photocred: Maddie Deuter
Birth, graduation, engagement, marriage, pregnancy, death—we all recognize these events. They are the game-changers, the milestones, universally accepted as moments worth sharing; and we can all visit Pinterest to find out exactly how to do so. As it would happen, there is no Pinterest board of ideas for this one, but if there was ever a thing in my life worth sharing it’s this story…about my divorce. Transformation is worth talking about, and mine is inseparably connected with the end of my first marriage.
I want to tell it for myself, but also for those out there facing the same dilemma I have: a persistent and unyielding urge to broach this subject honestly and effectively when there is no precedent to follow. I know how controversial it is. I know how conflicted I felt walking through it. And I know I’m not alone, because my first husband, Josh, had to struggle through this also. So for him and for you, here is my story.
Be warned: It’s messy, and it’s mine. I will do my best, but this doesn’t fit in a neat little box, and it’s on that painfully personal side of things.
I’ll begin with what my therapist refers to as my “programming.” These are the theories I formed during childhood based on my upbringing. In most cases, between ages 20 and 35, people engage reality and consequently “test” their programming. Then, somewhere toward the end of this testing period, people reconcile what is true and what isn’t based on experience, and adjust how they live accordingly. Some of us (me) hit crisis (I hit mine at 24). My programming boiled down to this one idea: my worth is earned.
As one can imagine, this philosophy seeded a deep-rooted ambition in me. I was addicted to achievement, and could never get enough. Obviously, I was afraid of failure, and desperately wanted to be impressive. I was a classic case of doing all the right things better and faster than everyone else, for all the wrong reasons.
For one of those wrong reasons, I believed becoming a wife was the absolute highest achievement. It was the ultimate proof that I was desired above all others. While I was typical in my desire to be wanted, I was atypical in that I did not expect to get a fairytale for nothing. I wanted to earn it. I’d observed that relationships, like life, were hard. At least I didn’t go in assuming it would be effortless. On the contrary, I was willing to completely give myself up and spend myself until I was empty; measuring the worth of my relationship by how hard it was. I believed, honest to God, that marriage was mostly shit with whoever you were with for a few years at least, and that the relationships that lasted were earned by those who endured some amount of bloody hell before it was all said and done. I didn’t believe in soulmates. I believed healthy relationships were manufactured, not found.
In short, I think I was an emotional masochist.
It may sound like I needed a husband, any husband. I wouldn't insult my first spouse by agreeing with that. I had some criteria, and those values weren't even that wrong. It was my core belief that marriage was the most worthwhile struggle, and that struggle was essential to earn my worth, that corrupted the thing from the start.
Josh checked off every item on mine and my family's lists, and coincidentally, we shared that core value of earning the good life. We didn’t believe in soulmates. We believed in falling in love and becoming a good couple through hard work. We were mutually in love with the that most fulfilling struggle: marriage. He asked for my dad’s approval, knelt down to propose, and I said yes without hesitation. We were 19 years old when we signed our marriage contract.
Over the next 5 years, we lived out our core belief, addicted to achievements and earning our value. I graduated from college at the top of my program, we built a little life in suburbia, bought a picture-perfect dog to run around in our picket-fenced yard. We bought new cars, we went on vacations, and took hundreds of pictures, and finally started lining up our ducks so we could start a family.
What I didn't anticipate and failed to notice was that the more comfortable I became, the less willing I was to do without, make mistakes, or be seen as foolish. Together, Josh and I were terrified of screwing up and being blamed by the other person, so we were very good at measuring risk and avoiding it. The lethal combination of too much comfort and no conflict had me stuck in a vicious cycle: hating the static quality of my life while devoting all my energy to keeping up the charade. I was terrified of breaking the status quo and simultaneously desperate to feel something, anything but numb. It was terribly isolating and so foreign from my upbringing that even my family felt detached. Everyone interacted with a Maddie that was very put-on. Somehow I was able to chuck these feelings up to the cost of future bliss, and embraced distraction to medicate.
It probably would have gone on this way into parenthood if two things had not happened. The first was a 15-month struggle to become pregnant with no success. The second was a chance meeting.
At the end of my college career, my younger sister, Kristen, got pregnant with my niece. I felt left far behind. I was supposed to be first. Devastated, I went to Josh, and he eventually agreed to try to start our own family. Slowly, painfully, month-after-month I began to lose my faith in my belief system. I had done everything by the book, and yet I couldn’t become a mother. Truth be told, I probably idolized motherhood the same way I idolized marriage, thinking it would be another of the big struggles that would make me worthy. Regardless, throughout those excruciating months of failed attempts, I felt cheated by my perfect system, and then trapped by it. When Kristen got pregnant with her second child, I reached a breaking point. I was frozen, scared to admit to anyone but myself that I was unhappy. For a month or two, I held onto my crumbling system, then I met someone.
I was open with Josh from the start about the feelings I was harboring, and I never pursued relationship with the other person, but ultimately it took developing feelings for someone else to get me to admit something wasn’t right. Was it a 5-year itch? Was I just bored? I knew deep down it wasn’t either of those things. I could not process the confusing feelings I had for someone else and maintain the facade of my life. The charade was up. I finally stood up and screamed “bloody murder!” collapsing as I hit what Wikipedia calls my “quarter-life crisis.” It was brutal.
I started seeing a therapist immediately, and I wish I had done it sooner. Then I moved out of my house and began renting a little studio apartment on my own. I went through the pain of telling my friends and family that things looked bleak for Josh and I, but we held off filing for divorce. I had to deal with me before I could figure anything out with him.
My therapist and I started at the beginning, and I did a lot of research on my own. Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability really permeated my soul and brought clarity. My programming had completely overlooked any attention to my individuality, requiring that I earn my worth through careful execution of others' scripts for success. To rewrite it was going to require the most important kind of integrity—an honest consideration of who I am, acceptance of that person, and the courage to be her without reservation.
I think one of the purer reasons I got married in the first place, came from that deepest desire in my heart to be wanted. I thought being wanted meant I was acceptable. However, the bottom line is I cannot be wanted or accepted if I'm not known, and getting married didn't automatically make me known. Being known could only happen after I faced who I truly am, which demanded that I stop avoiding my own discontent. It required me to take responsibility for my own disfunction, grant myself the grace to be imperfect, and start telling the truth with all its lovely and not so lovely parts. Being authentic is terrifying. If people know the real you, they can reject the real you. But here’s the essential bit: they can also truly accept you. If they don’t know you, they can’t.
With this in mind, I set off on a single-focus mission: honesty with myself. I started from scratch, and over time figured out a couple of things:
1) My space is really important to me. For me that means small and close to the things I do. Suburbia was too far away. I like living within walking or biking distance of things I do. I was tired of using so much gas to get around. Apartment living is my ideal, not a stepping stone to that magical destination of home ownership. An apartment is small enough to keep clean and tidy easily, and keeps me from holding onto too much stuff I do not need and will never use. I like for the things in my space to be beautiful and functional and sentimental all-in-one, which means I have given a lot away. I have become a minimalist, and as a result, every little thing in my home brings me joy. I love being home.
2) Time is my most precious resource, and I like living slower. I like doing less. I like pastimes that have held up over time: Sudoku puzzles, smoking a pipe, filling a journal, reading classics, eating veggies, walking or riding a bike to a destination instead of driving. This obviously does not work when achievement and obedience to others’ ambitious expectations for me drive my schedule and my life.
3) I prefer to live on less. Simpler feels better to me. I can see myself working less, having less, and feeling more content as a result. Working less seems counter to earning my value, so learning to feel worthwhile without an impressive career is necessary.
4) I process out loud. I figure things out through observation and then discussion. The companions I lean on the most are those who stimulate and challenge my thinking, and then listen while I process. Verbal connection is important to me. I feel loved when people ask me questions. It shows that they’re interested in me.
I discovered these things about myself as I lived day by day honoring the Maddie inside who wasn’t trying to earn her significance. I also began to believe there is a “finding” involved with choosing a partner. Compatibility is a factor. I can't manufacture a healthy marriage. I cannot have both true acceptance from my partner, and be willing to give up my identity to reach compromise because we disagree on everything.
After a couple months, Josh and I started talking about all of this. We went to our therapist separately and together. We agreed that we loved each other and missed each other. Neither of us wanted to give up on marriage, but I was very unwilling to go back to the old system. When we were honest with each other, there was serious incompatibility in the lifestyles we wanted, and the relational needs we felt. We agreed I should not give up all consideration for who I am to be his wife, and though he was willing, I would not let him give up consideration of who he is to be my husband. We wanted to accept the other for who they truly are, and ultimately those were two very different people pursuing incompatible lives. It was bitter. We were devastated. Josh filed for our divorce in January, 2014.
You can imagine how unexpected and traumatic my initial breakdown was for Josh. It felt very out of the blue, and the shock was combined with the pain of rejection. I only share these things, to explain the depth of my remorse that I was not more honest with myself much earlier for his sake. Consideration of who I am should have been the first thing I ever set out to discover, not who I should marry.
I was taught that marriage is all about self-sacrifice and selflessness, but I was incapable of loving Josh or letting Josh love me without being honest with him. I was so busy ignoring my own pain for those years, and in some twisted way being proud of my discontent, I lived a lie. And I wasn’t the only culprit. We did everything to keep peace in our household, taking turns being doormats for one another. We compromised on everything to the point that we both totally gave up our identities and were reluctant to to even have preferences. This self deception and neglect was not selflessness or love. This was cruel dishonesty, ultimately, very selfish.
I truly believe you cannot love another person without honesty. You cannot be honest with another person unless you are honest with yourself. Authenticity may look like selfishness. It felt like it to me at first, but it is essential to love someone for real. The time when our marriage was collapsing may have been its most beautiful phase, because it was most honest.
After the decision was made, I had to learn to start accepting this part, along with every other part of me. On the bad days, I was convinced the "divorced" label would define me to my grave. The need to earn my worth stemmed from a deeper feeling that I wasn't good enough. It was crucial that I stop believing this. This involved dealing with a real asshole: Shame.
I started small, with my family. I admitted to my parents that I was grossly unhappy. I was the first person in three generations to get divorced. Shame told me they would be irrevocably disappointed, but instead they stood at my sides and gave Shame the middle finger with me. I saw a side of my mother during that season of my life I never knew was there—an intense advocate for my soul, a zealot for my freedom. My mom took up the banner and asked me on the days I couldn’t, “What do YOU want Maddie? What are you afraid of? Who are you trying to please? What are you trying to control?” She was there tirelessly to tell me I was enough, that it was going to be okay, that she was proud of me. Oh man. Do any words wreck you like those four from a parent’s lips? “I’m proud of you.” Receiving my mother’s unconditional love and passionate indignation for living a scripted life was worth this whole process on its own. And she wasn’t the only one. My dad stood by me, and his heart broke with mine in a way no one else’s could. His heart broke for Josh. On the days I grieved for the years we spent playing a game we couldn’t win, my dad was there. He grieved with me.
My two sisters were amazing. I had to give up my pride in being their “perfect big sister.” They sat down at the table and devoured my big humble pie with me, telling me how much better they loved me with chocolate all over my face and my bra strap hanging out. And I faced my brother. We’ve had a distant, tense relationship since adolescence. I’ve never felt able to earn his love. I asked him why I wasn’t good enough for him, and in that moment, felt released from any need for his approval. I gave him permission to reject me without allowing his response to change how I felt about myself. Ultimately, he and I talked through our shit and we have spent more intentional one-on-one time together since then than we spent for 24 years. We have a bond as siblings that is wholly unique, and I am grateful for it, but I don’t require it or his acceptance, and that’s the important thing.
An essential part of accepting myself was finally recognizing worth cannot be earned. It is not measured by how hard my life is or how much I achieve. Life is not a vending machine. I can’t put obedience in and get happiness out. Seeing my family’s unconditional love was a huge part of me realizing worth is inherent. Me being me matters. Not someone else’s version of me. Not my own warped ideal of what a worthwhile woman is. Just me.
That brings me to the final stage of my transformation from an obedient robot to a living individual building enough courage to be herself, even though there are no guarantees. My life’s pursuits were a series of attempts to control the best outcomes for myself. Then I learned I cannot manufacture worth. I cannot control it. It is not made. There is no universal definition of success packaged in a damned picket fence.
I have learned to embrace vulnerability. Shit happens…every day…to the best people…making the best decisions they can. There’s no way to avoid it and really live. Similarly, amazing things can sneak up and attack when least expected, but it’s difficult for serendipity to pounce, when every nuance of existence is meticulously calculated to avoid risk.
Speaking of an amazing thing sneaking up on me…let’s talk about Mitch. So much of what I know now came out of conversations I had with him over months of transition. I was scared to open my heart to him, afraid of my own ignorance about what I needed or wanted. Yet, he stuck around, constant in his desire for my inner peace—a fellow companion on the journey towards infallible authenticity. As I cleared away all the expectations, rules, fears, control, and lies, there was a girl buried there underneath, waiting to burst forth and be his.
He has taught me what it is to really be vulnerable: to risk it all without guarantees, show love through a total release of control, to admit when I’m hurt, and not be afraid to love more than the other person. I’m learning to follow my heart, and then be gentle with my head while it catches up; to live the pace of life that serves me, and love others better for it. He’s encouraged me to say “no” out of love for others, and to be unashamed of my own feelings. He taught me to smoke a pipe, and reminds me to read and get my thoughts down on paper, knowing how happy it makes me. Mitch speaks my love language effortlessly.
We’re making a life together. It’s a daily opportunity to be courageous—to tell my story with my whole heart, come what may. I feel more loved, more whole, and more free than I ever have. I feel more than I ever have, period.
In my experience, it's possible to use a marriage contract as a guarantee, and completely avoid vulnerability. The ironic result of that, is being married without intimacy. I don't want that again. I want to create intimacy first by accepting my true self and exposing her to Mitch, and then accepting him as he reveals himself to me. When we're ready to commit to this process for a lifetime, we'll call it marriage.
It may require effort, sometimes scary effort, and I believe it’s worth it. Relationships can be hard work. They can require intense focus, but they are not meant to be torture, testing all our resilience and resolve. They certainly aren’t meant to be an abyss where individuality goes to die. And I have no intention of measuring my life's worth or our relationship's health based on the effort it requires.
My transformation involved a divorce, and hurting Josh was a devastating part of that. If healthy marriages could be made through sheer effort and will, I’m certain we would have succeeded. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I can’t manufacture healthy relationships. I cannot wish falsehood into truth. There have been moments when I wished I could go back and make it so it never happened, but I know better. I had to learn this way, and I’m grateful to Josh for the part he played. The growth we’ve each experienced is irrevocably entwined with the end of our relationship, and I wouldn’t trade it.
Be brave friends. Our worth cannot be earned; so, truly know, accept, and be you unapologetically. Then, know and accept others without reservation. In your fierce courage, may you find intimacy. When you feel separate and isolated, may you reject the liar, Shame. Becoming whole may require letting everything go, absolutely all of you…and it’s worth it.