This is me in 2018, on the plane from Hong Kong to Honolulu at the end of my marriage. I sent it to my mom saying, “Mom, I deserve more out of life.” I was shattered and missed my layover flight from Seoul; I didn’t hear when they called my name over the loudspeaker. I spent the night in the airport. A month later, I served my then husband divorce papers.
This is me in 2020, out of the water near Waikiki. I am not the same person. Life is not problem free, but the big problem is gone. My ex-husband was the physical manifestation of my fears. I had married my nemesis. Now when I doubt myself, I say: Steph, you’ve got this. Why? Because the person who made me question my existence is no longer around.
As I’ve learned firsthand, divorce is the death of a marriage, a dream, an ideal, and most significantly, an identity. But what I also know to be true is that if you dare to bravely face your truths, commit to deeply probing your life and society’s expectations, and write the story of your divorce, you will experience the true gift of the break-up. In fact, you can use it as the spark to enter into a more empowered existence, one unfathomable prior to the collapse of your marriage.
For me, divorce brought on paralyzing shame and fear. Disturbing levels of discord in my marriage failed to sway my belief that marriage was a lifetime commitment and that the sole barometer of its success was length. I derived a sense of self through my identity as a wife and mother, and I blamed myself for my inability to knit my family whole together. I was in the fifth decade of life bereft of money and love. Devastated, fear gripped me: What would happen to me and my child?
My shame was further compounded as I realized that my assessment of my marriage was based on a superficial bar of acceptability. I experienced constant sorrow, boredom, despair, and unhappiness. Meanwhile, the exterior markers of the marriage were neatly in place: a nice home; a good school for my child; holidays.
Yet my marriage betrayed my authentic self. My ex’s words ping ponged in my brain as the divorce papers snaked their way through the legal channels. If only I made more money (you are useless), didn’t age (you look like an old lady), didn’t publish a book (I resent that I ever supported your writing), didn’t intimidate (Why get a PhD? Just exercise!). How did I become someone who borrowed money from her mother to buy a box of Cheerios for her kid, rather than face the contempt of a spouse who declared me a burden? How did I obliterate the fact that I was the primary provider the first decade of our marriage? Why did I allow him to denigrate me?
I abandoned values crucial to my dignity and well-being, as well as the safety of my child. Abuse, alcoholism, vitriol, lies, and infidelities drove me to hold on to the relationship because I came to believe the insults that my ex delivered and the stories used to discipline women who divorce. I judged my self-worth according to his and our culture’s unspoken edict that a middle-aged woman without substantial wealth or position is disposable.
Empowerment requires an excavation of one’s past akin to an archeological dig. I recognized that antiquated narratives served to mythologize my acquiescence, submission, and silencing because I believed I was practicing patience, compromise, and empathy. I had no idea that I was shrinking myself to appease someone’s ego and conform to the social pressures and values of my friends and family. When my illusions were held to the light, a fierce investigation of my own history and society’s value system helped me to make sense of the shell I had become.
By the time I met my ex, my life was strikingly unremarkable, notable only for my interest in the arts and series of low-end jobs—from crafting dog-shaped balloons to slinging cappuccinos. I listened to songs, some repetitively and carefully. This compelled me to write poetry, and my sole meaningful accomplishment was winning a grant to write a poetry chapbook. I decided a long-term partnership would anchor me and provide me with purpose. Marriage was enshrined as a rite of passage. I saw it as a path to discover myself,a salve for life’s complications. I felt love to be life’s mission, and marriage its most powerful emblem.
I neglected the origins and history of marriage. Marriage is a gendered institution structured to maintain the status quo and to shore up financial interests between families. Love as a prerequisite to marriage is new; the vast majority of the world still practices arranged marriages. The U.S. claims to be a haven for freedom, but remains years from gender equity. I never synthesized these facts: the sole space for women to experience equity is within the privacy of home. Yet because women shoulder the majority of household responsibilities, the concept of equity eludes.
I was forced to rethink my feelings of exceptionalism. Divorce humbled me, underscoring that I was subject to the measurable tides of human behavior and reinforcing my statistically average life. If you have a 50% chance of crashing a particular car, would you drive it? Probably not. Yet drive I did, and became one of the 69% of women to initiate divorce, joined the gray divorce revolution, experienced the initial precipitous standard of living drop, and witnessed my child’s evolution as one of the typical one out of five children raised in a single-parent home.
What statistics like these don’t reveal is that I may be average, but I would not trade a single second of my post-divorce life for my previously married one.
When the ending of a story changes, the altered narrative demands a rewrite.
Early on, my lawyer tasked me with writing my divorce story. Writing unlocked myself: I wrote 60 pages in three days. When you write with integrity, vulnerability leads to strength and the insurmountable becomes manageable. Writing is deployed in therapy to address trauma, but I used it for the legal process. The document indirectly shifted my divorce outcome as its content revealed that my ex and I were unfit to be in the same room for mediation. Separate spaces enabled me to better negotiate. As the proceedings unfolded, I recognized my valiant struggle to live under a framework that had led to my demise. Our legal system rarely serves the interests of women and children. I would obey laws as a citizen. But I would never again subject my body, self, and spirit to patriarchy’s narrow values.
I reread my story when I wrote a holiday card to my lawyer thanking him for guiding me through the legal labyrinth to my new life. It was a painful read, because I am no longer the person who allowed someone to violate the boundaries of my being.
Divorce overhauled my internal system, allowing me to live with decency, happiness, and respect. The heartache and chaos of divorce is devastating, but in the end, divorce was the siren call to bravery and wholeness. When you write your truth to power, you begin to author your life on your own terms. Learning to author my life by writing my divorce story, literally and metaphorically, led me to see my unvarnished self.
Stephanie Han teaches women’s creative writing workshops at drstephaniehan.com. Her fiction collection Swimming in Hong Kong won the Paterson Fiction Prize, and finalist for AWP’s Grace Paley Prize, the Spokane Prize, and the Asian Books Blog Award. A PEN and VONA fellow, she received grants from the LA Department of Cultural Affairs, and was the inaugural English Literature PhD of City Univ. of Hong Kong. Her work-in-progress ‘Break’ details how to write a divorce story. Han lives in Hawai‘i, home of her family since 1904.
This piece was originally published on Scarlet Society.
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