I was the first in my family to be divorced. It took me six months to muster the courage to tell them the marriage was over. I’ll never forget what my father asked me once I finally told him that Stephen and I were getting a divorce: “What did you do wrong?”
And that was after I told him that Stephen had cheated on me.
I felt betrayed by my father and, on the other hand, like I had failed him. I was raised to be the dutiful wife.
After being single for a while, I felt ready for another relationship. I dated several guys and determined they didn’t meet my new standard.
Then I met Michael. He treated me like a queen. We dated for over a year. I was sure I got it right this time. He proposed. I said yes.
The first five years were really good. I felt happy — and redeemed.
By our sixth anniversary, my career soared while his waned. I was spending more time at work, managing new business and a staff and feeling fulfilled. The verbal abuse started along with the unacceptable demands to stop traveling, working late and doing what my career required for me to succeed.
By year 11, his rage would come out of nowhere. I couldn’t predict what he would do or who he might hurt. Our pets became a target. I became the target. I did all I could to save this marriage. It was too late.
When I knew I had to call it quits with Michael, I thought long and hard about what it means to be divorced twice. It’s why I stayed in that abusive relationship five years longer than I should have.
I worried that people saw me as a woman who couldn’t stand up for herself. I was paralyzed by the fear of being judged for staying in an abusive relationship, at the same time judged for leaving my husband. My thoughts kept me stuck in my marriage for a long time. I realized I would be alone again once he left and the sense of loneliness kept me in the relationship. I would go back and forth about whether I was strong enough to do what needed to be done—for my own sake and safety.
When I finally had enough, I made him leave and started the long journey to heal myself. As I was going through that journey, I felt compelled to put on a brave face for family and friends and in business. I pretended I was fine so I could get through the day without crumbling into a pile of mush. I didn’t want anyone to see me as an emotional basket case. I needed to be strong at all costs. I even had to protect myself when I got home again.
Every single day before I left home I would talk myself into believing that I could pull this off. I imagined putting on a mask that showed a smile, not a frown. It showed a sparkle in my eyes, not a tear. To protect my heart from further damage, I imagined donning a suit of armor so nothing could penetrate and hurt my heart more.
Putting on that suit of armor pretending I was just fine was a way to compartmentalize my feelings.
My armor during the first breakup was pretty solid. The armor never came off so I could actually experience the grief and the loss. I perfected the art of being calm, strong, stoic in a crisis—at work, with friends, at home—and I would crash after it was all over—in private.
Through my second divorce, I dusted off my suit of armor and donned it again. I thought that I could do the same thing as the first time. Cracks started to appear—through the cracks would leak some emotion that I intended to contain. I learned to pick my battles with emotion and channel them so they wouldn’t derail me at inopportune moments—like at work.
I know now the armor is a crutch. When used too much my emotion muscles get weak and begin to atrophy. When I flex my emotion muscles they get stronger and are easier to work, even when they’re strained by upsets in my life.
It makes me sad to think other women may be going through what I went through and hide behind the armor. I know, although she feels protected, she’s actually prolonging her pain, despair and grief.
Finding the balance between feeling the emotion, letting it run its course and then finding a new way of thinking about it—reframing it in a way that makes us feel better not worse, will lead us in the right direction.