Here’s an ugly truth about breakups: Sometimes your friends don’t know how to respond. Strangers certainly won’t know how to react. If you get divorced before 30, like I did, other people’s comments, though meant to soothe, might feel like coldhearted jabs.
1. “Accept the things you cannot change.”
There I was, alone on a bench shaded by the shadow of the Virgin Mary. That wasn’t how I typically spent my Saturday afternoons, but there was nothing normal about that weekend. Sitting in a rose-filled garden of a nearby church, I reached into my pocket and smoothed out a copy of the serenity prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” I whispered. “The courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
My words were hollow. I didn’t want to accept my impending divorce. I didn’t want the courage to change. I just wanted everything to stay the same.
I found it a bit presumptuous when my husband, who had recently moved out, suggested I give the prayer a try. “It has helped me,” he said. With our court hearing looming two days away and the chance of reconciliation grim, I decided to see if the words would bring comfort. Instead they felt hopeless.
2. “You’re young, you’re smart, you’re pretty, you’ll be fine.”
There’s something nerve-racking about sitting atop an exam table in a doctor’s office, just waiting. Paper crinkling under my thighs, legs dangling, cold arms folded tightly. I passed the time studying the plastic 3-D diagram of a baby in utero and reading posters about infertility treatment options. The doctor rushed in and small talk commenced. When I mentioned the recent change in my marital status, she launched into a monologue about her ex. Minutes later, as she said, “All done!” and assured me that I would bounce back. “You’re young, you’re smart, you’re pretty, you’ll be fine.” To paraphrase: Suck it up and move on.
Though she could relate to my situation, her response trivialized my pain. A simple and empathetic “It sucks, I know, I’ve been there” would have done just fine.
3. “At least you don’t have kids.”
As I sunk into the couch and choked on the smell of incense, I wondered if this therapist would help at all. I had been to two sessions when it was “couples counseling,” but this was my first solo appointment. Secretly, I had assigned the doctor a bit of blame in our closing chapter, as he was the one who had asked my ex: “Are you in or are you out?” At least his familiarity with my situation spared me from having to catch him up on the painful backstory.
“Look,” he said. “As long as you’re not doing drugs, driving drunk or physically harming yourself or others, however you process this is fine. It may take months to get over, maybe years. At least you don’t have kids.”
As a young divorcée, I heard this line all the time. It was a sigh of relief offered by co-workers, acquaintances, distant relatives, you name it. They didn’t know the names we had picked for our future boy and girl (one of each, please!) as college sweethearts. They didn’t know that, even though the idea of being a mom freaked me out, I hoped it would happen one day. Now, seeing my sister hold my niece for the first time or hearing my nephew finally say my name reminds me I still do.
The first one caught me by surprise.
“Congratulations!” a colleague said.
“For what?” I asked.
“Your last name changed,” he said. “You got married!”
“No, the opposite.”
Similar versions of this scenario played out over and over again at the university where I worked. Over the phone, via email and even at a meeting in front of more than a dozen co-workers when the opening remarks included a proclamation that a congratulations was in order because I got married over the summer.
“No, I didn’t,” I said.
Again, silence. My colleagues avoided eye contact as I looked around, their expressions a mix of horror, sympathy and shock.
I said “I do” at 22 and hadn’t thought twice about taking his last name. I didn’t realize the sense of self I was also surrendering. Going back to my new old last name felt like an awful digression, not cause for congratulations.
5. “You’ll be better off in the long run.”
The Chihuahua’s ear-piercing yap greeted us as we opened the storm door and knocked. Ms. Rowena’s house was one of the early stops on my final tour of Florida before I moved up north.
“Oh, it’s so good to see you,” she said as she hugged me and my friend and kissed our cheeks. “How long has it been?”
“Probably about seven years,” I said, handing her a bouquet of flowers.
Her usually skittish dog stood guard by Ms. Rowena’s side. We talked about her never-ending battle with the squirrels out back, the latest episode of “Ice Road Truckers,” and the people who had recently moved in and out of the neighborhood.
“I’ve got some big news,” I said. “I’m moving to Virginia in a few weeks.”
She was sad to learn of my divorce, but assured me I’d be better off in the long run. With 87 years of experience to look back on, I believed her.
This summer marks two years since my marriage ended. What I didn’t know as I sat under the oak trees reciting the serenity prayer is that after the fighting, after the mourning, sometimes I do have to just accept what is and take control of what I can. I couldn’t see the “long run” yet. But in the short run, I have chosen a new place to call home, found a job I love and started pursuing passions I didn’t make time for before. Getting divorced didn’t hurt any less because of my age, but being young did allow me to easily hit restart. I am glad I embraced my new old last name and, more importantly, that I have started to figure out who I am on my own.
There are no catchphrases to make a wound heal faster. Now when I see a friend who is hurting I know they just need someone to recognize their pain. And if asked, I’ll share the truths I learned from my experience.