My husband’s job took him away from home, so I spent a lot of time as a single-parent. Particularly when our kids were really young, he was often gone for weeks, months, and one time for over a year, with only two short visits home.
I loved my husband. I love my kids and grandkids. As immigrants, with extended family living thousands of miles away, I cherished our tiny family unit. When our kids got married and the first grandchild came along, it was wonderful seeing that family expand.
I loved it when my husband and I spent time with our little granddaughter, babysitting her for a few hours, or having her for a sleepover. We took her to our local park, out for dinner or breakfast, and once – unsuccessfully – to the movies. Spending time with her, it was like we were getting a chance to make up for all the time we’d spent apart and unable to enjoy our own kids together when they were little.
So when my husband walked out on me, he didn’t just destroy our marriage. Our family – us, our kids and grandkids – was shattered.
Three years later, I’m starting to find a new normal. But what our first granddaughter got to experience with her grandparents as a unit, no longer exists. And after years of being, at times, a single parent, I now find myself a single grandparent.
That was brought home to me the other day. My daughter and I were walking her son home from day home. He was a bit fractious, so we played the One, two, three… wheeeeh, game with him. I’m sure you know it. The one where you each take one of the child’s hands, count to three, then swing him up for a big jump. His mood quickly changed and within seconds he was giggling instead of grumpy. I remember my ex and I doing that with our eldest granddaughter and her loving it, but we’ve never had that chance with our second granddaughter, grandson, or the grandchild on its way. And they’ve never had that chance with us.
And that makes me sad.
But mostly for them.
Our eldest granddaughter still remembers those days, and our separation both confuses and saddens her.
Needless to say, they do much better for presents nowadays than when my husband and I were together.
But does ‘stuff’ really make up for what they’ve lost?
What we’ve lost?
‘Why do you have a spark plug on your Xmas tree?’ my son-in-law asked last weekend.
A few years ago, a friend and I were in Guernsey during the 60th anniversary celebrations of the island’s liberation from the Nazis. The island held a parade where the islanders dressed up in uniforms and clothing of the time. A rather dashing ‘dispatch rider’ – doesn’t a uniform really make a man?? – on a vintage motorbike stopped beside us, switched out his spark plug and handed me his old one. That, I decided there and then, would be my Xmas memory of that trip.
One of the hardest things I had to do when sorting through the 37+ years of ’stuff’ that we had collected during our marriage, was figuring out which Xmas decorations to keep or discard. My ex’s sister had given us some gorgeous ones for our first Christmas together in 1977, including some silk horses I adored. I remember the excitement in my heart the first time I hung them. But I couldn’t take them with me. Those memories were too painful.
Culling each and every decoration was like culling each year of our marriage. In the end, I kept only the decorations from trips without my ex, plus one belonging to my mum and dad which they’d bought in Germany in 1948. I gave the handmade ones my kids had made when they were young back to them.
The rest, I left behind.
In 2015, I couldn’t contemplate putting up a tree. But I had a granddaughter for whom Xmas was magic, so I strung up a set of lights and hung some stars from it. Each star represented someone who had helped me through the nightmare.
That year, a friend, whom I’ve had since before I even met my ex, cross-stitched me a banner that read ‘Happy Christmas’. She wanted me to have something new, something I didn’t associate with my ‘married’ life, that first, hard, Christmas on my own. I cried my eyes out when she gave it to me. After months of feeling worthless, stupid, of wondering if life was even worth living, I looked at the love in every stitch of that decoration, and… well, she’ll never know what her gift meant to me.
In 2016 I moved into my new apartment and decided setting up a tree would be a declaration that I was moving on with my life.
For the past 30 odd years, my ex and I had set up two trees every Xmas. His was the ‘classic’ tree, decorated with only white lights and red glass balls.
Mine…? Although I called it the ‘Fairy Tree’, my daughter lovingly described it as the Xmas vomit tree. Loaded with coloured lights, and every branch happily festooned with a decoration, there was nothing classic or elegant about it.
The tree itself was huge, and with only the few decorations I’d brought from our house, it looked pretty sparse. So you know what? Another friend went to the thrift store, found some great bargains, and every single branch of my tree was covered. Xmas vomit to the ’n’th degree!
This year, there’s not a single ornament on that tree that doesn’t hold a deep and powerful meaning for me.
The Irish dancer? Who could ever forget the sun setting over the Cliffs of Moher in 2005…
The four black labradors and one golden retriever…. How can I ever forget the love and support those amazing dogs gave me…?
The heart-shaped Outlander tartan… an amazing visit to Scotland this year with my friend and her daughter…
The hand painted silver ball my parents brought in Dusseldorf in 1948…
The cut out paper snowflakes my granddaughter made for me a few weeks ago…
The spark plug from that handsome fake dispatch rider…
When you’re divorced against your will, Xmas is hard.
All that ‘Happy and bright’ can feel very shallow.
But it’s just one day in the year.
It gets easier.
You’ll get stronger.
You already are.
And the lights will sparkle.
When someone you love deeply treats you as if you were nothing, it’s nearly impossible not to feel like you are truly nothing.
The term Gaslighting comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, in which a ‘loving husband’ tries to convince his wife, and others, that she is going mad. Of course she’s not – he’s manipulating her through lies and deceit to get something he wants.
Sadly – very sadly – it’s a technique many men use when ending (or sometimes within) a relationship.
Truth and lies become fluid. If you are the victim of this behaviour, you will probably find yourself questioning your own sanity. And even when your husband is caught out in a lie, he may continue to argue it’s not something he would ever say or do. And because you love him you’ll want to believe him.
So how can you protect yourself against being gaslit?
Firstly, listen to your gut. If you sense there’s a disconnect between what you’re being told and what you feel, there probably is.
Take some time to think back on your relationship. Are you aware this has ever happened before? If he’s ever done it once before – even on something minor – he has the capacity to do it again.
Try and protect yourself from being taken in again either before, during or after the divorce. This might involve writing down things he says or does that don’t sound correct to you – and perhaps even e-mailing them to a friend. If/when he denies he ever said or did them, you have the proof that you are not mad.
And if he does still try, or manage, to gaslight you… do NOT be hard on yourself. You are NOT gullible. You are a good, trusting and trustworthy person – qualities you do not want to lose.
Healing from an emotional avalanche is a long, long journey, often beset by many setbacks. For me, the early days were the baby steps of putting one foot in front of the other in the hope of simply making it through the day – and night – before waking up and starting all over again.
I’ve talked before about the things that helped – family, friends, walking, eating properly, starting a gratitude journal, but there was something else that helped me a lot when mind was unable to focus on reading anything longer than a paragraph. Pinterest.
Yes, you read it right.
Specifically the thousands and thousands of inspiring and motivational quotes you can find there.
These and many others helped me see I was not alone in my grief and that there was hope out there.
Only as my concentration and focus started to slowly return (it took over a year year) was I able to try to read some of the books recommended by friends and family. Vikki Stark’s Runaway Husbands. Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Eckhardt Tolle’s The Power of Now, Brene Brown’s Rising Strong.
I still love Pinterest for its quotes and check it out every few days.
But there’s also one video I return to that is inspiring and humbling. Maybe you’ve seen it already – Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture. (Click here to view.) I saw him first on Oprah and then watched his Last Lecture in its entirety on Youtube before buying his book.
The lessons he teaches are simple yet profound. My body might not take too well to bouncing anymore, but I’m going to work hard at following his example and be a Tigger rather than an Eyeore.