I saved my marriage by leaving it


Despite years of trying to conceive, on Mother’s Day last year, I still wasn’t a mother. My spouse Jesse and I stopped trying when we realized the kinks in our relationship had become knots.

I was done trying to untangle it all and tie it back together, so I presented him with a letter I’d been writing and rewriting for two weeks. I was ready to unwind the knot, the one we’d tied eight years ago.

“I’m blindsided,” were the first words Jesse said ― words I’d heard again and again in recent conversations, after sharing the feelings I’d expected him to absorb without me explicitly spilling them.

How did he not see this coming? How did he not feel me pulling away for months ― no, years? That’s part of the reason I needed to escape. Despite so much time trying to repair our relationship, he didn’t even notice I was already gone.

Neither did anyone else. To an outsider, we had the high-school-sweethearts love story and enviable lifestyle: successful careers, time to travel, bustling social lives, loving families who lived nearby, and the “freedom” to do it without kids.

I saved my marriage by leaving it
The author and Jesse photographed just after they tied the knot in San Pancho, Nayarit, Mexico, in 2014.

We had it all, and I wanted none of it. What was wrong with me?

But peel it back one more layer, and you’d realize that our marriage was swallowed in the context of our lives. And I no longer recognized myself in the context of our marriage. We lived under one roof, but over time, it seemed both of us had redecorated the walls in our heads without consulting each other.

Jesse talked about finances. I daydreamed about moving somewhere off the grid. He wanted to go play golf. I wanted to eat slowly on a sunny patio and walk around the park. He defaulted to TV. I defaulted to books. While our lives were completely intertwined, I had trouble remembering the threads that bound us together in the first place.

We both cheated ― a symptom, not a cause, of our disconnection. We lied to each other. And we tried to repair what was broken.

We stopped relying on alcohol or drugs to create a false sense of connection between us, and started walking and talking together. We stopped expecting the other person to read our mind, and started articulating what we were feeling and why. We stopped making plans with groups, and started making time for date nights.

But still, the work didn’t work. No sparks flew. The pressure and resentment built. The ticking of my biological clock became an alarm.

The author and Jesse goofing off at her parents' home in Mesa, Arizona, in 2007.
The author and Jesse goofing off at her parents’ home in Mesa, Arizona, in 2007.

Nobody gets married expecting to get divorced, but nearly half of us do. And more than half of those who get married a second time will get divorced a second time. What do we fail to change? What is it we don’t learn?

It wasn’t until the pandemic that I tried another approach. My pandemic life included an unexpected roommate, who was one of Jesse’s best childhood friends; it also brought less traveling, and a lot more working from my kitchen counter. I lost my demanding corporate job and, later, accepted an even more demanding one. It was a life plugged in but completely disconnected.

But I finally did the thing I’d never learned how to do ― ask for help. I started seeking guidance from a patchwork quilt of people. An individual therapist first. An intuitive life coach next. Eventually a couples therapist for Jesse and me. And sprinkled in between were psychics, book clubs and women’s groups.

These new acquaintances asked me questions I’d never asked myself. Why was I scared to leave? Was I modeling the vulnerability I expected from him? Why didn’t I speak kindly about myself? What were my non-negotiables in a partner, and which of those qualities were missing? These questions, and my lack of answers, made me realize I may have been more disconnected from myself than from my marriage.

Thousands of dollars and dozens of hours of conversations later, everything led me back to me.

So I spent less time seeking guidance from others, and more time looking inside myself. My marriage was both the source of my stress and my stability.

I feared being alone, but I knew I had to go.

Jesse didn’t trap me. I had trapped myself. My entire life was rooted in “supposed to’s” and expectations others had of me. Make good choices, get good grades, get a good job, marry a good guy and raise children.

Conventional wisdom told me that if you want to work on your marriage, you should stay in your marriage. For once, I didn’t follow what I’d been told.

I finally mustered the courage to do another thing I’d never learned how to do ― ask for what I wanted, which was space and time to rediscover myself and what I wanted to do with our marriage. Jesse obliged without a fight. He let his love for me conquer his fear of our demise.

Less than 90 days later, I closed my front door, ready for a monthlong solo journey in Tucson, Arizona. As I backed my car out of our driveway, the urge to cry hit me, but no tears came. My gas tank was full and I was running on empty. I was sick of pretending and spending all of my time on my “commitments.”

In my rented one-bedroom bungalow, I worked too much and didn’t sleep enough, and yet I felt more alive than ever before. I hiked alone. I ate macaroni and cheese standing over the stove alone. I explored the town alone. I watched live music at dive bars alone. I fell back in love with life alone. I started to like myself again alone.

The author listening to a podcast and walking around her remote neighborhood on her solo trip in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 2022.
The author listening to a podcast and walking around her remote neighborhood on her solo trip in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 2022.

I missed the things about Jesse that I’d stopped appreciating. Little things, like delivering water to my bedside each night, having his hand on my back as I fell asleep, taking out the trash. But I didn’t miss blankly staring at each other across the dinner table after exchanging three minutes of how-was-your-day conversation. I didn’t miss waiting for him to get out of bed Saturday morning while I paced around the house, ready to run errands. I didn’t miss agreeing to have sex when I would rather be doing anything else. And here I thought I was “supposed to” miss my husband more while I was gone.

Upon returning home, I felt better, but the marriage didn’t. If anything, the joy I experienced alone appeared to confirm that I “should” be single. When I greeted Jesse in the driveway with my arms spread for a welcome-home hug, I could feel him nesting as I was mentally fleeing. As he thought “Our work here is done,” I dreaded the thought of making him think anything different. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt him more than I had.

The high of reconnecting with myself morphed into guilt for leaving the marriage I was supposed to be working on. But staying ― especially staying without feeling bonded ― was far more cruel than leaving. I knew somebody else would appreciate the person I took for granted. To honor our history together and commitment to each other, we kept trying: more walks, more talks, but no more chemistry than before I’d left for the first trip.

Guilt-ridden, yet certain of my need for space, I left again a year later for a mountain getaway in northern Arizona. This time, we called it a separation.

During that month, Jesse got to know himself again, too. He experimented with cooking, read relationship advice books, took the dog for longer walks, paid more visits to the gym and painted by numbers with vinyl records playing in the background.

In the same month, I quit my corporate job, cleared my social calendar, attended my best friend’s wedding without a plus-one and left most friendships unattended. I applied to Teach for America in an attempt to put purpose over paycheck, applied for other jobs to establish backup plans, and spent more time reading and meditating than ever before. I was untangling the webs I had woven, with the broader intent to untie the knot when I went back.

To my surprise, that Mother’s Day divorce talk last year became an exchange of vows we would uphold if we decided to end the marriage. We said the things that we would say about each other to friends and family. We also said what we would never say about each other. In our darkest, heaviest moments, we were finding only the brightest light in each other.

We also recounted just how much growth we’d experienced together. We’d grown up together. We’d seen the world together. We’d supported each other every step of the way. We’d tried and failed to have children. We were still best friends.

The author and Jesse hiking in Glacier National Park in July 2022.
The author and Jesse hiking in Glacier National Park in July 2022.

He cradled me in his lap and rubbed my back as he made it clear he did not want to give up on us, but that if he no longer made me happy, then he wouldn’t hold me back from finding a new partner. He finally understood how I felt, which felt like he finally saw me.

While the weight of divorce hung in the air, the marriage felt lighter than ever before.

A controlled burn in your marriage exposes what it’s made of. In our case, it revealed new growth sprouting from the ashes. The trunk was scorched and the branches were scarred, but the roots under the ashes were unshakable.

What was once in the shadows was exposed to sunlight. The brush was cleared. The truth was exposed. That’s the beauty and the wonder of the truth. You can try to bury it or cover it up, but you can’t burn it.

And the truth is: You don’t always need a new partner. Sometimes you just need a new relationship. With yourself, first, and then your spouse.

It wasn’t until recently that I stumbled upon Jillian Turecki’s relationship teachings. She has a core belief that when you reconnect with yourself, you reconnect with your partner. She encourages people to look at the parts of themselves that are begging for attention, the areas they’ve neglected and the things they’ve stopped doing. What makes you feel most alive? Do more of that, she says, because “you can only love others when you love yourself first.” That includes “having more fun and spending time apart.”

Both times I left for my monthlong getaways, we told only a few of our closest family members and friends. They were worried, and we were defensive. I’ve realized maybe I should worry about them. Maybe they’re ignoring chunks of themselves. Maybe they’re stuck in a spin cycle of believing the conventional wisdom that encourages us to put the marriage and the family before ourselves. Or maybe they’re just scared.

I believe the thing I feared most was also the thing I needed most. Had I stayed under the same roof with Jesse, I’d be more alone today than I ever was during our break. I still have some knots to untie, but I’ll have to unravel them myself.

We both learned that the painful, exhilarating process of exploring the wilderness within ourselves saved our marriage.

This year, Mother’s Day looks different, and better, than we imagined. We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re in love. And we’re trying again, both for a baby and for our marriage. Whether we’re supposed to or not.

Turns out, the work does work. It’s just that it’s harder to work on yourself ― to excavate your feelings and desires and dreams ― than to uproot the other areas of your life. And it wasn’t too much to ask for both the freedom and the stability that marriage can offer.

But we had to let each other go first. That’s the thing that keeps us coming back.

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