I did, and then I didn’t: Being a divorced twenty-something

I have decided that my goal will be to update Positive and Promise by Monday, at least every other week. Originally, I thought Sunday night might make a nice, tidy deadline, but, let’s face it, I am watching “Downton Abbey” on Sunday nights. And, if I can catch up soon enough, I will be watching “Sherlock” as well. One has to manage one’s priorities responsibly.

Generally, I also will do my best to alternate more somber posts, like the one from last week, with pieces that are more light-hearted. But everything that follows has been on my mind for some time now, and I would like to put it into words.

Writing this piece will be simplest if I begin with the absolute basics:

When I was twenty-three years old, I got engaged to my college boyfriend. When I was twenty-five years old, I married him. Ten months later, we legally separated. A little over a year after we married, our divorce became official.

Anyone who has been in my shoes knows that a whirlwind marriage is anything but uncomplicated, even if it is only a brief foray into the world of matrimony. For one thing, like most people who decide to marry, I entered into marriage with the full intention of remaining married. But before long, I realized that I had been ill-equipped to make the promises that accompany marriage – even though I was positively chomping at the bit to make them.

Make no mistake: I wanted to be engaged to my boyfriend, and I made that abundantly clear. I was tremendously excited when he proposed to me. Our wedding was beautiful and happy. But, several months later, when I was supposed to be compiling my wedding photo album and writing thank you notes for all of the lovely gifts we received, I was seized by a horrifying awareness that I had previously ignored, justified, or simply did not understand: getting married had not been the right decision. I did not want to share my life with the person I had chosen and to whom I had committed myself.

When I began this blog, I wrote about my obsession with narrative security. I have always, for as long as I can recall, been made deeply uncomfortable by situations that I could not control or whose outcomes I could not determine. To some degree, I will always struggle with this insecurity. What I did not understand, in the years directly preceding my engagement, was that I had completely succumbed to it. If ever a doubt about my readiness to commit entered my mind, I frantically explained it away or sought another’s reassurance that there was no need to question my relationship. The possibility that my boyfriend might not be the person with whom I would spend the rest of my life was utterly and completely terrifying to me. In fact, I began grappling with this terror when I was still very much in love with him. I can recall looking at him, profoundly aware of my feelings of affection, while simultaneously battling an insidious fear that I would, one day, want to leave him.

Eventually, I trained myself to compartmentalize these fears, rather than to confront them. I went to great lengths to tuck them away as tidily as I could, and developed cognitive mechanisms for assuaging them whenever they reared their ugly heads. And so, over the two years of my engagement, I never once considered the possibility that I should not marry my fiancé – not when I began to question my sexuality or when I sensed the profound ways that I was changing. This is not to say that there was a definitive red flag bearing the words, “DO NOT PROCEED – BIG MISTAKE,” but there were opportunities for me to reflect. I never took advantage of them; I was too afraid to do so. And by the time my wedding was a year or so away, I had worked so diligently to bury and disavow my fears that I only now know all that I was too terrified to confront.

So I married him. I did so happily, optimistically, even confidently. I did not expect that, three months later, I would be blindsided by a slew of emotions that made it very evident I had entered into a commitment that I could not sustain. For much of the year–my first year in my doctoral program, for that matter–I felt lost in a cloud of delirious misery. I made some very poor and hurtful choices. I also tried to remain in the marriage in order to give it the chance that it deserved. By May, I knew fully well that I was only causing more harm by staying. I could not, at age 25, commit to a relationship that I knew would never entirely fulfill and enrich me – or my partner. Finally, with the help of a few people very close to me, I had learned to assess situations without evading the nasty, undesirable parts. Leaving my marriage was going to be an atrocious ordeal (as far as the majority of my family knew, I was happy). Moreover, it was going to cause my partner a world of hurt. I chose to do it all the same. It is one of the only decisions I have ever made that I have never once second-guessed.

This does not mean that I made the decision easily. I did not want to wound anyone with my actions, especially not my husband. But by this time, I had already hurt him–and others–terribly. I knew that if I did not end our marriage, circumstances would only get nastier. I would have to conjure the shitstorm first if there was to be any hope for greener pastures later.

Leaving my infant marriage caused all the tumult that I expected. Many were upset and confused and angry, and I understood why. I wished that there was a way to help everyone achieve the knowledge I finally possessed myself – that this absolutely was for the best. I understood why so many people believed that I had behaved selfishly and rashly – and in some ways, I had. I felt profoundly sorry for every bit of sorrow and pain that I had caused and was causing. While my experience was very different from that of my ex’s, I, too, was in pain. I generally do my utmost not to hurt people, and here, in a matter of days, I had overturned a few worlds. What’s more, I did not understand how I had been such a “blind puppy,” as Jane Eyre would have it. How the hell had I walked down that aisle before I had the bravery and maturity to confront the full extent of my feelings? How could I have been so childish? So…let’s face it…stupid?

Not long ago after the separation, I asked these questions of a wise woman in my life. She responded that we make the best decisions we can at the time that we make them. I want to believe that this reasoning pertains to me. I did not, after all, marry impulsively. I had been with my boyfriend for several years; we had lived together; and we met with the minister multiple times before he agreed to officiate the ceremony. I did think deeply about my relationship, but all of my thoughts were based on the premise that it should continue. I was never able to cross the threshold into more ambiguous territory.

While it will never be easy or comfortable for me to inhabit life’s less secure spaces, I have learned to do it. Two of the many things my first marriage taught me are the importance of mindfulness and that periods of “not knowing” can be some of the most critical and generative that we endure. Unfortunately for Paul, I learned my lesson so well–and was so shell-shocked from my divorce–that I harassed him with a slew of potential catastrophes that I feared could befall us. In fact, it isn’t really fair to refer to some of these catastrophes as “potential” – but I suppose that depends on your definition of “far-fetched.” Mine is pretty loose, and I am fairly certain that my fiction-generator was on overdrive for the first eight months of our relationship.

If you have been reading my blog, then you know that I have made the decision to get married again. I am tremendously happy with this decision. I mentioned earlier that leaving my marriage is one of the only decisions I have ever made without second thoughts. The second decision I have made with that amount of certainty is the decision to share my life with Paul. With Paul, I have found a big, fulfilling, exciting love – a love that sustains me, nourishes me, teaches me, and challenges me. I am so fortunate in my relationship that I feel undeserving of my happiness. I wish this happiness upon everyone, whether or not they have a partner. I wish it upon my ex-husband.

As you might imagine, my experiences over the last several years have caused me to think more critically about the institution of marriage. I remain skeptical, although I have decided to re-marry, and I believe that our society has a long way to go before we have a healthy relationship with matrimony. It might actually be impossible for society as a whole to have a healthy relationship with it. We may have to settle for empowering individuals–especially women–to make healthy choices in their relationships. For some time, I felt very isolated in my new identity as a divorced woman. Whether or not I was being paranoid or self-conscious, I felt judged and socially-inferior. I still prefer to refer to my ex as “my ex” rather than “my ex-husband” – the latter inevitably raises eyebrows and provokes questions (“Twenty-eight and already divorced? Huh.”). Lately, however, I have noticed that a number of friends and acquaintances have recently divorced or ended long-term relationships. One of my motivations for writing this piece is to render our position a bit more visible. Of course, every relationship is different, and the circumstances always vary. But I have the sense that our society does not feel as comfortable with divorce as it purports to – and, really, that makes sense. When divorce rates in America are 50 to 51 percent, it seems reasonable that the topic would incite anxiety. Learning that a couple is getting divorced–especially when the news is a complete surprise–can be quite jarring. I imagine that it has the potential to make others feel unsteady in their own relationships, if only briefly. It is a scary thought to know that you could leave the security of your relationship, even if you have no desire to do so. It was scary for me to do it, even though it was what I wanted to do.

While it should be unnecessary, I still feel compelled to write what follows: There is no shame in being divorced, regardless of your age, regardless of the number of years or, in my case, months, that you were married. There is no shame in leaving a relationship if you know that you cannot love your partner the way s/he deserves to be loved, or vice versa. I find you-centric mantras rather nauseating – I do not think we can live as if we are without responsibilities and commitments. However, I think young women in particular must understand that they are free to make the choices they believe will be for the best. Inevitably, those choices will have consequences, and most likely things will be pretty terrible for a while. But it will be ok.  Because eventually, things won’t be terrible; in fact, there will be the possibility for them to be wonderful instead. And we should all be allowed that possibility.

Back Because of a Bang

So, I’m back.

Like every other aspiring writer with an internet connection, I firmly resolved that 2014 would be a productive blogging year for me. I also resolved to make good headway on my dissertation, which just so happens to be the reason why blogging fell by the wayside for the remainder of 2013. Hopefully I can budget my time in such a way that I am able to write for pleasure more frequently this semester. I do not want to suggest that there is no pleasure in writing a dissertation – if there was not, I would not do it. But it is work, and once you label something “work,” it inevitably becomes that thing you HAVE to do every day, even if you enjoy it. And the thing you have to do can take extraordinary amounts of time and energy. Example: How did the process of writing one sentence–ONE–become so intellectually, emotionally, and physically taxing? Jeezy Creezy. I have nearly finished my first chapter, though, so my hope is that as I get the hang of this dissertating business (to the extent that one can, anyway), I will be able to devote more time to the blogosphere.

But, to be honest, I did not originally plan to return to Positive and Promise tonight. The day’s events prompted me to do it, in part due to the BWD situation that resulted. Late this morning, there was a shoot-out directly outside of my apartment.

No one was hurt, thank goodness, and no stray bullets hit the apartment. It was, however, terrifying. Paul was at work, so I was alone with the cat (who, while frightened of well-meaning, cooing visitors, is apparently immune to the sound of gunfire ripping through the air). I learned from my downstairs neighbor that, for as long as he can remember, there has been some sort of turf war between two local groups, and drugs are likely involved. Lately I had noticed a little graffiti across the street that suggested some sort of extant dispute, but I didn’t think much of it. As it turns out, that graffiti–completed by two different people, each representing a different group–may very well have been evidence of the turmoil that led to today’s near-catastrophe. The shoot-out was so close that it is a mercy no stray bullets flew through my downstairs neighbor’s window – the window he sits behind almost all day (he is wheelchair-bound). And while the altercation occurred a couple of hours after Paul left for work, I still…well, I can’t even finish this sentence.

So, needless to say, I have not been a paragon of productivity today. Paul came home from work early because I was so distressed, and we discussed whether or not we will remain in this neighborhood. We are not sure right now. Frankly, two graduate students have to go where the rent is cheap, and because neither of us own a car, we rely on public transportation. A one-bedroom apartment walking distance from a metro stop in a decent neighborhood? In this area, that would cost more than what one of us makes in a month. Obviously this is a matter that will require far more discussion and, if we do decide to move, some significant budgeting to boot. Furthermore–and as will become clearer–I have mixed feelings about leaving a neighborhood that has become special to me, in spite of the caution required to live here.

Before Paul returned home, I occupied myself by searching through various news sources, to see if anything had been posted about the shoot-out. Nothing. I wasn’t surprised, especially since there apparently had not been any injuries. But since the event occurred in broad daylight, I thought that it may have piqued the interest of a local reporter. However, I did find tucked deep into the online crevices of the Washington Post, a brief article about an 18 year old boy who had been shot and killed recently. He lived nearby. In 2014, there has apparently been one other, relatively local homicide, and a stabbing that resulted in critical injuries. I would not have discovered this information if I had not been looking–carefully–for articles on violence in South DC. And I am nearly positive that there will be no article on the shoot-out in tomorrow’s paper.

Paul and I live in a historically black area, and most of our neighbors are lower-income. And, for the most part, it is a happy, close-knit community – one that we have come to love. Some of our bus drivers live nearby – they pick up their children from the local elementary school during their shifts, chat with them about their days, and deposit them at a family member’s house en route. Our downstairs neighbors immediately took us under their wings, providing us with safety tips and, during the holidays, stuffing us with cookies. A warm, sunny day means cookouts on every corner – and that we’ll be listening to Marvin Gaye at full volume, well past nine p.m. (we do not always love this, although it is endearing). One of the little girls two doors down initiated a routine where, upon seeing “Mr. Paul,” she curtsies and he, in turn, bows to her. Ninety-five percent of the time, I end each day perfectly content to live in a cozy apartment, surrounded by friendly neighbors.

But today, after the shoot-out–and after I did a little reading around on the Washington Post–I was reminded of a truth as dismal as the above paragraph is precious. We do live near the most violent section of Washington D.C., not far from one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country. Lives end frequently around here – generally young, black lives. To some degree, everyone in the DC area knows what happens “over here.” None of it is considered newsworthy because it is expected. In Precarious Life, Judith Butler writes about the difference between lives perceived as valuable and those that are deemed–consciously or not–expendable. She emphasizes that this is a global trend, but we also see its effects locally in a deeply profound way. When we do not recognize the violence inflicted upon black bodies, the socioeconomic circumstances that perpetuate cycles of violence and pain, we endorse a hierarchical system that privileges some lives over others.  I do not pretend to know what we can do in order to ensure more visibility for people of color in DC. And living in this neighborhood does not affect an ounce of my privilege. But I cannot tolerate a world where any life is regarded as expendable, and I am determined to find a way to do something, however small, to help this–my–neighborhood.