Writer's note: I wrote this piece about a year back when I was newly separated from the now ex-wife. It is dedicated to all of the lovelorn folks out there who rebel against the condescension of the happily coupled.
When I tell you I’m getting divorced, please don’t say, “I’m sorry.” I’m sick of the comment, though I don’t expect everybody to understand why I feel this way.
I may have lost a life partner, but I’ve regained a lot of hope in the process of being separated and filing for divorce. Freed from an unending feud with my wife, I now see possibilities I didn’t see before. I have a new life and have regained full control over it, no longer caught in a relationship that wasn’t progressing.
But my wife is not dead, nor am I, so there’s no true reason to be sorry. My romantic relationship with my wife, whom I married a little over six years ago and whom I was with nearly 11 years in total, is kaput. The dream I had for the two of us is gone, but now new dreams form in my head. Still, few people seem to be able to see that in me, at first glance.
It’s often the same—I run into somebody I haven’t seen in a while, and I tell the person that I’m getting a divorce, and the person recoils a bit, jaw dropping in surprise, then a pitying look lights his face. “I’m so sorry…” he begins.
That cadence of words has the power to turn off the intended recipient of the condolences. Especially in Pittsburgh, the City of Champions, being separated and soon to divorce can make you feel like a loser, even if it’s far better than when you were married.
I recently ran into an old friend from high school, whom I hadn’t spoken with for many years. Jim greeted me warmly, with compassion in his face. I’d heard he was getting divorced, and I’d seen him from afar not long ago walking in a local village, his cute young towheaded daughter on his shoulders and a bounce in his step. When I saw him this time I caught him unawares, and Jim seemed more reflective than I’d remembered him from high school.
He and I caught up in no time, and we both admitted we wouldn’t be going to the upcoming reunion of our boy’s high school. The timing wasn’t right for either of us.
Jim mentioned how he’d seen an old friend of ours from school at a gathering a while back, and was turned off when the friend began speaking to him by saying, “I’m sorry to hear about the divorce…”
“We’re done,” Jim said to the old friend, and walked away.
For those of us on the receiving end of it, there’s a slightly condescending tone to the phrase, “I’m sorry,” when uttered in reference to our failed marriages. Saying you are sorry to hear that my marriage failed is like saying any of several negative things about me, my spouse, or my life. I have my reasons for getting divorced.
Why would a friend be sorry for another friend who, say, escaped an abusive husband, or an alcoholic or mentally unstable wife, or a ferret-collecting, unsupportive boyfriend? There’s an implied judgment in the words, “I’m sorry,” when people say them so unthinkingly, meaning to comfort.
Sorry? Really, sorry, you are? Sorry I’m not desperate and depressed, like I was? Sorry I didn’t stick it out, and be a saint in a doomed marriage, and die an angry death?
All of this feigned compassion for my separated-and-divorce-pending status makes me more than just a bit suspicious. Being a trained journalist, I know from experience that people need to know about the misfortunes of others, which is why we journalists have a saying: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
We need to know about others’ misfortunes because they make our struggles seem like small potatoes in comparison. Knowing that others are doing worse—and the worse they’re doing, the better—makes many of us feel happier about our lot in life; it’s a comfort to us.
Being a freelance writer, I will gladly pin my heart on my sleeve and wax about its contours for you for a small fee, but I don’t like being used any more than my friend Jim. I’m grieving the loss of my marriage, while also trying to move on, but I’m not doing it for anyone’s amusement. And if a person truly is sensitive to what I’m going through—that I lost my best friend and some life dreams, as well as a house, a garden, a dog, and many small things and feelings too close to describe—they won’t tell me they’re sorry.
Please, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me; I don’t want your pity, because I’m not pitiful. I want you to try to understand what I might be going through, even if you’ve been happily married for years.
So, what should you say to us hyper-sensitive soon-to-be-divorced types? How about, “I feel for you.”