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How to say ‘I’m getting divorced’ and avoid a pity party

(Rachel Orr/The Washington Post; iStockphoto)

A month after my husband and I decided to split up, I took a mini-vacation to Cozumel, off the coast of Mexico. It was my first trip away from home as an almost-single woman, and I was excited to be traveling by myself.

I was also a little nervous. Back home, we’d told a few friends about our split but not our broader social circle. How would others respond to me, an almost-divorced woman with a child? How would I feel, seeing the news reflected in their eyes? How would men react?

I was glad for the chance to test-drive being a divorcee on vacation, away from my regular routine. Vacation brought a lightness, a break from divorce-related logistics.

While waiting for a ferry to Cozumel, I didn’t notice any other solo travelers. There were sunburned Americans in Señor Frog T-shirts and baseball caps; squat abuelitas cradling baskets of avocados and pearly white onions; and little girls in frilly dresses giggling and running after one another.

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A young man in dress shorts smiled at me and tilted his head. “Tired?” he mouthed over the crowd.

“Early flight,” I said.

Once on the ferry, we sat together. “How long are you in Cozumel?” he asked.

“Just two nights,” I said.

“Just two nights! Why?”

“Well … ” I looked into his eyes. “I’m getting divorced, and my mother thought I needed a vacation. So I left my 4-year-old son with her so I could visit my sister, who’s scuba diving in Cozumel, but I’m a little nervous about being single again because now I’m 45.”

There was a long pause.

“That’s hard,” he said.

“It’s okay,” I said. “It seems like the right thing to do.”

“Still. It has to be tough when you loved someone and then it ends.” He put his hand on my thigh. “I’m sorry.”

I smiled. He was sorry. Also I was pretty sure he wanted to sleep with me, which I found flattering even though I wasn’t looking for a one-night stand. What I wanted was reassurance that I’d be okay, that my new status wouldn’t send others running.

“Do you want to dance?” he asked as a salsa band started playing on the ferry’s lower deck.

Yes! This is what you can’t do when you’re married and traveling with family, I thought. Dance an improvised fox-trot/salsa/grind with a stranger on a ferry splashing its way across the Caribbean.

We parted ways in Cozumel. The next morning, the positive feedback about my divorce continued. At a jewelry shop near the hotel, the owner asked whether I was married.

I looked up from a tray of silver rings. “I’m getting divorced,” I said.

“High-five!” He raised his hand for me to slap. “Twenty percent off everything in the store!”

He leaned in close: “You’re going to need to watch your cash.”

At a cosmetics store, I told the saleswoman that I needed a new lipstick for my new, unmarried life. She grasped my hand. “I wish you good luck,” she said. “I feel that good things will happen for you. I really believe this.”

I loved this enthusiastic support from strangers. It reminded me of another time in my life — getting engaged. As a bride-to-be, I felt like the perpetual belle of the ball. Strangers acted as if my mere existence were a cause for celebration. Waiters sent over free appetizers or bottles of wine when my fiance and I mentioned our pending nuptials.

A similar contagious joy bubbled up when I was pregnant. Women brought water, gave up their seats, shared details of their own childbirth, hour by hour. I loved the way these common rites of passage connected me with others. New moms whisper about how having a baby gives you exclusive membership into a new “club.” Divorce does this, too.

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Like me, many people are anxious about breaking the news of their divorce. We may find ourselves rattled by negative feedback or susceptible to strangers’ destructive advice. This vulnerability makes sense. We’ve just done the equivalent of ripping up the tiles of our home. We’re standing on the plywood subfloor, looking out past the two-by-fours, genuinely unsure what comes next. We’re entering a new state, one that isn’t “happily married,” yet not “still single.”

The club of divorcees may not be a group we ever wanted to join. But as I discovered, talking about divorce reinforces an important truth: that you are not alone. There are about 1 million divorces in the United States each year, and the numbers are growing worldwide. Divorce touches about three-quarters of Americans, who are either going through it themselves or have a parent, child or partner who has been through it.

In Mexico, my news was received with such a positive response not only because I was in a tourist town talking to salespeople eager to warm me into profligate spending, but also because I was on vacation, free from my usual concerns. I felt optimistic, and my life felt infused with possibility. Others felt my zest, and it volleyed back to me.

Back home, my enthusiasm for the end of my marriage did not continue in quite the same lubricated-by-piña-coladas way. Real life involves real worries, and these can chip away at hope.

However, how we talk about our situation influences the feedback we receive. Emotions are contagious. What I needed, I realized, was a prepared script about my divorce, something I could memorize in advance and repeat when questioned by someone I didn’t know particularly well. This allowed me to talk about the facts of my split — it’s amicable; we think it’s the best for both of us; our son seems happier having so much one-on-one time with each of us — without getting into the deeper emotions in every conversation.

In every divorce, there are moments when a new life path seems ascendant and shines in the sunlight. I’ve found that it’s important to build a reserve of positive moments and supportive memories to retell ourselves and bring us out of the dark days and into the light.

This essay is adapted from “Splitopia: Dispaches from Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.”


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