In November 2017, my ex-husband’s father died. I had never felt more married than I did at that time, supporting him from an ocean away and acting as his rock in one of the hardest times of his life. I cried with him when his father passed. My heart was broken for him, for my mother in law, for their family. When he came home again, we talked about how things would be a little different. He’d be processing and grieving. I invited him to come to therapy with me and speak to my therapist, and he agreed. She advised him to join a grief support group, and we both encouraged him to seek individual counseling with a therapist of his own.
He was fine, he said. He didn’t need therapy or a grief support group. So we went along with life, but the grief came out in its own way, as grief does.
One night, while cooking dinner, my ex stepped away from the stove to do something in the living room. Dinner burned slightly to the bottom of the pan, and he refused to eat it. He told me to go out and pick something up for myself because dinner was ruined. He went to bed immediately without eating anything. He was angry at the curry, at the pan, at whatever he could be mad at. The curry was fine and I ate it for dinner. It wasn’t ruined at all, but he wouldn’t listen to me say so.
I found myself talking to a friend about this, and she told me it was the grief. It would come out in moments of stress, especially since he wasn’t seeing anyone proactively to deal with it. She reminded me to stay the course, give him the space he needed, and to not do anything life changing in the first year after a loss — no talking about us moving, or my husband changing jobs, or anything. What we needed was a stable home base while he sorted his grief out.
One night he asked me if we were happy and if maybe we should split up. Where I would have previously panicked, wondered what I’d done wrong to make him think that, etc., I was calm. I said, “Do you want to get divorced?” And he said no. So I said okay, we wouldn’t be getting divorced. I told him we should take a year after his father’s death to settle back into normal before any big decisions got made.
He agreed. And yet, he still refused to see his own therapist or go to a support group or even talk to his friends about his father’s death. I was sinking under the weight of being the only one he felt he could talk to about it. I was his only emotional outlet. And eventually I told him I needed him to go and see a therapist because I could not be his only place to process. He seemed to understand, he apologized, and he called to make an appointment with a therapist — with my therapist. I was uncomfortable with this. She was my safe space, and I didn’t understand why he didn’t listen when I told him I wanted him to get a different therapist.
Fast forward to nearly a year later. We’re divorced. (“You couldn’t even give me six months,” he had said to me, referencing my “no life changes in the first year after a loss” guideline).
I’ve experienced two panic attacks in the intervening months, triggered by a new partner stumbling over the landmines in my psyche that I didn’t know were there. This partner sat with me, held me while I cried, shushed my promises that I’d get it together in just a minute, let the panic and anxiety flow through me and out of me while he sat in silence next to me, ready to give me whatever I needed.
What caused the panic? Once, he playfully suggested that I’d said something to test him and he had passed my test (Does he think I’m fake? That I’m not genuine? That I’m manipulating him?). Another time, we were having a discussion around feminist topics and the familiarity of having a “debate” with my partner triggered a panic because of how many times I’d been forced into debates with my ex, when he wouldn’t even let me go to sleep until I’d given him an answer he could accept to explain whatever improper conduct I’d subjected him to.
And then one night, my new boyfriend burned dinner. Smoke filled the kitchen and we both jumped into action opening windows. I went to the bedroom and got a box fan and directed the smoke out of the kitchen door to the chilly fall air outside. I even joked with him that it was all just extra flavor and it was clearly time to eat. I picked the burnt bits off and the rest was completely edible and tasted great.
It only occurred to me after the problem had been solved that months, even weeks ago, this would have been another trigger. Another echo of my previous life, another moment I had somehow been at fault for my partner not minding the stove. But it wasn’t. Everything was fine. No one was angry, or stressed, or upset. We ate dinner and had a lovely evening.
This is what life can be like.
This is what life can be like when someone else’s stress doesn’t make your stomach turn to ice, make your heart race, make your eyes sting with tears.
Sometimes you just pick the burnt bits off and enjoy the delicious remainder with good company.