On the outside, my life looked pretty great. My husband was successful in his career, making a very good living. I was working as an actor—doing an episode here and there of Grey’s Anatomy—but was able to be at home with our son most of the time.
I had a beautiful house, a nice car—the works. But behind the scenes, our marriage was very volatile. I felt like I was dying a slow emotional death and had completely lost my sense of self. I had no idea who I was.
Often people would ask me how I was and I didn’t know how to answer the question, because I was miserable. I almost felt like a Stepford wife; robotic, trying to make everything look good on the outside. It was absolutely awful.
For a long time, I had been questioning my relationship, but I was doing all of these personal development workshops and the message was always the same: Anything is fixable.
I was told that if you change your behavior, then the entire relationship will also change, so I focused on bettering myself and fitting into this completely untenable situation. But the more I tried to change myself, the worse I felt, and the worse things got.
I started asking people how you knew when you’d reached the end, because there was always this sense of something else coming around the corner. I thought that if I just took another class, or tried another method, then everything would be okay.
But how do you know when you’ve tried everything?
A friend of mine said to me: “When you know, you’ll know.” I was p****d. The whole point of the conversation was that I didn’t know, and I was asking for advice.
Then, one day shortly afterward, I was standing in my closet looking for something, and it suddenly hit me. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
I realized that while we’re told we have to stay in our marriages for our children no matter what, we were modeling something to my son that I did not want for him.
I feared that if he continued to watch our toxic dynamic, he would grow up mirroring that. He would choose codependent women and repeat everything we did wrong. It was all he knew about marriage.
Everyone says you have to stay for your kids, but that was the moment I realized I had to leave for mine. My friend was right—in that instant, it was so clear to me.
Absolute relief washed over me. It was as though I was off the hook, no longer fixing something that wasn’t mine to fix. Honestly, I was giddy, it was the strangest feeling.
For a good year, I felt elated—I was finally free. But then the grief hits.
When we separated I took a major lifestyle hit, I had to move to a house on the “wrong side of the tracks.” No more manicured lawns or granite countertops for me. Not a stainless steel appliance in sight.
I moved to an older house where the paint was peeling off and the grass in the front lawn was dead. It was a really stark difference, but, initially, I was thrilled.
At 38 I was excited to get out there and date again, I felt like I was in my prime. I got into my first relationship, which initially was absolutely amazing, but then I started to have dreams about my ex.
“What is happening here?” I thought. I didn’t want my ex in my dreams. I knew I didn’t want to be back together, but it helped me realize that there was some grief there I had to address. And that sucked.
What followed was lots and lots of therapy. I was fortunate enough to forge a really good co-parenting relationship with my ex-husband. I think we had tried so hard to make our marriage work that, by God, we were going to make that divorce work.
Of course, at first there were many ups and downs—it hasn’t always been the healthiest. But there’s no playbook for these situations and I think it’s all the luck of the draw.
I was lucky enough to have an ex who was willing to put down all the toxicity and put our son first. And in my subsequent decade working in the divorce space, I know that’s not always true.
My work in divorce developed because in the very early days of my separation, people would come to me and say: “You guys had such a toxic marriage, how have you had such a good divorce?”
I always said the same thing: “We put our son first. He is at the center of every decision we make. We’ve never put him in the middle.”
When my marriage ended—pre-Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s divorce—concepts like separation coaching and conscious uncoupling were not a thing.
So when I went to life coaching school, people really had no idea what it was. I took some classes and instantly loved it. I ended up doing the whole year and a half curriculum and got myself my certification.
At the time, I feel there was so much negative messaging about divorce. It’s always terrible, awful, and bad for the children. But I knew that there was another way to do it.
So then I went back to school specifically to become certified as a relationship coach in family systems. My business has since evolved and I ended up really establishing myself in the divorce space.
For anyone thinking of leaving their marriage, the very first step I always recommend is to focus on rebuilding your sense of self. Because when you’ve been in any kind of unhappy relationship, whether it’s toxic or not, you’re essentially trying to fit yourself into something that’s not meant for you. And we tend to lose ourselves in the process.
So while it may be tempting to look at our partner and their behaviors, the first thing we have to do is reestablish our sense of self. Who are you outside of this relationship?
When you have established that sense of self again, I suggest looking at who that other person is, and whether that person aligns with your values.
Once you have found who you are again, it is easier to look at this other person and say: “That actually doesn’t fit with who I am anymore.” It becomes more about yourself than about the other person.
I hope to give women the ability to say: “This isn’t working for me anymore, and that is okay.”
Then we can work through interpersonal stuff; communication styles and love languages so they better understand themselves in relationships and know what they want in the future. Because if you don’t do that work, you’ll probably repeat the pattern and it is likely your next relationship will be very similar.
Having agonized over the question of “when is it time to leave?” for so long, I have come to the conclusion that there has to be a better way to discern this. And I hope to have created that process for women.
You don’t have to sit around waiting for the ton of bricks. There’s work that we can do to help you gain that clarity, without waiting around for those bricks to hit you.
Kate Anthony is a divorce coach, author of The D Word: Making the Ultimate Decision About Your Marriage and the host of the The Divorce Survival Guide Podcast.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As told to Newsweek’s My Turn associate editor, Monica Greep.
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