How the hell do I start a piece like this?
Maybe by the admission that I used to have the idea, thanks to my upbringing in a branch of the Swedenborgian religion known as the General Church (and sometimes “The New Church”) that marriage was a sort of ticket to heaven, literally and metaphorically.
I keep thinking I’ve put all that dogma to bed, but on an emotional level, it keeps resurrecting itself, especially when my heart breaks as hard as it has and I tried as hard as I did to live up to the life I thought I was supposed to have — and the life a lot of people probably thought I was living.
This may be a surprise to readers and some real-life friends. (If you’re just dropping in on my blog for the first time, you probably won’t be surprised at all; everyone knows US divorce rates are pretty damn high.)
I’m recently divorced.
I’m writing this for a few reasons. One is that I tend to process things by writing about them, and a life-ripper like divorce is no exception. A second is that this is a really tough thing to go through, and it helps to know there are others are out there who understand. But my biggest reason for writing this is pretty selfish: people who know me or my byline may be surprised and disappointed (or glad, whatever, I don’t know) that I’ve gotten divorced, and may have a lot of questions, and frankly, judging by the ones I’ve gotten so far, I don’t have it in me to answer or even hear them all in person.
So, if you are, in fact, that interested in my life, peruse this blog post. E-mail or message it to your favorite gossip buddies. Dissect and discuss. Spread the word, so I don’t have to. Say what you want in your own mind, but please be sensitive if you choose to comment here.
This post has three sections based on three categories of questions.
The first answers actual FAQs I’m getting from people who already know about the split. The second addresses what I’m guessing are the tacit questions you wish you could ask but have the good taste not to. The third has the questions I’m silently asking myself as I eat a lot of ice cream.
Q: “Are you going to go back to your maiden name?”
A: I thought about this for months. I was born Alaina Johns; now I’m Alaina Mabaso. I’m going to keep my married name.
I’ve spent the last eight years building my presence as a writer on the name Alaina Mabaso, which I think is a great, distinctive name. So the bigger question to me isn’t my personal connection to the name; it’s whether I really want to go to the trouble of, say, changing my legal name but keeping my byline, or trying to change my byline when I’ve been writing for so many years under one name.
And I would be very curious to know if divorcees who did not take a name from outside their own culture get asked this question as often as I do. If “Mabaso” sounded like a typical American white-girl last name, would people be so interested in the question of whether or not I’m keeping it?
Finally, my former in-laws are a lovely family, and regardless of the marriage’s end, I still think it’s a privilege to share their name.
Q: “Are you on OK Cupid/Tinder yet?” / “Do you want a boyfriend?” / “Do you want to get married again?”
A: There are a lot of things I need to figure out about myself before cleaving to anybody else — work I hadn’t done at age 22, when I got engaged.
I don’t define “moving on” as finding a new partner, unless you count getting a dog. It means building the next phase of my life, with my friends and family and my work and a safe, happy place to live.
I am in no position to say whether or not I’ll want to get married again. Do I want to date? Yes. I have some fears, but I’m open to what the world has on tap.
Q: “Well, is it a relief your in-laws are far away?”
A: Truth be told, comments like this have been some of the most hurtful things I’ve heard in connection to my divorce. I married a man who’s not from the US, but I’ve traveled to visit my former in-laws many times and I love them. And more than that, I worked hard to understand, honor, and participate in their culture. This is the 21st century. Being on different continents doesn’t mean you can’t be close. Ending this marriage was necessary, but I love my ex-husband’s family as much as I ever did, and my heart’s broken at the idea of not being part of their family anymore.
Q: Are you sure it wasn’t a problem of cultural differences?
A: Since I am a white American and my ex is neither of those things, I have heard this one far too often than I’d like. It’s too long to answer properly here, mostly because of all the reasons it is offensive. I will probably address this in another essay. Some people have implied or said that my divorce or the circumstances that led to my divorce are the result of his culture or his race. I thought some of the things you encounter in an interracial marriage were bad. But something about a divorce between people of different colors and countries peels open a whole new level of ignorance and prejudice, in which people with little or no knowledge of my ex’s actual culture seem bent on making me admit that that it was a contributing factor in our divorce.
Q: Is this divorce happening for just cause?
A: With this, I’m imagining what may be on the minds of some readers from the General Church, which has a long habit of shaming and ostracizing those who get divorced. As I learned it, “just cause” is rooted in a monogamous Swedenborgian ideal that in God’s eyes, the only legitimate reason to end a marriage is sexual infidelity (or “whoredom,” depending on your translation of Swedenborg’s neo-Latin). Almost everyone else should stick it out and work on the marriage, or, in a worst-case scenario, separate but remain celibate.
This is a real thing. Swedenborgian clergy have devoted themselves to the question of whether people who have been divorced should be allowed to remarry in the General Church’s home cathedral. In other words, did the first marriage end with “just cause”?
(I don’t want to paint all Swedenborgians with the same brush. There are many loving and modern-minded Swedenborgians in many different sects across the world. But I am no longer religious, and I consider myself a survivor of the sect I was born into.)
People who think they have the right to decide, in the name of their God, whether someone else’s divorce was for “just cause” can just shove it.
Q: “Are you getting divorced because somebody cheated?”
A: General Church members might not be so different from the world at large. Someone’s getting divorced. What do you wish you could know? It’s whether or not the whole thing’s over because somebody had an affair. Right?
No, I’m not divorced because somebody cheated.
Q: “Who left whom?”
A: I decided to leave and file for divorce.
Q: “Are you sure you couldn’t have worked it out if you tried hard enough?”
A: Take it from me, lovies: people who go around saying “divorce is the easy way out,” as opposed to “working on the marriage,” don’t have a clue what they’re saying. I think many people, either because their partnerships are happy, or because they can’t or won’t do the personal and practical work of remaking their lives when things go irreparably or even dangerously awry, never actually face or even understand the full legal ramifications of marriage — or how invested our government and judiciary actually are in preserving individual unions, even when continuing them is detrimental or dangerous to the plaintiff.
Exhibit A: In Pennsylvania, anyone can get married after buying an $80 license and waiting three days. But if you need a divorce, even if nobody makes a particle of fuss, you still have to wait 90 days from the service of the divorce complaint, just so the court can make sure you’re not acting impulsively. In other words, the decision to bind yourself personally, legally, and financially to someone else for life is a choice that can be properly concluded within three days; the option to dissolve that union requires at least three months, and, in the case of a toxic or recalcitrant spouse, it can take years. And don’t get me started on the legal fees: lawyers’ retainers, court filings, documentation, certified mailings — it’s almost as bad as immigration.
I’m not saying divorce should be quick and easy to obtain, particularly when children or significant assets are in the picture, but I do think we need to take a hard look at how easy it is to get married, and ask ourselves why the system fights you at every step if you need a divorce.
Q: “So what went wrong?”
A: The answer to this is something very painful and personal to me, and I’m doing a lot of hard work on myself to process it and move past it in a healthy way. My ex-husband is a person with his own life to live, and I married him because I loved him and I thought he loved me, and I was under a lot of pressure from the ideas I mentioned above. My ex has many intelligent qualities and talents.
But the way he treated me when other people were paying attention was not the same way he treated me in private. For a long time, I didn’t tell anyone and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even realize I had the choice of whether to stay or go. For years, I didn’t know that the unpredictable, irate, and increasingly frightening ways my ex-husband behaved weren’t my fault — especially since he blamed me for his behavior, denied it was happening at all, claimed that it was a joke, or that I was the one being “weird,” “too sensitive,” and “a bad communicator.” The problem escalated over the years until I lived in constant dread in my own home. I woke up after I got a good psychotherapist who recognized the patterns of abuse in my life and led me in the hard work of admitting them to myself, and recommended this book.
Q: “How long were things bad?”
A: The answer to this question probably isn’t as straightforward as you might like. Situations like this don’t erupt overnight. They escalate slowly over time, and one of the hallmarks of verbal abuse is its intermittent nature. If things were bad all the time, it’d be easy to recognize the trauma and get out. Instead, things are terrible sometimes and sometimes they seem fine and you feel loved, and wonder if you’re crazy for thinking there’s a problem. Or you believe that whatever it was, you solved it. Until the next yelling fit.
How long were things bad? Longer than you thought. Longer than I thought. That’s all I know.
Q: “So do I have to choose which one of you I’m going to keep being friends with? Is this going to be a Big Awkward Thing?”
A: I can’t speak for my ex-husband, but for me, I hope not. This is my life and I’ve made the healthiest choice for myself. I’m not going to go all Mieka Pauley on him. Can I socialize with my ex-husband? No. Do I want to prevent you from doing the same if you want to hang out with him on your own time, without me? No.
Silent personal FAQ’s
Q: Why do the engagement, wedding, anniversary, pregnancy, and birth announcements I see every day on Facebook sometimes make me cry?
A: Boy do I wish there was a simple answer on this one. I’m happy for my friends and their families. I’m glad I don’t have children right now. But in a vague but long-term and pervasive sense, I always thought I’d have a family of my own eventually and looked forward to many aspects of parenting. I guess the problem is that the constant pregnancy announcements and beaming families remind me, over and over again, that my life went off the rails according to the standard I always envisioned for myself. Other people my age seem so happy with their spouses and children. At 32, I’m striking out on my own again. It’s the right decision. But part of me still acutely mourns the life I thought I was building and is full of anxiety about the future — a future that looks so blissful in my friends’ photos. I wonder where I went wrong.
Q: Why did it take me so long to recognize what was happening in my life, and take action?
A: I’m pretty sure this will take me years to unravel fully, if I ever do. The factors that led to my getting married when I did to the person I married, in the face of many subtle red flags that it wasn’t the right thing to do, are deeply ingrained in the culture I was born into, both in my family’s church and the world at large. When you stood up in front of hundreds of people and made what is supposed to be the biggest promise of your life, and you want with your whole being to live that promise out in happiness, it can take a long, long time for reality to seep through, especially when you feel isolated, guilty, and afraid.
My physical and emotional challenges contributed as well: while I fought chronic illness and serious depression (and, unbeknownst to me at the time, an undiagnosed injury in need of surgeries) and kept my career going on top of it all, there wasn’t much left over to assess and realize how my marriage was fitting into the picture, much less to gather support and act on a plan for my own safety.
Q: Somehow, deep down, did I deserve the abuse?
A: Everyone on the outside who knows about it says I didn’t. I know this on an intellectual level. I am not to blame for someone else’s cruel and irrational behavior. On an emotional level, it may be impossible not to internalize a voice in your kitchen, your living room, your car, and even your bed that says you’re doing it wrong, that everything is your fault, or denies your pain. Back to therapy…
Q: Am I afraid to publish this?
A: Yes. Even if it’s irrational, I’m afraid there are still ways my ex can hurt me. And even after everything that’s happened, I still fear causing him pain. I sincerely wish him as much peace as he can find. And no matter what, deep down, part of me is still afraid of how other people will look at me, either because they’ll think I shouldn’t have gotten divorced, or because I hid the problems as well as I could for so long that people won’t believe me now. Or I’m afraid people will judge me for getting into an abusive relationship and being unable to take action for a long time (couldn’t I have done a better job of protecting myself?). But I feel ready to tell the truth about this, and I can’t control other people’s reactions.
Q: Will I do more writing about this whole journey?
A: Knowing me, probably. And not because, as my singin’ cousin Bronson Tennis put it, it’s a bad idea to fuck with people who tell stories for a living (though this is no doubt true).
When I have more distance, perspective, and personal healing, I hope I can add to the body of writing that helps people, men and women, recognize and name verbal and emotional abuse, realize they’re not alone, and take steps to protect themselves.
Q: How will I ever, ever thank all the people whose support has helped me get through more pain than I thought I could live with?
A: I have absolutely no idea. They know who they are. I love them.
Q: Will anyone who has read this far find this blog post to be a sad, selfish, self-indulgent mess from a woman who should have known better, both about marriage and about how you break the news when that marriage is done?
A: Maybe. But this is what I needed to do. This is what I needed to say.
After months of painful and expensive negotiations, drawn out by my ex, I sat down in my lawyer’s conference room and signed the paperwork necessary for a judge to grant the divorce. To me, it was an enormous moment. It was a line between two chapters of my life: the life I was trying to live, and my new and necessary reality. But it felt strangely lonely, unmarked, and unwitnessed. My lawyer and the notary were chatting and fixing a paper jam in the printer while I signed the documents that officially ended the life I thought I was going to have. On the train home, I crammed tissues against my eyelids over and over again, trying to contain my heaving emotions. After hundreds of people smiled on my wedding vows, I wished even one person could have come with me to that conference room, to help honor and acknowledge what was happening. It was too much to bear alone.
When I got word that the divorce was final, it was a call from my lawyer while I was walking through center city on my way to an editorial meeting. Some moments in life, however important they are to you, just aren’t marked in any visible way. I could have broken down in tears for fifteen different reasons, but I had to collect myself and keep on working.
Someone told me there aren’t any mistakes in life. It’s just life, lived as well as you can live it day to day. Tomorrow is another day, and I’m not ashamed to say that I hope it’ll be an easier day for me and maybe even for you, because you finally know the truth about my life, and might feel safe enough to share yours.