I thought I knew myself when I was younger. I thought I knew my stance and exactly how I would react to any scenario, regardless of never actually being in any similar circumstance. I was confident that my view of the world was solid, and whenever I would give my strong opinions on situations I actually knew nothing about, my mother would snort derisively and say, “Just keep living.”
At the time, those words were hollow to me. I knew what they meant, but I also had no idea what they meant. It’s a bit like if I were to tell you that passing a kidney stone is painful. You know I am informing you that it hurts, but you don’t get that it’s a two millimeter demon from the 8th circle of hell coursing through your urinary system. Now, at only 36 years of age, I’ve made choices along the way that have left me feeling like I’ve lived too many versions of life, in too short a timeframe. I have been single, married, a parent, divorced, a single parent and a step-mother. I’ve been someone’s second wife and someone’s first wife. I’ve been a working mother and a stay-at-home mother. I’ve started over more times than most people can keep up with, and reinvented the ground I stand on as often as I’ve needed. In all of these experiences there’s one thing that has stood out to me. It’s that no one truly knows what they would do when things turn upside down, until its their blood rushing to their own head.
Let’s look at infidelity as one example. I always thought that there would be no way I would ever forgive someone for cheating on me. To me, that was ultimate violation in a romantic relationship and I had no doubt that I’d pack my metaphorical bags and leave in dramatic fashion. I’d summon that walk Angela Basset does in in the movie adaptation of Waiting to Exhale, when she torches the car full of her husbands things and saunters off without glancing back. When it was my real life on the line, that was not me.
In my first marriage, I discovered my husband had been cheating on me. A lot. He didn’t confess. His unfaithfulness was going on under my nose for years, and I was in the dark. It had been with several women, for a very long time, and I had to hunt for it. He was good at it, until one of his women made the mistake of calling him when we were home in our bedroom together one evening. Even then, I hadn’t completely figured it out, because of course there were denials and lies and explanations. She was someone tangential in our lives, so while a phone call at that time of night was unsettling for me, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that this was an innocent call; but it planted the seeds of doubt. Our marriage got exponentially worse before I even figured out just how deeply broken we were.
I separated from my then-husband and moved into an apartment to escape the life that was crumbling around me, but as I left, I had no intention of ending my marriage. I left fully believing that a separation would give us some space and perspective to repair the damaged relationship. We had begun marriage counseling in an effort to bring out the problems we were having, and face them head on with an impartial referee that would help us learn how to fight fairly and forgive quickly. It was while we were separated that I unearthed the truth. I didn’t even have to look that hard once I decided to really open my eyes. I had hard evidence of 10 different women that my ex had inappropriate encounters with when I decided to just stop looking. I’d had enough. I confronted him with what I found and was determined to perform the Angela Basset march as I declared this marriage over.
That did not happen. It was another 6 months of apologies, promises, and declarations of love. It was more counseling sessions. I considered our daughter, his children from his first marriage, and the impact that divorce would have on them. I didn’t want to feel like a failure. I didn’t want all of the people who said I shouldn’t marry him to be right. I still loved him. I let him back in my bed because he was still in my heart. I tried to find a path forward instead of out.
Where was the person who said she would never forgive something like this? That shiny varnish that coated her life hadn’t aged and started to turn gray yet. She didn’t have any concept of what this would feel like. She had the nerve to think that people who stayed in relationships with someone who had been unfaithful were stupid for thinking things would get better. She/I didn’t know a damn thing about life because we hadn’t lived it deeply enough to understand, or even respect the journey of another human being.
For 6 months there were more fights, more infidelities, and more tears. It wasn’t as cut and dry as I had previously thought it would be. I invested time in figuring out what I wanted the rest of my life to look like, and what I needed from him to be able to continue that marriage. I learned the difference between cheating as a mistake and cheating as a lifestyle choice. I used to think that unfaithfulness only happened in bad marriages containing obviously sketchy people. All of my perceptions were washed away as a realized it was everywhere and with anyone. Some people stay, knowing their spouse will continue to cheat. The physical actions of sleeping with someone else could be tolerable, or even acceptable as long as certain life boundaries weren’t crossed. Some people march right out like I thought I would. Others fight for their spouse over and over. The level of what one person would tolerate versus another is a personal decision. There was no right or wrong answer; only the road you decided to travel. It was like one of those “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” books, only this time I couldn’t beat the system by reading ahead to view all of the different outcomes before making my selection. Ultimately, I chose to end the marriage, but not for the reasons I thought I would. It wasn’t because I felt disrespected, even though I did feel that way. It wasn’t because the pain of what happened broke me, although it did. It wasn’t because I couldn’t forgive. I forgive him now. It was because I couldn’t see life married to him as an acceptable future for me or my daughter.
Though I’ve gone through heartbreak, failure, misjudgments, poor decisions and disappointments in my life, I have developed a sense of gratitude for all of it because I believe its made me into a better human. I am slower to judge and quicker to listen. I appreciate that there is far more depth to people and their motivations in life. I respect a narrative that doesn’t mirror my own perceptions. Those are a lot of pretty words to say, “I work harder to not be a judgmental bitch.” I don’t have all of the answers because my tests are different than yours, but I’ve learned how to support people while they figure out what works for them. I share my stories because I want to leave this world one day, in the far future, at least a tiny bit better because more people support each other or feel less alone through my words. I am grateful to my mother for the words that grew into a gift. Every time I think I have life pretty much figured out, I hear her voice in my head say, “Just keep living.”