Since our separation, my soon-to-be ex-husband of thirty years and I have spent the holidays together with our young adult children. I rationalized that handling a little discomfort for a couple of days of celebrating together was far better than the heartache of feeling left out. Normally, it’s been fine for a day or two with all the extended family around, but this Christmas, due to Covid, there would be no big gatherings, just the five of us—me, my ex, my daughter, my son and his wife.
And this year, it wasn’t just two days, unexpectedly it turned into ten.
At first, I was fine. My ex was his usual happy-go-lucky self, elated whenever our kids were around. I delighted in him making my favorite cocktail exactly how I liked it, and thrilled when he set up my Apple TV. I appreciated him diving into anything we suggested: games, puzzles, gingerbread houses, Christmas movies, museums, or home-made meals. He behaved like the man I fell in love with. I cherished him saying, “I want you in my life,” until I remembered he meant not as his wife, only when he wanted me around.
A few days in, the little things began to get under my skin. I was riled by his habit of leaving used glasses all over my apartment, or anxious by his relentless fidgeting while driving. Slowly, the familiar feelings of impatience and irritation bubbled up.
I found it more difficult to keep the upbeat, ‘yea, this is fun!’ attitude when the very person who rejected me, arrived at my door day-after-day asking, “what are we doing today?” with a kid-like smile on his face like all was good. I resented his ability to compartmentalize his holiday cheer from our tedious and stressful conversations just the week before as we prepared to sign the separation contract right after the New Year, finalizing our split.
By Christmas morning, I was emotionally exhausted. My defenses were down allowing the resentment and anger come from deep within me, like a beast that easily overpowered the fresher feelings of lightness, liberation, and well-being; past the real me I’ve rediscovered and nurtured, the one I’ve come to love and admire. No, this beast was familiar, ugly, strong, and mean, spitting out sarcastic, passive-aggressive remarks, stinging my ex with venom at every opportunity. I was ashamed of the beast’s behavior, which just fed it more.
My friend reminded me, “we’ve had this discussion before. You need to set boundaries.”
“But it’s Covid,” I replied. “Am I supposed to sit around by myself while they do things without me?”
“You may have to,” she answered.
I admit, I’ve avoided setting boundaries because the Fear Of Missing Out seemed worse. If it were up to the beast, he would build a wall enclosing me and our children locking my ex out forever. But that wall would imprison only me with the Beast’s best buddies: outrage, animosity, and disappointment.
I recognize I need to stay in my place of lightness and liberation, practicing saying “no thank you” to some of my ex’s invitations, and stopping myself before habitually asking “should we invite your dad?” My ex and I will need to navigate how we want each other present in our lives. I may occasionally feel badly when missing out, and I will likely regrettably join in on a few things when I should have stayed home.
Maybe, someday in the future, i will be liberated from the beast and I won’t even notice he’s gone. Or maybe the beast will always be within me, tamed but prepared to pounce when the boundaries are breached. Or when I find a dirty glass behind the couch.