When the sadness bird leaves

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By Belinda White

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about her life during divorce as a ‘piece of dropped pie’ – all in pieces on the floor.

I hear ya, sister. The thing about divorce that  makes it different from a regular break-up is the broken promise. The failure. Not only is there the loss of your partner; there’s the admission that the promise you made – publicly and privately – is now broken.

If you’re the one who leaves, you’re the breaker of that promise. So you end up dealing with more than just heartbreak – you shoulder a huge burden of guilt too. I left because I couldn’t take the loneliness anymore. I couldn’t live within the confines of a marriage where I didn’t feel loved. (Whether I was indeed loved, but just didn’t feel it, is  an apparently endless dispute). But to me, it felt like I wasn’t the one who withdrew first.

And yet, the act of leaving was mine, so I took the guilt onto myself.

That guilt takes so much time to push your way through. I was swimming underwater, with the weight of it pressing down on me. But I kept going, heading upwards and fighting off the current. I had help too – hands pulling me up, currents pushing me up.

Until I broke through the surface, emerging from the ocean, exhausted but alive.

God, I’ve been writing this post for so long. I’m still scraping off the guilt, like a crust of ocean salt. Sometimes I catch myself feeling happy with my life, and just as swiftly comes a question. What about him? Have you bought your happiness at the expense of another’s?

And I how can I know this for sure, since it’s more than a year since we spoke? Certainly that was the narrative he laid out for me. I left him with no warning, I didn’t explain why, and I didn’t give him a chance to fix things. It’s a such a common refrain heard from those who are left, that it verges on cliche.

And my alternative version of events is that I asked, begged and pleaded for him to act, to engage and to work on the marriage. But he ignored it, paralysed by the enormity of the task at hand.

Don’t we all weave narratives to help us make sense of events, and sometimes, to protect ourselves? I would argue that he saw my heart breaking, and heard me ask for help, but he turned away from the work – because he didn’t know how to do it or at least to start it.

But that’s my version of events, and like every writer, I have the privilege of controlling the narrative.  His version lies elsewhere, unexpressed or at least, unwritten.

Making sense of nothing

In the absence of engagement, everything is understood by intimation, read from between the lines of lawyers’ letters.

He has read my finance blog, and told his lawyers it proves I am hiding assets from him. I am filled with rage. How dare he trawl my online identity and twist it like that.

But then I try and empathise. What did he feel when he read my words? Was he angry that I seem to thrive on my own? That I seem to be happier without him? Does that suggest to him he was making me unhappy, or holding me back? Is he just acting out of fear? It’s a scary thing to be on your own, financially, when you’ve been in partnership with someone most of your adult life.

But I don’t know, because this is a one-way conversation built on hints and supposition, imaginings and hypotheticals. If it’s difficult to know what your partner is thinking when they sleep next to you every night, then it’s impossible to divine it from words mediated by lawyers. Despite the professionalism they lay claim to, lawyers enjoy using words like ‘disappointed’ in their missives.

Who is disappointed, and with whom? One lawyer with another, or one aggrieved ex-spouse with another? At whose feet should we lay the guilt and the blame and disappointment and recrimination.

Today I read something that illuminated this for me. Wilfred McKay says, “Claiming victim status is the sole sure means left of absolving oneself and securing one’s sense of fundamental moral innocence.

“If one wishes to be accounted innocent, one must find a way to make the claim that one cannot be held morally responsible. This is precisely what the status of victimhood accomplishes.”

This I already understood. But David Brooks, who is quoting McKay, provides more illumination. He says that in a post-religious world, “We have no clear framework or set of rituals to guide us in our quest for goodness. Worse, people have a sense of guilt and sin, but no longer a sense that they live in a loving universe marked by divine mercy, grace and forgiveness. There is sin but no formula for redemption.” [italics mine]

And that’s why my crust of guilt feels so hard to scrape off. How must I do penance? What self-flagellation is sufficient for the sin of making my happiness a priority, above another’s? What acts of contrition can resolve the breaking of a sacred promise? How do I redeem myself after ‘ruining’ someone’s life? If I could unlock that answer, perhaps I could move on.

Or is that giving myself too much agency? Do I have the power to ruin someone’s life? Is that my ego talking? I certainly lacked the power to make him happy. No amount of money or gifts could do it. No amount of emotional or financial support could prompt him to chase the dreams he wrestled with.

I comfort myself with the inadequate explanation that he was unhappy even with me, so without me, there is  little difference.

But should I have been more, done more, suffered more, endured more, believed more, to make it work? How does one ever know when the work you’ve done is enough? At what point do we sit back and realise we are  just Sisyphus, rolling that stone up that hill one more time?

The impossibility of forever

I don’t know how people bounce from one relationship straight into another.

I have found the process to be overwhelmingly dispiriting. Not just in the dissolution of the marriage, but in the tentative steps I took afterwards. Every interaction with a man left me disappointed or hurt.

I try to keep my expectations low. But even still, the selfish, unreliable and unpredictable nature of men can leave me breathless. I know, ‘not all men’. So I am told. But let’s just say all men in a 50km radius of Sydney who happen to be single.

Don Draper says in Mad Men that ‘People tell you who are, but we ignore it – because we want them to be who we want them to be’.

We spend a lot of time trying to think the best of people. But when they end up disappointing you, it’s not really a surprise in the end. That kernel of disappointment was always there. It was just waiting for time to water it and help it unfurl.

It’s more than two years since I left, and I’m amazed by the number of people who ask me about my next relationship. Have I met someone? Would I marry again? Am I going to have kids? (Wait, what? You generally need another player for that game.)

Times goes by in a flash. I’ve learnt a lot, felt the love and support from people around me as a warm blanket.  But the girl I was is gone. That girl who thought forever meant forever, that all I needed was  to give love – more love – and I would get it back.  That good people get the love they deserve.

If I have learnt one thing, it’s that love has nothing at all to do with deserving. In fact, here is a list of things that in no way guarantees that someone will love you:

  • Being a good person.
  • Caring about someone else.
  • Having good intentions.
  • Being smart or successful.
  • Being kind.

These things may make people like you. But bad people are often loved and good people are often ignored. There is no magical connection between being good and being loved.

So perhaps we need to reframe what we ask people who come out of a long relationship. Please don’t ask me if I want to get married again. I can’t even do third dates.

When the sadness bird leaves

In the times following the break-up, I would be ok for days or weeks at a time, then all of sudden be brought low. I came to see it as The Sadness Bird.

It would come, land on my shoulder, sing mournful songs to me, then quietly fly away. I even found a picture of it (above – sorry I can’t find anyone to credit it to).

I feel like the bird is almost gone now. Its visits are fleeting. It would be naive to think we could live life without any visits from The Sadness Bird at all. In fact, life is sweeter when we experience all of its ups and downs.

When we stand at that altar, offering up promises about forever, we don’t know how they will play out. But all promises are easily made – it costs us nothing to say the words, and we believe them innately at the time.  They are harder to break; the cost is counted in what you lose, and in the way you disappoint yourself.

But sometimes the only way to move forward is to break everything, and start again.

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  1. As you know,it can take 15 years or more to find some kind of equilibrium, and even then it can be fraught. As someone said, this stuff is like the law of the sea – the most navigable vessel gives way to the least navigable vessel. Your vessel is of course eminently navigable, after the work you’ve done in building your ship, and it’s your blessing and your curse. But you don’t stop navigating.

  2. Beautifully written, as always. The emotion comes through! x

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