When I attended my 10th high school reunion I was already divorced from my first husband and sporting a ring from the man who would soon become husband number 2. I remember walking into the restaurant where our class had chosen to gather, feeling conspicuous and slightly awkward. Reunions are bad enough, but at the early stages there is a sense that once is supposed to arrive with something of a fanfare of accomplishment; I just made Partner, I took my company public, I just turned in my dissertation…you know, those life accomplishments that, in your 20s, you think you might actually accomplish before turning 30. All I had done was get married, get divorced and then get engaged. I was certainly keeping busy, but not in the way that was expected of me.
Partway through dinner the conversation turned to relationships and the respective statuses of those in attendance. I felt the eyes of the table turn toward me, questioning, probing, waiting for details of my disastrous trip down the aisle and the subsequent fallout. I felt my face getting hot with unwanted attention as I muttered things about it not working out and trying to segue nicely to the handsome young man to whom I was now engaged. But people tend to like the lurid more than the joyous and the group was clearly more interested in tales of a marriage gone bad than tales of a wedding to be. Then rather quietly and unexpectedly, one of my classmates chimed in “…I think what Sara did was very brave. It takes a lot of courage to walk away from a relationship.” I was stunned, not only because it was coming from a woman with whom I had a somewhat tense high school relationship, but also because I had never thought of myself as brave.
I considered it somewhat shameful that I had failed at my marriage. I hadn’t failed because I was busy getting a graduate degree or dedicating myself to a dynamic career, I had just plain bombed in that particular relationship. And here was this woman defending me, and my actions, as being brave. I wasn’t being castigated for not achieving, or shunned for not living up to the expectations of friends and family. Nobody was projecting negativity on me, but I realized then that I was doing a fine job of projecting it on myself.
Years later, going though my second divorce, I used to think about what she said that night at the reunion. Was I brave? Or was I stubborn and selfish? Was I really doing something that was in the best interest of my long-term emotional well being, or was I copping out and taking the path of least resistance?
It has taken me 50 years to do so, but now in the quiet contentment of an emotional safe harbor I can see with perspective the importance of tending to your emotional needs. My classmate’s quiet proclamation so many years ago made it OK to admit that sometimes you need to put your own happiness and sanity first, and not worry about what everyone else thinks.