THE BLOG
03/22/2012 11:53 am ET | Updated May 22, 2012

When Overachievers Divorce

During my divorce, my emotions were all over the board, but as a lifelong overachiever, shame took a particularly strong hold. Here was something that I couldn't fix, something that I had botched completely. On the report card of life, I saw having an "F" in marriage as a mark against my otherwise good name. Curious whether this was specific to my own experience, I reached out to two divorced friends who share my overachieving nature.

"Erika," 34, is a Minneapolis-based medical professional in the final stages of her divorce. A high school valedictorian and sports MVP, she went on to graduate college with high honors and finish at the top of her graduate school class. "I tend to make what I want in life happen," she said. That turned out to be part of the problem in her marriage. "Looking back, I had not realized how important it was to marry someone who was similarly motivated and had concrete life goals. As an 'overachiever,' I simply could not relate to my husband's lack of initiative or direction in life."

My own failed marriage followed a similar pattern when my ex-husband quit graduate school during his first semester. He didn't withdraw -- nor did he inform me that he was done -- he simply stopped going. Needless to say, when I found out months later, I was furious. Aside from the obvious breach in trust and the waste of money, I couldn't accept that he had thrown in the towel so quickly. In retrospect, I can understand why he didn't want to tell me, and ironically, my own decision to leave him several months later (after 15 months of marriage) made me a quitter too.

Erika didn't exit her rocky marriage quite as quickly. "We had too many stressors and we were unable to meet each other's needs," she said. "We had a tiny baby, moved to a new city, and were struggling financially." Once they separated for the first time two years ago, she realized that divorce was a distinct possibility. "At that point, I was prepared for the possibility of failing in marriage," she said, "but was determined not to fail as a mother."

While they did seek counseling for two years -- and reconcile for a year after their initial separation -- Erika eventually decided to pursue a divorce. "I believe marriage is challenging and efforts should certainly be made to stay together, if at all possible," she said, "but not at the expense of our own happiness. For me, choosing to stay in a marriage that was unhappy and unhealthy was a bigger failure than divorce. I have always sought to achieve my highest potential in every aspect of life and, by staying in my marriage, I was failing emotionally and spiritually."

Jolene, 32, is a highly driven Boston-area public relations manager, blogger, and fitness fanatic whose latest goal is to become a barre n9ne studio certified instructor. I was surprised to learn that she never considered herself to be an overachiever before her divorce two and a half years ago. Learning to live and travel alone helped her to develop a mentality that she calls "best life now," which has meant pushing herself to try a lot of new, sometimes scary things that have helped her grow.

"Some [people] have told me that I am always doing so much and go, go, go," she said, "but honestly, this is what drives me, what makes me feel alive and what I am passionate about. Change. Growth. Strength." Today, she doesn't see divorce as a failure at all. "Out of my divorce came such goodness in my life," she explained. "It was one of those 'blessings in disguise' that I never would have seen or willingly wanted at the time but was ultimately the right decision (that was made for me, but made, nonetheless)." She hopes that others going through divorce can learn to see it this way, too.

"I don't believe divorce is failure," she said, "I think divorce, in many cases, is an incredibly difficult but brave decision to make. Not everyone has the strength to walk away from a marriage that is broken, or the strength to realize it is broken, and irretrievably so ... the key is, to learn from it, and not repeat past mistakes, and to move on without 'what-if'-ing the past."

So much sage, uplifting advice. Five and a half years after my divorce, I'm right there with them, but I wasn't in the beginning. How about you? If you consider yourself an overachiever and your divorce left you with intense feelings of failure, I want to hear from you. Have you, like my friends, found the silver lining, or are you still struggling? In retrospect, did your overachieving ways play a role in the breakdown of your marriage? Or, like Jolene, did divorce actually bring out the overachiever in you?

Minneapolis-based writer Emma Wilhelm edits the blog Divorced Before 30 and also writes about life, love, and parenthood (with a little edge) at Emmasota.