ask polly

My Husband Dumped Me and Took My Business, and I Don’t Know How to Move On

Dear Polly,

My life is totally scrambled. My husband left me 17 months ago after 11 years together. I knew things weren’t perfect (we’d been in therapy for a few months together because he wouldn’t have sex very often and only under duress, and it was making me so sad), but he left so rapidly that even the therapist was shocked by the departure. I’ve been told since then that his personality type often does that — cool as a cucumber and then, with no warning at all, they are gone. But also, we were really good together. When I told my best friend, she said, “God, if YOU guys can’t make it, then what chance have the rest of us got?”

We have a 4-year-old son (who was 2 then), and I was actually still on medication for postnatal depression when his dad left. Now we share custody fifty-fifty. I find it hard saying good-bye and I miss my son, but I’m also aware that if I am trying to build a new life, it’s probably easier without a child around full-time.

I had my own business, and my ex was out of work for about 18 months before he joined the business, where he worked for six months. Four days before he departed, he got me to sign all these documents making the business fifty-fifty (instead of sole trader), and he fought to take it over completely in the split. In the end, I gave up the fight, and he paid me a nominal amount for it. I spent a few months working in a terrible job, which I got fired from, then took a lot of last year to try to recover: going to the beach, meditating, doing a gratitude practice, acupuncture, therapy, seeing friends, and every tool I could possibly think of.

I have been completely devastated by all this. This grief has been going on for such a long time, and although it shifts sometimes, when it does I’m left with this numb emptiness. In therapy, we’ve explored whether the death of my dad 18 years ago is related to the intensity of my grief (as the therapist said after we’d passed the one-year mark: “There’s still a LOT of energy behind this”); it’s the second time that the most significant man in my life has left.

I’ve also, particularly in December and early January, felt this consuming bleakness — nothing is worth anything, completely cynical about relationships and friendships, no faith in any of my tools or previous beliefs and spiritual practices (it just seems like for the spiritual community, if things go well, then it’s because the universe delivered; and if they don’t, then it’s because you don’t have enough faith. Well, f–k that. What faith needs me to be broken by it to prove my trust?), no belief that I will build another business or find a way to do something I love. I’m really feeling no meaning in my life at all aside from my child, but I don’t think living through or for your children is healthy or complete.

My ex, meanwhile, is off traveling the world all the time, had a new girlfriend who he was serious enough with that he actually introduced her to our son and told me he was thinking of her as a life partner (then he broke up with her a month later, claiming it was all too soon and too much for our son). He has maintained this good-guy narrative the whole time, which is crazy-making. Nice people DON’T walk out on their medicated wives when their child is 2, but he’s so affable that it just seems like he’s honest and kind. When we were in therapy together for that short while, the therapist at one stage said to me, “It’s not easy being the loud one, as when you’re mean, it’s out there for everyone to see.” But we all know there are many ways to be unkind.

I’ve just moved back in with my mum for a while, to try to get back on my feet. Rent here is expensive (like in New York), and with only one day per week of work, I was chewing through savings too quickly.

So here I am. Almost a year and a half beyond my breakup and feeling no closer to recovery or finding a way to move on with my life. I am actively job-hunting, as I need to get some income coming in, but I’m also terrified of how I will work full-time, be a single parent, have a life, get enough sleep. I’m exhausted. I am trying to do the things that make me feel better, even if briefly — swimming in the ocean, going to the gym, seeing friends, etc. I’m dating but not meeting anyone remotely interesting, and in fact I just turned all the apps off to have a break. And I’m sad. I still think about my ex all the time and wonder how I can possibly get him to change his mind (even knowing that I can’t). Sometimes I think maybe I should try to be friends with him, but I know it’s actually about getting back together, and it will be too devastating when he inevitably meets someone else (again) and moves on. Sometimes I feel venomous hatred toward him, but I also really think that’s covering this deep sadness. I’m binge-eating, though trying all the time not to.

I’ve also been sitting in it — the pain, the sadness, the anger. Trying to surrender to it, since I do know that when I resist and wish for things to be different, it all feels worse. I’m walking into the fire day after day after day, but to be honest, I don’t know if I believe I will ever recover from this heartbreak.

I guess my question is, how do I get through this? How do you move on from losing your family, your best friend, everything you’ve known for most of your adult life (we met when I was 25)? How long do I have to sit with this pain for it to move on? How do I find meaning in this new, scrambled life?

Scrambled

Dear Scrambled,

I can only imagine how hard things have been for you. But the ways you’re thinking about the pain and loss of your divorce are actually making it harder for you to live. First of all, the idea that losing your husband and losing your dad are somehow related and both add up to abandonment really bothers me. Yes, losing a parent and being dumped by a spouse both incite intense sadness over having been left alone. But is abandonment the essence of what you’re going through? I don’t even like attaching “abandonment” to the death of a parent, particularly if the parent didn’t commit suicide and you weren’t a small child at the time. You might feel crushed like a bug by grief. You might want him back. Your whole life might feel ruined. But calling it “abandonment by a man” feels like a misguided attempt to tie things together that do not belong together. Even if you inadequately mourned your father and this divorce really kicked up unfinished business on that front, the way any traumatic experience would, I don’t see the value in saying “two men have abandoned you.”

I’m probably stuck on that because it points to a larger problem with your story and your recovery, and that’s this: Your father was blameless in his death. Your husband, meanwhile, left you when your son was 2 years old and you were struggling with postpartum depression. He worked for your business for all of six months, then manipulated you into making it fifty-fifty with him KNOWING HE WOULD BE LEAVING, and then TOOK THE WHOLE GODDAMNED COMPANY. This isn’t just abandonment. This is cold, calculated, self-serving thievery.

So now you have to build a whole new career and life from the ground up, and — big surprise — you don’t want to! You want the life and the career that you already built! You want your old life back, partially because you’re not seeing your old life clearly. Your therapist and some of your friends appear to be saying, “Take time and heal, of course it’s hard, what a surprise that your wonderful husband changed his mind!” They seem to be saying, “You were abandoned twice by men, how tragic for you! You will have to meditate a lot to shake this off!” This is some very bad, very sexist storytelling, my friend. You were robbed of your business while shell-shocked and depressed, and now you’re being told an inaccurate tale about two men who left you behind.

No wonder you resent the Shavasana-loving motherfuckers in your midst! No wonder you feel cut off from humanity! No wonder you want your shitty ex back, even as he CONTINUES TO BEHAVE LIKE A MONSTER WITHOUT A PULSE! No wonder you can’t imagine starting over! No wonder you quit dating! No wonder, no wonder, no wonder! The world beat in your kneecaps with a tire iron, then handed you a scented candle and said, “Believe in your dreams!”

Instead of talking about betrayal and rage in therapy, you’re being forced to discuss your supposed issues with abandonment (at least it sounds from your letter like it’s being framed that way by your therapist). But the message of “abandonment issues,” as applied to women, frequently strikes me as a little bit off. Who has the issues, the dude who ditches his medicated, depressed wife and 2-year-old, or the wife he leaves behind? Who is the problem, the cowardly man who runs away, or the woman who continues to bravely raise a small child in the midst of postpartum depression, now without a husband? There you are, trying to talk about your feelings to a man who clearly HATES THAT SOUND, and a therapist tells you, “It’s not easy being the loud one, as when you’re mean, it’s all out there for everyone to see”? THE LOUD ONE? Does she mean the one who still has a pulse? Does she mean the one who is a human and not a conniving insect? And when you talk about other sad things — losing your dad — your therapist says, “There’s still a LOT of energy around this”? ENERGY AROUND THIS? Holy fucking god. When you lose a parent, there is energy around it until the day you fucking die. When you get dumped by your husband of 11 years, there is energy around it until you are decomposing in the cold hard ground!

My central point here is not that you have a bad therapist. This kind of interpretation and language is as common as mud. But I think there’s a reason you fed me those details. I think you must feel frustrated by the way your story is being told right now, even if only subconsciously. Because this abandonment story, like so many other abandonment interpretations, is inaccurate. Because underneath all the support and empowerment, there’s the faintest suggestion that you’ve bungled something. And maybe it’s time for the humans of earth to stop treating a woman’s history with men as a repeating moral failure on her part but not theirs.

I don’t see the value in lumping together two men in your life and telling the same story about them, even though the men, the situations, and the EFFECTS they had on you couldn’t be more different. I think it’s hurting you. You can’t move forward because you believe you have to confront your own abandonment issues, when really, what you have to do is REWRITE YOUR ENTIRE HISTORY. You spent 11 years with someone who doesn’t know how to feel things or show up. He treated your needs like they were the needs of a crazy lady. I don’t need to know anything more than “We had a baby; he strategically stole my business from me; THEN HE LEFT” to know that. I don’t need to know anything more than “I still want to be his friend, but really only to win him back” to know that. You want to befriend him and win him back because he’s still pretending he’s a good guy, and everyone else is pretending the real problem is you, not him. You believe that lie. And you’d rather move back into a lie than move forward. The truth is so painful that you’d rather return to a lie, even though it would mean feeling 1,000 times lonelier than you feel right now.

So this is why you’re stuck. You’re trying to process this pain without looking at the full truth of the pain. There is a big piece of this pain that you’re ignoring, and that’s the pain of discovering that you married a cardboard-cutout man who can’t feel. And maybe your therapist is nudging you gently toward some realization that you chose this man who can’t feel at a time when you were committed to have no more feelings, ever, in the wake of your father’s death. You lost your dad, you couldn’t handle it, you became tough, and you chased down a man who would never, ever ask you to show up and show your feelings to him. You found someone who would live inside of a lie with you.

Once you had a baby, of course, the lie didn’t work anymore. You felt gigantic emotions, but when you looked around, you saw a cardboard-cutout man who couldn’t feel, and that felt wrong. So you tried to talk to him about it. I don’t need to guess what happens when you, through an exhausted, weepy, postpartum haze, try to talk about your feelings with a guy who is cold enough to methodically seduce you into signing over half of your business JUST DAYS BEFORE HE PLANS TO LEAVE. I just know that I, personally, would end up getting very, very loud under those circumstances.

And that’s the real danger of linking your entire life up to the life of someone who’s playing the part of GREAT GUY while in reality living like a fucking ghost. When your guy acts easygoing and casts you in the role of sour nag and you YOURSELF have enough self-hatred and low self-esteem and fear to play along with that narrative, watch out. You’ll define yourself as a big bummer forever and ever, and you’ll live inside the illusion that he holds all the light until you’re sure you don’t have a tiny spark of your own anymore, and you’ll want him back even after you discover that he was never there to begin with.

You still have to be able to co-parent your kid with this guy. But you need to move on from your old life. Because your new life will be much better. For it to be better, you’ve got to bring your anger to the surface and grapple with it. You have to recognize that you are the one who can see clearly, the one who was, at the time of her dumping, not A WOMAN WHO WAS DESTINED TO BE ABANDONED (and therefore a sad failure lady) but A WOMAN WHO COULD SEE THE TRUTH. You had suddenly lost the ability to lie about what you saw. You could see the truth, and you started to get loud.

THAT was the start of your good life. Your spirit wanted an escape from the lie you and your husband had constructed together. You wanted a real partner. You wanted passion and commitment. That’s part of what made you feel sick and abandoned after you had a baby (but before your husband dumped you). That’s what brought you to therapy with him. And that’s why he left, really: Because he couldn’t stand to be around someone who wanted to talk about the truth, about reality.

You still want these things. You also want to FEEL. You also want to speak the truth out loud without being treated like a crazy person who fucked everything up.

The reason all that gratitude practice, acupuncture, therapy, and seeing friends isn’t working is that it’s all too peaceful and sweet and quiet and nice. In those settings, you’re just a lady who got left behind, and you have to act like it’s all for the best. You can’t yell, “I WAS LIVING A LIE THE WHOLE GODDAMNED TIME, MOTHERFUCKERS!” In fact, I’d argue that forgiveness and gratitude and sage-scented blessings from the spirit mother aren’t going to do shit for you until you confront the fact that you were robbed. I don’t say that because I think your victimhood by a heartless jerk is the guiding story of your life. I say that because your rage in the wake of this emotional crime is the key. That doesn’t mean you have to yell at anyone. It just means that you, personally, need to feel your feelings at last. Your feelings are not easily reduced to sadness alone. Your feelings are much more complicated than that, and they include anger.

I also believe — and this is related to the question of anger and the false, frankly sexist narrative you’ve been sold — your “recovery” tools are not entirely to your taste at this moment. You’re trying to blossom into someone who can speak the truth. So you need some room to be a messy, angry emotional human being for a while. You also need to feel the desire to DO THINGS. Which is tough at this moment, because you still want your old life. You have to want your new life. You have to build a belief in it. Not a belief in some shiny future, but a belief in the broken, caved-in, disheartening glory of the life you’re living RIGHT NOW.

You need to tell a new, more accurate story about what happened. You have to stop trying to skip to the part where you’re happy again, the way your ex does with his weird compulsive pretending. You already know that you’re flawed. You have to lean way the fuck into that fact, own it, love it, live with it, and stop trying to be better than you are. Stop trying to bounce back like some heroic divorcée.

You need a lot of exercise, to burn off some of your anger and anxiety. You also need to embrace who you are right now: sad and pissed off. I don’t think you’re ready to date yet. Packaging yourself for a new man is not healthy at this moment. Be where you are and own it.

I’m not asking you to stop feeling sad. I’m asking you to start feeling EVERYTHING. Your fear of your anger is blocking all the joy. Feel it. The joy will come with it. Make room for it.

But more than anything else, you need to know that you owned the light all along. You have to stop letting other people tell you what’s happening. For the first time in your life, you have to learn to trust yourself. You knew that your husband was dead inside. You were angry at him before he left you, because you knew he wasn’t really there for you all along. His easygoing, relaxed support was a mirage. You’re denying yourself your own anger because you’re still sure that your push for the truth is the reason you were dumped. No. Your push for the truth is the reason you’re still here. Because YOU know what you need. You know who you are. The light didn’t leave when your husband left. You’re the light, and you always have been.

Let him have the business, let him share the kid, let him fall in love with a million new women and tell a million new stories about them. He never came close to having what you have. Even he knows that. He could see you figuring out who he was, and it frightened the hell out of him. Don’t look back. No more ciphers. You and you alone know where to go from here. Trust yourself.

Today, I read this line in The Recovering, by Leslie Jamison, who was quoting “The Trial of Jean Rhys,” and it made me cry: “I am tired. I learnt everything too late.” I feel that way a lot. It took me way too long to get here. But it takes all of us so long. This world tricks so many women into lives they just don’t want. We’re taught to view marriage and careers and friendships and everything under the sun through a lens of scarcity, because in our world, women are beggars, not choosers. When we’re loud, that means we’re broken.

Well, I’m not telling that story anymore. I’m loud because the world is broken. When someone acts like my light is hurting them, I say, “Your story was built to keep you safe from the truth. That’s okay for you. But I’m tired of pretending.”

Polly

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