I'd like to share a story with you that was told to me recently by a client whom I'll call Ginger. The story is about divorce and the length of time after the official, legal divorce that passed before Ginger and her family became truly free to move on with their lives. I'll report from the first person singular because this story is too priceless to tell any other way. Here's what Ginger told me:
"Twelve years ago, after eighteen years of marriage and two beautiful daughters, I asked my spouse for a divorce. He was devastated, convinced I would never leave. For over a year he told friends I had lost my senses, that I would return. I had actually found my senses and courageously stepped out of an emotionally painful situation, even though I was terrified, guilty, and surely going to hell in an hour.
My spouse could not forgive my leaving him. He has not remarried, even though he has kept company with a wonderful woman for over ten years. He has not wanted to hear my name, see pictures of me, or deal with my existence. He moved to another state shortly after the divorce, making visitations easy for the girls. Rarely did special occasions like graduations, weddings, and the birth of our grandchildren bring us face to face. Some were awkwardly enjoyable and others were memorably horrible.
I'd like to say I was a saint all through the years. I wish that I had wished him well, that I didn't need to find fault with him for things he did a hundred years ago, but I can't. I found ways to retell some of the sordid details. In retrospect, I needed to relive my version of the stories until I didn't have to anymore.
As I matured and grew in God's grace, I ached over ways I had participated in a marriage that never quite reached steady ground. I tried to bear equal responsibility for the problems, but somehow he always seemed more at fault than I. You know how that goes! Through prayer, though, I stopped aching and started to forgive us both for youthful demands that neither of us met well enough for the other. I began to forget the problems and long for inner peace. I felt the burden of his rage toward me, even though I rarely saw his face or heard his voice.
More years passed. Our daughters had homes of their own and I had a new life. I never regretted the divorce. I prayed for my ex-husband regularly and awaited the day when forgiveness would reign in our family. As free as I was, I was burdened by his inability to let me go.
This past Christmas, he visited his daughters, an out of sync decision it was to come on a holiday. I live near both girls and share a great deal of their lives. Through a series of circumstances that seemed to get out of control, I precipitated an incident that would change us all forever.
You see, it was our unspoken custom that when one of us visited the children the other kinda got out of Dodge. We visited other family in another town or state, but we were not local.
I was about to change the rules. I had an internal nudge, which I am sure was a spiritual gift, to stay in town during Christmas. It was so powerful that I could not ignore it. I wanted to leave because I knew that staying would start a bonfire Still, I had to stay put. I also knew that every one of us had a part to play in the scenario that would unfold. The script called for me to start it allﾉI had no idea what was ahead. I asked the girls for a couple of hours of their time sometime between Christmas eve morning and Christmas day night. However the girls put it together would be OK with me. They cautiously addressed this issue with their dad. He responded with deep hurt and major over-reaction rage. He wasn't coming at all, he told them, if they intended to spend time with me during HIS visit. Apparently, t hey all cried and everyone felt sick. Not a fun script, this one.
After an agonizing week of wrestling with some internal demons and responding to the pull of angels, my ex-husband reached an extraordinary place of healing. He called our eldest daughter and said something like this: This is a year for total healing. I am sorry I was so rude to you last week and so angry at your mother again. I do not wish to be angry at her anymore. Please tell her that she is welcome to participate in every aspect of Christmas with us. Please invite her to Mass, to dinner, and to our sharing of presents. I don't want her left out of anything. I really mean that.
The girls were taken aback. Two weeks passed before they told me what dad had said. All I could do was cry and shout out: " Thank you, God. This is all I want for Christmas."
I accepted a mid week brunch invitation, agreed to host Christmas Eve festivities at my home, and made an apple pie to bring for Christmas dinner dessert. I did not recognize the man who came to make peace with me. He looked me in the eye and kissed me on both cheeks. We shared happy stories of our children when they were young, and wished each other peace at Mass. During Christmas dinner, we sat across from each other and the conversation continued. He told me a little about his life and asked me some questions about mine. A few times I caught him looking at me. I wondered if he was thinking: " Who is this woman I have spent so many years holding as my enemy?" Maybe these were not his thoughts but rather my own projected onto him. It doesn't matter. We have both changed. Life can really move on."
Some men and women heal quickly from the awful wounds that divorce inflicts. Others spend a lifetime and never heal. If you have not yet forgiven that person who tried and failed to build a life with you, then let this story move you into your own healing. If you have no personal grudges against your former spouse who still carries his/her own, then consider adding that person to your prayers. It may be the best gift you can give...every day of your new life. You may never understand each other, smile at each other, or be each other's best friend, but you are probably both good people and equal in the sight of God. Let each other go. God cannot feed you when your hands are already full.
Ginger told me later that her ex took his girlfriend to a mountaintop about a month after that momentous Christmas and proposed to her. They married about six months after that and Ginger got an invitation to the wedding. She didn't go to the wedding but was very grateful for the invitation. They all shared the healing that had begun so ominously the Christmas before.
Dr. Massey is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Williamsburg, VA at the Williamsburg Centre for Therapy.