When my first marriage ended, friends and family were shocked. Most people gasped and said how sad and terrible it was that we were splitting. Worrying about the happiness of my kids and the actual pulling apart of a family and years of financial co-dependence was no walk in the park, but I wasn’t sad that I was no longer going to be married to this specific person. The split was not terrible; for me, and I think for her too, it was a relief. And though I knew that leaving her was no guarantee I would find the right person, I also knew that being alone was better than being lonely with someone.
But I understood people’s responses. There hadn’t been any signs that we were unhappy. No marks of abuse or toxicity. No visible or even suspected hints that our marriage was failing or needed to end. This wasn’t because I or my ex purposefully hid these things; it’s because what most would consider obvious indications of trouble or reasons for divorce were not there. Together we were financially secure. We were each physically safe. But I felt unsafe in other ways. Many people who have been through divorce know that so many reasons a marriage doesn’t work out are quiet and unseen but still painful.
What our friends and family couldn’t see — and to be honest it took me some time to see it too — was that I was not emotionally safe. My ex was not my safety net. She was not my soft and understanding place to fall when I was hurting, scared, processing past traumas, or worried about decisions that needed to be made. I wasn’t being emotionally abused, but it was as if my feelings didn’t exist or weren’t allowed to take up space. I was the strong supportive one who never got upset. I would always provide empathy when she needed it but didn’t receive any when I went to her for support. I felt neglected and lonely.
I know all relationships are work. I have been told ad nauseam that they go through “seasons,” that couples fall in and out of love with each other. And because we convince ourselves that we can “train” someone how to respond in certain ways that will get the results we want in a marriage, I believed I just needed to find the right teaching tools. I kept working on myself too and hoped it would improve my marriage. I hid my unhappiness and thought I was being ungrateful for wanting more. I was the reason I wasn’t feeling supported. I had to get better. I had to do the work to get to a place where I could feel vulnerable. The lack of intimacy was my fault.
I tried. I tried really hard. I faked it and lied and white-knuckled my way through what looked from the outside like a perfect marriage. I didn’t think I had any reason to leave because I know no one is perfect and neither is any relationship.
But should we stay in something or do something just because it’s not awful?
My ex had always relied on me to support and uplift her, and I did. But she was not able to do the same in return. When I went to her with my most vulnerable feelings and intimate thoughts, they either didn’t make sense to her or frightened her. I was the one hurting but ended up making her feel better. After too many years of this and after years of trying, I stopped expecting empathy and emotional support. I stopped opening up and put up walls instead. My ex encouraged me to work it out with my therapist or to better explain to her what I needed.
We tried couples therapy. Therapy together showed us that she was indifferent to us, to our relationship, to me, but was reluctant to do anything to change. We talked about her needs and my needs, and when confronted with my needs, she froze.
“I just want to go back to the way things were before,” she’d say, and I’d cringe because I had grown far from the person I was before and had no desire to go back. We both knew it was over. I was ready to keep moving on, but no longer within our marriage.
What I needed was someone who could give empathy freely and equally without judgment. I wanted someone who, in my rawest moments, wouldn’t need a playbook for how to take care of me. I needed someone different.
And I found her.
I knew she was the one when, after 15 years of never feeling comfortable to cry in front of my ex and after many years of struggling to cry at all, tears streamed down my face during one of our conversations. I had revealed a quiet but important piece of myself. I had let my guard down, and her reaction and words broke me in the best possible way, and I cried. I bawled. She wiped my tears and picked up my pieces. Finally I understood the unnamable thing I’d been lacking. I just wanted to be seen and heard.
It has been unsettling to allow someone to really see me, but it has been the most amazing experience too. Not only does my fiance read me, but she anticipates my feelings in a way that allows me to let them be. This is a gift I have never known. Childhood trauma created the need to hide emotions. In previous relationships, my emotions had never been honored or understood. I am unlearning the instinct to mask feelings that are messy or less than joyful. If I try to hide emotions or beat myself up for feeling them, my fiance tells me all the reasons why they are valid.
I knew my marriage wasn’t working and that I needed it to end, but I didn’t realize how much I was missing and how much I had been hurting until I found emotional safety in my fiance.
We can’t connect on the most intimate levels with another person without vulnerability. And if we can’t be our most authentic selves in a relationship, then what’s the point? Having someone who sees me allows me to see myself, and that’s pretty fucking amazing.
Since separating from my ex, I have learned that I was never as broken as we had both made me out to be. I was giving emotional security but not getting it. I didn’t think I deserved more. But I do. It took me time to see that because I thought I was supposed to put everyone else’s needs before my own. I believed a divorce would hurt my kids, but the divorce has given them a better and happier parent. I have added love to their lives, not taken it away.
And I finally have a soft and safe place to land. Feeling emotionally safe means I am becoming emotionally stronger. My fiance listens to me, validates my feelings, and doesn’t make me feel like a burden. She loves me the right way. And in that love are so many intangible aspects that I can’t describe, but that’s the beauty and importance of safety nets; their presence alone is enough to protect you.
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