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Cheryl Strayed on Divorce

TinyBeautifulThingsMost people regard divorce as an apocalyptic event. Even though marriage is more optional than it has ever been, it is still valued so highly by our culture that it's hard not to interpret its premature end as a crushing personal failure.

In Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed takes a gentler view. Echoing Marcus Aurelius' knack for seeing things as they really are ("Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig."), she offers some advice to her younger self when she was considering leaving her first husband:

"You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all."

If you were the one who was left, the desire to understand why can be overwhelming. But even the one who left may not know. Strayed recounts the end of her own first marriage:

"I was married to a good man whom I both loved and wanted to leave.

I still can’t entirely explain why I needed to leave my ex. I was tortured by this very question for years because I felt like such an ass for breaking his heart and I was so shattered I’d broken my own.

I didn’t want to stay with my ex-husband, not at my core, even though whole swaths of me did. And if there’s one thing I believe more than I believe anything else, it’s that you can’t fake the core. The truth that lives there will eventually win out."

As she tells one letter-writer, however, even though you may not understand why your marriage ended, that doesn't mean you can't learn from it:

"I encourage you to do more than throw up your hands in your examination of “whose fault” it was that your twenty-year marriage fell apart. It was no one’s fault, darling, but it’s still all on you. It would behoove you to reflect upon what went right in that relationship and what went wrong; to contemplate how you might carry forth the former in your current and/or future relationships and quash the latter."

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to do when going through a divorce is to try to keep a sense of perspective. And yet divorce is not without its upsides:

"The end of your relationship with him will likely also mark the end of an era of your life. In moving into this next era there are going to be things you lose and things you gain."

Being left by someone who doesn't love you any more may even be a good thing:

"He deserved the love of a woman who didn’t have the word go whispering like a deranged ghost in her ear. To leave him was a kindness of a sort, though it didn’t seem that way at the time."

Marriage creates an expectation that you and your partner will stay together for the rest of your lives. Set aside that expectation and suddenly divorce seems less fearsome.

"We live and have experiences and leave people we love and get left by them. People we thought would be with us forever aren’t and people we didn’t know would come into our lives do. Our work here is to keep faith with that."