“I don’t believe in divorce,” Lisa declared in between bites of her spinach lasagna.
“Uh, I’m sorry?” I inquired as my mind jarringly shifted from the lovely drought of wine I just swallowed to the thought of a ferociously sensitive and heart-wrenching topic.
“I don’t believe anyone who gets married should ever get a divorce.”
I was perplexed. I’m sure my face hardened with judgment despite my attempts to cycle through the mantra, “Benefit of the doubt,” “Benefit of the doubt,” “Give her the benefit of the doubt.”
“Divorce is wrong,” she said confidently.
And there it was: The truth. In her eyes. The end of this relationship in mine. Suddenly my pasta primavera tasted less hearty; the wine less smooth.
“I think in marriage, all problems can be fixed through hard work,” she stated matter-of-factly.
Unable to respond in a friendly manner at this point, I immediately lost myself in the thought of how I should end this date. Should I just end it right now? Throw my money angrily on the table and storm out? Should I muscle through? Shovel my meal down in a frenzy, walk her to her car, and say, “So long divorce hater!” Should I never call her again? Or perhaps this could just be a one-nighter. Get a few more glasses of wine, get a little saucy, go back to mine and tear each other’s clothes off? But more likely, this was the moment my therapist was talking about. The moment when I had to look more deeply than the first sign of a red flag.
Too many times have I chalked up a failed attempt at a relationship to being simple disinterest. Disinterest stemming from her toes are crooked, she makes this weird face when we’re about to kiss, she was rude to the guy who sold us our movie tickets, she’s sexually inhibited, she’s a smoker, she doesn’t understand the difference between childlike and childish, she doesn’t know how to open her heart to love, and so forth, and so on.
But that’s what my therapist observed. And when he pointed it out for the first time, I literally laughed out loud. He said, “When things get uncomfortable for you, Steve, you let go. You move on emotionally before the relationship is even over. You flip a switch.” And he was right! It was as if he was watching each of my dates from across the restaurant behind an upside down New York Times and a fake beard. But he has a real beard. And a real point. So perhaps this was the opportunity to confront that discomfort; stand up to the fear it represented.
Step one: Seek first to understand.
“What about physical or emotional abuse?” I challenged Lisa, trying to hide my distaste for her obvious lack of experience with divorce. An act which can be the first step toward freeing and empowering victims of abuse.
“Therapy,” she offered.
“And if one party isn’t interested?”
“Well, you need to know who you’re marrying before you marry,” she responded smugly. I could almost taste the bile rushing from my stomach to the back of my throat.
She continued on, detailing that growing up to first generation Filipino parents as a Catholic in Texas, nothing was more defiling to God — or her parents, for that matter — than divorce. My disbelief and disgust that she believed what she was saying was immobilizing. My face still was hardened. My shoulders were stiff. My right hand gripped my glass of wine while my left clutched the arm of the chair in which I sat. I finally spoke, revealing the source of my angst and tension.
“My parents are divorced,” I said.
Her face turned pale. Then a faint shade of red. Her mouth quietly gaped open. Her eyes sought comfort in the basket of bread on the table between us. I shared four words. But four were all she needed to realize that unloading her opinion about such a sensitive subject on a first date wasn’t necessarily the most tactful idea. Despite my anger, frustration, and willingness to bail, I let her explain her feelings while maintaining my composure.
Step two: Share the reason that triggered the switch to be flipped.
“My parents were divorced when I was ten years old,” I went on as Lisa fell silent. “There was no abuse, but my dad didn’t know who he was. He hated himself. He didn’t know how to be loved. He was negative all the time; couldn’t communicate. My mother couldn’t deal with it, so they got divorced. But now, twenty-two years later, they’re friends. They actually come to LA together to visit me from Massachusetts. They go to the movies on weekends and visit my brother’s family together. It’s weird, but it’s awesome. That divorce was the best thing that ever happened to my family. I can’t imagine how awful things might’ve been had they stayed together.”
I opened up. Against my initial feeling of being trapped and defensive. I let my walls down for a moment. My face softened. My shoulders laxed. My right hand lifted the glass of wine towards my lips. My left found its place on the table next to my plate.
Step three: Extend the benefit of the doubt.
She continued to explain that despite her parents being together, they slept in different rooms and hardly ever interacted. Dad travelled a lot. Mom kept away from the house when he was home. It wasn’t pretty, but divorce wasn’t even something that ever entered the discussion; it just wasn’t acceptable.
I sympathized for her. I felt her distress. But I still didn’t fully understand why she despised divorce as much as she did. If her parents didn’t love each other, what was the point of staying together? Why bother playing house? What’s a relationship without communication? Why defend a relationship that is clearly irreparable? I had to figure this out or get out.
But before I flipped the table and bolted for the nearest door, my mind found itself on a thought of acceptance and forgiveness. The thought that everyone deserves acceptance for their feelings, no matter how different they may be from my own. And each of us deserves forgiveness for the judgments we make. Including me. Then everything became perfectly clear. As if I was sitting across from my bearded therapist in the armchair with the green and beige palm tree pattern. I didn’t need to figure this out. I didn’tneed to get out. I was inside of an uncomfortable moment, yes, but this was certainly not any reason for me to jump ship so hastily. I needed to forgive myself for wanting to jump ship and for so vehemently denying this woman a chance to see me from the inside out because of one difference in our beliefs.
So, she didn’t believe in divorce. So what? Were we married? Were we planning on getting married? Were we even dating? Or was I just taking this woman out to dinner to get to know her better? To find out whom she was on the inside? To potentially find someone who I could fall in love with, begin a life with, and not get divorced from?
Lisa excused herself to use the restroom, but before she got up, she gently rested her right hand on my left hand and said in her subtle southern accent, “Ya know, I’m not going to jump out the bathroom window. I’m looking forward to getting back to the fun conversation.”
“I’ll be right here,” I responded. And I meant it.