Recovery from a failed marriage or relationship is an angst-laden experience for most couples. Some of the horrific scenarios in my own marital breakdown could have probably found a place in director Danny DeVito’s dark comedy, The War of the Roses. This “gutty little production” as described by film critic Gene Siskel, illustrates how effectively you can impart pain to your partner when you know exactly what buttons to press. The good news in the film is that the abrupt ending spares the couple from postpartum divorce depression. Most marriages don’t end with this kind of finality.
By 1981 our honeymoon period was clearly over. A low pressure system had moved in and lingered for four challenging years in the form of my father in law. The anticipated matrimonial happiness that we both wanted was bombarded by relentless meanness from this feisty patriarch who was hell bent on destroying what I at least, was so valiantly trying to build.
Young and vulnerable, our fledgling vessel of love ran hard aground very early on resulting in a serious salvo of battles between us that grew in intensity each subsequent year we were “together”. Tragically neither of us had the skills to bring our relationship off the dangerous reef where it stood stranded.
When our relationship counselor had long run out of marriage saving stratagems for us to try, my ex simply buried himself deeper into the family shoe business. Expecting more from him I tried the Screaming Shrew Strategy which only exacerbated the tension and furthered the rift between us.
We had met while I was employed as cook on a private yacht. Madly in love, I moved in with him and eight weeks’ later he purchased a 53 ft. vintage yacht for the two of us to live on board.
This was the start of an interesting new chapter where our lives revolved around 25 tons of floating timber. The summer months were spent on cruises around the New England coast while the winters involved preparations for the next sailing season.
The dating site e-Harmony says: “being a great cook, or a great homemaker, or a great anything is not what reaches deep into a man’s heart and makes you connect with him. . . . . when you’re not afraid to let a man see the ‘imperfect’ parts of you, that’s when he can really open up to you and get close. ”
Really? My ex thrived on the gourmet meals emerging effortlessly forth from our galley. I soon discovered that as much as I enjoyed preparing tasty culinary concoctions for his friends and colleagues the real fun was happening on deck with our guests. My situation was starting to feel too much like work. The desire to improve my seamanship skills beckoned each time we left the harbor. But who else would create the mouth watering meals?
My yearning to improve my nautical skills was periodically vetoed. I remember once I had a winch handle poised in the air ready to hoist the mainsail. I wanted to prove to myself that I could get that big sail up on my own steam. Suddenly my husband left the wheel, marched to the mainmast and hissed in my ear:
“Let our guests sail the boat.”
Stunned, I soon realized that the only trips I was getting out of the arrangement were guilt trips. The cantankerous voice of an English captain I’d cooked for a few years earlier resounded in my memory bank:
“Nothing that a winch handle sandwich can’t take care of.”
The mental picture of his smile further broadened to a Grommet-like lip stretch had me chuckling under my breath.
When we weren’t sailing, the love of my life kept himself busy on business trips all over the US and beyond peddling his inner soles. I, in the meantime, had discovered a temporary sanctuary on board our floating museum.
I actually adored the boat. I loved the saucy downward tilt of her deck house, the flair of her stern fantail and the determined thrust of her bowsprit.
Armed with my arsenal of scrapers, stripper, heat gun and multiple grits of sand paper, I buckled down on my hands and knees for the next four years and applied my burgeoning woodworking skills to refinish a whole lot of tired looking wood. In my twisted logic I convinced myself that fixing the boat might help (somehow) to patch up the relationship as well. There’s nothing like an ambitious project to provide a powerful sense of purpose!
Scrupulously stripped and sanded she would gain a new lease on life with flawlessly varnished skylights, doors, deck boxes, waterways, cockpit and wheel.
My fingers would study every inch of her refinished surfaces. I learned to magically erase or at the very least reduce dings and discoloration caused by heavy objects and moisture. I would perform a massive facial on this old lady, removing superficial scars, fine lines and lifeless dead “skin” to reveal the beauty of her natural complexion of blond oak and tawny teak.
Her reclaimed good looks confirmed for me that the endless hours of year round sanding and varnishing were worth the toil. I recalled one winter at a boatyard when the yard foreman climbed up the ladder leaning against our boat to view my work. He ran his hand along the cap rail and announced gruffly:
“You have a job here any time.”
Short and to the point, I’d received the highest compliment this crusty New Englander could have given me. I was deeply moved that my work was noticed and appreciated. The boat looked good enough to win a beauty prize . . . and she did . . . . in 1984 from the prestigious ‘Nautical Quarterly Magazine’.
The antique awards my ex collected from the contest helped to feed his insatiable need to acquire “stuff” and be recognized as “special”. While he was focused on building his status quo in the yachting community, the explorer in me craved to go sailing to distant lands. I found the pursuit of building one’s social stature to be an unfulfilling enterprise and grew increasingly insecure about aligning myself with his superficial value system.
We had clearly come to a fork in the road and my inner captain made it painfully obvious that a course change was in order. With my project completed, I longed to fill the empty spaces inside me with satisfying experiences shared with people of like mind and spirit.
Deep in my heart I recognized I was making the right move and even deeper in my heart, I had known this all along. In the world of boats the bitter end is the end of the rope or chain attached to the bitt inboard. It also means the completion of an undertaking, no matter how difficult or unpleasant it was to accomplish. I didn’t need a course on Divorce for Dummies to pick up on the signs around me.
It was still indescribably painful to say goodbye to the boat who had become a companion of sorts. She was a great teacher and helped reveal capabilities within me that I suspected were there all along but had never had the occasion to emerge. These revelations would serve me well on future journeys when I had only my conviction of spirit to rely on when accepting new challenges.
We all have this genius according to David Shenk author of ‘The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong. I tend to agree. When we press the button marked faith, it kick starts the engine that propels us further forward along our odyssey. Each eye-opening event supplies us with yet another tool we can add to our little ditty bag for stamina and survival.
Thirty years have passed by since this not- very- nice-experience called a “divorce” took place. The recollection stirs no deeply held negative feelings. I worked very diligently to detach, to let go and move on. When you want to sail, you have to cast off those lines to leave the shore that’s holding you back. You can’t take the dock with you!
In the summer of 1984, however, I was far from this place of peace where I am today. It was with a heavy heart that I turned my back on a bittersweet life of summer sailing trips around New England, classic yacht regattas and the perks from a yacht club membership.
Moored in full view of the yacht club, the forty year old yacht nodded to me in grateful approval on that day when I said good- bye to her from the yacht club deck. Jack, the crusty dock master at the Marblehead yacht Club walked up to the handrail I was leaning on. I can’t recall his exact words now but he sensed and probably knew it all.
“Sometimes you just have to say good bye.” he said.
Divorce for me was akin to experiencing an earthquake. Like a crumbling cliff, I felt that pieces of me had broken off and cascaded into the churning sea below. The famous Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified the five stages of grief as:
Once the terrible pain of lost dreams had abated, which by the way took a few years, I was able to witness with some ‘sang froid’ the fragments of unfulfilled dreams drift away together with the man who in 1979 had me so love struck that I walked on air all that summer. It was time to clear the decks for after wife #2.
For me, this was the start of a new journey where I learned that delicious euphoria is episodic and cannot be sustained forever. Relationships are not fairy stories where the couple lives happily ever after. (They should stop letting kids read this stuff.) I was now on the path to nurture a resolve for spiritual stamina that took on a renewed urgency the closer we came to the court date for the official divorce decree to be granted.
My stomach churned like a washing machine set on “rapid wash”. Stern-faced and brow furrowed, my ex was preoccupied with reading the Wall Street Journal while we waited for the judge to enter. Thankfully, the hearing was not long and our divorce was quickly granted. I got nothing and yet, I got a lot. I had the satisfaction of knowing I’d given my pound of flesh in payment for the lessons I’d learned about myself and was grateful for the eye-opening experience.
Surprisingly, I felt secure in my wine-red pumps as they led me out of the court room. They gave me strength as I planted one foot firmly in front of the other on the tiled hallway floor. The metal studded heels resonated determination as I staccato marched purposefully out the courthouse door into the welcoming warmth of that sunny Indian summer day. My yellow brick road was waiting for me but first I had to meet the challenges of postpartum divorce and the depression that ensued.