When you're married, you rely on your spouse to handle various things. Perhaps he cooks, and you do the dishes. Or you clean, and he takes out the trash. Maybe you set the budget, and she makes the travel arrangements. Or she takes the memorable pictures, and you organize them into albums. You divide and conquer based on your strengths and weaknesses. After you split, it can take a while to renegotiate with yourself from a division of labor to doing most of it yourself.
In my case, once my husband and I split, after being together for over a decade, I had to learn not to rely on my ex.
My first post-split major moment of personal empowerment was harsh and abrupt, involving a hive full of wasps.
I was getting the house ready for what would be my last barbecue in our marital home. I discovered that a wasp's nest had formed inside the grill. I ran into the house and called my husband for help. Our divorce wasn’t final yet, I had no idea what to do, and I certainly didn't want to deal with the wasps by myself.
My husband, the man who had been around to take care of these things for years, responded calmly, and I felt, coldly.
He sat at his desk at work, and said to me over the phone, "If we were still together, I would run home and take care of this for you. But since you are my estranged wife, you need to deal with this on your own. I suggest you light the grill with the top down and run until it’s all over."
I hung up the phone, furious. How could he leave me hanging with a grill full of wasps? I was still the mother of his child! We’d been married for more than a decade!
I fumed for a while. Then, without a husband around, or an alternate person present to address the problem, I marched over to the grill and . . . did exactly what he told me to. I turned on the gas, hit the ignition switch, slammed the lid down, and ran back into the house. From the safety of my kitchen window, I saw some of the wasps fleeing the now-burning nest. (I felt a bit of empathy for the wasps living in my grill; my own home was about to be taken over, and I was scrambling to find a new place while minimizing the transition for my son.)
As the minutes passed, my initial anger faded, and was replaced with new-found confidence. I’d managed to take on a wasp nest all alone, and uninjured—who knew what other powers lay hidden inside?
Ten minutes later, I returned to the scene of the crime and opened the grill. The wasps were all gone, along with all my fury. I stood there feeling nothing but pride. I had handled a scary situation without my husband! Later, my mother there as a witness, I proceeded to tell all the guests about this dangerous mission. We had a good laugh over it. I also managed the grilling all by myself for the first time ever.
Somehow that combination of killing the wasps and grilling the food myself made me realize that everything going forward would work out okay.
A few weeks later, the moving truck came and moved everything to my new apartment, 10 miles north. Rather than feeling sad about leaving my marital home, I found myself excited to start a new chapter in my life.
I never again asked my ex-husband for help, unless it related to our son. I also think the Great Wasp Incineration prepared for the next radical change that occurred after the house was sold; my communication with my ex dwindled to once a month, limited to child-related scheduling and expenses. There were no longer pleasantries, nor disparaging digs. Our relationship became mostly business, even during the face-to-face child exchanges when my son was little, and especially once he remarried and started a new family. I somehow didn't miss our former, closer relationship as much as I would have expected, in part because I realized I now had to rely on myself—and then came to prefer that. This new independence became a real catalyst to expand my network of friends, and move on.
Since my divorce, I have had to kill several hives of wasps and take on other previously unimaginable tasks by myself: I bought a home, as a single woman. I bought a new car, without a spouse or partner coming along. I’ve managed various moves and even family deaths. I’ve traveled internationally alone with my son. I’ve made major work and life decisions—all without a partner.
This was not at all how I envisioned my life, and yet in some ways, my accomplishments over this past decade have been much sweeter because I can fully attribute them to my own efforts.
Many of my divorced clients and friends have confessed experiencing a similar evolution—initially they were angry about having to face something alone, but later, after completing the task by themselves, they felt a great surge of pride. It could be something as silly as fixing the toilet alone, or driving themselves around town after having relied on a spouse to be a personal chauffeur for years. Dealing with a move or planning a vacation all by yourself is a big deal when you have not had to do this ever, or in a very long time. Of course, we all have the power to do these things, but when you’re married, the cozy warmth of partnership itself can bring this unfortunate corollary—you can lose sight of just how strong and independent you can be.
Regina A. DeMeo is a nationally recognized matrimonial attorney and legal commentator. She promotes the use of mediation, alternative dispute resolution and integrative law skills to achieve optimal results in negotiated settlements for families in conflict. For more than 17 years, she has helped families in the Washington, DC area respectfully resolve their disputes, using litigation tactics as a last resort.