Learning to Love and Let Go: What My Divorce Taught Me About Living With Less
No one enters their marital union thinking divorce is on the horizon. Yet that is where I found myself in 2016: in an unhappy six-year marriage with a kind man who today is one of my dearest friends. But five years ago, our lives were in turmoil, in the thick of a season of temporary hardships that seemed very persistent and permanent. A moment in time we'd later reflect on as the serendipitous season that taught us how to love and let go.
Joe and I had only known each other for six months before we got married, barely long enough to build a solid friendship. We'd both felt the societal pressures to partner up, and both valued the social currency of being married, respectable adults. I was eager to share the responsibilities of parenting while managing a demanding legal career that kept me in a perpetual state of exhaustion. Although my daughter's biological father was very present and active in her life since her birth, he lived out of state and I wanted a partner to help me with the daily grind. So, I began dating with a purpose: to find a good guy to help me raise my amazing daughter and help me live my best life. When Joe and I met through a mutual friend, I was quickly enamored with his jovial nature. (The fact that he also checked many of the boxes on my list of superficial requirements like "must be tall" was a bonus.) Soon, our weekly date nights were filled with meaningful conversations about our dreams and long-term goals.
"I am not dating for fun," I declared to Joe after a few months of courting. "I want to get married and settle down. So just know, I am not going to be dating you for years and years." It was a common refrain and preemptive ultimatum among young, successful women in their 30s. And Joe responded in kind: by proposing six months to the day we met with a gorgeous diamond ring that was enviable and Instagram-worthy. Our engagement made my also 30-something-year-old girlfriends excited and optimistic. It wasn't too late! There was still hope for them too! How naïve we were in believing marriage was the end game.
Despite our brief courtship and concerns that we were rushing from a few close friends, Joe and I were proud of our engagement. We'd checked off another box on the unofficial checklist for "growing up." When we chose to have a small, intimate ceremony at a quaint bed and breakfast in lieu of spending thousands on a large wedding so that we could purchase a home, we were certain that we were starting our newly merged lives as responsibly as possible. Our new little family of three quickly began living its best life, moving out of my affordable 630-square-foot condo in the city to an almost 3,000-square-foot single-family home in the suburbs.
Those first few years of our union were seasons of plenty. There were frenzied mornings where we shared school drop-offs and long days that were offset with weekends of leisure. We hosted family barbecues in our lush backyard, had couple's game nights in our basement, and occasionally, we'd make the time for an island getaway for just the two of us. It was the lovely life I'd always romanticized, and I couldn't help but feel like we weren't trying to "keep up with the Joneses"—we were the Joneses!
I'd always had a penchant for bargain shopping and my "just married" status (and my husband's second income) only made me more devoted to finding the best deals to decorate our new homes and upgrade our newly merged lives. I shopped because I could. Because we worked hard so we deserved nice things. Because it was important to #treatyoself. Because we were young and successful, and we deserved to have the things that the picture-perfect ideal family we had always aspired to be should have.
Until the summer of 2016. Content with our cushy lifestyle, a few months before I'd resign from a six-figure role to pursue a career as a full-time writer and homemaker. But much to my surprise, I failed miserably at both. In less than a year, I'd effectively ended our season of plenty. And I felt a sense of responsibility that I had to do something to contribute to our household. Home alone for much of the day, I began to focus less on the characters who seemed unwilling to tell me their stories and more on our excess.
For a little family of three, we had so many things. Too many things! Our wardrobes were overflowing with more clothing, shoes, and accessories than we could ever wear. Every room contained multiple baskets and bins filled with things we wanted out of sight. Our daughter's bedroom was cluttered, her favorite belongings often lost among no-longer-loved toys and unread books. With great fanfare, I abandoned my failures as the writer who could not write and the homemaker who preferred takeout for a new aspiration: minimalism.
Without the six-figure book deal I had been certain was coming, my failed writer-turned-minimalist trajectory put a strain on our bank account and not shortly thereafter, our marriage. Joe and I went to counseling with the hopes of saving our marriage, only to become more aware of the individual and collective responsibilities that led to our troubles. Joe had wanted to be half of a power couple, a man who conquered the world with a beautiful and successful woman by his side. I had been very intentional about getting married but not very intentional about what I needed from a partner beyond the parental support and lifestyle that I believe came with being partnered. It was a harsh reality to face—we'd both given very little thought to what we truly needed from our partners and for ourselves. Although we still very much loved each other, it was clear that our marriage was over.
If there are indeed personal low points in one's adulthood, I was certainly at my lowest. I'd failed as a writer. I'd failed as a homemaker. And thanks to my affinity for bargain shopping—another personal failure that resulted in us having little savings in our season of hardship—we'd have to learn to love and let go of more than each other. There were plenty of bills to divvy up and a lot of beloved things we'd have to part with. Although we were both individually responsible for our failed marriage, I couldn't help but take the lion's share of the blame.
Humbled and slightly humiliated by the stigma of our separation, I returned to the 630-square-foot condo that I bought as single woman and lived in as a single mother with my toddler. Turning the key to enter my new-old home was a sobering experience, a constant feeling of disbelief that I'd returned to where I'd started with less than what I'd had. But in time, I found something oddly comforting about having the chance to start over. I laughed at the irony of my life imitating my art—that I was once again staring at a blank page trying to figure out how in the hell I was going to write the next chapter.
I'd began my journey to minimalism by choice and it was challenging to accept that I had become a minimalist by circumstance. Ever the gentleman, Joe allowed me to take what I wanted to begin my new life as a divorcee in my old home. We consciously uncoupled as best we could and were inundated with compliments about our ability to love and let go respectfully. Still, it wasn't easy. Joe and I had to learn a lot of lessons, but we are ever grateful that our divorce and its aftermath were life's perfect teachers. Sometimes, we simply must let go of the things and people we love.
Among the many lessons learned, I discovered that minimalism is less about having a tidy home, of sorting through our belongings in search of those things that "spark joy." It is an opportunity to live with intention, to be purposeful about what we truly need. Of course, letting go can be challenging, coupled with loss aversion and feelings of shame and disbelief. But when embraced, whether by choice or circumstance, learning to let go is a gift that is accessible to everyone. And, surprisingly, it is the gift that keeps giving.
Free from the constraints of a union that we tried to make work, Joe and I found ourselves developing a healthy friendship. Bills were paid down, then off. In time, we occasionally found ourselves at dinner together, openly sharing how much happier we were and how proud we were of each other for being brave enough to take the road less traveled. There were many items that I had taken to my small home only to return to Joe later. They were things that I'd loved but didn't need, and so I let them go back to the single-family home that fit their scale. Joe often sent texts with laughing emojis: "Look at what I've found!" Even now, we joke about how my penchant for bargain shopping continues to force us to let go of things we never needed in the first place.
Learning to love and let go taught Joe and me that divorce doesn't have to be a terrible experience, that it too can be a gift of freedom. We learned that things will come and go, and that our attachments are often rooted in the fear of having less, even when we don't need more. We learned to value what was important, that our things are often a temporary form of security and comfort that can mask our troubles and discomfort. And that when we bravely face reality, letting go can be more therapeutic than tragic.
Because the truth is, everyone will have to love and let go many times in their life. Yet, when done with respect and intention, we can come to understand that sometimes our losses are actually gains.