By the time I found the courage to leave my marriage, I had felt alone for years. Upon our separation, not only did I feel lonely, I felt empty.
Drowning in my responsibilities as a single mom with two small girls, I worked part-time as a bartender and waitress, full-time at a private high school as an assistant librarian and I had started graduate classes.
Simply keeping track of where I needed to be on any given part of any given day overwhelmed me. Between my two jobs, I worked seven days a week and squeezed in grad school homework and studies between 4:00 and 6:00 AM before the girls got up to get ready for school.
My two girls depended upon me to keep their lives together, but I knew in my heart that my tether to sanity was slivery thin.
During the time of our initial separation, Matt and I continued fighting over money and caring for our children. We had not yet gone to court to get temporary orders for child support, so while he did continue to pay the mortgage, I was on my own to pay for everything else.
Matt did not like the fact that I worked at a bar. Just like grad school, which Matt forbid me to pursue while we were together; he thought I would find someone else. Our relationship during the time we were separated but not yet divorced was tenuous on the best of days and fraught with peril on the worst.
But, I had to find a way to gently place corks in the dam that held together my fragile mental health.
It had been springing leaks for the better part of a year.
Putting the girls first, working seven days a week, and watching the girls struggle with no way to help them tapped any energy I gained from any freedom leaving my marriage brought me. In trying to regain some sense of self after losing myself in the marriage, I wanted security, safety, and a reminder that I was, in fact, a person worthy of defending and supporting.
For so long, I allowed Matt’s vision of me to become my vision of myself. Now, I wanted someone to look at me for me and make me feel safe. When I found that person, I used them to try to find a way to see the good within me again. I needed to see that I had value after years of being left behind and forgotten by the one who should have been on my side. My feelings of helplessness and weakness overwhelmed me in a way I could not have predicted.
Additionally, as a single mom working seven days a week at two low-paying jobs, my financial position was, to say the least, precarious. I was lucky in that my full-time job had a hearty free lunch, so I was able to eat my main meal every day at work — this allowed me to give my daughters the full box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese or the full frozen pizza for dinner at night.
Katie and Kirsten now fondly refer to this time in our lives as the “frozen pizza years” — and they recall that time as some of our closest moments together. Their positive view of that difficult time now gives me tremendous affirmation. But, at the time, I felt like an utter failure as a mother. I had forced a separation from their father he did not want and I tossed our family into uncharted, hazardous territory.
My decision-making paradigm at that time was flawed in a way I can only see now in hindsight.
It was out of character and, in retrospect, unforgivable. I missed companionship. I missed physical touch and connection. I wanted desperately to feel worthy. So, I fell into a relationship with, the best and worst person I possibly could — my married divorce lawyer.
He checked all the boxes of emotional support — he thought I was smart, beautiful, and filled with untapped potential if only I could break free of Matt. He would be able to protect me from Matt’s rage.
The man I met, David*, an attorney, saw the very best vision of me that I had forgotten existed. Of course, I ignored the NEVER DO THAT boxes that he also checked: married, twenty years my senior, — oh, and representing me in my divorce.
I knew that my relationship would color our legal relationship, but desperate times called for desperate measures. The situation makes me feel deep shame now, but knowing that David saw things in me that Matt had long forgotten, allowed me to feel protected — even if only for the few hours we spent together.
Our affair began as long phone call strategy sessions that never ended up on my “billable hours” and turned into an invitation to breakfast at the local diner — an invitation I knew I should reject, but couldn’t. The validation he provided was too powerful to resist. I felt broken and saw him as a way to piece together the fragile and broken bits of myself, which had fallen haphazardly to the floor in the wreckage that had become my life.
Eventually, breakfast turned into clandestine meetings at his office on the weekends — at first, this only involved my driving by when I saw his car and pulling in to say hello — only to pull out moments later with the self-admonishment “you’re NOT going to sleep with a married man who is also your divorce lawyer” ringing in my ears.
Eventually, I succumbed to a bottle of wine and a dinner of Chinese food. I am not proud, and it remains one of the biggest feelings of shame in my life. However, at the time, knowing I was sleeping with the man who would fight for me in court gave me comfort — as if I had some superhero secret weapon who cared about what happened to me and looked at me as more than a client for whom he would negotiate a settlement.
With David beside me in the courtroom, as we finalized my divorce, this 35-year-old newly single woman felt shame, safety, and freedom simultaneously.
Of course, this relationship went on for the better part of a year after my divorce. And it ended badly, as they always do. David refused to leave his wife, as I always knew would be the case. (And, in case you’re wondering, they never leave their wives.)
Our clandestine meetings became more challenging to arrange and I was out in the world starting a new life. I gained strength in the aftermath of my divorce. My financial footing was more secure with regular child support payments coming in and I refinanced the marital home with the help of my father. I was free in a way I could not have imagined. I finally moved on from David despite his protestations for our relationship to continue until he found the “right time” to leave.
Over a year later after we had stopped seeing each other, he called to say that he was leaving his wife. It was too late; I no longer loved him. I no longer needed him. Looking back, I see how intricately those two things were connected, but I was too broken to see that at the time.
He was devastated by my rejection of him; I felt horrible. I let him down after he slew Goliath for me. We both ended up hurt and incredibly saddened, but for entirely different reasons. I relished my freedom from the power of my ex-husband, and I started to find my way in the world. It was time to see who I was and I could not wait.
Having that space after my divorce allowed the person I was in my marriage to shrink and the strong, resilient person I was becoming outside of my marriage to emerge.
At that time of my life, I made all kinds of bad decisions for all kinds of bad reasons and ended up with an entirely different and yes, bad kind of pain. But, also, I was free of the control Matt had wielded over me for 12 years.
I have many regrets about that time in my life, but, at the time, little else mattered than that freedom.
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