How I survived after my husband left me

When I found out my marriage was over, I thought my life was over too. Turns out it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

by 79
woman divorce black and white photo September 2014 Torn apart
Photo, Ondine Corewijn/Stocksy.

Open the door,” said my dad. “We are outside, and it’s important.”

“No!” I screamed into the phone. “Leave me alone.”

I knew what my parents wanted to say. Two weeks earlier, Phillip, my husband of eight years — my high school sweetheart, best friend, father of my two toddlers, Carrie and Isabelle — had told me he was unhappy. He was going to stay at a hotel for a few days to think. But the days stretched into a confusing blur of weeks. I knew that we had been struggling, but I was so caught up in daily family life that I hadn’t noticed just how bad it was. I missed the signs, little and big. He never let me park in the garage. His car was more expensive, so I’d be outside in the belly of winter scraping the ice off my windshield. I’d wave goodbye as he pulled away. Instead of coming home for dinner like he used to, now he missed the kids’ bath time every night. He was always needed at work dinners, at business meetings that lasted until the wee hours and on frequent trips. When he was home, his eyes were trained on his BlackBerry.

“You haven’t seen us all week. Can you put it down for a bit?” I’d plead. He wasn’t particularly interested in me, the kids or expanding our family like we had always planned.

“I don’t want any more kids. I’m done. I will never change my mind,” he told me.

I was devastated. We started seeing a marriage counsellor. I thought we were going through a slump, that it was normal.

But I opened the door for my parents and saw the large white envelope in my dad’s hands. The contents of that envelope marked the end of my marriage. Though I couldn’t see it at the time, they also marked a new beginning.

It is nearly impossible to describe the depth of pain you feel when you suffer a loss. In one instant, I had lost my best childhood friend, the boy who took me to prom, the person who could articulate my thoughts better than I could. Gone was the man who held my hand during my terrifying emergency C-section, the dad who changed our baby’s very first diaper. My dream of teaching our kids to ride a two-wheeler outside our home together had just vanished, along with our plans to take our kids on an African safari when they were teenagers. When I opened that white envelope, the private investigator’s report inside revealed that Phillip was seeing someone else.

I will never forget his pasty complexion when he was forced to admit his year-long affair with a waitress. His face was so blanched it was as though he had doused it in flour. I had never felt so disappointed, diminished and humiliated. I hated myself for being so unlovable, so unwanted and so goddamn dumb. As he glossed over the details of his relationship, how he’d bought her gifts and taken her on trips, I realized, right there in my kitchen, that I no longer loved the man with whom I had vowed to spend the rest of my life. My feelings just died. He said he was sorry, that he had had an affair because he was unhappy and confused, that he didn’t want to hurt my feelings and that he didn’t know how to communicate. He had felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities that came with kids and had realized he was more selfish than he’d imagined. He said that he and his girlfriend had split and that he wanted to give our marriage a second shot. I wanted to feel sorry for him, to put myself in his shoes, but I just felt dirty. People are supposed to be born with a conscience. There is right and wrong; there is no in-between. I never would have had the nerve to lead a double life, to constantly lie to the person who loved me most. It was cowardly. Vulgar. Unforgivable. I didn’t know him at all.

“How dare you,” I said in a voice so hoarse I didn’t recognize it was mine. “You disgust me. You’re a disgrace. I hope our kids grow up to be nothing like you. Get out.”

“Can I have one last hug?” he asked.

“F–k you. And just so you know, one day I will write about this.”

The next morning, I tore all his expensive suits off the wooden hangers in our closet and shoved them into crinkly black plastic garbage bags. I ripped our wedding photos off the walls, took down family photos. Suddenly I hated the big one of us kissing while our kids smiled, perched on our backs. Had he been sleeping with her when that photo was taken? How old was Isabelle when the affair began? I was constantly trying to work out the math. I decided to leave just two photos of him — one for each of my kids — in the girls’ bedrooms. And then I wondered: What the f–k was I going to do with the 10 pads of personalized letterhead I had just ordered with all the members of our family cartooned across the top? Everything went into the garage. That night, from my daughter’s window, I watched Phillip’s shadow slowly load each bag into his trunk. I took my wedding rings off for good.

They say there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I wanted to pass through all the stages as quickly as I could — rush the whole process — and forget this had ever happened to me. But that’s not how it ever goes. I felt everything at once. My body physically ached. I’d be driving and I’d have to pull over. My chest heaved with sobs. Snot dripped into my mouth. I couldn’t stop crying. I’d beg God — if there even was a God — to make the pain stop.

Songs I’d never noticed on the radio suddenly had meaning for me. “You’re a liar, a cheat, unfaithful dog / You threw away all our love and trust / It’s so hard to see just who you are!” I’d howl the words to “Amnesia” as I drove along. As the weeks dragged on, Bruno Mars sang to me. “I should’ve bought you flowers and held your hand / Should’ve gave you all my hours when I had the chance.”

I’d torture myself wondering what it was like for my husband and his girlfriend. Did they hold hands? Have their own special memories and songs? Had they ever thought of me, even once?

In those first few weeks of single motherhood, my family rallied around me. My brother Jarrad was constantly at my house, fixing whatever my kids had accidentally pulled off the wall that day. I didn’t know a thing about running a house on my own. My sister came over and helped me put my kids to bed on days when I was too empty to do it myself. She raided my closet for frumpy clothes.

“You need to throw everything out and buy nice clothes for all the dates you’re going to go on.”

I couldn’t even begin to think about dating. And why couldn’t I buy flowery crocheted dresses from Anthropologie anymore? I liked that store. My brother Daniel would pick up the phone at any time — during business meetings or in the middle of the night — to listen to me sob. My parents helped with the kids, reassured me that things would be okay and came with me to meet with lawyers. At times I was angry that they’d hired a private investigator, but I knew they never expected to have anything to report.

Phillip’s family was another story. “Well, at least he fessed up and is being a good dad,” his oldest sister, Lisa, told me by phone.

“F–k you,” I wanted to say, but I held back. When I hung up, I knew I’d never speak to her again.

“You’ve got to pull up your big-girl panties,” my own aunt told me.

“Pull up my big-girl panties?” I wanted to say. “You think it’s that easy? Well, f–k you too.”

But that’s what I did. I pulled up my big-girl panties. I started seeing a therapist, one who would not let me feel like a victim for long. She helped me realize very quickly that my kids needed a happy mother.

“It’s not divorce that harms a child; it’s the fighting between parents that can,” she said.

My kids didn’t deserve to grow up in a broken home, and I never wanted them to feel like they had. They were going to have a happy life, and their parents’ divorce was not going to screw them up. I’d heard about a mom who committed suicide when she learned of her husband’s affair. I’d heard of divorces that were so bitter the children never recovered. Goddamn it: That was not going to be our life. No matter what it took or how hard it would be, I was going to get back on top.

I started by telling my older child first.

“Carrie,” I said as I crouched down so we were eye to eye. “All families are different. Some have a mommy and a daddy, and some have two mommies, or no parents and just grandparents. You have a mommy and a daddy who love you very much, but Daddy isn’t going to be living here anymore.”

I said it in one giant breath. I looked at her carefully. Her face shrivelled.

“So I don’t have a daddy anymore?” She threw her little arms around me and sobbed.

“No, sweetheart, of course you still do, but from now on you will have two beds and two houses. You still have a mommy and a daddy, but we aren’t going to live together anymore. It just happens sometimes. It’s not your fault. Sometimes mommies and daddies are happier when they don’t live together. We are going to be happy,” I promised.

Though my husband and his mistress had gotten back together, I knew it wouldn’t help to be angry or resentful. I wanted to let it all go and just move forward. The gym became my outlet. I punched so hard in my cardio boxing class that people stopped and stared at me as though I was the Hulk. I’d pretend I was punching Phillip in the gut. His girlfriend got a hit to the face. Cross-jab-hook-How-could-you-do-this-to-me. Punch punch punch punch punch punch. Sometimes I’d cry as I punched. I hoped people would think I was just sweating from my eyes. “If you had to deal with the feelings I was dealing with, you’d punch this hard too,” I wanted to tell them. But I just kept punching. Sometimes, I’d work so hard that my lips turned blue. I was sent to a cardiologist for a heart test. I knew what was wrong all along.

“It’s just broken, right, Doc?”

Phillip and I didn’t haggle over the kids. We agreed that he would take them for dinner two nights a week and for a sleepover every Saturday night. He rented a condo nearby and bought them beds and Cinderella sheets and toys so they would feel comfortable with the new arrangement. That first Saturday night I had to give up my kids, I’d shuffle past their empty rooms. I was desperate to hear them breathing in their beds. I wanted to hug them and nuzzle their warm necks. I was so lonely. I’d completely lost myself in my marriage, and now I didn’t know what to do with my free time. Had I made the right choice? Should I have let Phillip come home when he had asked to try again? I turned on the heating pad and crawled under my blankets. What if I’m alone forever? I was 32 and felt like I’d passed my expiry date. Who was going to want to date me and my two kids? Who would love them like I do and want to live with us? How would I even meet someone, and would they ever know me as well as Phillip did? I didn’t know where to begin.

I went shopping. I bought several pairs of high heels, flirty dresses, designer jeans and low-cut tops. I was completely out of my comfort zone, but I had lost so much weight — 25 pounds in three months — that I needed new clothes anyway.

“Not bad,” I’d think to myself as I glanced over my appearance in the mirror. The truth was, I had completely lost my appetite. I survived on coffee, dark chocolate and plain crackers. My biceps became defined, my collarbones poked out of my skin, my ribs protruded. I barely recognized my own body.

I was starting to feel like our separation was a blessing in disguise. Being tested for STDs led to a bad Pap test and a LEEP that possibly saved me from cervical cancer. I had made new friends. I was learning to date. I could walk in the heels my sister had insisted I buy. I had taken up hot yoga, and as my appetite returned, I nourished my body. I took on new assignments at work and started teaching. I wasn’t scared of anything. I had already hit rock bottom and knew nothing could be worse than where I’d already been. I felt invincible. I named it “The Year of Yes.”

“You want me to speak for three hours in front of 30 students? Sure.”

“Oh, you want to take me on a motorcycle ride? Yes!”

“Go on a blind date with a pescatarian who will eat a platter of nachos and drink a bottle of wine by himself? All right.”

“Meet you in Miami next weekend? Great!”

Being abandoned by Phillip also offered a convenient excuse for all kinds of things, and I was prepared to leverage it.

“You expect me to pay $1,200 in roaming fees?” I asked my cellphone provider in complete disbelief. “I’m a single mother with two little kids. My husband left me for a waitress. Are you sure there’s nothing you can do?”

My bill was reduced by half.

I started to wear my status like a badge. After all, it was now me and me alone who took my kids to doctor’s appointments and held them when they got their booster shots. It was me who carried them up to bed by myself when they fell asleep in the car. It was me who soothed them and cleaned their barf at 2 a.m. I juggled their activities and play dates; I took them on road trips, stopping to look at a litter of Labrador puppies just because.

In my mind I could hear Phillip saying, “What’s the point of stopping to look at puppies when we’re not going to buy one?” But I was in the driver’s seat; I was capable of making decisions myself. Once, the front wheel fell off our stroller during a walk. Another time, we ended up at the side of a country road with a flat tire. No matter what, I got my kids home safely. All the way home, we’d belt out “Roar” with Katy Perry: “I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire / ’Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar.”

And just when I really truly accepted that my marriage was over, I met Steve. We were set up on a blind date by a mutual friend and after exchanging emails and talking on the phone — unusual in this era of dating — we got together for a drink one night after work. I wasn’t expecting to meet someone I actually liked. I was having fun. I didn’t need a boyfriend, didn’t want one yet. But Steve was different. He was calm, patient and attentive. He was also an excellent dad, and listening to him sing “Happy Birthday” to his niece on the phone turned me to mush. He was a single dad raising his daughter with his family but acted like my story was more devastating. He hung on my every word, stared at me like he’d never seen anything so beautiful, held my hand and dropped off a package of insoles after I’d gone for a 12K run that left me unable to walk. He held doors for me; he told me I was fun and smart. He was shocked when I said I’d never been offered the garage. I knew after the second date that if he held a door for another girl I’d be livid.

“Cancel your other dates,” I instructed. “You are with me now.”

Sometimes I worry that Steve will decide that our relationship is over, that he’d rather be with someone else. “I’m not going to leave you. I’m not Phillip,” he reassures me. I trust him.

When my kids are old enough to discover the truth, I hope they will understand the decisions I’ve made and appreciate how hard I’ve fought for their happiness. I want them to witness a healthy relationship and know what it means to celebrate a wedding anniversary. Maybe one day, we will all be singing a different Bruno Mars song.

*All names have been changed.

Originally published August 2014. Updated March 2017.

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