F is for Fear, Fantasy, and Failure

What keeps us in something longer than we know is good for us? Friends, I know so many smart, educated, brilliant women who have stayed in relationships far longer than warranted, far longer than was safe, physically, emotionally.

The reasons we stay are as varied as our individual lives, but I would posit that we stay because we are afraid to fail, terrified to admit we haven’t lived up to the cultural fantasy of what marriage and family should be.

I know that fear ruled many of my relationships, one set of fears put me there and another set kept me in them beyond the “best by” date.

I’ve found myself explaining my past a lot lately—funny how potential partners want to know what happened, really, that a gem such as myself should suddenly be single and available now (LOL, I really crack myself up).

What drove me to settle down at 23 and become a parent before I turned 30? Fear. Fantasy.

How did it come to be that I put my need to be loved above my children’s needs in my next relationship? Fear. Fantasy.

How, pray tell, does a 58-year-old still grocery shop and eat like a five-year-old with a credit card? Fear. Fantasy. Seriously.

Dates, even phone dates, have so many questions. And rightly so. We all have arrived in this same space, these boxes on the internet where we are all putting our very best hiking-boot-clad feet forward, vying for the last Fine woman out there. Trying to remember what landed us here and worrying that the others all have the exact same traumas and baggage, fearful we will miss the obvious warning signs.

We are afraid, or at least I know I am. Of one another. Of scammers. Of being alone into our dotages. Of more disappointment. Of being hurt yet again.

We believe the fantasy is possible (and we should, we have to). I desperately want to believe. We want someone to wrap ourselves around on a lazy Sunday morning. Someone to smooth our hair from our foreheads when we struggle, someone to tell us it is okay, that we are okay. That it’s going to be okay.

Humans are wired for connection. We do better in relationships than we do alone. Studies show, that just like children can best self-regulate when a parent functions as a secure base, so do adults in solid relationships. But it takes more than fantasy to create relationships that allow us to flourish. It takes a belief in ourselves as deserving.

Just another suburban soccer mom

I settled down at 23 because I was afraid my parents would never accept me if I wasn’t as “normal” (i.e. as close to heteronormative, though in 1986 that was not a thing) as possible. How better to convince them with than a wife, a nice house, a good job (well, speaking of fantasies), and a couple of kids? It worked, too, btw.

I believed the fantasy that I could live as less than authentically myself in order to fit in. And boy, I gave it a good run.

Fear drove me into my next relationship as well. Fear of so many things, but mostly fear of never finding happiness again after losing custody of my children. I was so afraid I’d miss out on their lives that I failed to notice entire bouquets of red flags. And fantasy kept me there—the fantasy that I could sublimate my needs indefinitely in order to create an illusion of success and happiness. I did that well, too.

And it wasn’t all bad. I have my girls—the reasons I kept on keeping on through it all. I had some fun. We threw some epic parties. I made terrific friends along the way—I found my people, and my people helped me find my way.

I learned I am okay exactly how I am. I was okay before the pandemic. I am emerging from it intact. If I come out of it with a partner, so be it. If I don’t, that’s okay too, because I am Fine. Better than fine. Fabulous.

Single at 52. Further Thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage and Divorce

Today’s the day. Ninety days ago I signed my divorce decree, and now we can get divorced. I simply have to go to the lawyer’s office to sign the final paperwork. I didn’t know going into this divorce that the 90 days is a “cooling off” period. I just thought it took that long for the paperwork to make its way through the court system. My lawyer corrected my misperception. I said, “You mean to tell me it only takes 3 days to get married but 90 to get divorced? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” She nodded sagely. I suppose there’s some sort of job security for her in it working this way.

I don’t know. I imagine I’d still be in the same place even if I’d had an extra 90 days to contemplate getting married. In fact, we did wait an entire year between the time I proposed and the day we finally married (to read more about that, click here). We were unraveling at that point anyway. Earlier this week I received an email letting me know that the lawyers had drafted the final decree dissolving our marriage. The past few mornings have been a miasma of mixed feelings. Yesterday I woke up with an outsized case of anxiety, and this morning I am not feeling any better.

A divorce is a death, a loss, an end. And in the hours since I received the lawyer’s notice, the past fifteen years have been flashing before my eyes as I understand happens before any death experience. The good, the bad, the ugly. The beginning, the middle, the end. Not that there’s necessarily a correlation—these things have a way of spiraling and weaving. There were signs of our eventual demise early on, had I been more aware, and we experienced moments of grace toward the end, even as recently as last week when we had dinner with my brother and his family in Seattle.

On our first date, we attended an Indigo Girls concert on the Pier in Seattle. Cliché? Maybe. I still remember what I wore that warm July night. I was on my way to her house a few months later when Al Gore lost (was robbed of) the election to (by) George W. Bush. On September 11 almost a year later, we awoke to a phone call from her sister-in-law on the east coast, telling us to turn on the television, that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center. Together we watched astounded and in disbelief from her bed as the airplane careened into the second tower, which then crumbled. I told her how Aaron Brown, whose presence on CNN that day I found so stabilizing in a world come apart, had once been a local news anchor.

We attended at least two family weddings as a couple before we had our pre-legal same sex marriage commitment ceremony in September 2003. We dubbed it our Silly Ceremony. In retrospect, I wonder if perhaps we made a mistake calling it that. If perhaps we did not take ourselves or our union seriously enough from the beginning. We called it that because at my father’s wedding in April 2001, one of my relatives pulled me aside to congratulate me on my new relationship, to tell me how much she loved my new love, and then, almost as an aside said “But, you two aren’t going to have one of those silly ceremonies are you?” Of course. We had to after that.

I worked for the Catholics when we had the Silly Ceremony. I’d only been in my position there a few months, but still felt comfortable enough to invite a few of the friends I’d made in that time. My parents, by then divorced, came. My kids. Her sister. My brother and his family. Our neighbors. Her good friend, the holiest person we knew, officiated. We partied epically. People danced on the tables.

The temptation is to pick through the remnants, parsing out the good from the bad, categorizing events into a sort of giant, fifteen-year tally sheet. We spent many summer days playing Scrabble on our deck. And we kept score. One of the things that attracted me was her ability to string a sentence together, to spell. We fell in love online and spent our first few months there before we met in real time, exchanging instant messages and emails. She knew how to punctuate, a skill akin to tantric sex for a writer.

Even though we’ve essentially lived apart these past two years, and even though she officially moved her belongings out for good in mid-February, I am still sad to have finally completed this one last act.

We’ve been circling around the issue for a couple of years, been to couples’ counseling with two different therapists. Said the D word then reconciled again, deciding to give it one last go, at least twice. So, when I signed the decree 90 days ago, I guess it felt like anything was possible. Three months stretched out ahead in a sort of eternity. I still had 90 days worth of health insurance. We settled into a sort of amicable truce. She came up to see the cats. I stayed at her new place on my way to and from the airport. We had a few dinners, spent Easter with my family. Celebrated our birthdays in June with a lovely dinner on the Bellingham waterfront.

But this week, once we got the email from our attorneys letting us know that the final FINAL papers were ready, that we could sign them on August 21? Then I realized that this is it. The end. I know. I know. I didn’t want to get married in the first place. Marriage is a patriarchal institution. But I started thinking about having a fixed date for the demise of our relationship. In previous relationships we just sort of came apart in fits and starts. There were no hard and fast dates and times to affix to the ending. No “on thus and such a date we officially broke up.” At least not one recorded in the annals of time for all of perpetuity.

From here forward, August 21 will be complicated. One part heartbreak, one part freedom. One part new adventure. One part wistfulness. It’s particularly metaphorical that the eastern half of the state is currently on fire. We spent one of our happiest road trips in recent memory exploring the Methow and the Okanagon a couple of summers ago. We set out in the jeep one weekend and just kept driving until we reached Conconully. We drove up Hart’s Pass where I wanted to camp even though it was 32 degrees up there. I guess if I wanted to read something into the fires, I could. I was sitting in a friend’s house in Winthrop the first time she suggested (offered?) divorce, in an email. I’ve always joked about having a scorched earth policy when leaving jobs and relationships. It’s a policy I have worked to change in recent years. I would like the end of this relationship to be different. Gentler.

I’m trying to resist the urge to get sentimental, but finding resistance futile. Scenes. Memories. Events. Dates. In the course of those 15 years my children grew into adults. I forged a new career, realized my dream of becoming a published writer, changed careers, returned to school. Had a job with a Fortune 150 company. Became a runner. I found myself and so doing became many things I never expected to be, including single at 52.