Great Expectations: Things Don't Always Turn Out as Planned

01/06/2011 09:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A long-divorced friend was at a dinner party recently and she raised her glass to congratulate a woman who'd been separated for a month. "Is it okay to do that?" the separated woman asked. "Toast to end of my marriage?" My friend assured her it was. And, I suspect, many of us, given varying lengths of recovery time, eventually toast our divorces. With gusto.

Ours is a pretty good club to be a member of. A non-discriminatory School of Hard Knocks. No secret signs, but plenty of knowing nods. We're an enormous, diverse, international, multi-lingual, multi-generational, powerhouse. We're The Divorced.

I'd followed what I believed to be an appropriate life trajectory and time-line: College, relationships, job, marriage. Very tidy. Or so I thought. Married at 29, I thought by 35 I'd have a child or be well on my way to having one. Instead I'd had a miscarriage that prompted my ex to pack his bags while I was out of town. The night I returned, he told me he wanted a divorce and moved in with his personal trainer.

Within months of his walking out the door, I understood that I'd been given a gift that I'll never say thank you for: The rest of my life, and a chance to redefine it. A life that has turned out to be far richer, and infinitely more fun, than the life I'd have led with him. One set of expectations crushed, I reordered my life.

I thrived. I spent more time with my friends. I traveled, I took classes, I got a tattoo. I quit my job. I learned who I was in ways I'd never have figured out if I'd stayed in my untenable marriage. I'd wasted time trying to be happy, and trying to make him happy, when it was never, ever, going to happen. But while I felt incredibly old when we finally split, within months of letting go of the burden of a bad marriage, I felt younger than I had in a decade. Once the expectation of permanence was busted, carpe diem became the order of the day.

Not only did I learn to ride a bike with cleats and ice climb after my marriage ended, but I also --and far more importantly--learned how to a) like myself, and b) be in a functional relationship. I learned those skills by reviewing the missteps in my marriage, letting go of the unrealistic expectations I'd been welded to, and realizing that it's easy to dislike yourself when your partner's been emotionally absent for years.

Some women have good radar for inappropriate men from early on. I wasn't one of them. As a female friend who was married very young and very briefly put it, "I came into my own after my divorce. I was married to someone who was a terribly wrong match and now feel a freedom to set the bar high and look for a partnership that's really good. My divorce was about freeing myself from lot of society's expectations and becoming more dictated by my own expectations."

Most disappointment is about unrealized expectations. Expectations can smash everything from New Year's Eve parties to marriage vows. But would it be better to have no expectations at all? Unlikely. We can't account for other people's behavior, and sometimes people do change. We all have hopes and expectations that our marriages will last, but many don't. One expectation I do believe we can rely on is that we will heal, even from the vast pain of a bad divorce. We'll all continue down our windy paths, hopefully with our eyes open, toasting the good, recovering from the bad, and ultimately raising glasses to our divorces, a bad that (at least for most of us) eventually turns good.