I’ve often thought what I might do differently if I could go back ten years, to that November night when my then-wife declared, ‘This isn’t working out. I want a divorce.’ If I knew what I know today, what might have been different in the weeks and months that followed? It’s a question I’m reminded of any time I get an email from a reader or a phone call from of an old buddy. I answer we exchange a brief pleasantry or two, and he immediately, and always, asks, “Do you have a few minutes?” In that question, I know what’s about to go down.
I’ve remarked that divorcing when my kids were so young was a blessing because I could hide all my mistakes behind their nap time. I now realize there’s an additional reason for the tragedy, because every divorce is a tragedy; I can now turn back and help others who regrettably are heading down the same path. In the midst of writing here, I’ve fielded countless questions for advice. They’re rarely legal, there are great divorce attorneys for that. Instead, these are pleas about what should happen next to put the pieces of a broken life back together. When to start dating? How to best guide the kids through the labyrinth of a new reality? How to begin healing, or dealing with an ex-spouse? The best ways to co-parent. Questions no separation agreement can remotely answer.
For some time, I’ve pondered if I should write down my insights and experience, offering a road map of sorts to anyone who cares to follow its directions. Before it disappears into the ether, to spell out the mistakes made and the lessons learned through my own divorce, all of which have led me where I am today. When, like the prodigal son, I finally came to myself and began doing things different and perhaps better.
There is an abundance of ‘divorce guides’, most far better written and thought-provoking than what might be found in this place. But what most of those lack, and perhaps what lends a shred of credibility here, is a personal experience. This is my story. A personal narrative that, save for heavenly grace, could have ended in the complete derailing of my own life and that of my children.
Divorce can be very dangerous for men. Whether through biased court systems or sheer indifference, men routinely carry the lighter burden after a marriage dissolves. He may discover more margin with his time, fewer parental demands, and on occasion achieve some economic liberation. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that too much margin can be dangerous. Like my Nanny said, ‘too much of anything is never a good thing’.
It’s been observed that lives are most easily wrecked that have too much time and too little responsibility. This is true with teen boys and especially divorced dads. Free from matrimonial accountability, which someone like myself desperately needs, and absent the daily spotlight his children shine on him by illuminating his moral imperfections; and often devoid of the monetary demands typical to a marriage, men, present company included, often drift towards dark places they could have never had imagined visiting otherwise.
Of all the mistakes I made in the weeks, months, and years following my divorce, perhaps the one that affected me most, and in whose vacuum are found some of my deepest regrets, is choosing to do it all alone. Marriage makes us accountable. That’s perhaps one of the main reasons why we so often fail at it. We naturally fight against restraint in the mistaken belief that freedom is life’s ultimate achievement, when it’s actually what can harm us most. Just look at any child who grows up free of boundaries; to whom the word ‘no’ is a foreign language.
Should those cords of commitment and responsibility be severed or released, as is the case with divorce, and there is no one to pick up the slack, we routinely begin falling into trouble. The first piece of advice I give men going through divorce, and one few heed, is to surround themselves with other men, preferably those in a similar situation and stage of life. If I had to do it all over again, the moment she dropped that divorce bomb, I would have ran as fast as possible to the nearest church or similar support group in search of those who might better understand and who I could begin leaning into for support, encouragement, guidance, and above all, accountability. Men who have already gone down the path I was now treading.
It was stupid arrogance alone that led me to believe I could go through the war of divorce and not suffer wounds. And what I now recognize is that my biggest disappointments, those things I wish I could go back and do again, were my own doing all because I had no one there to suggest a better direction. Disappointments that might have been prevented had I just allowed others to know me, care for me, and speak truth into my life. Divorce didn’t turn me into a person I grew to abhor. Divorce itself never encouraged me to seek fulfillment through carnal conquests or to sacrifice my conscience on that altar of a ‘good time’. That was of my own doing.I have no excuse other than my blind selfishness, deep hurt, and devastating bitterness.
I never once entertained allowing another man to hold me accountable; to help me see the forest when I could observe only the trees. No counselor offered the suggestion to seek others who, through their experience, could tell me that this hurt, resentment, and fear are temporal, but consequences are more lasting. I’m convinced, a decade later, that had I changed nothing else but that – seeking and permitting other men walk alongside me – men outside the swirl of my emotional tempest, I might have navigated the rocky crags of divorce far better and perhaps avoided many of the reefs I, and others by association, crashed dreadfully upon.
Life was never meant to be lived alone. This can be most clearly seen in the shadow of a divorce. Regardless of our best intentions or our highest ideals that we can survive this divorce alone, we can’t, and without the blessing of others we allow to know us and let into our lives to walk along side us on that journey, we will inevitably arrive at places we don’t belong.
This is part of an open-ended series entitled: Re-Life. Click the link to read other essays.