When I read a Facebook post my cousin Candice wrote for the occasion of her 24th wedding anniversary, a bold statement she made stopped me in my tracks: He is not my friend, he is my husband, my partner, my lover and all of this is conditional. I grew up going to church, I met my former husband at church, and I was always taught and always believed that love, including romantic love, should be unconditional. Or I thought I believed it.
Had I really believed that romantic love is unconditional, I wouldn’t have divorced my ex-husband no matter how unhappy I was, no matter what was missing from the relationship, and no matter what was in the relationship that shouldn’t have been there. I would have done what he did: assume that we’d stay married no matter what, and let the relationship slowly deteriorate by not putting forth the effort required to keep the promises we’d made. I will admit that very late in the marriage–we were married for twenty years–he did start trying, but it was too late for me. I was too hurt, too disappointed, too broken, too much in need of love that wasn’t shadowed with all that hurt.
I still believe in unconditional love, but as it pertains to my children. I don’t know what they could do that would test my love, but I’m pretty sure that no matter what they might do, I will still love them as deeply as I do now–maybe more so.
Back to romantic love. Back to conditional love. Back to thinking about marriage vows and the promises we make and break. For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health… for as long as we both shall live. That’s a promise of unconditional love, but is it honestly what we seek in marriage? After considering again what Candice expressed, I Googled her words, “He is my husband, my lover, my partner, and all of this is conditional.” I found a lot of crap, and then I clicked on this article by Isabeau Miller on the online magazine mindbodygreen. In What I Learned About Love By Ending My Marriage, she writes, “You wouldn’t sign a contract that said, ‘I agree to do X, Y, and Z. But if I don’t want to, you still have to hold up your end of the bargain.’ So we can’t rightfully expect that out of our relationships.” Yes, and vice-versa. If my spouse doesn’t do what he said he’d do, how can I keep giving and giving of myself to do what I said I’d do? I did that for so long that I was dying inside.
Miller goes further than discussing the frank truth that conditional love is not a bad thing and delves into six other points that are worth considering by someone who is divorcing, thinking of divorcing, or already divorced. I wish I’d gotten to read her post back in 2006. It would have helped me revive myself after the letdown of losing the equity built up over twenty years of marriage. On the day my ex-husband and I signed the final agreement in a long and heated mediation session, my lawyer walked me out to the car. He said it would take three years for me to get back to being myself. That’s all the advice I got from anyone, that I can remember. (Then he said, “And hey, give me a call then!” My reaction was a look of pure revulsion. And like many other spineless men who don’t know how to handle rejection, he claimed he was only joking.)
In the hour and a half after that, I used an entire box of Kleenex, crying until my eyes were swollen, sobbing so loudly I worried myself. I hadn’t known I was capable of such an outpouring of grief. I wasn’t mourning the fact of not being with my husband anymore; I was mourning the loss of my dream of a good marriage, of the happy, healthy family life I hadn’t had while growing up. I was mourning the fact that my children had become the children of divorce. I lost so much of what I desired, and I felt that loss keenly.
The other thing my lawyer told me that day was, “He said he still wants to be married! He doesn’t want a divorce!” as though that was a surprise and a happy thing. It wasn’t, of course. I already knew that, but I had to walk away, even if I had to assume the burden of being the one who broke our marriage in two. I said, with my actions, “For me, romantic love is conditional.” I didn’t know then that’s what I was doing.
What I said aloud was, “Bring on all the blame you want. I can carry it. It’s worth it.”