflect on the absurd odds stacked against us, I, for one, am totally astounded we ever made it this far.

I knew it was going to end.

I remember distinctly the first time a voice in my head gave me an inkling that my marriage would soon be over: the night our daughter was born. The nurse came into the hospital room to help me use the bathroom for the first time after my arduous delivery.

As I staggered wearily back to the metal-framed bed, the sympathetic nurse said, “Oh, honey, you look so exhausted.”

At which point he stirred from his nap on the in-room sofa bed and groaned, “I am!” The nurse and I exchanged an “Oye, men!” eye roll and she snapped back at him, “I was talking to the person who just squeezed a human being out of her body.” “Oh,” he replied and went back to sleep.

As I settled back into the bed, a cold sinking feeling slipped into the pit of my stomach. I pulled the crisp hospital sheets across my legs and heard the voice in my head say loud and clear, “You will be doing this on your own.”

He had an affair (I bet you saw that coming).

A month after our daughter’s first birthday, he left. Walked out. Said he just couldn’t “do this” anymore ("this" being our unhappy marriage) and that he loved me, but had to go. He needed space to think. I asked if he was having an affair. He swore that he wasn't. He was lying.

Our therapist is the one who finally broke the news to me. She was acting super twitchy at my individual appointment and kept asking me if we had talked. When I told her we hadn't, she started talking in circles and implied he might be involved with someone else.

My heart stopped cold. I knew instantly who it was. The “she’s just a friend” gal pal from work. Their friendship had been a ticking time bomb of inappropriateness. Two weeks before he walked out, the two of them went to the movies together while I was at home with the baby working on a late-night deadline.

Apparently, that’s the night their “friendship” elevated to a whole new level. All of this hit me like a freight train as my therapist stared at me silently, pleadingly, waiting for me to connect the dots.

I said “It’s [her], isn’t it? … Mother f*****!!” And then, in naming it out loud, my world stopped.

Suddenly everything around me evaporated. My peripheral vision went out. My throat closed up. Everything became this searing, blinding white light. I felt a sharp pain and a rush of heat shoot up the back of my head. And then the air in the room began crashing down on me like a weight.

Oceans of pressure smashing me, smashing me, smashing me down into the seat. I couldn’t breathe and my head began pulsing and pounding. And then I heard it: a noise. A loud, sharp, cracking sound … deep down inside me somewhere. I actually heard it! My entire self splitting open.

Revisiting it all again in my mind, seeing the vulnerability and humiliation of that trusting girl I used to be (who to her core believed that “my guy” was not capable of being “that guy”), I realize that a part of me ended at that moment. That’s what the pain and the light and the cracking sound were - an execution.

Looking back on it now feels like watching a dog get shot.

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I became a zombie.

We were separated for 6 months. He crashed at his boss’s house. I stayed with our daughter in our apartment and immediately began initiating steps to divorce him. I remember going to the courthouse and waiting in line to pay for the do-it-yourself divorce papers.

There was a big line that day and it seemed everyone was there for a marriage license (of course). I felt so ashamed to be there. Like people could see it on me … that girl was betrayed! When it was my turn in line, I said quietly "I need divorce papers, please." The sturdy woman behind the glass, needing to know which stack of forms to give me, asked, “Are there children involved?”

My heart wrenched inside my chest and I squeaked out a very broken, tear-choked, “Yes.” Everyone in line stopped and looked at me. It took every ounce of strength I had not to dissolve into a weeping puddle on the clerk's office floor … and everyone knew it.

We moved to Florida to get away from the scene of the crime. Due to some positive realizations that had emerged in therapy, we decided to give things another try after the move "for our daughter's sake." We gave it four more years, and every day of it felt like the movie Groundhog Day (only not remotely funny). We removed ourselves from the place everything happened (and the other woman), but the dynamics that caused the affair never changed.

I spent every day of the next four years going through the motions with a fake smile plastered on my face. But I was dead behind the eyes. The internal shattering that occurred in the therapist’s office left a void and there was no coming back from it. Not with this man. Not in this life. And my daughter deserves better than a numbed-out mom.

So, I finally said the words out loud to him: “I want a divorce.”

His reply? Simply, “OK.”

An odd calm settled over us and we were able to really look each other in the eye for the first time in years. We were never really happy together. So, maybe finally letting each other go as husband and wife was the most loving and honest thing we’ve ever done.

I made a vision board and hung it on the wall across from my bed.

It’s the first thing I see when I wake up and the last thing I see before I go to sleep.

It’s crafted from a piece of white drugstore poster board that I adorned with images and words cut ceremoniously from magazines and internet photos, each a symbolic representation of some facet of the life I want to manifest for myself as I move forward. Images of my life to come, if I get my way. It hangs humble, yet earnest. My future pasted together with a 5-year-old’s glue stick.

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In the center are images that represent me: a photo of a spectacularly empty poster bed with tall metal posts sculpted to look like tree branches that reach up and come together in the middle to support a nestled bird’s nest. Above the bed is a picture of a statue silhouetted against the sky; a woman’s figure reaching upward with a bird taking flight from her outstretched hand and two more birds lifting off the ground by her feet.

This is what I feel like: a spirit rising … a woman preparing to spread her wings and fly. And the bed’s bird’s nest, well, it symbolizes the move to separate and the reality that I’m responsible for making my own nest in the world now. I have to create a safe place of my own where I'll rest my weary head.

Around the central images of “me” are other photos reflecting my goals: prosperity & abundance, more focused time with my daughter, a blossoming writing career, health, and wellness, learning to be more comfortable in my skin, and having more fun. And a picture of a hot guy, too, for my future. New love. Eventually. A girl can dream, right?

He stopped wearing his wedding ring a long time ago.

Just like when he moved to the sofa under the guise of the flu and never came back to our marital bed, he removed his ring under the guise of work. He was working on a mural and I found the ring sitting all alone on an empty shelf in his workspace.

It sat there untouched for two weeks before I took the ring and hid it in my jewelry box to see if he’d notice it missing and come looking for it. He never did. Finally, I brought it up and he said he took it off because it hurt his hand while he was working and he just hadn’t gotten around to putting it back on yet.

I said that it was important to me that he put it back on. He said there was no latent meaning behind his not wearing it. I said that the ring is our symbol to each other and to the world that we are married. I said that choosing not to wear it, knowing how much it would upset me, most certainly had meaning. He said he understood why I might feel that way. He did not put the ring back on.

I took my ring off 6 months later. Figured: f*ck you! If you aren’t wearing yours, I’m not wearing mine either. But my finger felt vulnerable and naked. I’ve worn that ring every day for more than 13 years. I never really cared for the ring, I’d just gotten so used to wearing it. He hated my ring. Hated it!

He purchased it when we were fresh out of college, paying for it in a seemingly unending stream of micro-payments: $5 here, $25 there. By the time it was paid off, he deeply resented that ring. Probably frustrated by having to spend the money when we were just starting out and totally broke. It kind of feels like we’ve always been broke.

The other day, I decided that I need to find myself a new ring. A gift to myself. Something symbolic of the change I am making in my life. I fully admit that I am an overly-symbolic person. Not wearing a ring during this transition doesn’t feel right.

When I first took my wedding ring off, I started wearing other rings on that finger to feel less emotionally naked; only those were meant for other fingers and were way too big. For months I’ve used double stick tape to hold my decoy rings in place.

I’ve decided that a new ring is absolutely essential and I’m on the hunt for just the right one. Nothing flashy. Nothing extravagant. Just something to slide on my size-5 finger that restores my symmetry and honors my commitment to myself: to fly, soar, and muster the courage to leap from the nest.

"With this ring”… do I promise to show myself love, patience, kindness, and unfailing courage? I do. I absolutely do.

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Cris Gladly is a speaker and coach who helps people and leaders increase social and emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and their ability to communicate.