How my Mid-Life Breakup Changed my Life for Good
By Jacqueline Whitmore
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.
– Mary Oliver
There I was, sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, filling out a new-patient questionnaire. It was simple until I got to the marriage status box: single, married, widowed, divorced, separated. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know which box to check.
I was separated but married. I wasn’t widowed, but I felt as though my marriage was on the brink of death. I could play it safe and mark “single.”
Who was I? What was I? I was a confused 51-year-old woman. And I was alone. Grasping this reality, I skipped the boxes and moved on to the next question.
Five months earlier, my husband and I had separated. We had been together for twenty-two years, married for seventeen. Now I felt like a failure. I blamed myself for a multitude of things: For not trying hard enough. For not being more loving or affectionate. For not appreciating him enough. For not meeting his expectations. For constantly being late. The list goes on and on. I felt embarrassed and ashamed about our situation and wanted to keep it a secret from all our friends and neighbors.
The first time I went to the grocery store after my separation, I walked up and down each aisle thinking about what foods my husband liked.
I was facing a new normal, that of a single person. The first time I went to the grocery store after my separation, I walked up and down each aisle thinking about what foods my husband liked. Crunchy peanut butter, chocolate milk, ice cream sandwiches. But, instead of cooking for two, I was now cooking for one. It was lonely eating dinner all by myself. Nightly conversations with my husband were replaced with old reruns of Happy Days.
One time when I was traveling, I sat next to a young couple on the airplane holding hands. I watched with envy as they gazed into each other’s eyes and softly giggled. I longed to feel that kind of love and affection again.
Those who knew us thought we had it all — a beautiful Mediterranean-style house with a swimming pool, two Mercedes Benz sports cars, two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, no kids, no drama, no baggage — an idyllic marriage.
I met my husband in 1993 at the Solid Waste Authority (also known as the county dump) while I was on a tour to learn about recycling. Someone’s trash was truly my treasure (or however the old adage goes). It was lust at first sight. He was 25 and I was 29. After five years of dating, we married. We had our health, our looks, successful careers, and we traveled the world together. He was my life partner, business partner, and best friend. We were in love and completely devoted to one another. Sure, we had our ups and downs, but for the most part, we had a happy marriage.
Then in 2015, the year started with a bang…literally. Lightning struck our backyard. This calamity caused permanent damage to some of our household electronics, resulting in unexpected expenses. As both our businesses slowed down and bills piled up, we started arguing about money. During this precarious time, a close friend, who was like a second mother to both of us, became ill and died.
But the most pivotal moment came when my husband got sick. He fell into a deep pool of depression and, as much as I tried, I couldn’t save him from drowning. I begged him to see a doctor but he refused. I felt helpless and frustrated.
I came home from work one day and found him sitting on the couch with his head held tensely in his hands. He told me he was moving out — without me.
He looked like the same person I fell in love with — tall, muscular, tan, athletic and movie-star gorgeous. But inside, he was riddled with pain and confusion. He worried obsessively about our finances and finally insisted that we sell our home. Reluctantly, I agreed. We had lived there for 15 wonderful years but he convinced me it was time for us to move on. That, however, didn’t stop me from crying when he put the “for sale” sign in the front yard. He was an experienced realtor and knew it would sell quickly if it was priced right.
The good news: it sold in nine days. The bad news: we had no plan and nowhere to go.
Weeks later, I came home from work one day and found him sitting on the couch with his head held tensely in his hands. He told me he was moving out — without me.
For a moment, I thought I was having a bad dream. But I could tell by the painful look on his face that he wasn’t joking. Nothing I said or did could persuade him to change his mind. I wanted to shake him and say, “Doesn’t our marriage mean anything to you?” But, I kept my composure and I didn’t cry. After a few moments of silence, I said sarcastically, “Where are the dogs and I supposed to go?” He didn’t answer.
He moved into one of his rental units a mile away, and I moved in with my sister three hours away in the heart of Central Florida. Mount Dora (also known as Mount “Dorable”) is a picture-perfect village famous for its tree-lined streets, antique shops, historic inns, and welcoming Southern-hospitality atmosphere. It reminds me of Mayberry from the 1960’s Andy Griffith Show. Simple, safe, inviting, and full of friendly people. Living closer to my sister meant I’d feel less alone and Mount Dora seemed like the perfect place to stay until my future became more certain.
My husband and I agreed to go to counseling together to work on our marriage. The therapist recommended that we try a “healing separation,” just a little breathing space that would be sort of a time-out from our relationship, giving us both a chance to work on ourselves.
While I was contemplating all the ways our marriage had failed, why I couldn’t put it back together again, and wondered why my husband didn’t want me anymore, I started looking for a new place to live. Then the doubts set in. Can I afford to live on my own? Was I a financial liability to my husband? Am I brave enough to live alone without an emotional or financial safety net?
I called an old friend who lived locally and she knew someone, Carla, who was looking for a tenant. Carla owned an 800-square-foot boathouse, situated along the eastern shore of Lake Dora. Built in 1925, this boathouse was originally an old, tin-sided boat shed owned by a fisherman. When Carla and her husband, Lou, purchased it in the 80s, they renovated it by adding rustic cedar shake siding, shutters, new windows, antique front doors, flower boxes and a green metal roof. Inside, they added beamed ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, polished oak floors, and a handmade Murphy bed.
It was comfortable, but this neglected boathouse needed my personality to bring it to life.
It reminded me of a gingerbread house. It was adorable, but I could tell no one had lived in it for a long time. Cobwebs and mud daubers hung around the windows and front doors. The grandiose live oak tree, a couple of cabbage palms, and bougainvillea bushes in the front yard needed trimming. It smelled of musty wood inside. The living room was modestly appointed with a few antique end tables, a tiny desk, a dining room table and chairs, a sofa and recliner. It was comfortable, but this neglected boathouse needed my personality to bring it to life.
At first, I wasn’t sure I would take it. I had concerns about living in a house in the water. “What about the alligators and water moccasins?” I asked. Carla assured me that my dogs and I would be safe as long as we didn’t go swimming or fall into the lake.
What appealed to me most was the location. Just a short walk from Mount Dora’s shops and restaurants, I liked the idea of taking my dogs downtown and being close to all the festivals and other activities. After giving it some thought, I signed a five-month lease, hoping I would move back to West Palm Beach and my husband afterward.
As time went on, I became increasingly more independent and resourceful, recognizing I was on the brink of becoming self-sufficient.
When I returned home, I spent the next month packing up all of my belongings. On the day the movers came, my husband and I didn’t say much to each other. We mostly watched as they loaded all our furniture into the van. It saddened me to know that the life I once loved was coming to an end. My husband remained stoic. That afternoon, we parted ways with barely a kiss and a half-hearted hug.
I moved into the boathouse with the help of some girlfriends. I cleaned and decorated it with my favorite pictures, dishes and books. I bought myself flowers every week. Eventually, it started feeling more like home. Throughout our separation, my husband and I visited each other once or twice a month. Some days, we argued. Other days, we talked for hours and held each other tight and cried until we couldn’t breathe and our eyes ached. We didn’t know if we could fix our relationship. The longer we lived apart, the further away my marriage felt.
As time went on, I became increasingly more independent and resourceful, recognizing I was on the brink of becoming self-sufficient. I trotted off to Lowes and bought pots, fertilizer and potting soil. I planted flowers and they actually grew. This was a first, as my husband had always taken care of our yard.
One of my friends bought me a toolbox as a housewarming gift. I didn’t know a Phillips screwdriver from a flat head screwdriver, but I was quick to learn how to hang pictures and repair small household items. I was feeling kind of delighted and proud of myself.
Life was delightfully quiet at the boathouse. For hours, I’d sit on my back porch and watch the light dance on the lake and listen to the water slap back and forth against the dock. The monotony of it all calmed my troubled mind and helped me sort through my emotions. I looked forward to seeing my new friends each day — egrets, herons, ducks, and yes, the occasional alligator. There was no one around to try to please or accommodate, so I gave myself permission to sit, reflect, and just be. Watching life on the lake kept my pain and sadness at bay. The water gently rocked me to sleep each night. The sunshine smiled brightly into my windows and awakened me in the morning.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Unbeknownst to me, my evolution was happening one sunset at a time.
In the afternoon, I couldn’t wait to pour myself a glass of wine and watch the bright orange, red, pink and purple sunsets come to life. My camera was always at the ready to capture the masterpieces that appeared before me. And as the sun slowly disappeared into the water, I was seduced into a much-needed sense of peace. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Unbeknownst to me, my evolution was happening one sunset at a time.
This place was exactly what I needed to work out my rage and sorrow. I needed this tranquil place to provide the solitude necessary to heal my spirit. I needed this place to wail out my pain at full volume. The boathouse became my healing place.
I stayed up as late as I wanted and slept in as long as I wanted. I got used to sleeping alone at night. Instead of missing my husband’s arms tightly wrapped around me, I let my dogs sleep with me and spoon me and keep me warm.
I had chips and wine for dinner if I wanted. I danced, sang, and played my music loudly, alone. When I needed company, I invited friends over for dinner. I didn’t have to ask permission or check anyone else’s schedule. I practiced radical self-care. I joined a gym, hired a personal trainer, got monthly massages and visited a chiropractor regularly. I started enjoying my new life as a single person and I stopped missing my husband so much.
Four months into our separation, my husband sent me a Fed Ex package. Inside there was a tiny blue box. When I opened it, there was a house key and a note that read, “Please come home!” My heart melted.
Within an hour of receiving the package, my husband sent a text telling me he had changed his mind. He had sent the key prematurely and didn’t think it would be a good idea for me to come home after all. Just like that, the universe gave me the answer I was seeking. I was hurt and angry and I probably said some pretty nasty things to him to hurt him as deeply as he had hurt me. In time, I accepted the fact that our marriage, like an old, moldy jar of mayonnaise, had expired.
In January 2016, my husband filed the paperwork and on March 29, our divorce was final. Just like that, our marriage was over. What was done was done. In divorce, no one wins. But in my case, my husband and I were able to rekindle a new kind of friendship that lasts to this day. And for me, that was enough.
My divorce was a gift. If I had stayed married, I probably would not have rediscovered the true me.
Several months after I left the boathouse, I bought a 1925 cottage in the historic district in Mount Dora. I also hired a contractor and renovated my home, turning it into a dollhouse. I decorated it the way I wanted, with furniture purchased at estate sales. I planted a garden. I learned to mow my own lawn, pick weeds, and get my hands dirty. I learned to paint. I even installed a bidet, one of those fancy plumbing fixtures intended for washing one’s nether regions after using the bathroom. I proved to myself that I can do anything I put my mind to. And when I can’t do something, I hire someone.
Even today, I still believe my husband and I had a happy marriage. My divorce was a gift. If I had stayed married, I probably would not have rediscovered the true me. Yes, I am still learning how to be single, but I am no longer confused when it comes to boxes (moving boxes, marital status boxes, or even heavy boxes).
Getting a divorce was a stepping stone to grace, forgiveness and to a better life. It has made me a stronger person and has given me a greater appreciation for what home truly means. Home is more than a roof over my head. It’s my safe place. It’s where I can be myself and do whatever I want, from lounging around in an old t-shirt and sweatpants, to entertaining friends. It’s the place where I am surrounded by all the things that I love, especially my two precious pups.
About the Writer
Jacqueline Whitmore is the author of Poised for Success: Mastering the Four Qualities That Distinguish Outstanding Professionals and Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work (which is in its 14th printing). Her articles have appeared in HuffPost, Entrepreneur, Fortune, and LifeZette. She is an international etiquette expert and the founder and director of The Protocol School of Palm Beach. When she is not teaching and traveling to exotic places, she loves spending time at her cottage in Mount Dora, Florida with her two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. She and can be reached at www.EtiquetteExpert.com.
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