The Remains of our Marriage
by Sharon Tjaden-Glass
After 16 years of marriage and 20 years of being together…
Can you imagine it?
Walk with me for a moment.
Sharing a life with someone for that long–millions of moments that span the range of all human emotion–and then, in a matter of months, all that sharing now reduced to the barest of exchanges via text?
Because that’s all your heart and mind can handle.
You can’t share meals together with friends.
You can’t go to the same parties.
You just can’t.
Even though it means withdrawing from social events that have been the rhythm of your life for more than a decade.
You just can’t.
You are not strong enough yet to share the space with all of the ghosts of your years together, swirling in every single interaction, whispering in your ear.
You first feel these ghosts when you fight back tears as you sign over the house during the refinance.
The loan officer says, “Just sign here. And here. “
And holding that pen, a coldness courses through your body. You almost place the feeling as panic, but it’s devoid of frenzy. It’s more like a hollow echo, the puff of breath when you step into the cold.
And then the memory erupts.
You remember sitting in the hospital, holding your husband’s hand as the drowsiness of anesthesia set in, just before an emergency appendectomy. What did he say?
He said, I want you to have a nice house.
He was talking about the house that you had just toured. You both walked its stairs and examined its kitchen, even as he was ignoring a growing pain in his side, which would turn into an emergency just hours later. You didn’t know that house would become your family’s home.
And then, you’re back in the present, staring a shiny conference table for twelve, even though there are just three people in the room. It’s bright, but it’s cold outside. January. Just three months since you left.
You chastise yourself. Get a hold of yourself. Hang in there. Nothing is happening. Push it down.
The loan officer pushes a piece of paper toward your husband.
“This is the amount of the new loan and the payments,” the loan officer says to him.
You are presented with a different paper.
“This is the amount of the payout,” the loan officer says.
The iciness returns and you grip the pen hard.
It always moves like this. First, the emotion. Then, the memory.
You’re back at the moment when he playfully carried you over the threshold, as the moving truck pulled away. And then you’re standing in the doorway, watching him using heavy machinery to grind the stump of the tree that had to be removed in the front yard. And then you’re opening the door hundreds of times for your friends to walk in and share breakfast.
“Which box do I check?” your husband asks. His voice is jarring and it grounds you back in current reality, here, in front of these papers.
This is the truth now. That is over.
“Married?” he asks. “We’re getting divorced.”
“You’re married now, so…” the loan officer says. “Married.”
You press your pen to the paper.
But you’re still at the front door, watching your kids jumping in the puddles that gathered on the paver stones. And then you’re pulling weeds from between those stones, hearing your husband saying, You got to get the whole root. And then you’re waving good-bye to your mother, that very last time her car pulled away, before she was unable to visit anymore.
The brightness of these memories, now tinged with shadows and hollowed of their meaning.
“That should be the last one”, the loan officer says to you.
You scrawl your married name.
The pain of it. The pain of it. The pain of it.
Your children will not be able to walk down the hall to wake you with their nightmares in any given week. In fact, you’ve just walked out of half of their childhood. From now on, your motherhood will look very different, with weeks of empty beds and empty chairs. Every time they return to you, they will have gained height and weight. They will lose teeth without you knowing for weeks because everything becomes old news as soon as a new day begins.
In a matter of months, all traces of you have been removed from the walls, from the fridge, from the closets, and the cupboards.
Once again, the place that you called home is no longer your home.
It happens so quickly that you even begin to question how much this place was ever truly yours.
And then another ghost whispers in your ear.
You’re the heart of our family, he said after you returned from a week-long conference. This place isn’t the same without you.
And then another ghost.
You’ve felt it too, he said in one of your heated arguments after you left. How different it’s been.
You were pacing outside in the dark, trying to keep the conversation from the kids.
Different better or worse?, you asked.
Different better, he said. A lot better.
You wanted to believe he didn’t mean it. The pain of those words was so sharp. The force of it, so crushing. Your knees started to shake. To accept his words as truth was too much.
But just like everything he said before, you took him at his word.
And right there, in the damp earth, you fell to your knees.
This is how it goes for you for months.
Whispers of ghosts, all competing for their Truth.
It was wonderful.
It was awful.
It was my fault.
It was his fault.
We were just stuck.
It meant nothing.
It meant everything.
We weren’t right for each other.
We were exactly what we each other needed for years and years.
Can it all be True? At the same time?
I am still asking this question.
As if there is an answer.
There never is.
And now, what remains of our marriage?
There are only two things that I recognize with certainty.
Our traditions. Our jokes. Our shared stories. Our banter. Our interactions. Our support. Our advocacy for each other. Our theories and ponderings. Our recollections of how we got through a decade of pregnancy, babies, bottles, diapers, and clothes that never stayed in their drawers longer than three months.
Those hours when I labored with our children and he watched me rise above pain to bring forth life.
They remain only in our memories now. The possibility that they are relived and replayed later on, grows smaller and less likely every day. What could have become an oral legacy of Us for our children will now rarely, if ever be acknowledged, leaving our children to scratch their heads about how we ever thought we would be good for each other and concluding that we must have been crazy for 20 years before we finally came to our senses.
How terrifying it is that all that you built between the two of you can disappear like that when you both walk away. All that living history, once held so close to our hearts, a cherished story of how we found each other and came to be, no longer spoken on either of our lips.
Silenced. Possibly forever, if neither of us speak of it.
But I will continue to repeat the story in my heart. To remind myself that, yes, it did exist.
We existed in this Life together.
What we had mattered.
As painful as it is to admit that, as fierce as my tears are as I write this, I will continue to write this story on my heart. Even though it hurts me to admit it. It hurts to know that what we had, for years and years, was beautiful and strong and loving.
Until it wasn’t.
But I’d rather feel the pain of that than deny that it existed.
So I’ll say it.
What we had mattered.
It brought two amazing human beings into this world.
And the world is a little bit better with them inside of it.
I want our children to know that they were born from friends who loved each other more than they each loved themselves.
Even if we can no longer be friends anymore.
Once upon a time, we were the best of friends.
We absolutely were.
And our children owe their existence to that fact.
Sacrifice was our love language, the individual acts of it invoked as evidence of our love for each other. It must be love because we stuck with each other through X, Y, and Z. But this is also the reason that our family unraveled. Years and years of putting each other first and abandoning ourselves stressed our relationship to the point of complete and irreparable rupture.
Before I faced the inevitability of the end of my marriage, I believed that divorces happened because of poor decision-making.
To be clear, this wasn’t a belief that I expressed out loud and certainly never to someone who had been through one. But quietly, in my own inner life, I reasoned that there must have been something that went awry between falling in love and making the decision to build a life together. Someone had not carefully considered the best course of action. Someone had been too blind or foolhardy.
Or perhaps they weren’t as committed to relationships as I knew that I was. Maybe they were less resilient than me. I knew that I was capable of withstanding anything that Life threw at me. And so I had nothing to worry about. Not only did I make good decisions, but I was resilient.
But what I never considered was that you can make the best decision, over and over again, and it could still lead you to a point in your marriage when the best decision is, finally, to end the marriage.
All that good decision-making may ultimately lead you to a crossroads in your marriage when the next best decision is to leave.
After all the arguing, all the tears, and all the hurt, I was still willing to stay. Because I had made a promise. And a promise meant something to both of us. My promise to him was the reason I kept trying months and months after I felt it was healthy for me to keep trying.
But I also stayed because I don’t give up. I am not a quitter. I am a committer. I am the last one to hold onto the rope, over and over again, even when the winds are whipping you senseless.
So what changed?
After that very last fight, I didn’t cry.
Because you can’t cry when you’re numb.
But what I thought was, “Is this the marriage that I would want for our daughter?”
Fuck no, it wasn’t.
And then the decision was made. Clear and simple, as painful as it was to admit. I didn’t know how I was going to say it, nor how it was going to completely upend our lives, nor if he and I could ever be friends again.
I just knew that I could no longer stay.
My next thought was, “How would Mom feel about me leaving?”
Even though she had passed away two months earlier, I still cared tremendously about whether or not she would approve. Maybe that sounds silly to you. But the women who raised me never left. My mother, my grandmothers, my aunts, the women of my church. None of them left. They soldiered on, regardless of whatever trials or tribulations came their way, even if they were caused by their spouses.
Sometimes, men left their wives for other women. It happened.
But a good woman, a good mother, a good wife never broke up her family.
I had no examples of women who left their marriages for their own mental health.
I had only examples of women who prioritized the needs of their spouses and children over their own. And boy, did I ever learn that lesson. That lesson was etched into my very DNA and carved into the bones that carry me through this life.
Countless moments of my mother’s lips pressed into a thin line, the slightest frown on her face, drawing her forehead into an expression of concern, followed usually by silence, and on a rare occasion, an, “Okay, then.” Countless moments like these that guided the formation of thousands of neural pathways, all encouraging me to de-center myself, empathize with my loved ones, and sacrifice to show my devotion. And so it felt natural for me to abandon myself. Over and over again.
Because that was what I trained for. That was the example I was shown.
But I could not follow their example anymore. Because it was unraveling me from the inside out.
I needed to be able to show my daughter that if she found herself in a marriage that was full of tears and arguments and tension, she would have more than my approval to leave.
She would have the lived example that it could be done.
And she would be able to survive it.
I would be the one to set a new example for the generations to come.
One in which women seek out relationships that nurture them.
I want for the women who come after me to know that if they start withering where they are planted, they can take their roots with them and find new soil.