Author: Susan R. Johnson MD, F.A.A.P.
Published: May, 2006
I just finished reading, for the second time, Marianne Williamson’s book A Return to Love. It was healing to read the chapter on relationships. Sometimes a relationship is like a thorn in your side that continually encourages you to grow. A relationship can be painful, just like pain itself, because it brings consciousness. I have had such a relationship. It was my 26 year relationship with my ex-husband. We met in medical school. He was one year ahead of me in school though he always jokingly referred to me as the “older woman” since I was born 2 months earlier. We shared the same lab desk and box of anatomy bones. He had survived Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of 19. He had undergone surgery and extensive radiation therapy which later caused significant damage to both his heart muscle and coronary arteries, lungs, and entire gastrointestinal tract. He had a lot of compassion for others that were ill. As a doctor, he faced cancer everyday doing fine needle aspirations of what he called “ lumps and bumps” to determine whether they were benign or malignant.
We fell in love my third year of medical school. I remember announcing to a taxi driver in Chicago at three in the morning that I was in love. He was my first love. We were married the summer after I graduated from medical school and one month after I had completed 6 months of chemotherapy and surgery for a rare tumor, a rhabdomyosarcoma. I was bald, pale, and anemic, but happy, and we had a beautiful honeymoon in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming.
If someone were to ask me what were the 3 most joy-filled memories of my life, I would immediately say the birth of our son, our day of marriage with all our family, friends, and cancer doctors in attendance, and our week-long honeymoon. All of these important times in my life were shared by only one other person, who has now permanently separated from his physical body. How could I not be grieving? How could my heart not feel broken? Sometimes when people find out you are divorced they think you don’t care or love your husband anymore. It is not true. You may be in denial for awhile. The anger and disappointment may overshadow those feelings of love, but the love is still there deep inside.
I have always said that being “Divorced” is like having cancer but without the flowers. No one quite knows what to say. They often make quick eye contact and then disappear as fast as possible. If you fall apart it is understandable when you have cancer since you are facing your mortality and loss of dreams. But heaven help you if you fall apart during your divorce. There is this sense that you deserve it. A sense that you have failed in love though you did the best you could do under the circumstances. It is hard to be around other couples when you are a divorced single woman. Often other woman look at you as a threat. For the 20 years we were together, 18 of them married, we were a couple doing things together and with others as a couple. No wonder I have found it easier to be alone than to be with others. After a divorce, it feels so lonely being with other couples again.
I will say that having your ex-husband pass away is even worse than divorce. There are still no flowers and in addition people hardly acknowledge your presence or your grief. Maybe it is because my own heart has shut down. Maybe I stopped reaching out to people years ago because it was too painful to feel, too painful to love again. I learned to love from a distance. To love the children and families that I work with but hold myself arm's length from everyone else that I might love, sometimes even my own son. The pain was too great. It takes a lot of courage to love.
As I have been reflecting on that perennial question of what went wrong in that key loving relationship of my life, I have finally realized that I didn’t just “make a mistake in my choosing”. This is what I wanted to believe. This is what I have told myself for many years, but it is not the truth. It is easier to believe that one made a mistake in choosing than to believe that one did not have enough love to hold a relationship together. The truth is I really loved this man. I put all my dreams, wishes, expectations and hopes into this love with this human being. The problem was that we just got stuck, and didn’t have enough inner resources or strength in our community to help us weather this stuckness. I learned from Marshall Rosenberg in a nine-day workshop on non-violent communication that when a person expresses intense anger toward another, what they really are expressing is their deep fear of inadequacy, a fear of not being good enough. For a marriage to work, for any relationship to work, both need to own their own dark-sides, their own faults and insecurities so that they don’t make the mistake of blaming everyone else around them for their own weaknesses. Happiness comes from within. There is nothing that another person can do and there is nothing “out there” that can make one truly happy.
If I had the ability to do it all over again, I would adopt something called “Tough Love”. I just didn’t have enough “Tough Love”. When loved ones deviate from their true being, from their true core of love, then they need to be called on it right away. It can not be tolerated or excused. A boundary needs to be set, even if that boundary means that you leave that person for a while, until he agrees to and receives help. If he doesn’t choose to seek help then that is his choice because a relationship needs both people to work on it. Even a plea to decrease his work by 50%, to work part-time so he could be more rested and less angry and exhausted at home, was refused. In his world and in his acculturated way of thinking, only women worked part-time. When I finally left the relationship, when I had enough of his anger, I had no feelings of love left. My feelings of love were buried deeply under walls of resentment. Walls that were huge and very thick. I couldn’t even hear God’s healing voice amongst all the pain, anger and fear.
I am grieving right now. I am crying those tears that I haven’t been able to cry in a decade. I have this tremendous impulse to move to New Zealand or at least check into a monastery. I want to focus on the essential in my life and let go of all the non-essential. Part of me wants to find a new community in which to start over again. A place where I can work, be in the mountains, have my son attend school, and all within walking distance. A place where I can grow a garden, take my dog on a walk every day, join a choir, play my guitar, make homemade soup and bread, and share meals, knitting, deep conversations, and card games with friends. A place where I can express love and be loved in return. A place where people aren’t so busy and where they really have time to be there for each other. A place where I am not so busy and I have that sacred time to be with the Spirit that resides in me, to be fully present with my son, to be present with my extended family and to really be there for my friends.
I will end with my favorite prayer from St. Francis of Assisi. My husband had this poem framed and he used watercolor to paint the matting. He gave me this framed poem long after we had separated, and on the evening of my graduation from the Waldorf Teacher Training Program. These words were included in his recent memorial service:
Lord, make us an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.