Divorces and breakups are some of the most traumatizing experiences that we can have. They’re unlike any other pain except the death of a loved one. That may seem like a distorted comparison, but I believe it’s an apt one. This is a person who becomes a permanent fixture in our lives, usually on a daily capacity, for an extended period. And then they’re gone. For some, the leaving portion gets dragged on for x-amount of time before it’s finally over, and for others it’s quick and sudden. Of course, there’s always the exceptions to the rule—those who get back with their exes or maintain friendships—but for most people it’s a permanent deletion of their presence. Unlike death, however, there’s almost always life lessons associated with breakups if we’re willing to look for them.
My own divorce took place a few years ago. Those who are familiar with my work know that I am an avid spoken word poet and performer, so of course this was how I began to process my emotions. It became the inspiration for my first spoken word poetry album, and over the next year I wrote ten poems dedicated to the five stages of grief as I was actively experiencing them. After I finished writing, I went to a recording studio with a professional producer and had music made and recorded specifically for each track. It was around the year mark, when I was mostly done, that I scrapped the project. I kept a few poems from the album to put on my YouTube channel, but most of them are sitting neglected in an old notebook. Even though I had discussed the project on my social media platforms for that year, very few knew why it simply disappeared. In fact, this is really the first time that I’ve spoken publicly about my divorce at all. The reason for discontinuing my project is simple: By the end of that year I had changed.
I am a firm believer that art is probably one of the most important ways that we can process our emotions. I spent a year writing and editing ten poems based on the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. The interesting part is that writing those pieces really was helping me to sort through them, and by the time I finished my second “Acceptance” poem my mental and emotional states truly had changed. I looked back on each of those writings and couldn’t help but notice how angry and resentful I was. Of course, I was justified in those feelings, because I was grieving for the death of my marriage and exactly how it ended, but after a year of obsessively writing about it I had gained some perspective. I simply didn’t feel that way anymore. I recognized that she had been dealing with her own issues, and though I had gotten hurt at the end, she had been hurting for a long time, too. Ultimately, I decided that turning that angst outwards didn’t help anyone, especially in a public way like that, so I chose to turn it inward in an attempt to make sure that I became the type of person who wouldn’t have to experience this again. Of course, I may go through breakups in the future, but I wanted to ensure that, if I ever got married again, I would be the type of person that would be ready for it to last. So these are five life lessons that I learned from my divorce.
1. No one owes me a place in their lives, and I don’t owe anyone a place in mine.
It’s odd to say, but at this point, a few years following my separation, I actually respect my ex-wife for leaving. I don’t agree with how things ended, but the simple fact is that she was unhappy, and after the better part of a decade sliding down a slippery slope of discontent, she finally chose to do something about it. Personally, I’ve only ever been the initiator of a breakup once, and even though I was mentally and emotionally ready to leave it was still one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever done. There are so many different factors that go into making it that hard, not the least of which being the emotional reaction of the other party. She did it, though. She realized that life is not simply about making it to the other side, but rather it’s about enjoying as much of the journey as possible, and at least for the final portion of our relationship she was doing the complete opposite, so she chose to change things. I can respect that, and I’ve also learned from it. Since my divorce I have purged my own life of people and things that were making me unhappy. We often look at those things as permanent or necessary parts of our lives, but the truth is that there is no blueprint to tell us where everything and everyone should be placed in our life; we are the architects of our own destinies.
2. Relationships are not a spectator sport.
Social media has brought a lot of change to our lives, some of it good and some of it bad. Ultimately, it depends on how we use it, though. I am of an age where it has been around for most of my romantic relationships, so of course it’s always been a big part of them. I’ve always been sure to change my relationship status within short order of entering or exiting one, and posting photos and statuses regarding what we’re doing. That’s all well and good, but the issue comes with the fact that, if we’re not careful, eventually social media can become almost like a third wheel. We do things to impress our friends, or get “likes,” or simply to give the impression that we’re happy in our current situation. Many relationships become like trophies that we have to show off to the world. Aside from that, it gives too many people access to the intimate aspects of our lives. When we’re single, that’s not a big deal, but when we’re in a relationship this can pose its own problems. So I’ve come to the realization that social media is an accessory, like a necklace, but it’s not a necessity. Regardless of whether I’m dating someone or not, I need to live my life, not post about one. This small tidbit has saved me so much stress, and I know it’ll continue to do so in future relationships.
3. The lifestyles of both parties are important.
I’m what I like to call an “extroverted introvert.” This means that I’m an introvert by nature, and prefer to spend a bulk of my time at home, but when I do go out I’m great at socializing. My ex-wife, on the other hand, is an extrovert through-and-through. She enjoys spending time out with her friends and going to parties. There’s nothing wrong with either lifestyle, but what I’ve learned is that it’s important to recognize them within ourselves and others. When we are introverts with extroverted friends, or vice versa, it’s not a big deal because at the end of the day we can go our separate ways. However, a romantic partner is a beast of a different shade, because ultimately we will be spending a good portion of our free time together, perhaps even living together, depending on our lifestyle choices. Therefore, it’s important that the partner we choose matches that. Anne Rice put it perfectly when she said, “Whatever will happen will happen, but choose your companions with care…otherwise you will not be able to bear their company for very long.” It’s a sad fact that love cannot actually conquer all if your very lifestyle is draining to your vitality.
4. The importance of reflection.
Spend enough time with someone and eventually you’re bound to disagree about certain things, and oftentimes the very nature of an argument or disagreement causes us to ask ourselves, “Am I right or wrong?” Our honest answer to that question will result in how we proceed in the discussion and perhaps even in future actions and decisions. One of the most important things that I’ve learned from my divorce is that this is the wrong question. The right question is, “What can I learn about myself from this?” An example that springs to mind is an argument that my ex-wife and I had about Stuffed Bell Peppers that I had made for dinner one evening. I put cinnamon into the mix, which she didn’t like. We went on to have quite the heated debate until she finally at least tried them, confirming to both myself and her that she truly didn’t care for them. Years later we would laugh about this silly little argument. It wasn’t until after we got divorced that I truly asked myself, “What can I learn about myself from that situation?” Obviously that disagreement didn’t contribute to our eventual downfall, but it revealed a personality trait within myself that I am now able to work on which, actually, makes me a happier person as a whole. And this question can be applied to any and all malcontented situations throughout my marriage and my life.
5. You can’t find the problem and solution at the same time.
I saved this one for last because it is perhaps the most important relationship lesson that I learned from my late marriage. Towards the last few years of our relationship we went to marriage counseling. If you’re familiar with my work, then you know that I’ve been in therapy for many years, and am a big proponent for it regardless of whether or not a person deals with mental health issues. So, when our problems began to escalate beyond the abilities of ourselves to fix, that was my suggestion. I’ve spoken to many couples who’ve gone to therapy to help their relationships, and I’ve gotten just as many different reactions to it. Personally, I found it to be immensely helpful. Yes, I see the irony in that, because we are now divorced, but that wasn’t the fault of therapy; you can’t fix a broken egg. One lesson that I took away from it, and which I have and will continue to utilize in every relationship I ever have—romantic or otherwise—is that you can’t find the problem and the solution at the same time. It’s important to realize that arguments are exactly that: Trying to find both simultaneously. Each party trying to tell the other what is wrong and how they can fix it, and thus it becomes a discussion of four different contradicting topics at once. What our therapist recommended was to separate them into two different discussions. The first being about figuring out what the problem is and how it made each person feel. It’s important to note that at this point we do not even attempt to discuss how to fix things; we go our separate ways in order to cool down and reflect on the discussion. Then, in two hours, six hours, overnight, or however long it takes for both of us to lower our level of emotion and raise our level of logic, we come back and have a second conversation about finding a solution. Again, we make it a point to separate the two, so we don’t try to discuss what the problem is or how it made us feel, because we already did that; this is a discussion solely about what we can do to fix things. To be honest, this single technique probably prolonged my marriage for a couple years, and it’s something that I use even with my non-romantic relationships.
Truthfully, at this point I am more content than I’ve ever been in my life. That is not a reflection of my ex-wife or my marriage, but rather it’s a reflection of me. I can’t express how helpful it was to work on that spoken word poetry album, even though most of it will never be heard by another person. We often undervalue the power of art in the healing process, or even just in the living process. This is why I travel the country trying to advocate for things such as this, because I don’t imagine that I ever would’ve gotten to this point without that outlet. It truly allowed me to manage and understand not only what I was going through, but what she was going through as well. I learned a lot about myself and about life from my divorce, and though it was unfortunate how and why it ended, I am a better person for it. And isn’t that ultimately the goal of every life experience?
**Posted below is one of the few tracks from that “lost album.” Thanks so much for taking the time to read this, and please give it a listen and let me know what you think. Can you relate?