Josh Max addresses this autobiographical essay about his lost marriage to his oldest and closest friend, who is about to lose his own marriage. It is both heartfelt and heartbreaking. And, paradoxically, optimistic. Let me know how you reacted to it.
To a Friend, on His Divorce
By JOSH MAX
Reprinted from The New York Times, February 13, 2015
YOU were 7 and I was 6 when we met near the jungle gym. After becoming bandmates in high school and enjoying a brief twinkle of local stardom, we became men and did man things, one of which was each finding someone we loved enough to marry. I have proof that both of us were happy then. The photos from our weddings show us laughing, smiling, greeting friends and relatives, eating cake, smoking cigars and dancing.
It was impossible to imagine, in the face of all that merriment, that one day our respective unions would begin to crack, the crack would become a fissure and the fissure would become a total collapse. Everyone reads the grim divorce statistics. Our mothers and fathers had marriages that failed. But that wouldn’t happen to us. We were bright, we were young and most of all, we were sure of our brides.
There was no one else in the world for me back then but my love. We were partners, friends, lovers, and when life was full of death, job loss, car wrecks and money struggles, we stuck together. Sometimes I’d watch her while she slept and think, “I don’t know what I would do if I had to live without you.” We made a pact that we’d both die together, in our sleep, at the same time, arms folded across chests, so neither of us would have to face the world without the other.
I saw it coming before she did. The money ran low; then it ran out; then every month was a struggle. Both of us knuckled down and worked harder. We also both sought and found therapy, but neither of us had therapists who were geniuses, and nothing really changed. What I choose to focus on now is the memory of when things were wonderful, and they were wonderful for a good 12 years.
So now you tell me you are going to a mediator to work out the details of your divorce, and I feel what it must have been like for you when I told you my seemingly unshakable marriage to a wonderful woman who is still wonderful was over. Now I have an idea what all our mutual friends went through watching us fall apart. “Oh, man – can’t you work it out?” The answer is, No, you can’t – no one else lives with your spouse, and no one else has any idea how often you fight, stew or go to bed lonely. Both you and I hung in there until it was spoiled milk, and there isn’t a thing you can do with spoiled milk except dump it down the drain.
Now I’m going to tell you what your life will be like when you pack your stuff and move out of the house. For me, that came in 2012.
At first it will be a huge relief. You’ll have no idea until it actually happens what it’s like to live a life with no one to argue with, and brother, it is sweet. You’ll wonder why you didn’t do this before – just go away by yourself for a while, get back in touch with your essence. You’ll forget that you didn’t do it because you didn’t even have money to buy a banana, forget a man-cave – and you also, like me, took your marriage vows seriously. For now, though, sweet relief.
But soon, there by yourself, the fact that a good part of your life is over and you’re just scraping by will greet you every day; that despite your obvious skills and smarts and ambition, you failed to make your 20s and 30s and 40s into some kind of mighty empire. You’ll discover the world isn’t necessarily rushing to greet older divorced men. You’ll see other guys around your new town, guys who have either divorced or never married, and they in turn will recognize you, noting that you have no one next to you as you shop, get your car fixed, play gigs with your band or visit coffee shops.
These guys have semi-old faces and bodies, and you’ll soon realize with a great shock that you have a semi-old face and body, too. You won’t be in any kind of emotional shape to meet a woman to share your breakfast and your bed right away, either single available women who don’t have serious emotional problems or substance issues aren’t looking for recently divorced dudes. But even if you had a sweet car, a swank crib and some spending cash, it’d still be rough going. Here’s why.
Eventually, you’ll wangle a date. As you dress for your coffee or lunch or whatever it is, you’ll look in the mirror and think: “Dating. Conversation. Condoms. Texting. Friend her, don’t friend her. Ugh.” You’ll sit across from this person and listen to her go on and on about her ex, her kids, her job and so on, but you won’t get up because where else have you got to be but back in your little bachelor nest with the couch and the computer? You’ll think back to your wife 10,000 times a day. You’ll look at photos from 1999 and wish you had worked it out somehow, some way.
Money would have helped, you’ll think. It was lack of money and the bickering about it that first drove a wedge between you. Don’t believe it. As far back as 2008 I realized I was starving, longing to bat the ball of relating back and forth with my partner. “Tell me what’s in your heart and soul,” I’d say again and again. The silence was deafening. I didn’t have a single friend to talk to, except you and one other person.
Now, in my solo life in a new town, I have an actual circle of friends, male and female, young and old. I am invited to parties, to dinner, to music performances and out on dates. It took awhile. I spent three months on an uncomfortable mattress on a freezing floor, and then in an upstairs bedroom in a relative’s apartment, feeling like a loser. For a good year, I called suicide hotlines almost every night.
I’m saying that I’ve been at the bottom of that well, and I’m telling you there is a way out if you just hold on and show up.
Listen – you are going to go through hell. Your mind is going to be loud. You’ll scream into a towel and talk to the walls and maybe even smash a glass or two, kick a door, or worse. You’ll see couples on Facebook congratulating each other on 10, 20, 30 years together and you’ll hate them. Sometimes you’ll feel as if you deserve this, to be all alone, away from your family.
Then one day you’ll come out the other side. You’ll see that you were desperately lost for years and you had to wait until things got really, really bad before both of you said “anything but this” and agreed to go separate ways. Would it have been great to stay in love, for both of you to prosper financially, to achieve every dream you ever had for yourself and hold hands on a beach somewhere at age 65? Possibly. But it didn’t work out that way, and that’s all there is to it.
Your heart will be broken for a long, long time, and that’s what will keep your new girlfriend or possible second wife away. It’s not because you’re older or broke. You’ll go through the OkCupid thing and then the Craigslist thing and then stop trying so hard and you’ll be O.K. waiting for the right person to come along, if she does. You’ll accept what happened, and along with that you’ll realize you’re not alone, though it sure feels that way sometimes. Then you’ll start to see couples who have been together 40 years and who are miserable, who regard each other with contempt, and you’ll think to yourself, “My God, that used to be me.”
It’s not you anymore, my friend, and it’s not me.
Josh Max, a writer and musician.