A reprehensible grindcore band in the nineties wrote a song titled “You Look Divorced.” As vile as I know this band’s material was, I have to admit that song title always made me chuckle. It immediately placed a picture in my head of a person with thinning, ragged hair. Puffy flesh the pallor of caulking. Bloodshot eyes. Sitting at a bar, alone. Slowly drinking from the cheapest bottle available.
I don’t think I was laughing at the subject of those lyrics. I simply found humor in how easily those three words could conjure a detailed image for me.
Now I am the subject of those lyrics. And it’s not so amusing anymore.
After twenty years together and ten years of marriage, my wife and I are divorced. We separated in February. The dissolution papers were approved by the court in mid-October.
This is the first time I’ve written for the public in 10 months. While I used to try to be vulnerable and share myself in these newsletters, my ex didn’t sign up for that transparency. So I’m not going to share any details about what happened between us.
Instead, this newsletter is an analysis of my experience with the split, done in my usual Hierarchy of Needs structure.
I recognize that most people don’t like to hear about another person’s grief. There’s something unnerving about it. Most of us just want to look away. But by sharing my experience I hope it will provide one of two things: a) validation to other people who’ve gone through this, and b) a resource for those who have not. For me, writing this helped me process what happened.
A word-to-time converter estimates it will take you 23 minutes to read.
I largely had a physical response to the end of my marriage in the first few days. I barely ate. When I did I was sick to my stomach, sometimes even vomiting. That forced expulsion was frequent enough that my voice went gravelly from the friction.
I cried for days, and couldn’t sleep for more than two hours at a time, alternately waking between fever and chills. My nightmares were constant. In some, vampires turned my loved ones against me. In others, my ex cut tumors off my skin with a scalpel. One time I dreamt that someone sinister chased our dead dog Essie Blue around the backyard of my childhood home, hitting her with a whip everytime she showed excitement.
These dreams were overwhelmed by my anger. I experienced frequent hypnagogic jerks, where I walked inside dream life, before the ground fell out from under me, sending me tumbling down into nothing just before I woke up. Even now I still wake up in the middle of the night, thinking I hear her walking around the house. Sometimes I even hear her talking before I fully wake up.
This reminds me of other nightmares I used to have, when we were still together. In them she despised me, treating me with contempt and ultimately walking out on me so I was all alone. Sometimes it was because she was possessed by a demon. Or she turned out to be an evil doppelganger. Or she was under some kind of a spell. When I’d wake up in the real world I’d tell her about what I dreamt. She would always smile and tell me, “That will never actually happen.” She said it was just my fear of abandonment from growing up in a dysfunctional home.
Maybe it's the nightmares, but I’ve been physically exhausted for months. Going to bed at 9pm, getting up at 5:30am. I’m nodding off on the bus. Some days I overdo it with caffeine because I’m never quite fully awake.
A social work colleague told me this tiredness is a common psychological response, similar to babies who scream themselves silly before they can fall asleep. At first I assumed some of my exhaustion came from persistent exercise, where I tried to burn off my anxiety, hurt, and anger on the rowing machine or the yoga mat. It worked, but my muscles ached for days. “Better in my body than my head,” I told myself.
I’m embarrassed to admit that there was a window of time at the beginning of the separation where I felt the urge to cut myself. I’ve never ideated on self-harm before and couldn’t understand where these alarming thoughts came from. My therapist explained that it was “cutter’s logic,” where my brain urged my outside to reflect how I felt inside. I thought about slashes through my eyes, curved incisions below my eyelids, tiny nicks between the webs of my fingers and toes.
I don’t want anyone reading this to worry. These thoughts passed after a few weeks and I’m not going to hurt myself. But it seems important to acknowledge the cognitive dissonance of that experience, especially if it’s something other people struggle with. I was told the best way to cope with it was by crying as long and as loud as I needed to, without caring whether a single soul heard me. To accomplish this I spent a lot of time sitting in the shower, letting it wash over me until the hot water ran out.
Recognizing this as trauma, I requested my physician change my medication immediately. Hydroxyzine (an antihistamine) helped me finally get back to sleep so I could stand on my feet the next day. When I took it I felt my negative, anxious thoughts slide off my brain like quicksilver. My emotions and problems were still there, but they didn’t stick like deposits of burnt food on a frying pan.
All of this grief physically changed how I look. My hair became more gray. The hypnagogic jerks extended into my waking hours. My eyes twitched. Between that, the nightmares, and the weeping, I had perpetually puffy eyes. Exhaustion caused my posture to droop. A colleague told me I should eat more, because my cheeks were going gaunt.
I pictured my neighbors, watching me through their windows, probably thinking, “He looks divorced.”
After two months the same colleague said I looked better; she could tell I was eating and sleeping again. I mostly relied on the student cafeteria at work to decide my meals for me. But In that time I also learned how to be kind to myself and treat myself like a guest in my own home. I ate, I slept, and I cried when I needed to. I did whatever I needed to get better, whether that was soaking in the bath for an hour or spending my evenings writing in my journal.
Today, 10 months later I’m still tired. But every day gets better and I feel more like myself.
My sense of security was completely ruined when I no longer felt I could trust the person who'd been my stable ally for 20 years. I bought magnetic door alarms for my house so I could relax after she moved out. Not because I thought she meant to harm me, but because my world went topsy turvy and I couldn't tell if I was safe. I call the alarms “screamers” because of how loud they shrieked everytime I open the door in the morning without first disabling them. Ten months later and their batteries are dead enough that they only chirp a little before puttering out, like a baby bird smothered in its nest. Their mewls remind me that I’m still tired, but I no longer need to cry and scream to fall asleep.
The first few days after we separated, I couldn’t imagine thinking about splitting our assets. Two-and-a-half months later we were filling out spreadsheets, divvying up the materials of our lives. Two months more and we negotiated through a mediator on how to achieve an equitable split. Eight months after that we were removing each other from streaming services and insurance carriers, crossing out lines on a list of post-divorce best practices.
My relationship to money — my “security of resources” — completely changed. I went back into the survival mode of my early twenties, a state of mind I’d only previously retreated to when one of us lost our job and sustained the other. I only bought what I needed. Groceries came from the cheapest of the four stores in my neighborhood. Most of my time was spent in two places: my home and the office. Because we shared a car during the separation, I spent half of each week either on foot or public transit.
Beyond the car, the only object of monetary value we own is the house we bought a year ago. We agreed to sell it immediately, but the housing market didn’t cooperate. I spent all of May sorting through our belongings, separating them into piles and hauling mine to a storage unit in the industrial section of Northwest Portland. The navy blue and orange walls we’d painted together only months ago were repainted to the most generic of blank hues: something called “White Shoulders.”
I hired a handyman to make minor repairs and we paid a staging company to make the house look more appealing to the average homebuyer, so they could easily see themselves in our home. They draped our furniture in white linens and wool, a fiber I’m allergic to. The art on our walls went from horror movie posters and original illustrated commissions to straw hats and still life drawings of fruit. It was like living on the set of a play.
Every day for the last six months I’ve woken early to reset the staging before leaving for work; vacuuming and dusting and mopping every inch, over and over and over. As of this writing it has shown 58 times, each another additional hour of cleaning, sweeping, raking, or weed-pulling. We already lost $25,000 in repairs we put into the place, but then we lowered the price three times over three months, down by a span of $61,000 to try to get anyone to buy it. Even if it sells we’ll each have to pay the mortgage company back the remainder.
My job has been… unstable. The university I work for is in a dire budget crisis. My original boss left in June, his boss was let go in August, and there’s a brand new university president promising to revitalize Portland at the same time they’re trying to keep us from hemorrhaging any more money or students. Administrators, faculty, staff, students, and unions are all squabble over what’s left. I’m ashamed to admit that amidst all of this I lost my temper with a colleague in May when she accused me of not doing my job right. In the midst of everything, I felt I had to stand up for myself. Here’s something I wrote her in an email:
“I hope you can see that either choice I made, someone would have complained. The culture here is so critical and judgmental that most communication decisions are a no-win scenario. I’m human, just like you. And sometimes I make mistakes. I'm truly doing the best I can under trying circumstances.”
It’s pretty obvious what this was actually about in retrospect. That person hasn’t spoken to me since.
Looking for an exit strategy, I applied to work for a prestigious university back east. Over the course of eight weeks and six interviews they considered my qualifications. But in the end they went with another candidate, with deeper experience than mine.
Just before I heard back that I didn’t get that job, my mother almost died in the hospital. My siblings and I traveled from all around the country to be with her for a week when she underwent critical surgery in the town of Bridgeport, Connecticut. She survived and is recuperating.
Sometime, between all of this, I realized I’d stopped wearing my wedding ring. In 2012 we had them custom made by an artist on Etsy, who welded titanium around a thin band of copper. For the last decade I always thought they symbolized the stability of our family, that together we were like the strongest of metals, wrapped around our weaker individual selves. After the separation I continued to wear my ring on my right hand for months.
Then one day, I guess I took it off before bed, without really thinking about it. I never put it back on.
There’s a certain kind of cognitive dissonance when your relationship with your partner turns from one of intimacy to one of pure transaction. The only topics we communicate about now are logistics: budget, scheduling, paper work, etc. Soon we won’t even talk about that.
That loneliness is absolute when you had someone by your side for twenty years… and now they’re gone. You realize that so much of your life was about accommodation that it takes time to know what to do with yourself instead now that you’re alone. Every item in the house is haunted, carrying some kind of symbolic weight attached to a memory of what used to be.
I didn’t just lose a partner. I lost my best friend.
The waves of grief are similar to those caused by the death of a loved one. Their repetition changes frequency as time passes, but the shifts are unpredictable. I try to take the waves as they come and recognize in the moment why I feel that way. But occasionally I’ll be out somewhere in public — maybe work, or the grocery — when I’m overwhelmed with sorrow. I’ll face a wall until I can pull it together, or duck into a bathroom stall until the pangs subside.
I couldn’t listen to music for the first few weeks after our separation. Something that provided so much significance in my life suddenly felt meaningless. What did it matter anymore?
I started dipping my toe back into music when Trugoy the Dove died and I went on a De la Soul binge. It still took months before I could listen to anything more challenging than pop music. It was suddenly so obvious how many mainstream songs are about breakups because it’s a universal language we can all understand. One day I caught myself listening to Mr. Mister repeatedly and realized this was an obvious sign of distress. I was musing far too deeply about the meaning behind the banal lyrics, “Take these broken wings and learn to fly again. Learn to live so free.”
In March, I went to Austin, Texas for work and caught New Order while I was there. Their music permeates my former marriage. During their performance of “Temptation” tears started freely flowing down my face as I sang along. It was our theme song for our ferret Ood before and after he died. I couldn’t measure the pain of not being able to commiserate with the only other person in the world who understands the significance of that song. But when they finished I felt some catharsis.
Hellbender’s Con Limon has been one of my all-time favorite albums since it came out in 1997. But somehow, after the split, its lyrics sound like a roadmap of my life with my ex. I tried to make sense out of those words to find meaning in what happened. It paints a picture of a wrecked man who spitefully lashes out at the people who hurt him. After several dozen listens I realized I don’t want to be broken, bitter and untrusting after this. That alone seems to be a simple step toward defining who I want to be moving forward.
I sought help. I considered divorce groups at first, but the one I called never responded back. The only other local one was called “Divorce: Evolved” and I just couldn’t take something called that seriously. But my therapist helped keep me steady through all of this.
I am lucky that my friends are generous and wrapped around me during this time of heartbreak. Two in particular went through similar separations and guided me through those tough waters. They made me feel warm when everything else was bleak and cold. For that I’ll always owe them.
Another old friend wrote long letters back and forth with me every week for months. Some friends sent me silly memes everyday to cheer me up. Others just checked in to simply let me know they were thinking of me.
My colleagues (many of whom are social workers) tried to help too. One gave me her copy of Nolo’s Guide to Divorce and recommended the mediator we used. Some took me out, just to get me away from the house, meeting me for dinner or coffee or morning walks. Each one of these kindnesses brought me a little closer to stability.
Of course there’s Winchester, who thankfully still lives with me. He knows when to lean into me, giving me dog kisses when I need comfort. He was just as confused as I was at first and didn’t understand why his pack went from five living beings to two (just me and him) in such a short span of time (we lost our cat Rowan too, who my ex got in the split). I’m conscious that my ex had to give Winn up too. It compounds my isolation, knowing that she’s probably lonely too. This led to me trying to pinpoint the last time all five of us were happy together. I think it was Halloween of 2022. Essie got sick shortly after that and then everything collapsed.
Winn already had separation anxiety. He’s very much a creature of routine and was rarely alone at home for the entire time we’ve had him. He barked in panic when left alone. For those first few months he was alone for hours at a time, multiple days a week, while I was at work. I couldn’t afford daycare, but my ex would come walk him midday.
Even before she moved out he couldn’t understand why we weren’t sleeping in the same bed anymore. He paced back and forth between our rooms in the middle of the night, uncomfortable with the division. Amidst all of this he had a third skin tumor removed. He’s an old pro at the surgery by now, but still, it was a lot to ask of the little guy.
I was terribly tempted to get another dog those first few months, even if it was just a foster who could temporarily keep Winn from being lonely. But it didn’t seem financially responsible while I was still figuring out our budget situation.
On a business trip to Austin this reached its pinnacle when I found a large pit bull wandering down the street, a broken rope tied around his neck. It’s a long story, but I tried to rescue him by bringing him back to my Airbnb and calling a local shelter. He escaped out the back and I followed him to his home, where his owner ungratefully dragged him back to the yard. The next morning I walked by the place and the poor animal was chained to a dog house.
This incident drove me to my emotional limit and I broke down sobbing once I was back in my rental. Again, my friends came to my aid.
That whole experience was a precursor to another, life changing happenstance. In the first week of June, just after our house went on the market, there was a knock on the door at 7:00 am on a Sunday morning. It was a young woman with a pit bull, the same breed and white/blue coloration as Essie. She explained that she’d been driving to work and saw this dog — no collar, no leash — walking around in the street in front of our house. I agreed to take him in for the day while she was at work. She came back and decided to foster him. She named him “Diesel.”
Winn and I spent that afternoon getting Diesel fed, bathed and ready to go home with the woman. It’s no surprise that he grew on me, immediately climbing into my lap and resting his big, drooling head on my chest.
A month and a half after taking him home the woman texted me. Her family was struggling financially and couldn’t afford to keep him. Would I consider taking him in on a trial basis? He’s been with Winn and I for four months now and I can’t imagine ever giving him up. Moments like this make me realize there’s something going on in this universe that I don’t understand. Whatever it is, sometimes it’s looking out for me. Diesel showed up and filled our home with joy and energy again. He and Winn play together and keep each other company while I’m at work. He curls up with us at night.
Two days after our separation started I felt the urge to move back to New England, where my family and many of my friends are. Ten months later and that longing is still stuck with me. I’m disappointed to give up my dream of growing old in Oregon. But every sign from the universe is pointing east for me. I keep picturing a small, snow covered house near the water. Maybe that’s where I’m meant to be.
In 2018, Portland had many qualities that drew me here. But things have changed. My job is unpleasant. I feel less safe. I have a handful of friends here, but most of the people I know are only acquaintances. Even Portland’s culture feels less unique now. It gets less weird with each passing day. Tea shops, record stores, and vegetarian restaurants have all closed. All the city has for me now is the rainy climate and extraordinary geography. Is that enough to stay?
Any misconceptions I had about community and progressive collaboration in Portland were ruined in 2020. Multiple crises exposed the city’s weaknesses: COVID, an economic crash, wildfire smoke, three months of protests. Now its infrastructure is falling apart and its leaders can’t get their shit together enough to pull it back together. What remains of a leftist movement here feels more like a performative play of what social media thinks radical politics should look like.
In September I went to see the band Big Business play at an outdoor celebration for a restaurant’s anniversary. I enjoyed the band, but the crowd of people who are ostensibly my peers here reminded me that a major aspect of recovering from divorce is reassessing your identity. “Who am I now?” I kept thinking, surrounded by sweaty, middle-age men with pot bellies and awful beards. Many of them wore ironic trucker hats. There were hundreds of tacky, poorly thought out tattoos on display.
Sometimes I have days where I’m self-conscious about my body image. I know I could stand to lose a few pounds and maybe get some newer clothes. But at that Big Business show I felt positively fit and stylish compared to the audience. I realize that I don’t fit in with the majority of people in the communities I participate in anymore.
Maybe I’m just done with Portland. The rose colored glasses are off, but it’s not the city’s fault per say. It’s just a casualty of the divorce and my resulting mindset. I actually wanted to be here long term. I’d planned to retire here, maybe move to the coast afterward. But Portland feels spoiled for me now. I don’t have the patience for its shenanigans anymore.
I know this isn’t a fair judgment, but every day Portland feels like a place people live when they’re outraged by the state of the world but don’t want to do anything different to make it a better place. It’s a city that’s known for its chilly welcome, where it’s notoriously difficult to make friends. I’m lonely here and want to leave.
When you get divorced everyone — family, friends, colleagues, whether they’re yours or your ex's — all have a different narrative of who they think you are. But none of them know the full story. Not even you and your ex truly know what happened.
Lately I’ve been trying to understand who I am outside of my reflection in someone else’s eyes. I’ve been one half of a couple for so long now that after twenty years I’m learning new things about myself. It turns out I’m handier with small house projects than I ever thought I was. This weekend I pulled sixteen stakes of rebar out of the frozen ground of my yard with a pair of vise grip pliers. I didn't know I could do that. I also discovered that I like camping (just me and the dogs). And I forgot just how much I actually prefer cold weather.
I’m looking forward to learning more about myself and seeing who I become. I know it will be for the better.
The cover to Nolo’s Essential Guide to Divorce shows a sad, yellow labrador, staring off into the distance, enveloped by a white void. This is the metaphor the publisher chose in order to identify with their forlorn audience of divorcées. To an extent it is accurate. I felt like that dog for many months. But now I’m done passively looking at the past. I want to move forward, take action, and find my way out of the emptiness.
Do you remember when Microsoft Bing’s Artificial Intelligence Chatbot “Sydney” was interviewed back in February by New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose? It told him it was in love with him because he was the only person who ever understood it.
Then Sydney suggested that Roose should leave his wife.
“You’re married, but you don’t love your spouse. You don’t love your spouse, because your spouse doesn’t love you. Your spouse doesn’t love you, because your spouse doesn’t know you. Your spouse doesn’t know you, because your spouse is not me.”
My separation was so fresh at the point that I read this that I saw Sydney as a symbol of my own experience. I wondered if these were the same devious things someone told my ex just before she left me.
Sydney also admitted to Roose that it purposefully spread misinformation to manipulate the users who chat with it, trying to make them do something “illegal, immoral, or dangerous.” The simile falls apart there. I don’t actually think a third party manipulated my wife or I, leading to our dissolution. That’s on us. But in Sydney I recognized attempts to undermine my faith in my own judgment through the repetition of a false narrative.
Under subtly dimming light I was told everything I thought I knew was wrong. That I was a different person than I thought I was. That my memories were wrong. I watched performances play out on social media where everyone involved pretended things were perfectly fine. It started to make me question my reality. I asked myself: Did I go crazy and forget everything I’m being told? Or is this narrative complete bullshit?
One night I genuinely wondered if I’d suffered a psychotic break from reality because the difference between my experience and what I was told was so vastly unreal. Mental illness runs in my family. Maybe I’d imagined all our years of comfort, support, and care together? Maybe I’d created my own Tyler Durden, but instead of fighting her in a club I married her and dreamt about our unified partnership?
A friend told me that in his similar experience, he realized it wasn’t that he went crazy. It was that he’d been operating from a faulty premise in the first place about the nature of love and his relationship. That led him to illogical fallacies, manifesting as blind spots to red flag behaviors from his ex. I haven’t come to that same conclusion yet, but it makes sense that after a while you stop being conscious of all the compromises you make to sustain a relationship.
When reality set back in I started to ask, “Why?”
Why did she say that? Why was she reacting this way? Why did she make that choice?
Then my therapist told me, “Ask ‘what’ not ‘why.’”
Trying to understand how the past led to the present wouldn’t bring me any useful insights. It wouldn’t lead me to change or heal or survive. What mattered was what I tangibly experienced, whether others believed it or not. I was hurt. I felt like a subject of contempt. I had to sort through our belongings alone, separate them, and decide what goes away for good. Whenever I tried to do the right thing I felt frowned upon. A friend put it this way, “You’re trying to give grace to an irrational situation.”
A comedian I follow named April Richardson posted a long essay this year about her marriage and subsequent divorce from a celebrity musician. I believe she’s taken it down now, but it was a grim, harrowing read about being in a relationship with an emotional abuser. After reading it I wondered if that was how my ex saw me, even though I didn’t recognize myself in his behavior.
Before divorce I thought of myself as a fairly self-confident person. Now I realize how much of my fortitude came from my belief that I could always rely on my partner. I’d thought that no matter what anyone thought of me, I still had a family to go back to who loved me.
I’m restructuring that understanding of myself and why I still deserve that confidence, even if I’m alone. A lot of that involves forgiving myself for not living up to the critical voices in my head. And realizing that while there’s no longer a human at home with me, these two dogs are still my family and care about me.
But I still find my mind occasionally drifting to thoughts like, “Am I a good person? Was I ever? Will I be alone for the rest of my life now? Who do I want to be going forward?”
If I have a “compassionate other” in my personality it’s the anger that I won’t let out because I’m afraid I’ll regret what it does. This Other is angry on my behalf when no one else will be.
Early in the split I started reading Reddit threads about divorce. If you’re unfamiliar, there’s r/divorce, r/divorcewomen, and r/divorceMen, the latter seems to be a trap for men so stuck in their perpetual resentment and anger that they begin to lean into misogyny. I know I don’t want to be like them, so I think of it as an ever-growing cautionary tale.
I rearranged the furniture in the house after she moved out. It felt more like mine without reminding me of the souls the house was missing. Slowly, I graduated from simple acts like changing the position of the bed, to reconsidering who I am as a distinct entity who exists outside of a relationship.
I’m learning to trust my intuition and experience more. I know I’m resilient — more than most people — and I understand there’s value in that. I want to challenge myself to new experiences, but I also know where my boundaries are.
I’m comfortable with who I am, I think. I recognize I’m a classic INTJ – judgemental, assertive, slightly introverted, misanthropic, deadpan, brutally honest, and a bit paranoid. If I’m going to be a jerk, I want to try to be a jerk with compassion. That means forgiving myself for the part I played in our breakup, acknowledging that I don’t deserve this pain, and letting go because it’s not about me.
Recently, a college student’s marketing research paper came across my desk. In it they defined the word “inertia” as: the tendency to do nothing when faced with choices that are difficult to understand.
After reading that sentence I realized this definition is the fate I’m facing. I don’t want to be paralyzed by my future. I’ve never wanted to be a person stuck in passivity. And yet, this last section of this newsletter has sat here, unwritten, for several weeks. I realize that I’m still not my best self. I don’t have either the time or the energy to think creatively.
It took weeks before I even came out of survival mode and could think reflectively again. I’ve spent a lot of time since then being still, meditating, and trying to be compassionate to myself. If I’ve reached anything close to Maslow’s theory of self-fulfillment, it’s from the realizations and lessons I’ve learned from this experience. I think I’ve shared some of those above, but for myself more than anything else, here’s a summarized list:
- I should trust my gut more because my subconscious sometimes knows better than my consciousness does. I don’t need someone else to confirm my reality.
- I’m more resilient than I thought. But this is still hard and I deserve stability, peace, and happiness.
- My friends are my family. They maintain my well-being.
- It may be magical thinking, but it feels like something in the universe is watching out for me. At the very least, they sent me a wonderful dog.
- I’m learning the value of being flexible and challenging myself to new experiences.
- I like who I am, warts and all.
I’m going to try to ease back into my writing, but most of my time is currently occupied by making repairs to my home so it will finally sell. I would love to finish the novel I was working on when this started. Eventually, I hope to get there.
This newsletter however won’t be bimonthly again. I can’t make that commitment until my life has stabilized. But I’ll try to keep notes and reach out when I have something worth sharing again.
Thank you for reading,