by Annabeth Leong
When I divorced my first husband, I ran into lots of people who wanted me to talk about what my mistakes had been. I realized eventually that the path to feeling decent about myself and my ex was to consistently refuse to think about it like that.
This is what I say about my ex-husband when asked: We weren’t compatible partners.
I would perform an elaborate ritual to express my gratitude for no-fault divorce. I think it’s one of the best legal innovations to have ever happened. After growing up watching my parents tear each other to shreds in a contested divorce, which went on for something like three years, it was an incredible gift to be able to write “irreconcilable differences” on the form and call it a day. I am so, so powerfully glad that I didn’t have to go to court and try to prove what was wrong with my ex-husband or with me so that we could be free of each other.
Let’s talk about this mistakes idea a little more, though. My sense from the many conversations I’ve had about this is that I’m supposed to pony up my mistakes for several reasons.
For one thing, it’s supposed to show that I learned something from the failure of my first marriage and am in a position to never screw up exactly that way again. I also strongly suspect that it’s supposed to reassure my listener—if they can check out their own life and see that they’re not making the same mistakes, then they know they’re safe from the trouble that’s hit my life.
(By the way, I’m constantly resisting the urge to put scare quotes around everything. I’ll spare you that visual scourge, but please keep in mind that I’m using all words like mistake, failure, and screw-up with a sense of deep skepticism in this post).
So that idea that I learned something… I definitely did. I learned so much from being married and from getting divorced, and I carry those lessons with me every day. The most important stuff that I learned, though, forced me to change my worldview significantly.
I went into that marriage with a lot of beliefs about how marriage was hard work that I was prepared to do. I believed at the time that any two people could work things out between themselves. Maybe they wouldn’t stay madly in love, but with a strong commitment, they could remain effective partners. I believed there was deep value in this exercise.
It’s that set of beliefs that drives the desire to hunt for mistakes after a failure of a marriage, I think. Noticing mistakes and learning from them protects you in the future. Accepting the mistakes you made in the past makes things your fault, which means you should have known better, which means you had or should have had control over painful events.
I don’t think things really work this way, though. I don’t think that avoiding specific actions I took with my ex-husband will inoculate me from relationship difficulties in the future. I don’t think there was any way he or I could have or should have known better in the past than to do what we did.
People want to believe in recklessness, too—that either our marriage or divorce was hasty or insufficiently considered. To which I say, welcome to my brain. No one thinks more than I do. I promise I applied all my best effort and thought to both situations.
The idea of a failed marriage contains the idea that there’s a successful marriage. The success condition is to die married. Anything that deviates from that path means that mistakes were made.
This year, a relative of mine died of cancer. He and his wife had a lot of unhappiness in the many years they were together, and they had always worked things out. My relative and his wife were often congratulated for their commitment to marriage. What I saw, though, was a pretty sad scene at the end of his life. His care was in the hands of a woman he didn’t really seem to trust, who didn’t seem to trust him. There were all sorts of fights in the family as he lay dying, often instigated by the tensions between my relative and his wife.
Seeing that brought some of these things into sharp relief for me. I’m not inclined to call that successful. I honestly wish my relative had released himself from that difficult marriage years before so he could have felt safer at the end of his life. Now, I know I’m not in his head. He might strenuously disagree with the way I’m characterizing things. What I will say is that I don’t think that situation would feel like a success to me.
The idea of a failed marriage suggests that a successful marriage was always possible. It is only mistakes that stopped that from happening.
My parents brought out the absolute worst in each other. I don’t think there is any world where that would not have been true. Each of them was much better off without the other. I can’t see their divorce as a failure. I can’t see the trouble between them as a series of mistakes.
At the same time, I appreciate that my mother doesn’t characterize the marriage as a mistake altogether (another thing that people sometimes seem to want me to do). My mother resists labeling thirteen years of her life that way, or calling the connection a mistake when it produced the children she loved.
I spent my entire first marriage working on it. I scanned myself relentlessly for mistakes and tried to fix them. I consulted others for advice. I spared myself no scrutiny. If there is something I would call a mistake, it is that. I wish I had seen my misery for what it was sooner and trusted it. In my life since that marriage, I have tried to believe in myself more, to stop operating that pitiless radar, to open myself to the idea that sometimes, when a relationship is work, it means it’s not a good one. There is an ease and a joy to things I want in my life. There is a magic I can feel in the background, even during a difficult conversation. It’s not that I never take the actions that might be called hard work, but they don’t feel so hard. I no longer feel like I’m trying to dig a ditch with a spoon.
I remember the day I decided to get a divorce. I was writing a pro and con list, trying to solve for the right answer as if my life were a math problem. And I saw it in a flash. To me, my life was a set of correct answers, colored in green, and mistakes, shaded red. But what if getting a divorce was just an action, something that couldn’t be classified so simplistically? What if red and green would always mingle to color everything I did? What if life didn’t have a right answer?
That was the moment that freed me from a paralysis and obsession I’d been living under for many years. I understood something about courage, what it means to step forward without knowing what the outcome will be. Suddenly, there was space in my life for my heart, my desires, my feelings.