Not Freedom, But Liberty in the Wake of Divorce

Being forced to work together to parent our children hasn't been all horrible. Seeing my ex apart from the cauldron of dysfunction that was our marriage has given me new insights into what makes him tick.
11/16/2010 11:02 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sometimes I wake up in the morning by myself and just think, "I'm divorced!" The feeling tends to be stronger around this time of year, which is both the time I made the final decision to end my marriage four years ago, and the time the divorce was finalized two years ago.

I don't know how to describe that waking-up feeling. It's a bit of a thrill, like I've gotten away with something, and a little bit scary, like I'm not tethered to anything, and a little bit sad, like I'll never be a pure optimist again, and a little joyous, like I own my whole self again and forever.

Trying to describe what it's like to be divorced after having been in a bad marriage is challenging. Some people can't imagine, and think I must be either sad and bitter, or that I'm carefree, having abandoned my vows and forced my children to bear the brunt of my naive search to find myself. Others, the ones who've gone through it, don't need me to tell them because they feel that feeling in the morning when they wake up, too.

My best friend, K, is also divorced. I think that partly explains our spiritual shorthand, and how we became best friends -- "bosom friends" -- only a few months after meeting. We never have to explain how we can be sad and happy at the same time, or how we feel simultaneously lucky and like we managed to cheat ourselves out of something other people don't even know they have.

K's situation with her ex is radically different from my situation with mine, though. She and her ex-husband never had kids, so when they split, he just disappeared into the ether (after trying to steal her ottoman).

Mostly. She still occasionally gets calls from creditors looking for him, or angry notices from utility companies that the bill is 120 DAYS PAST DUE and they will be sending him/her to collections. So she has to fax in or send in or go down to the office to show a copy of her divorce decree to prove that they haven't been married for 9 years and she isn't legally responsible for anything related to him. But for +/-360 days of any given year, it's as if he never existed.

I used to fantasize about that. About how simple and clean it could have been if my ex-husband and I hadn't had children together. How I could have just packed up my books and shoes and vanished, cleanly, back to the Midwest. Never having contact again. I'd hibernate for a year or so to work on myself, and then spring into a new life that was everything my life with him had not been. But he'd never know that, and I wouldn't care because I also wouldn't know what he was doing or even where he was.

But because we have children together, we are always connected. That was painful to me for awhile. It's still sometimes painful. While the divorce was liberating, I will never be free of those years because I will never be free of my ex.

But being forced to work together to parent our children hasn't been all horrible. Seeing my ex apart from the cauldron of dysfunction that was our marriage has given me new insights into what makes him tick. It's also given me a lot of insight about myself. About why I thought he was a good enough fit to marry, but why we ended up bringing out the worst in each other. About why I just couldn't ever be my best self with him. About the difference between me, small, and me, life-size.

There's a kind of constant closure that's healing, if not soothing. Daily affirmation of boundaries. And the reminder that not only can I make it by myself, but that I like making it by myself.

I think that, as time passes, this will be worth more to me, and consequently to my children, than stark freedom would have been (had it even been possible). I am so different now from who I was last year in November. Getting OK with their father is a big part of that. But getting OK with getting OK with him is even bigger.