How Snooping On My Ex-Husband Helped Me Survive Our Divorce

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woman peeking from behind blinders

Two weeks before my 40th birthday, my husband of five years told me he wanted to be with a woman he worked with at Citibank more than he wanted to be with me and our 14-month-old daughter.

I was nearly paralyzed with fear. How was I going to make it as a single parent? What was I going to do? I was becoming thinner by the minute. My size eight clothes hung off of me, but there was no one to care or tease me that there was finally room for my shirt and rear end to share a pair of pants again.

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Then one evening while sitting on the edge of the bed staring at walls papered in yellow and white stripes, my eyes wandered to the bookshelves in our bedroom, and that was when I saw it.

He'd not only left me, he'd left his journal, too. I thought I'd never read anyone else's diary; I had too much respect for other people's privacy. I guess I didn't know myself as well as I thought I did because I barely hesitated a nanosecond before I grabbed it and began reading. 

I decided to start snooping on my husband, flipping through the pages about trout fishing and tying flies made from dog hair.

My husband was a tall, good-looking WASP who liked outdoorsy things and owned his own waders and pricey fishing rods. He even belonged to a fly-fishing club that met in some landmark building downtown.

Then I came to a page where I was the subject. He wrote about what he called my "peasant's hands," which he said I "called attention to by wearing a lot of rings."

Peasant's hands? Did he mean I had short fat fingers? I wore a size five ring. That didn't seem short and fat to me. I actually thought I had nice hands; I had a manicure every week. Of course, my father's family were Russian Jews; my grandfather had fled the czar's army. Was that what he meant when he wrote about the peasant part of me?

Then it got worse. He wrote about our lovemaking.

How he was impatient about how long it took me. The thought of him mentally drumming his fingers, angry about the timing of my responsiveness was horrifying. How long did his mental timer allow me? I couldn't believe that the man I married and had a child with had actually written, much less thought, that.

I closed the diary and put it back on the shelf with an entirely new understanding of the expression, "Ignorance is bliss." What he had written was worse than anything he'd ever said to me. Actually, he hadn't said much to me at all. He’d certainly never complained about anything in our marriage, and now I felt more betrayed by his writing than anything he could have ever done with another woman.

I recalled a recent Sunday afternoon walking the few blocks home from a museum to our New York City apartment when I said to him, teasingly, "You know, if this were our first date, it would also be our last." He didn't answer. 

"Either you've turned into a really boring person or something is bothering you," I prodded. "Is something bothering you?" He still didn't answer.

"Is there something the matter with us?" I ventured. No response.

Finally, he said, "I guess I just don't have enough time to myself. Like time to really read the paper." We had a 14-month-old daughter who had been born seven weeks prematurely. Between getting her settled in and working full-time, neither of us had enough time to ourselves. 

I almost started to laugh. "I don't think you get time to yourself for years."

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We had a full-time babysitter, but she left on weekends. Saturdays, I usually took care of shopping and did things with our daughter. He took some time to play squash at the University Club. Whatever time to himself he didn't think he was getting, it was a lot more than I was.

I felt increasingly distant from him even though he was just a few feet from me when we were at home. It was the worst kind of loneliness— feeling alone when there's someone so close by.

Finally, I ventured, tentatively, "Is there someone else involved? I don't want to try and guess what's the matter with us if there's a third party." Instead of reassuring me, he didn't say a word.

"Well, if the answer isn't no, it must be yes," I continued. Still, he was silent.

"Well, it must be Marion," I concluded. Marion was a woman he worked with at Citibank, and I'd once said to him, "If I were less secure I'd be jealous of Marion because you're always saying how great she is." His answer then had been, "If you ever saw her face, you'd never be jealous."

But he must have decided that whatever he thought of her face, it wasn't that important. Or maybe she made him feel better than I did — telling him how clever and smart he was. In truth, I thought he was smart and handsome, and a good father. He would walk around cradling our baby on his shoulder to comfort her when she was crying; he would tuck her in at night with her stuffed donkey, Nelson, and then make a cup of cocoa for me.

But now he told me he loved Marion and wanted to be with her. He offered no other explanation for his dissatisfaction in our marriage: nothing I had done wrong or could possibly fix, nothing that was negotiable. As he walked out the door, he told me, "Don't write us off, we'll get help." 

I don't know what help he had in mind because he refused to see a marriage counselor or any other kind of mediator. He said he'd be staying with mutual friends who lived near us. Instead, he moved in with Marion.

Getting married had been his idea. I just wanted to live together.

If things didn't work out I wanted to be able to call a mover, not a lawyer. But he had insisted on it. We'd been living together for two years when he gave me an ultimatum.

"Marry me or I'm moving out," he'd said. "I don't believe in divorce. I'm there for the long haul."

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My parents divorced when I was less than two years old, so the idea of a family was both alien and seductive. My mother died when I was ten, and my father remarried five years later. But his new wife hated me. I lived in a hotel in downtown Detroit, apart from my father, his wife, and my brother from then on.

At the time, the promise of having a family of my own had been irresistible. And it proved to be everything I'd ever wanted. We had a great apartment and a beautiful baby girl. We both had good jobs. He was an executive with the bank; I was a successful advertising copywriter at a top New York agency. And in five years he never said a word to suggest that he wasn't happy with me.

Maybe that's why I was so amazed by his secret life as a virtual James Joyce.

The pain of reading his diary was oddly liberating. Once I got past my disgust, I couldn't lose what I didn't have. And if that was the man I was married to, I thought, I didn't lose much. In actuality, reading his diary may have been one of the best things that have happened to me. It made me see that he was never really there for me to begin with. I didn't have to worry about how I was going to make it alone. I'd been alone all that time and just didn't realize it.

I never said anything to him about his journal. One afternoon, several weeks later, he came over to pick up our daughter as part of his visitation. As I was dressing her in little Lacoste shorts and a matching t-shirt, he commented on her ears.

"She has such perfect ears, almost like little shells," he said.

"Yes," I replied. "But don't you think she has peasant's hands?" That he didn’t answer came as no surprise.

Years later, I was in my daughter's room putting away some of her sweaters that had come back from the cleaners when I came across her diary. Some experts on adolescent behavior say parents should know everything their kids are up to, even if it means eavesdropping and poking around in their rooms.

For me, reading her diary was out of the question. Not just because it would be invading her privacy, and not because it was a matter of character. I just didn't want to know anything about her that she didn't want to tell me.

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Jane Warshaw is a writer who focuses on marriage, divorce, and her experiences with both.