Last Wednesday night, I took the T to the Cambridge Zen Center, where I was a guest-teacher for a meditation class taught by a long-time friend. It was good to my friend again–she, like my friend Jen, is one of those old Zen buddies I see infrequently but who always seems familiar and comfortable, like a favorite pair of shoes. You get the sense with a friend like this that you can pick up exactly where you left off the last time you saw her, and the intervening years and life-changes don’t seem to matter because of the long history you’ve shared.
This friend of mine is married now–she’s been married for several years now–and she spotted my engagement ring from across the room as I was teaching, fixating on the question of whether I had remarried without her knowing it. After class, we talked briefly about this: yes, I’m engaged; yes, I’m getting married in August; no, I hadn’t shared the happy news the various times we’ve chatted recently. I experienced a strange sort of relief to see how happy she was at the news, as if she was absolving me from the obligations of my first marriage by acknowledging that yes, it’s time for me to let that stage of my life go.
This particular friend knew me when I was married; she was probably closer to my ex-husband than she was to me since she is a musician, and my then-husband had played drums on one of her albums. If anyone were to choose “his” side over “mine,” it would have been this friend…but she didn’t choose sides. She and I have remained friends–albeit friends who go far too long without seeing one another–in the face of these life changes. We don’t see one another often, but when we do see one another, there’s an abiding sense we really “know” one another.
I think I’m more nervous about sharing the news of my engagement with folks who knew me when I was married–especially with folks who knew my ex-husband–than I am with newer friends who know only my now without having known my then. With old friends, I feel a bit shy about the news; there’s a subconscious fear they won’t approve my remarrying, as if this marriage is a betrayal of that one. But this fear has no basis in reality; it’s based upon my own self-judgment and self-doubt. My oldest friends have been the most accepting and joyful in the face of my engagement; having seen me struggle through all that, they more than any of my newer friends can truly appreciate the miraculous wonder of new beginnings. My oldest friends are the ones who are happiest that my life is officially moving on; it’s my own insecurity that occasionally wonders whether moving on is a kind of abandonment.
It’s interesting that my fear and doubt are completely self-created; it’s interesting that I judge myself far more harshly than any friend or even acquaintance ever would. It’s downright cruel to assume that because my first marriage failed, I don’t “deserve” the happiness of a second chance–that’s an judgment I wouldn’t pass on even my worst enemy–and yet that seems to be the unspoken assumption behind my barely conscious fear. Although I can smile upon other people’s second chances, there’s some hidden part of me that seems reluctant to forgive myself for past failures.
My relative reluctance to absolve myself from the obligations of my first marriage is even more interesting when I consider how it follows a curious pattern I’ve seen repeated among the women I know, both family and friends. My ex-husband remarried years ago and has started a family, fully immersing himself into a new life with a woman he met a few months after our divorce, but I’ve waited nearly six years to remarry. Time and again I see this pattern among the women I know, where the man remarries soon after divorce while the woman lingers alone for years, serving as a kind of solitary sentinel commemorating a relationship that once was.
There are reasons for this pattern (which of course has its exceptions). If a woman has sole or primary custody of her children, she often devotes herself to their care rather than her own love-life; her ex-husband, on the other hand, is largely alone when his children aren’t visiting, so he has more time (and perhaps more reason) to date. Whereas men, I think, often crave the emotional input of a significant woman–wife, girlfriend, or mother–I find women typically rely upon themselves and their network of female friends to make sense of their emotional life. If you’re a divorced woman raising a child or children, a boyfriend is one more obligation you don’t have time for; if you’re a divorced man who sees his kids every other weekend, you have plenty of time to contemplate (and lament) your loneliness. As one of Mary Austin’s memorable characters once said, “A man…must have a woman, but a woman who has a child will do very well.”
It’s one thing to observe a pattern; it’s an entirely different matter to see that pattern as a prescription. Just because many of my phoenix friends have risen from the ashes of divorce and then waited years before remarrying doesn’t mean women “should” be expected to wait a prescribed amount of time before moving on. During the more than three years I’ve been dating J, I haven’t felt guilty about “moving on” from my first marriage: given that my ex-husband has long since remarried, what exactly am I moving on from? That’s what makes it all the more surprising that I felt so relieved to have an old friend smile and congratulate me, genuinely, on my engagement. Apparently her gentle absolution is exactly the kind I’ve been withholding from myself for all these years.