I’m a Psychologist Who Didn’t See My Own Divorce Coming

I recently saw a reel on Instagram by queer comedian and former psychotherapist Ely Kreimendahl that hit close to home: “I guarantee your therapist is secretly the most unhinged person you know. Well-adjusted people do not make a career out of being like, ‘I can fix her.’”

I’m a psychologist who didn’t see my own divorce coming. My wife asked me for a divorce the weekend of my 43rd birthday, a month after our 11-year wedding anniversary, and a month before we would have celebrated the 18-year anniversary of our first kiss. We had just bought our first home and attempted our third round of IVF. On the surface, we were building our future together in the home we hoped to raise our family in. But inside those walls, we were fighting a lot… like crisis level fighting. I wasn’t oblivious.

However, in the grand scheme of our lives together, I viewed this as a challenging time through which we would persevere.

We’d already been through so much together. Particularly at the start of our relationship, when heterosexism, in the form of family rejection on both sides, took an enormous toll on our individual and relationship wellbeing. This extra burden of “minority stress” that marginalized people carry was also the very topic I had dedicated my academic career to studying and working to ameliorate among LGBTQ+ communities. However, as I have painfully learned, being experts in human behavior does not make us experts in our own.

I was at a career defining moment that demanded all of my attention. I had never been good at compartmentalizing. But suddenly I had to turn down the volume on our personal crisis to focus on overwhelming professional demands. I had immovable federal deadlines and looming decisions; the outcomes would determine whether the past decade of my training and professional development, investments that had already cost me (and our relationship) so much, would pay off. Although a sunk cost, it was hard to ignore all that I had already sacrificed personally and risked professionally — would it finally translate into a fulfilling career that could also support the family we were building?

My wife, who had always been supremely skilled at compartmentalizing, appeared uncharacteristically alarmed and consumed with our relationship struggles. It scared me; I was used to being “the dramatic one.” Now, when I sought to ground us, she expressed a valid need to spin out, as I had been entitled to do so many times before. I didn’t realize how much being that steady, solid presence in my life had cost her. Although I’d often tried to intervene (encouraging her to slow down, offering loving care), I also benefited from her trademark stoicism, inflated sense of responsibility, and generosity to a fault. We each were just trying to survive a world that was not always kind to us, and cleaved to each other as the family we knew we could always rely on.

Our early experience of rejection by family functioned as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this experience created a strong bond. It was “us against the world,” fighting an epic battle for our love. On the other, it sapped us of our ability to differentiate from one another. Years of individual and relationship therapy primarily served as damage control. We focused on managing the pain of ongoing losses, grieving relationships with children who were kept from us, and facing the disappointment of another family event we could not attend together. We didn’t have capacity to proactively focus on our growth.

Even in survival mode, we built a meaningful life together with so much joy. Our friends were consistently accompanying us — chosen family sharing their parents and children with us, ensuring we always had a seat at their holiday tables. There were individual family members who broke rank and supported us. Slowly, others began to repopulate our world. As our families of origin eventually came around, we ironically began to unravel. Perhaps no longer bonded by that common “enemy,” we had to face the distance that had taken hold between us.

It was in therapy that my wife first tried to impress upon me that divorce was a serious consideration. And sure, this also seemed like an obvious possibility to me, if we could not get through this moment. Because I felt confident that we would persevere as always, divorce remained only theoretical. I was planning our future together. It’s not that I didn’t see the same things as she did, but they didn’t add up to the same conclusion.

I’d always thought that I would know it in my bones if our relationship was at stake. There were many moments of struggle, and even times I voiced a concern we might need to separate, but I never *really* believed it. I was certain any barrier would be just that and that we’d push through it, just as we had every other obstacle. Even when I told others we might be in real trouble, I privately vowed to myself: I will never stop fighting for us. I knew we were endgame.

We had invented so many origin fairytales of how we came to be. From start to finish, she was my story, my world. The night she told me she wanted a divorce, she cried out bitterly, showing more rage and pathos than I’ve ever seen her display: “imagine if we had been supported and just allowed to be two young people in love? Where might we be now?”

We had fought so many battles together side by side. More than any couple should have to fight. I will never know how life might have been different if we had never faced the discrimination that sapped so much of the time and energy we desperately needed to work on ourselves. Although issues arose that could break any relationship apart, I think we might have made it through had we not already been exhausted from fighting on so many fronts. It’s like arriving to a fight already wounded, with a faulty weapon that misfires, and limited protective gear. In the end, I can only know where we are now as I try to weave back and understand how we got here.

Raised in the same region with class privilege, we grew up with similar social expectations just across the river from one another. As adults, we often wondered if we had literally crossed paths as children, since her family often went to Sunday brunch blocks from my childhood home. The overlaps in our upbringings ended there. I’m a white Eastern European queer Jew raised in a traditionally observant community. She’s a Black Dominican queer Jew who was raised Catholic. My family’s trauma response (both intergenerational trauma in the form of antisemitism and personal trauma through death) manifested as anxiety and enmeshment, and limited opportunities for individuation. Their family, on the other hand, displayed almost the opposite trauma response (primarily in response to violent racism and emotional deprivation). They were taught fierce independence and stoicism. I was coddled and doted upon and never quite learned to tolerate my own emotional distress. She was expected to comport herself with the grace of a debutante and the pragmatism of a Wall Street banker. She was frequently tested, underestimated on her smarts and business acumen. In loving her, I devoted myself to gently incurring invites beyond her walls.

In those early days especially, when my most trusted primal supports fell away and I found myself terrified and at risk of freefalling, I clung to her. And oh, did she make me feel safe. Safe in ways I never had consistently felt growing up. Externally calm and seemingly grounded when turmoil arose, I held onto her for dear life — a literal life preserver through the many emotional storms we weathered. As much as she made me feel safe, I was also incredibly protective of her and overly attentive. I tried to anticipate her needs and meet them. I doted on her. When a medical issue arose, I attended a doctor’s visit with her mother, who seemed resentful when I recited her medical history by heart, as if I had been there at every step.

At times, she found my anxious attention stifling. In relationship therapy she later explained that her response came with complex layers: deep unfulfilled yearning for that type of attention she had not received growing up, resentment that I had received it, and judgment about all of it. She ultimately shifted to express appreciation while better communicating her boundaries when my hovering became too much.

For many years, the system generally seemed to work. We each fulfilled deep needs in the other. Yet in other areas we remained underdeveloped. Glimmers of awareness would emerge when stressors were applied, but then fade once when the crisis passed and we would continue with our lives. Typical relationship challenges arose, questions about parenting, work-life balance, household management, and emotional communication. Our ability to withstand those stressors filtered through our already fried nervous systems. It’s been theorized the minority stress can disrupt or limit our basic emotion regulation skills, which include our ability to understand and manage our emotional experiences.

When I felt hurt or angry, I tended to go big and take up space, but cool down quickly after boiling over. Her process was often more internal and involved withdrawal into herself and controlled expressions of anger. I had no idea that she perceived that my big emotions made it harder to express her own distress and needs. To my shock, she told me that she felt small in our relationship. How could this be? She was my everything and loomed so large in my mind. But she felt small in terms of the space she took up emotionally to express herself and center her needs. She theorized that being close to my big emotions enabled her to ignore her own and that, if we stayed married, she would never learn to hear her own voice over mine.

As a psychologist I know that social supports can buffer the impact of stigma and discrimination as well as daily stressors. Being able to talk openly when relationship problems arise, rather than having to present a united front to remain the poster children for queer marriage, allows for additional resources to flow into a relationship. When we announced our separation, family members and friends responded with shock. Although this validated my own shock, it also highlighted how infrequently we allowed ourselves to even argue in front of others.

I had seen my parents have countless fights — but how many of ours had they been privy to? What insights might we have gleaned if we had not felt so much pressure to keep things together at all costs? When we first separated, I said our love is magic and we faced so many epic battles, but it was mundane problems that got us in the end. Many of our issues were subtle, but generic enough to be covered in popular self-help literature and social media accounts focused on anxious-avoidant attachment theories. There were so many books and strategies that *may* have helped us navigate classic attachment issues, had we not been on the defensive for so many years. We had been too busy fending off attacks to see the cracks to our foundation.

Through each external challenge, we fought side by side, but she especially never slowed down; she had kept going just as she had been taught. In giving her rationale for a divorce rather than a separation, she said she was burned out on our relationship.

Even after they made it clear they were serious about wanting a divorce, I could not accept that our marriage was over. I found myself stuck in the version I had of us in my mind versus what was happening between us in the present. This is the person I vowed and wanted to grow old with. We often laughed doing crude impressions of our aging selves, them chasing me with their walker still trying to cop a feel. How could they be the same person now sitting next to me, distant and unsmiling?

Alone a night, I screamed, I cried, I keened. I had no idea what true crying was until now. Something like the sound of a widow who wishes they were dead too. I felt like I had died, but still had to keep living even though the only life I wanted was the one I had envisioned with them, the family we would build. Even now, several months later, a thought can strike at any time and take me down with it: I will never grow old with them.

Psychologists can see potential in every patient who is seeking therapy. We have to be able to see a future with hope or we can’t treat a person. If we are hopeless, they are doomed. I can’t look at my marriage without seeing all the ways we could still fix it.

In the solitude of the pre-dawn, I’ve written them so many letters — each one outlining how we might have arrived at a different destination or proposing where we might go next. Letters I’ll never send; something always holds me back. During a particularly painful relationship therapy session after they first asked for a divorce, I caught just a glimpse of my wife. I saw what she tucked away. I saw the complete and utter exhaustion in them — how worn they were. And I heard their voice in my head. “I need to let go of you… And I need you to let go of me.”

Maybe we could fix it. Maybe we couldn’t. In the end, we are separate people and autonomy matters. I can’t make everything just so and fix it. I can’t do that with my patients either, nor should I try – I can offer them tools. And in this case, I can only work on myself.

On some level, even as I let go, I will never stop fighting for us. The work that kept me up late into the night, falling asleep on the couch instead of our bed, was devoted to developing interventions to address minority stress. Maybe I can help someone else have a smoother path than we did.

In looking back, I can see how that work took me away from my own marriage, my own pain. Some of that overworking was the brutality of academia, but some of it was me. A classic therapist’s predicament, focusing on others’ problems to avoid my own. In making projects of other people’s lives, I neglected my biggest project in this life – myself. I want to trust that I can tolerate my own pain. That I can stay with it long enough to feel it ease and listen to my partner’s needs, even when they conflict with my own. To trust that I will survive.

And there are moments where I can imagine experiencing deep joy again. I see the ways I have grown, the ways I was so enmeshed with her that I used to think I’d die if she did. Now I know I wouldn’t. I didn’t need to hang onto them for dear life and that doing so is how I lost them. I have leaned into new friendships and rekindled old ones. I write every day. I’ve learned I can cry for an hour in the parking lot and still see a patient the same day.

I can think it’s too much, and still keep on going.

Divorce Week is a celebration of taking a life-changing step, of coming out the other side of devastating trauma and being all the better for it. It’s co-edited and curated by Nico Hall and Carmen Phillips. Remember, you may be divorced, but you’re not alone.

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Ahuv Ne'eman

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  1. i had a close friend who’s a therapist and can confirm she was unhinged. she had a messy divorce w/ an ex that ended with her threatening deportation to her ex. our friendship ended because i was unable talk to her while i was at work. i just hope this writer is not unhinged in that way either but the line “even as I let go, I will never stop fighting for us” doesn’t covince me. girl, just let go and i hope yr not harassing yr bipoc ex.

    • Hi Queen Plum, I’m the editor on this one! I definitely hear your experiences, and how those experiences impact your reading of this piece. I wanted to provide additional context from conversations and editing this work with the writer. The line “even as I let go, I will never stop fighting for us” is in the context of the author’s continued work as a therapist, and learning from her experience to better serve others as a psychologist (there is another similar line earlier in the essay that’s in the past tense about how the author first felt when her wife asked for the divorce; it’s there to demonstrates an arc of growth after that response). Having those conversations between writer and editor as a part of the editing process are essential, particularly in essays that heavily involve dissecting how a relationship ended, and I hope that it provides some clarity.

      Personal essays like this one involve writers putting themselves out there in front of thousands of potential readers. One of the reasons queer people trust us to publish their personal stories is that Autostraddle readers are known for being thoughtful when engaging (especially as compared to the broader internet!). We encourage engaging with the work as it is on the page — and we definitely want you to talk about what’s written here. It’s also always helpful to remember there are real people on the other side of the blank screen for all of us, you know? Especially for the more intimate and vulnerable essays. Thank you for your thoughts! And thank you for taking time in reading this essay.

  2. This is so lovely and well written a piece – I don’t usually comment here but wanted to because it really moved me ❤️ Haven’t faced the challenges you have, but you’ve described them so thoughtfully and so insightfully that I really felt like I understood them! Hope things are starting to feel a little better

  3. I vm resonated with and enjoyed this piece. I could see the wounds and mental/emotional work both the author and their ex are doing. It took guts to write and publish so soon after the split. Loved all of Divorce Week!

  4. This is the only piece I read in full for Divorce Week—always a messy concept. I’m glad I chose this one. It was raw in a way I wasn’t expecting, and it was vulnerable in a way which went way beyond surface ideas about what you (we?) must be within our lives and relationships. Thank you for your time.

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