The first thought I had when my husband of eight months informed me that he had just suddenly stopped loving me and was no longer happy with me and wanted a divorce was “I have to refund all those people who bought us gifts for our wedding.” This seemed a logical thought to me. We held a wedding which was supposed to indicate our dedication to a lifelong commitment. People brought us gifts in honor and support of this commitment, and we had failed them.
A week before, I had just finished a very difficult graduate program and opted not to continue down the academic track. At least, now, I could turn my attention to the relationship stuff. Then my ex dropped this bomb on me. It felt like facing two failures. Not continuing my academic career and getting divorced.
I got married while in graduate school. The Friday before my wedding I was teaching class, that Saturday I got married, the following day I was back in grad school mode, if I ever even left it. Grading, planning lectures, reading for class, prepping for the upcoming national conference for my field, etc.
I was 26. In the American South, 26 is veering into spinster territory.
I didn’t outright tell my students I was getting married, and they were aghast when they found out that I did not tell them. They showered me with congratulations. It weirded me out.
My “honeymoon” occurred over Winter Break. During the drive to Santa Fe, I was grading papers. As soon as we arrived in Santa Fe, I uploaded final grades into the learning management system. After that, I guess my honeymoon could officially begin, but I still had one final semester of grad school left, and I doubt I really thought about much else, but how to survive that final semester. I still felt uncomfortable being referred to as a “wife,” but I liked saying “my husband.”
Thus far, you may be wondering why the hell I got married in the first place. I still wonder that myself. But this article isn’t really about that. It’s about recovery, and of course, the gender politics of relational labor. I will get to that soon.
If you ask me about my time in graduate school, getting married is a mere blip on my radar. My ex-husband seemed so confident about it all, and since my brain only ever said “grad school, grad school, grad school,” I suppose I relied on his confidence, his feelings to carry us through. I had little time for feelings. I was in grad school.
Grad school isn’t the same for all people. It depends on discipline, the school itself, the department culture, and obviously the individual. I had to fight back raging fits when, in my later jobs, I would work with faculty in developing online graduate courses, and they would fret that 30 pages of reading was too much. My inner dialogue was generally along the lines of: “These assholes get to have a degree equivalent to mine and all they have to do this is read 30 pages for one fucking class?!” But admittedly that is what attracted me to my program. I would have been extremely frustrated and disappointed had that been the expectation for my graduate school experience.
I studied in the humanities in a scholar-track department where I read continental philosophy, feminist theory, critical-cultural theory, and all manner of stuff in a blitzkrieg of new knowledges that constantly push back on any and all expectations and constructions of what is normal, what is usual. Of the very things we take for granted in day-to-day life. I loved it for that reason, but it is an intellectual labor. A labor of thought and thinking and consequently living. It is the kind of intellectual labor that challenges our very notions of being.
This all goes to say: getting married while in grad school was a terrible fucking idea for me. But, but, but my ex-husband and the group he ran with were the brief breaks, the seeming semblance of normality, that provided a sharp contrast to my graduate school experience. I could come home from a day of teaching, classes, reading, research, and not have to think. Not have to constantly push against; auto-pilot was all that was needed. Auto-pilot was all I had left over, but fortunately, or unfortunately, as a woman, auto-pilot comes pretty naturally.
The scripts surrounding heterosexual marriage are in abundance in our society and pretty fucking repetitive. They make auto-pilot easy and seemingly natural. While at work, I could push against these scripts, these expectations, these stereotypes. I could challenge them and goad my students into questioning their own assumptions. I constantly stumbled across scholarship that so clearly articulated vague experiences and/or thoughts I had and theorized it in a way that would help me make sense of said experiences and/or thoughts. I grew up an intellectual, liberal female in a mostly Southern Baptist town that was a mix of suburban and rural. The scholarship I discovered in college finally provided the safe space I needed — the articulation and affirmation of the thoughts and intuitions I felt and experienced, that were often lambasted where I grew up. These texts said “yes, you freaky, intellectual, liberal kid, here’s a space for you with others who share your thoughts and your feelings.” Many people have similar experiences just in radically different spaces, such as church. I happened to find my space in the humanities.
Since all my friends were in grad school with me, my life with my ex was very clearly personal while my professional life frequently blurred the lines between work and personal. I liked the clearly defined boundaries of my life with my ex. It was easy because the script was obvious. Never mind if the relationship was genuinely fulfilling, and admittedly in grad school, it did fulfill a certain need at the time. My ex was seemingly down with a feminist agenda, but not really a questioning type. I needed that. Then.
The D-Word, the F-Word, and Recovery
I was at a work event when I bumped into an instructor I used to grade papers for. She brought up the marriage thing, and I informed her that I was divorced now. She gave me her apologies which prompted an overly long explanation from me about how everything was fine and how helpful so many divorced women had been in helping me recover, and blahblahblah. This clearly made her very uncomfortable — in the sense of let’s not deal with sad things. I learned two important things from this interaction:
- I don’t have to explain ANYTHING to anyone. So now anytime someone gives me the head tilt like this:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4595J4Mu7o
(Now, instead of saying “I’m okay,” I tell people I am “happily divorced.” I immediately like them if they can appreciate this. I immediately dislike them if they get even more uncomfortable, and then my evil side kicks in, and I want to antagonize them further.)
- Divorce doesn’t automatically equal sadness. Do you honestly think if my marriage ended in divorce that it was a good relationship? NO! IT WAS NOT! It was a poorly timed, poorly rushed crapbag. And that is a-okay.
Despite my evil predilection for antagonizing people uncomfortable with the d-word, I can’t really blame them. Not only is there still a significant amount of stigma attached to divorce, but there is a general stigma regarding the ending of relationships in general. Like we all have bought so hard into the ever-after (with or without happiness) narrative that every relationship that fails indicates a failure on our part, an inability to have a “healthy” relationship regardless of whether or not it just wasn’t working for whatever potential wealth of reasons relationships don’t work out. Too often, I see people in relationships that clearly need to end, but to end would be a failure, and who wants to be a failure?
But I’m here to tell you — it’s awesome to be a failure. And is it a gendered experience? You bet your ass, it’s a gendered experience.
It sucked at first, of course. I lost 15 pounds in a few weeks from not eating and figured out pretty quickly that I am the kind of person that can’t be trusted with prescription painkillers. My best friend was calling and texting me three times a day to see if I had eaten anything. My mom watched me down muscle relaxants with a beer as she comforted me. She also moderated my intake so as to prevent me from going too far. My friends and my parents reached out in such a way that at the same time that my heart felt shattered, my soul felt uplifted by everyone’s support and generosity. Which also means at this point that I should emphasize: a good support network is crucial. (If you want to be a good friend to someone experiencing divorce, read this list courtesy of Buzzfeed.)
Like I said earlier, turns out my former marriage was just a poorly-timed and rushed life event. That happens to a lot of us. It doesn’t have to be failure. Of course, I say it’s awesome to be a failure because I like to take on the mantle as a big fuck you to the crushing “ever-after” narrative of our society, as well as to the gender politics that go into relational maintenance. Told ya, I was getting to that.
Gender & Relational Maintenance
In a heterosexual relationship, there is a societal expectation that it mostly falls on the shoulders of the female partner to maintain the relationship. Yeah, yeah, I know #notallmen *epic eye roll.* While a man may be supported in walking away from a heterosexual relationship that isn’t working, a woman is expected to sacrifice in relationships. And I don’t mean the sort of sacrifice of not staying out late every night at the bar with your buddies, but I mean the sort of emotional sacrifice that rips out your ego then attempts to justify said rippage through patriarchal notions of suffering nobility. I was to suffer while he got whatever “it out of his system.” Then maybe I could passively-aggressively punish him for the rest of our lives. Sounds fun, dunnit? So fun it could be a Judd Apatow movie. There’s a man-child! There’s a shrewish woman! Hijinks ensue! Men and women so different, amiright?!
Fortunately the suffering nobility thing didn’t work out, and that doesn’t mean I didn’t try. I wanted it to. I am not above any of these narratives and roles regardless of my educational experience. Only in retrospect can I see it through this lens and fully realize: “I really sidestepped that landmine.” And in doing so, I have also had to reclaim the narrative.
It’s awesome to be a failure.