I was 28 years old and had my picture-perfect happy ending: a big beautiful house, a handsome college-sweetheart husband, and an amazing two year-old son.
Until one Sunday, after years of conversation, repeated attempts to better compliment each other, counseling and soul searching — my husband and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes.
For the first time, we acknowledged out loud what we both knew was true: We loved each other, respected each other, but weren't in love despite our desire to stay together for our son. We knew that, more than an "intact" family, he deserved to see love in practice, the one thing we couldn't will each other into.
Walking away from life as I knew it was never something I'd envisioned. I expected to feel regret and to build stronger boundaries, but instead I found my heart more open than it had ever been. And shockingly, my divorce, more than my marriage, taught me about love.
Here are some of those lessons:
1. Love should be conditional.
The term “conditional love” has a bad rap because it implies selfishness. But if we’re not taking care of ourselves, how can we take care of anyone else? You can only truly be a partner to someone when you're able and willing to hold yourself and your partner to a standard of met expectations.
You wouldn’t sign a contract that said, “I agree to do X,Y, and Z. But if I don’t want to, you still have to hold up your end of the bargain.” So we can’t rightfully expect that out of our relationships.
I married a man I met when I was 20, and we were both banking on one another’s potential. As we grew up together in our relationship, we both realized the relationship wasn’t what we had signed up for. I had stopped caring about my body the way I had when I met my husband. He'd stopped pursuing his passion.
2. You can love someone and not be “right” for them.
My ex-husband and I always loved each other. We took care of each other, made memories together, and brought a child into the world. But our careers stalled. Our healthy habits were challenging, if not impossible to maintain. Conversations would escalate into frustration too quickly. We just didn’t “get” one another. We couldn’t grow together as individuals or as a couple.
Within weeks of separating, we were both happier, healthier, and pursuing our passions again. I found a new identity through CrossFit and dropped excess weight that hadn’t budged, despite past efforts. My ex-husband finally found a career he was excited about after years of trying various opportunities. All the love in the world couldn’t make us work together, but our love allowed us to let the other go so we could flourish independently.
3. Love stories end. And that's OK.
When a love story ends — whether it's a marriage or a fling — there isn’t always a villain and a hero. Sometimes, you look at someone over a cup of coffee and quietly realize that chapter has closed.
My family still hesitates to bring up my ex-husband, fearful it will send me into a sobbing fit or a bout of anger. But the end of our marriage was peaceful, and probably more united than our relationship was. We were simply done with that chapter, but not with each other. We were kids when we got together and will always share a history.
4. Fall in love with your best friend. And then stop.
I married the guy I would’ve liked to have grabbed a beer with, or gone for ice cream with. He was my friend. But I never fell head over heels, and discounted that as being “impossible” in adult life. But head over heels is possible. The notion of “best-friends-turned-lovers” is so well-known, we can forget to make sure we actually ARE in love with our best friend, and not just the idea of being in love with them.
Falling in love with your best friend is magical, when you’re actually falling in love. But butterflies matter, as does the absence of them. When I was working on our marriage, my therapist would ask me to go back to those feelings of first falling for my ex. But they weren’t there. Instead of marrying someone I was crazy about, I had married someone I was comfortable with. And what I know now, is, you can always grow to be “comfortable” with someone, but you’re either crazy about them, or you’re not.
5. You are ultimately the love of your life.
It wasn’t until the quiet moments of my first night alone in a big, empty house that I was faced with the truth I’d been trying to avoid: I’m in this alone. We all are. The childhood sweethearts are alone. The head-over-heel-ers are alone. Because no one, no matter how stable or perfect owes us their presence in our life.
In those first nights by myself, it was a gut check of who I was, and who I wanted to be — not for my husband, not for my son, but for myself. For the first time, I didn’t have the shield of being my husband’s wife, and I had to stand on my own. Truth is, I didn’t love the woman I was, and realized, until I did, falling in love with who I was and the choices I made had to be my first priority. Because, at the end of the day, we spend every moment of our lives with one person: ourselves.
6. Love after love is tricky.
There is no timeline for moving on after one love story has ended. Sometimes the next love story begins immediately, and sometimes it takes decades. One thing is certain: Everyone has opinions about when, how and with whom your “next chapter” should happen.
I remember after getting married, the most asked question was when I would have a baby. When I had a baby, the next question was when I would have another baby.
No one asks you anything after divorce; they tell you. They tell you that you're ready, you’re not ready, you’re repeating the same patterns. It’s as if because you’ve “failed” once, you need a beginner’s guide to relationships. The only way to traverse these waters is to sink into what you actually feel, and keep your heart as open as possible. Someone will have an opinion about what you're doing, and ultimately, opinions matter far less when you believe in your choices and your journey.
7. Focus on the kind of life you want, not the kind of love you want.
I don’t know how many times I cried before and during my separation, wondering if love would ever find me again, and then worrying about, how when it did, I’d have to start all over again with someone who didn’t know my favorite movie, or that I sleep on the right side of the bed, or what I look like without mascara.
I was so afraid that my ex-husband was the only person who might ever put up with (let alone love!) my eccentricities. But love is the great phoenix; whenever you need it, or seek it, it’s yours.
Love then turns into the problem, not the solution. Because the objective should not be finding any love, but rather, the objective should be to live fully and only allowing love in when it surpasses your expectations. I know now that my eccentricities are not just traits for someone to “put up with,” but are rather divine characteristics for the right someone.
Great love is possible, but you’ve got to demand the “great” in all areas of your life, and let the love part work itself out.
By Isabeau Miller
July 10, 2014 5:11 AM EDT