A lot can happen in five years.
Five years ago, this week, my husband of two-and-a-half years left me. He had been cheating on me with an old friend of his, also married, and I had known since it began. Of course, it wasn’t anything new – he had been cheating on me since we first began dating, both emotionally and physically. But for some reason, when I confronted him, this time was different. And instead of making excuses like he did in the past, he chose to leave me.
“I don’t want to be married anymore,” he’d told me. “Not to you, not to anyone.”
Understandably, that broke me. I married young, at 21, and although I had relatively realistic expectations about marriage, I had no real experience with relationships, in that I didn’t know how to act, how to react. At the same time, a large part of my identity was based on the simple fact that I was married, a life event that most of my peers were not yet familiar with. So when I no longer was, suddenly, I lost part of myself. Or rather, it was there, but broken, and I had to figure out how to fix it and live with it.
It took me a long time to forgive him for what he did, but it took even longer to forgive myself, a process that is still in the works. Not often, but once in awhile, I can’t sleep because I am reminded of what happened, and then start to think about everything too much, analyzing it to pieces. If only I had done this, or said that, or stood up for myself. If only I had taken the out that my parents gave me mere months before the wedding. If only I had been the one who left.
These thoughts of “if only” are a pointless exercise, and I know it, but I indulge them anyway. Because in spite of the self-confidence I have always had, I lacked the self-love needed to put myself first. Sure, I often put my foot down and demanded better in our marriage, but he would change slightly, and I would accept that improvement over none. Or sometimes my words were always turned on me and I became the cruel, accusatory, emasculating one, and he became the martyr. Yet in spite of this vicious cycle, it never gave me enough strength to leave. So I suffered less than I was worth, and eventually got left behind because of it. And when I get trapped thinking about these things – not about how bad he was to me, but how bad I was to myself – I get sick to my stomach. There was a gender inequality at play, and no matter how at fault he may be for treating me as “less than,” I too am at fault for not requiring more. I should have been selfish.
I used to say that I have no regrets in life, that if I could, I would do it again, even if the results were the same. But it’s not that black and white – I know that now. Yes, the experience was invaluable in its own way, and it shaped me into who I am today. But at the same time, I would never want to relive all the pain. It’s not worth it to me. There is no point in talking about going through it again, because that’s impossible, but let’s just say that I am relieved that the only option in life is sometimes to simply move forward and heal.
People say to remember the good times. I purposely avoid them. Not because there aren’t any, or because I only want to dwell on the negative, but rather because they have no effect on my present. However, there are some positives I carry with me today – namely, I am a better person because of what happened. Naturally, I initially harbored resentment toward him, and I said things about her that I now feel ashamed of, but I reacted instinctively, like a wounded animal. I am not proud of these moments. After those initial stages, however, I concentrated my energy not on “getting revenge” or focusing on the negative, but learning from the experience. And I learned a lot of things, namely how to love myself, and how to extend that love to others.
I also learned how to be grateful – and I am. Grateful that I am no longer that person I once was, who was someone incapable of not settling. I have heard it said time and time again: “we accept the love we think we deserve.” And there is nothing truer for me when I think about love. I married someone who didn’t value me or my trust, because I thought it was as good as it gets. It may have taken five years to change that thinking, and I am still working on loving and letting myself be loved, but now, in a couple months, I will marry my best friend – someone who loves me, supports me, rivals me, and equals me, because I think – I know – that is what I deserve. And really, that makes all the difference.