Happy Endings or The Only Time I Have Practiced Law
I never thought this would happen to me. No, this is not the beginning of a letter to Penthouse. Rather, I am talking about the scarlet letter “D” – divorce. As a young man I was naïvely idealistic about what my life would be like. I would meet a girl and fall in love. We would get married, have kids, and work rewarding careers. We would retire, travel the globe, and die happy. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always have happy endings.
I met my ex-wife in college after we both ended long-term relationships. We became friends over the course of a year and started dating right before we both moved to the east coast for graduate school. We dated the three years I was in law school and married the December after I graduated and passed the bar exam. She graduated with her two masters degrees the following spring. I got a regulatory/legal job in my chosen field and she got a job working on trade issues with Africa, her field of interest and expertise, for the federal government. Things were not perfect, but they seemed good.
Four years into our marriage she was presented with what was supposed to be a temporary job offer to work in Africa. We both felt this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. In her line of work, being in “the field” is an invaluable experience and usually the gateway to accelerated growth and success in the international development world. As her husband, I wasn’t going to stand in her way of fulfilling a dream. I also knew it wouldn’t matter in the end what I thought about the job. The look in her eyes told me that she was going with or without my blessing and support. So the decision was made for her to take the temporary position. It was only going to be six months, maybe a few months longer if need be, but certainly not a long-term assignment. This was over five years ago. She still isn’t back.
She excelled in her job overseas and was given renewal offers whenever her employment contract was about to expire. She rented a large house with a pool and housekeeping staff. She bought a German car and socialized with dignitaries and ambassadors. She carved out a new life for herself. Unfortunately, this was one of her reasons for going overseas in the first place. A fact she told me when she called almost three years ago and told me the marriage was over.
The relationship had grown distant in the months leading up to the separation. Our last visit together did not go as well as our previous ones. We celebrated our anniversary with little fanfare. She wasn’t as interested in me physically and she was going out of her way to do work and spend time with others in the little time we had together. Our conversations were shorter and less frequent. Despite these problems, she and I discussed her apparent desire to finally come back home that summer. Then she was offered the permanent job of running the development project she was working on. It was an opportunity she couldn’t refuse and a way to give into her instincts and be free of the marriage.
After the separation, I started to experience the five stages of grief. Denial went by pretty quickly. Bargaining I skipped altogether. Anger lasted for quite some time. So did depression. I started drinking too much by myself in bars, which only fed the feelings of loneliness and depression (this should be distinguished from drinking too much with friends in bars or drinking occasionally alone in bars, which as a seasoned drinker I find actually alleviates loneliness and depression). I slept on my couch for months because I didn’t want to sleep in “our” bed. I messed up some things at work because I couldn’t concentrate. Eventually I came to acceptance. I started doing some positive things for myself. I took up boxing at the encouragement of a friend of mine. I had no idea punching a gym bag would feel so good physically and emotionally. I rediscovered my love of music and attended my first Bonnaroo festival. I found a new apartment that was close to work and friends. I even started dating again after a year had gone by and I felt ready. I tried to think of the separation in the best terms possible – she no longer had to pretend to be something she was not; she loved me enough to marry me in the first place despite her instincts to remain free; her decision to end things was a gift of freedom to me. My friends say I handled everything well. I didn’t believe them at the time. Upon reflection I handled things the best I could at the time, which I suppose is all we can ever ask of ourselves.
A year after we separated I saw my ex-wife again so we could sign the divorce papers. Since we had no kids or common property we decided to file an uncontested divorce without hiring lawyers. I drafted the papers myself and filed all the forms with the court. Since I was ready to move on with my life, I felt levelheaded when we signed the papers. It helped having one of my good friends (also a lawyer) present at the signing to make sure things went smoothly. On the other hand, she was having a hard time holding it together. It was as if she had been putting off dealing with the end of our marriage until the very last moment. I suppose it is easier to leave than to be left behind, and by taking control of the divorce process I was switching those roles. Afterward, she said she wished we could have had the time to talk about things. I told her that maybe we could talk sometime later. We haven’t really spoken since.
Real court is not like the movies or TV. It is quite boring and procedural. Besides me, the only people in the courtroom were the judge and her clerk. While I was sitting at the plaintiff’s table I kept thinking that this was the only time I had ever really practiced law and apparently I was not missing much. After answering some basic questions and going through all the documents, it was over. I felt neither high nor low, just relieved that the ordeal was behind me. I had imagined walking out of the courthouse with a spring in my step, but I felt the same as when I entered. I texted some friends that it was all over and went on with my day like it was any other. As a 35 year old divorcee, I have changed the views I once had as a naïve twenty-something. Now I just want to eventually be with someone that is willing to go along with me on this journey we call life. Marriage not required.
I had thought being done with the divorce process would be a happy ending of sorts, but it was just the end of a chapter of a book that is still being written. As the character Tim Canterbury said in the finale of the original British version of The Office, “if I am really being honest I never really thought it would have a happy ending. I don’t know what a happy ending is. Life isn’t about endings, is it? It’s a series of moments.” Tim Canterbury actually got his happy ending. I will settle for a lifetime of happy moments.