Voice Male - Winter 2005
A Walk in the Woods:
One Man's Divorce Journey
by David J.
Some memories don't fade, even when we want them to. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, 1990, when my wife asked me to take a walk with her. A few minutes into the woods, she stopped and sat by a favorite boulder and told me in so many words that our marriage was about to end. Two years later, to the day, we received our final divorce decree
The journey that began with that walk in the woods is one I continue today. That first year was easily the worst of my life--full of grief, anger, despair, and confusion. Certainly the acute pain of those early years is gone, but it's not hard to locate the scar, that place where, like an old injury in damp weather, I can still feel the dull ache of loss.
But my divorce was also a time of genuine awakening, of finding my own identity as if for the first time, and of working through the divorce process itself with intention and integrity for both of us. I'd have given anything to have done my self-discovery some other way, but I can honestly say I'm a better man for the experience.
I can point to several steps that led to the peaceful ending of our marriage and the effective beginning of the rest of my life. First, my wife agreed to my request that we try couples' counseling. Second, I had what can only be described as a moment of emotional breakthrough. Third, I began to attend men's groups. Fourth, we were agreed from the start that our daughter, who was 15 at the time, would not be an issue between us. Fifth, I decided at the outset that, however angry I might be at any point, I would not use money as a means to express my anger. And finally, we agreed to use mediation rather than litigation to settle the terms of the divorce.
Though reluctant and skeptical at first, my wife (I'll call her Betsy) agreed to try couples' counseling before deciding whether she could stay in the marriage. In our walk she'd been clear that she wasn't ready to give up on our relationship yet, even though she was just as clearly pulling away. We entered counseling with the full understanding that it might lead us to a decision to end the marriage--though I was equally clear that I was hoping to "save" it. Over the next six or seven months we began to communicate for the first time about the broken places in our marriage. I began to learn the difficult task of uncovering my feelings, feeling those feelings, and talking about them. Eventually we both came to recognize that we had in fact grown so far apart that we couldn't put our marriage back together. After one last attempt via a weekend couples' workshop, we knew it was over. But now it was we who knew, not just one of us. I was not happy with that realization, but I accepted its reality.
The Breakthrough "Moment"
Shortly after the fateful walk, I left on a previously scheduled trip to Florida to pick up a car from my father and drive it home to New Hampshire. As I sat on the plane, half unconscious from lack of sleep, I heard a voice inside me saying, You are a good and a worthwhile person, over and over. And I felt myself believing that, seemingly for the first time in my life. I began to cry, and couldn't stop. Here I was, trapped in an airplane seat, sobbing as quietly as my minimal willpower could manage, and absorbing this simple but life-changing message from...where? I didn't know or care where it came from or how it suddenly arose within me; I just knew it was true. In the words of therapist John Wellwood, my heart had broken--open. When, full of hope, I told Betsy about what had happened, she reminded me that I might have changed, but she hadn't. That brought me back to earth in a hurry; there were plenty of tears ahead. But the fact was that I was suddenly, dramatically, in a different place with respect to myself, even if I didn't fully understand it.
The morning after hearing my marriage might end, I was staring in the mirror and thought, I need to remake myself in my own image. Somehow I understood that I'd been spending my life trying to be what I thought others--especially the women I most cared about--wanted me to be. It may have taken me 47 years, but I was finally figuring out that that wasn't working. And my intuition led me to realize this was about being a man. For as long as I'd given masculinity any thought, from my teens onward, I had rejected the conventional stereotypes of manhood--the implicit violence, the denigration of women, the bravado--but hadn't replaced them with positive images of what it means to be a man. I knew in that moment at the mirror that I needed to connect with other men and explore the question of maleness with them.
By coincidence, an article appeared in a local weekly soon afterward about an organization in Brattleboro, Vermont, called For and About Men, which held monthly forums on men's issues. I contacted one of the organizers, who put me in touch with someone who in turn told me about a group that met in Keene, N.H. I began attending the group, where I found men I could trust, who would listen as I poured out my heart and my tears, who would hold me in their arms and hearts, and who would affirm my worth and even my courage. Later I formed a group closer to home, with men closer to my own age and life circumstances. I developed real friendships with men--a rarity in my life before then--and learned the meaning of genuine mutual support.
I recognize now what these experiences were doing for me: I was developing my own sense of self that I could present in relationship, rather than reflect back what I thought someone else wanted from me. That's a continuing journey (with many a step backward as well as forward), but this is where it started. During the separation and divorce, this also meant that I was able to be alone--by myself, with myself--without being lonely. That in turn freed me from the feelings of desperation and dread that had always arisen in me around the possibility of divorce.
Terms of Estrangement
From the beginning, Betsy and I were in complete agreement that our daughter's well-being was of paramount importance. We couldn't avoid the turmoil she would go through over the next couple of years, but we were of one mind that, however we might feel about each other during these struggles, we wouldn't fight about her. Never in the separation and divorce process did either of us criticize the other in conversations with her, nor did we argue about custody or child support. There were many moments when emotions ran high, but our daughter never became a vehicle for expressing them. When Betsy eventually moved out of our home to her own apartment, she found one about a mile away so our daughter could easily be at either house.
When it became apparent that a formal separation was necessary, I went to an attorney and had a separation agreement drawn up. Money had been an issue in our marriage for some time, spoken and unspoken. Betsy had never taken on a real career, and as a result I was the principal earner for the family. This was not a situation that I'd ever accepted with equanimity, and I had encouraged and even urged Betsy to do more about having a full-time job that was both financially and emotionally rewarding. Now we were in a situation where we were setting up separate households, and I was in the unwanted position of having to be the primary supporter of both of them. I wasn't happy about this continuing disparity in our incomes, but I knew I could not and would not use money to "punish" Betsy or to gain concessions from her in the divorce. It was an easy decision: I knew I couldn't live with myself if I exerted power in this way. In the end, I had to be satisfied with the ethics of my own behavior, and I tried as best I could to act accordingly.
Mediation and Pro Se Divorce
When we finally realized the marriage was over, we agreed to try mediation rather than go to our respective lawyers. We weren't fighting each other; at this point sadness rather than anger was the predominant emotion. We each trusted the other to act honestly and considerately, so mediation didn't feel like a risk. Before we started, I asked Betsy to return with me to our couples' therapist for one session, to get our emotional "temperature" and maybe to clear any lingering obstacles to the negotiations we were about to undertake. I don't know if Betsy got anything out of that last session, but I learned something very important: she was scared. She knew very well how limited her earning ability was, and she was genuinely and deeply afraid of ending up in poverty. I came away from that session knowing that I would need to be aware of that fear when money issues came up during mediation.
We contacted the New Hampshire Mediation Center in Concord, who assigned us two volunteer mediators. The Center charged us $60 an hour--far less than even one lawyer, let alone two, would have cost. (Betsy did engage an attorney to advise her during the negotiations, but used her far less than if we'd litigated.) The mediation sessions didn't all go smoothly: my feelings and hers around money issues brought us to some hard spots. It was here that my recognition of her fear eventually helped me move off my position and toward compromise. There were times afterward when I felt I'd conceded too much, where the old resentments about her not having contributed more to our finances during our marriage resurfaced, but during the mediation I was able to see that a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars meant very little in the long run, especially compared to the emotional and financial costs of a contested divorce.
We agreed to an extended period of alimony--four years--but we also agreed that we would have joint legal and physical custody of our daughter, which meant that all my transfer of income to Betsy would be as alimony, not as child support. This was an important distinction, because I was in a higher tax bracket than Betsy, and alimony is deductible from the payer's income and taxable on the payee's income. Child support, on the other hand, is nondeductible, so it would come out after paying my higher tax rate. In our case it meant that more of my income could actually end up in Betsy's hands rather than the government's. We also agreed to a key stipulation: that if either of our financial situations changed significantly, we would renegotiate the terms. The Mediation Center's volunteer lawyers, who reviewed the agreement to identify any areas the court might question, expressed concern about the possible ambiguity of the word "significantly." But we decided we could trust each other well enough to leave it in, and the court accepted it. In fact, we did invoke that clause twice--once when I took a salary cut to change jobs, and again when she became unemployed near the end of the four years.
During the mediation, I discovered another invaluable service of the Mediation Center: they sold a booklet that details how to file a divorce pro se--by oneself. Using the mediation agreement as the heart of the documentationthe "stipulations"--I followed their instructions and sample forms to the letter, and a few months later, sans attorney, I stood before a judge and received approval of the agreement.
It's been a dozen years since that piece of paper was signed and sealed. Both of' us are settled with other partners. I can't say Betsy and I are friends--we live several hundred miles apart, and our only communications are birthday and holiday cards. And I can't say old resentments have never come up. But I can say my soul is not only intact, but has prospered in these years since that terribly difficult walk in the woods. Finding my heart and voice as a man I can respect has made all the difference.
"David J." now lives in western Massachusetts and has remarried. He has chosen to write this anonymously to respect the privacy of his ex-wife.