What I Learned From Two Divorces

Family conflict

The beauty of divorce at midlife is that we are free to create the life we want without societal expectations of what it “should” look like.

“Do you think you’d still be married if all the bad stuff hadn’t happened?” a friend asked me several years ago.

“I don’t know,” I answered after a few minutes, recalling what the “bad stuff” was—my former husband’s long-term affair and alcoholism.

And it’s true, I don’t really know. I’d like to believe that we’d be celebrating 27 years of marriage this year. I certainly thought we’d be married forever. But 11-plus years after my second divorce, I have been thinking about marriage a lot. Of course, I should have done this much thinking before I got married, clarifying just why I wanted to get hitched, but it’s best not to live in regrets.

Although I didn’t expect to be divorced, many good things have happened to me because of it; I learned a lot about myself, relationships, life. Please don’t take that to mean that I am somehow encouraging couples to divorce; I’m not. No one should rush into divorce, except those whose lives are at risk.

But divorce isn’t all gloom and doom, as many want to portray it. It doesn’t necessarily destroy your kids; conflict does, and that happens in intact families, too. Nor does it mean you have a “failed marriage”—the 14 years my former husband and I were together had many happy moments and created two amazing sons, now young men, whom we co-parented well apart because we were respectful of each other (well, most of the time).

Lauded anthropologist Margaret Mead once said everyone should marry three times—once to leave home, once to have children, and once for companionship. And she did exactly that. When asked about her “failed” marriages, she quickly responded, “I beg your pardon, I have had three marriages and none of them was a failure.”

If three divorces were good enough for her, two are just fine with me.

So, what did I learn?

Divorce doesn’t necessarily make you smarter about relationships.

I got married way too early the first time—a few months shy of my 21st birthday—for all the wrong reasons, or actually just one not-good-enough reason: I loved him and he loved me. So when I met the man who was to become my second husband, I thought I “got” what marriage was about. I’d been there and done that, and since he had been married before, too, and we both experienced infidelity, he felt the same way.

Well, wrong. Divorce doesn’t automatically make you wiser about relationships and marriage. Unless you look into the behaviors and patterns you learned from your family of origin so you can understand the bad stuff you brought into your first marriage—and we all do that—you’ll just bring it into the next one. Thankfully, I did a lot of intensive work to understand the role I played in the demise of my second marriage, and I learned how to act differently although it’s a work in progress. I don’t know if I would have gotten to this healthy place if I’d stayed married; I think I might have had to hit bottom first.

There may not be “someone better out there” for you.

OK, I get it—it’s natural to believe we’ll find true love again. And many people do: According to an AARP study, most divorced men and women in midlife find someone new. But there are no guarantees. You don’t divorce because you believe there’s someone “better out there for you,” you divorce because the marriage you’re in doesn’t work anymore and you can’t make it work even though you’ve tried.

Divorce means you have to accept that you may be alone forever—and that you’ll be OK flying solo.

Relationships don’t have to look a certain way.

I grew up following the script most of us know all too well—you meet someone special, date, fall in love, marry, and then one day have a few kids, a mortgage, a dog, and a minivan. And, of course, you live happily-ever-after. But when I found myself divorced in my late 40s with two young kids, I began to wonder why I’d want to hold on to that same trajectory.

It worked fine when I was in my 20s and 30s; was it going to work at midlife? I certainly wasn’t going to have any more kids, I owned my own house, I had my own career and dog, and there was no way I was going back to owning a minivan.

I didn’t “need” to be in a relationship in the same way as I believed I needed to be when I wanted to have kids. Now I had other questions to ask myself, and so for the first time in my life I started thinking intensely about what I wanted, not what I thought was expected of me (and wondered why I didn’t do that in my 20s and 30s). Did I want to marry again? Why? Why not? What would I do different and what would be the same? How do I want to live now?

My extended circle of divorced middle-aged friends are all over the map when it comes to romance—most have found love again but only a handful have married or moved in with their partner. The rest of us are figuring it out as we go along, but like a lot of other boomers who are divorced, we’re happy.

The beauty of divorce at midlife is that we are free to create the life we want without societal expectations of what it “should” look like. No one is going to hound us at family holiday get-togethers about when we’re finally going to marry or have kids (although that doesn’t mean you won’t get some judgment anyway: “Mom, isn’t Grandma too old to have a boyfriend?”). We may marry, we may live together, we may be committed but live separately, or we may ditch romance altogether and delve into our passions, friendships, and careers.

When you think about it, we midlife divorced types just might be leading the way when it comes to rethinking relationships, choosing love on our terms.

Vicki Larson is an award-winning journalist and co-author of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels” (Seal Press, Sept. 28, 2014). A version of this story ran on her blog, OMG Chronicles. Keep up with her take on marriage, divorce and relationships there, on Twitter and Facebook.

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