Thursday, July 31, 2014

Reflecting on My Divorce

Two months ago my wife got on a plane to go visit her mother in New Mexico. We drove to the airport in silence. I don't know what was going through her mind, but mine was a raging torrent of anger, sadness, and confusion. She had already made it clear that she was leaving me, and I truly didn't understand why. I loved her, she said she loved me, but for some unfathomable reason she had decided that we couldn't be together anymore. Perhaps I could have accepted this if we were just girlfriend and boyfriend, but we had been married for four years, and together for eight. In all that time we had been through ups and downs, like any couple, but the word "divorce" had never seriously entered my mind until she broached the topic mere weeks earlier. Even that morning, driving to the airport, I didn't truly believe what was happening was real.

In retrospect I suppose it was weird that I drove her at all. Looking back, two months later, that drive was one of the most painful moments of my life. Symbolically it feels like I was helping Jericha leave me, supporting her in her decision. When we arrived at the airport I took off my wedding ring and gave it to her. This dramatic gesture meant that our marriage was in her hands. But she had already decided long ago that she didn't want to be married anymore.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried on the way home. I loved my wife. I married her because I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her, because she was beautiful and smart and fun, and because she understood me and accepted me for the weird person I am. Yet here she was, unilaterally deciding to end a marriage that I had invested my heart and soul in, a marriage which I thought she, too, had invested her heart and soul in.

In the last year and a half I've lost a lot. My father committed suicide. His father - my grandfather - died shortly thereafter. My uncle Paul - whose cornicello I now wear whenever I go out - died of heart failure a few months later. My PhD advisor had a life-threatening and life-altering stroke. I decided to leave my PhD program all together. And now my wife was leaving me, but not before I attended and spoke at the funeral of her father - my father-in-law - towards the end of April. There's a kind of grim irony to the end of our marriage, surrounded as it was by the deaths of so many family members. I'll always remember that the last truly meaningful time I spent with my wife culminated in the Baha'i tradition of washing the body of her father and standing next to her during the Baha'i prayer for the dead.

The grim irony, here, goes beyond the parallels between death and divorce. The grimmer irony is that my wife's stated reason for leaving me is that our marriage was insufficiently spiritual, that I was insufficiently religious. To this charge I could offer no response. I spoke at her father's funeral and helped wash his body.* If that was insufficiently spiritual, insufficiently respectful of her faith, then perhaps I truly was incapable of being her husband after all.

* My mother told me of a conversation she had with Jericha's mother after the funeral. "Paul," my mother-in-law said, "is a keeper." My mother was bothered by this, and so am I. After four years of marriage and eight years in a relationship, hadn't we decided that I was a keeper already? Was I being tested so long after we had committed to each other? Why did Jericha marry me, and why did her parents consent to our marriage, unless they already knew I was a keeper? Adding ironies to ironies, this claim that I was a keeper came mere weeks before Jericha left me, proving that I was not, at least in her eyes, a keeper after all.

What bothered me about this was that our religious differences have been present since the beginning of our relationship. I have always been a kind of strange amalgam of agnostic, secular humanist, occasional Buddhist, astrologer, and sometime pagan (for example, I believe in Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes). My metaphysical beliefs are hard to articulate and hard to pin down, and frankly they fluctuate with time. Jericha, on the other hand, has a steadfast and unshakable faith in the teachings of Baha'u'llah. Because I have always found most of the teachings of the Baha'i Faith sensible - with some notable exceptions - I never felt that my wife and I were incompatible on account of the Faith. We had a number of conversations, sometimes quite heated, in the early stages of our relationship about our metaphysical and spiritual differences, and before we married I was confident that we had found enough common ground.

In retrospect, I suppose we hadn't actually found common ground. Perhaps I didn't let Jericha express herself enough, or perhaps I didn't listen closely enough when she did. The truth was, the common ground I felt we had was insufficient for her. It was not enough that I support her service and respect her faith; I had to join in her service and practice her faith, or else she could not be happy with me as her husband. The first letter she ever wrote to me, at the beginning of our relationship, ended with the line "help me worship God." I thought, in my own way, I did exactly that. I offered insight into how to better teach the kids in her junior youth group. I let them use - sometimes begrudgingly, I'll admit - our apartment for their meetings. I supported Jericha's decision to do full time service to her faith (with a paltry, for the Bay Area, stipend) instead of getting a normal job. I agreed to move into a neighborhood I never would have chosen myself in order to support that service further. To me, this was helping her worship God. To me, this was the meaning of love and marriage: there was little I would not for her do if she asked.

What I could not do, though, was be a Baha'i. I never understood that what she meant when she said "help me worship God" was actually "worship God with me." However far I was willing to bend for her, my fundamental disagreements with the metaphysical teachings of the Baha'i Faith - and some of the physical ones, as well - made it impossible for me to engage seriously in Baha'i prayer with her. In her own words, I "neutralized" her spiritual energy, because when she would come home full of that energy she felt she could not share it with me. Of course, that easily becomes a vicious cycle. She can't share her faith with me, so she doesn't try, so she can't share her faith with me. Add in to that the emotional and spiritual turmoil that I've been going through for the past year and a half, and you have a recipe for disaster.

So she ran from me. Ever since she started her full-time service, Jericha has been working more than full time. We had little time together even when I was a PhD student, but in 2014, while I embarked on my streaming experiment, Jericha redoubled her service work to the point that we saw each other for perhaps a few hours a week at most. Most days, including weekends, she left the apartment by 8 or 9 in the morning, and didn't come home until 10 or 11 at night, promptly going to bed. We would share a meal together once every week or two, and she would often spend that meal reading and responding to text messages from fellow Baha'is. By my estimation she was working between 80 and 100 hours every week, and, what's more, she took our car with her wherever she went, so I was stranded at home. Realistically, streaming was the only "job" I could have done for those five months.

I have no doubt that I didn't do enough to keep us together during this time, but I'll excuse myself on two accounts. The first is that I had no idea that Jericha was thinking of divorcing me. Had she given me any indication, I would have worked as hard as I could to salvage our marriage. But the moment that she first said the word divorce was mere weeks before her actual leaving me. The second is that I was still working through my own emotional issues surrounding my father's suicide and my decision to leave Stanford. I suppose I cannot blame my wife for finding me an unfit partner through 2013 and early 2014, because I truly was at an emotional and spiritual nadir. What bothers me, though, is that rather than being there for me and trying to lift me up, she summarily declared me insufficiently spiritual and left me. Marriage, to me, is not only about enjoying each other's company in the good times, but also about helping each other and sticking together through the bad.

In contrast to Jericha, I see my mother, who stuck with my father through infidelity and a lifelong battle with alcoholism. At his best, my father was a kind, caring, and intelligent man. But he was rarely at his best. Often he was at his worst, and his worst was dark, delusional, cruel, deeply irrational, angry, and consistently drunk and high. In short, his worst was far, far worse than my worst, which is a little sullen and moody, overly cynical, and perhaps a bit too sedentary. Once depressed, it takes a little effort to pull me out of my shell, but I don't have any chemical dependencies and really only want to spend time with someone I love.

In 2013 and the first half of 2014, I spent almost no time with the person I loved most, at a time when I most needed to spend time with someone I loved. And yet not once did I believe I would divorce Jericha. Not once did I actually think that our marriage was doomed. Not once did I realize that she was in the process of leaving me already. I believed that her commitment to me was as strong as mine to her, and I believed, moreover, that her service was so important to her that I dare not impose on it overmuch. If service made her happy, let her do service.

One of the things she told me after she left me was that she considered my desire to spend time with her selfish. Of course, people going through a divorce say many hurtful things to each other, but this particular barb still sticks with me, because I disagree with it so fundamentally. Is it truly selfish to want to spend time with your spouse? Is it selfish to ask your spouse to love you just a little bit more than she loves other people? Is it selfish to want to be the most important person in your spouse's life? For my part, I married Jericha because I loved her not just a little, but a lot more than anyone else. I married her because I wanted to spend time with her, to play games with her, and to travel with her. I wanted to support her in what she did and to make her happy. I wanted to be there for her when things weren't going well, and for her to be there for me. To be told that all of that is selfish was shocking and painful. To be told by your spouse that she loves you, but no more and no differently than she loves all of humanity is worse than being told that she doesn't love you at all. I'd take her hatred over her ambivalence, any day.

Ambivalence is what I have received, however, and it still puzzles me to no end. It puzzles me because she married me, and because she maintains that getting married was a good decision. I find that baffling. If divorcing someone is the right decision, aren't you admitting, tacitly, that getting married was a wrong decision? The astrologer in me says, "Ah yes, Paul, but Jericha is half-Sagittarius, and this is how Sagittariuses think; they love you and leave you and don't see how you could possibly be upset about it." The cynic and critic of repressive religious teaching in me says, "This is how Bahai's work; they marry young to assuage their sexual guilt (they aren't even supposed to kiss before marriage) and eventually realize that they married the wrong person."

On this later point I offer a further thought. Baha'is, I learned after some digging, actually have a significantly higher divorce rate than the general population, despite quite explicit condemnation of divorce in their holy texts. I believe this owes to their extremely repressive sexual ethic. Even in marriage, sex is looked down upon at best, which means any sexually active Baha'i must needs cultivate a continuous sense of guilt. Furthermore, the Baha'i teachings on marriage paint the experience of being married in such glowing, impossibly magical terms that it's no wonder a Baha'i might easily find fault in their spouse if their marriage is not continuous bliss and mutual service. Baha'u'llah's expectation for the Baha'i husband and wife is so high that living up to it is nigh impossible, even for the faithful (much less for the heathen like me, who believes with Whitman that the body and the soul are not separate and that sex is as holy as prayer). So a Baha'i couple has to live with a continuous sense of inadequacy - especially if they have sex sometimes - that is crippling to the kind of self-confidence and comfort that I think is essential to a successful relationship. It's hard to have a sense of humor about your marriage when God is always judging you inadequate. And if God is judging you inadequate, how long until your partner does the same? Perhaps four years?

For my part, continuous judgment and perpetual inadequacy was a part of why I left Stanford: it's a part of the Silicon Valley world where wild success is expected and anything less is considered abject failure, leading to a lot of over-stressed and unbalanced people. I can't imagine applying the same kind of standard to my marriage. Relationships take work, sure, but they shouldn't be a perpetual job or chore. What I wanted out of my marriage was safety, security, and love. I wanted a friend who would spend time with me. I wanted a partner who wasn't afraid to try new things and who didn't feel guilty about being in love with me. I wanted to be loved and committed to in the way that I loved and committed to my spouse. As it turned out, what Jericha wanted was something very different, and she didn't tell me until after she decided to leave. I think that is the bitterest pill to swallow, and the one I'll have to fight with for longest: I was never really given a chance.

Which takes me to today. I've moved to Huntington Beach, just south of Los Angeles, for a job teaching middle school English at LePort, a small but growing network of private schools. The past two months have been emotionally difficult, of course, but also life-affirming. In Jericha's leaving I found strength that I had forgotten. My marriage was, in truth, a miserable one, in part because I was not at my best, and in part because Jericha truly left me two years ago, but waited to tell me until this May. In that time I had lost track of a lot that I cared about, things that I have rediscovered in the interim. I have started hiking again, and meditating. I have begun cooking for myself for the first time since I was a Master's student at Stanford. Since I arrived in Huntington Beach I've been regularly waking up and running first thing in the morning (I hope to surf again soon, too, but I've got to get into surfing shape first).

Would I have rediscovered these things in my marriage? It's hard to say. I believe I could have if my wife had actually loved me for who I was and been there for me in my darkest hour. I am recovering not just from a failed marriage, but from the grief of losing a father and a grandfather and an uncle and an imagined career as a researcher and the mentors and friends that went with that career. It hasn't been an easy recovery, but it's a recovery I believe I would have made even in my marriage - or even faster in my marriage - had my marriage been healthy. But I truly am recovering. I still have moments of sadness and still feel a great deal of anger at being mislead and abandoned by a woman I loved dearly, but recently I have also felt a joy and hope and excitement that I hadn't felt in years. I run when I wake up because I wake up with energy and optimism, and it feels good.

I still have my insecurities and fears. I've never been a socialite (I'm deeply introverted), and it's intimidating being in a city where I know almost no one. I have to make new friends, as part of this new life, and that's never been easy for me because I've always been a man of a few close friends rather than many acquaintances. I also know little about how to meet women or date. I've been in my relationship with Jericha since I was in college and have never been both single and an adult before. But I have faith that my honesty, intelligence, and enthusiasm for life - an enthusiasm which I had all but lost - will suffice to keep me happy in the coming months and years. I will be an excellent teacher, an excellent friend, and an excellent partner in a relationship when the time comes. Above all, I will be true to myself as I explore my latest unexpected path, and I will rejoice in its particulars. And so my blog's (somewhat pretentious) title and tag line prove themselves again: "Oh friends, not these tones. Let us sing yet more joyfully."

7 comments:

  1. I appreciated the very open and insightful thoughts and comments. I know this is a hard time, and wish you all the very best, wherever life takes you.

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  2. Acceptance is always the key to successfully move on from a divorce. And by reading your post, I can say that you’re getting closer to it, because you were able to clearly see all the things that had happened in your marriage, and accept the changes that are about to happen in your life. I just hope your settlement will progress accordingly, to make it somehow less stressful on your part.

    Sandra Walker @ Eric Risk

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  3. It's too bad that you had to go through that kind of journey, Paul. Especially when you really love and cared for your wife, and want to make your marriage work through the odds. But sometimes, love just ain’t enough for every struggle the man and wife have to face. When you vowed to take care of each other, you already pledged to accept all your difference, respect each other’s opposing views, and all their faults and quirks. If one of the couples failed to fulfill this promise and do their part to change, then it’s best to let go.

    Christine Bradley @ West Green Family Law

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  4. You must’ve really loved your wife, Paul. While it’s never quite easy to let go of someone you once vowed to love and cherish forever. But there are times when you simply have to. You have to let go of anxieties and uncertainties you have. You’re now a free man, and you should at least enjoy the chance that was given to you to find and meet someone new. That someone who will stand by your side at all odds.

    Stephanie Waters @ Chastaine Law

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  5. I know this is a couple of years old now, but I wanted to see if I could get your insight into how this marriage could have worked. I am in what sounds like an identical marriage - I am the Baha'i and my husband is the other. We have virtually everything you wrote about going on in our marriage. And I am totally with you about the standards of marriage set out in the Baha'i teachings and how it makes us feel inadequate.
    So, if you could have asked your wife to do things differently - what would you want her to do? I am desperate to know how to make things work with my husband. We have 2 children so there is less chance we'll end up actually divorcing but emotionally we're nearly there.
    Any advice appreciated!!

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    1. Hello anonymous internet person. :)

      I would say that, even if you see parallels between your marriage and mine, in even your brief comment there are a few really important differences.

      First, and most importantly, you actually want to save your marriage. My ex-wife did not. I don't go into all the details of our separation in the original blog post (though reading it two years later, it still rings true), so what you're not seeing is the brief and erstwhile attempts I made to salvage our relationship. Chief among those was an insistence that we see a counselor together, something that she refused to do until the LSA forced her to do it well after our Year of Patience had already begun and the damage was, frankly, irreversibly done. If you feel that your relationship is suffering, and are committed to saving it, counseling is a hugely useful tool because a counselor will be an objective third party who can facilitate the conversations you need to have with each other.

      Of course, that's assuming you're trying to have those conversations already and they're not working. If you haven't spoken at all about the problems you're seeing, a key first step is to have the conversation, and not in a negative "we might get divorced" way, but rather in a positive "how can we make our marriage better" way.

      A second important difference is that you have children. Being parents means being partners for the rest of your lives, whether you divorce or not. My ex-wife and I now live in different cities, and we have seen each other only once since I left the Bay Area. Regardless of whether your marriage works, you and your husband are bound to each other through your children, meaning neither of you has the luxury that Jericha had of just packing up and leaving. One way or another, you need to figure out how to work together at least as parents, if not as lovers.

      A third difference is that you seem, again only in a few sentences, to be more open minded than my ex-wife was about the Faith. I don't doubt - especially since you see so many parallels to my marriage - that you are very devout, but even your recognition that the standards set in the writings are so high speaks to a willingness to at least see things from another point of view. It may well be that you decide you simply cannot be happy in a marriage that does not meet the expectations set in the Baha'i writings, but you have to acknowledge that for yourself and express that to your husband clearly and honestly.

      You and your husband loved each other enough to get married and have children together. For all I know, he and I may be very different people, but I suspect we share this: we respect the Baha'i Faith and are capable of loving someone who practices it. It's clear that you, also, love him, and that you can love someone who is not a Baha'i. It's really important, I believe, to remember that: you love each other. As long as you're both willing to put the effort into making that love work, you've got a chance.

      But in order for that to happen you both need 1) to be totally honest with yourselves and with each other about what you need in order to make your marriage work, from the mundane to the spiritual to the sexual and everything in between, 2) to be willing to seek outside help that you can both agree on (for example, he will probably be much more open to a secular marriage counselor, rather than a Baha'i one), and 3) to be willing to compromise, problem solve, and see each other's perspectives.

      Alláh-u-Abhá,
      Paul

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  6. Thank you for all your effort in replying to my comment Paul! I really wasn't expecting to find a reply, and such a detailed one at that.
    I hear what you're saying and I see that maybe our situations have more differences than I first thought. My husband has certainly helped me to see the Faith through his eyes and I thank him for that, and I do see that it has enabled me to be a little more open minded and accepting of other opinions. However I have taken your advice and we have started (secular) counselling together. We are 1 session in and I am praying it will make the difference we need.
    Interestingly enough, there are also parallels between your family of origin and my husband's. You wrote that your mother stuck with your father who battled with infidelity and alcoholism. Do you think that this might have set you up for an unrealistic expectation of marriage? Maybe you thought a wife would stick with a husband no matter what his battles? I apologise if I'm completely wrong here but sometimes I do wonder if my own husband's expectations of me (to stay by his side no matter what he throws at me) are so high because his mother did the same for his father. I feel I will never be able to live up to these expectations, not least because I feel I shouldn't have to.
    Anyway, thanks again and all the best.

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