a facsimile of intimacy, a love-shaped house for isolation to live in
July 20, 2015 11:22 AM   Subscribe

"This is one of the ways in which my second adolescence was absolutely faithful to the first: it was so difficult, so emotionally overwrought, so suffused with terror and confusion and embarrassment. It takes a perverse kind of bravery to start over—it's a selfish and deluded thing to do, and you need that courage to deal with what comes next. It's one thing to burn your life down and walk out of the ashes, but nobody tells you the phoenix is born as a tender, featherless baby bird."

A Midlife Crisis, By Any Other Name: an essay by Jess Zimmerman (previously, previouslier) for Hazlitt. [via]
posted by divined by radio (64 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
 
We are discussing this over in the emotional labour thread right now and I am sitting here, trying not to recognize so much of myself in this essay and also trying not to cry at my desk.
posted by Kitteh at 11:24 AM on July 20, 2015 [13 favorites]


the need for change was like tinfoil between my teeth every day.

That is a great line.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:39 AM on July 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


We have the privilege to care about feeling fulfilled, but we don’t always have the freedom to try—and by the time we’re old enough to realize what we might want and believe that we deserve it, it feels too late.

The constant drumbeat in US culture about "happiness" - and the number of people I've seen upend seeming good (if not constantly deeply fulfilling) lives in search of it- make me uneasy. The author's writing at the end about working on self improvement and feeling guilty for prioritizing pleasure over work suggest she may be at least a little in thrall to this neoliberalization of happiness.

Not that I have any idea how to clearly distinguish a bland, merely placeholding life that you should throw over vs. a good, sufficient one that is likely as good as you can hope for and should invest the hard work in making better - but the fact that the very idea of happiness now seems to be a tool in the financialization of the self isn't making this calculation easier for anyone, I suspect.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:49 AM on July 20, 2015 [12 favorites]


I am glad that the author acknowledges her insane privilege to have a "midlife crisis" because this essay came off as really whiny to me. Lots of people aren't done making mistakes when they are in their mid-20s, but there are people who can grow and mature in the relationships they have committed to. If the problem was with her husband, fine, but it doesn't seem like that's the case here.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:53 AM on July 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


Too close to home for me right now. My own wife is very likely going through this right now, and unfortunately, the timing is pretty terrible for me. I went through mine a couple of years ago and it nearly killed me because it took the form of an acute substance abuse problem. I've been in recovery from the worst of it for a couple of years now, but my own crisis pushed my wife very hard in a direction away from me just as she entered this stage of life for herself. It's a crazy confusing and hard process to go through under the best of circumstances, and while there may be a selfish aspect to the process viewed from the outside, it's not as much fun on the inside as it may look (mine was not fun at all; it was all about desperation to escape the dull, never-ending routine of adult life, the loss of identity that comes with it, shame, misery, and loss of control; the after math has been better, even despite the recent problems in my marriage. I've gotten healthier than I've been in years and hope to stay that way), but it seems to be necessary and natural at a certain age for both men and women to go through something like this. My wife and I aren't well off enough to be able to afford having mid-life crises, either, really--but it's too intense to stop. The path we're on right now is not in our own financial self-interest at all, but the feelings and passions involved are much too strong for that to matter.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:59 AM on July 20, 2015 [12 favorites]


(And to be fair, my wife is still being as financially responsible as she can be given the need she has for space right now. We were just so heavily indebted to start with, we're missing our chance to look out for our long term financial future now and have a few big problems on the horizon. Being very short term happiness focused is part of these things, I think.)
posted by saulgoodman at 12:10 PM on July 20, 2015


This is very difficult for me to read. I was married, had some of my own crises around work. My wife, it seems, had one of these, though does not seem to be self-aware enough to articulate herself in the way that the author of this piece has.

She left me by complete surprise a few weeks after our first anniversary. No honest attempts to counsel, listen, stay together. She just shut me out completely, shut down emotionally.

We could have worked together, could have grown together. She chose not to.

Part of those wedding vows are a promise to find that growth and that change TOGETHER. Throwing your husband away because he's the first thing you can put your finger on is unforgivably selfish.

This is also one of the many reasons I hated 'Eat, Pray, Love.'
posted by chinese_fashion at 12:12 PM on July 20, 2015 [36 favorites]


I am glad that the author acknowledges her insane privilege to have a "midlife crisis" because this essay came off as really whiny to me. Lots of people aren't done making mistakes when they are in their mid-20s, but there are people who can grow and mature in the relationships they have committed to. If the problem was with her husband, fine, but it doesn't seem like that's the case here.

I think you'll find that the scores of women here who relate to this article, written by a woman about things that many women experience, will feel like you just called them "whiny" and dismissed their experiences out of hand.

It hit home for me, hard hard hard.

Hope that didn't sound too whiny.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:19 PM on July 20, 2015 [65 favorites]


This only reinforces my feeling that my (male) experience with foundering and ultimately dissolution of my marriage shares many traits often construed and gendered towards women. I can certainly see how it hits home for many and my primary reaction in reading it is deep thankfulness that I'm three years climbing out of the ashes. I found this well written, compelling and healthily self-aware.
posted by meinvt at 12:22 PM on July 20, 2015 [11 favorites]


Sometimes people get married for the wrong reasons, and that's unfortunate but it does not mean they have to stay once they realize it.

If you could counsel yourself into staying with someone you don't want to be with, AskMe would just be called "ShouldIEatThisFilter."
posted by Lyn Never at 12:36 PM on July 20, 2015 [21 favorites]


I turn 40 next year (GULP) and have been having these horrible waves of panic in that I don't feel like I have done anything with my life (no career, a placeholder job, too much anxiety and depression, no way to figure out how to articulate what I do want, etc) which is why this piece resonates so deeply with me. And you know what? It really sucks to try and talk about it with anyone, including my husband. It sucks precisely as other people do see it as being whiny, selfish, immature, any number of descriptors that amount to "suck it up, buttercup."
posted by Kitteh at 12:38 PM on July 20, 2015 [25 favorites]


[A couple comments removed, please cool it a little.]
posted by cortex at 12:38 PM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


Scores of women (and men) relate to this article.
Scores of women (and men) relate to being on the receiving end of this article.
Both of those things suck in life-altering ways.

She writes well, it was a compelling piece. But the part that stood out most to me was that she married a man because he was a good man and she wanted the approval that came along with that. There was a word missing in that paragraph.

I feel awful for him. On Ask, we'd say: leave him for his own sake. Let him find someone who loves him for who he is. And I don't think that marrying a "good man" has much to do with either midlife crisis, or with emotional work of women. She made a mistake, a mistake that is sadly common and sadly, not so gendered. It was a life-altering mistake, and she's living through the suck of that.

Maybe it's the self-absorption here (which is teenaged), but I don't feel like she got where she wanted to go with this piece. I'm just not convinced of the broader thing she wants it to be.
posted by Dashy at 12:42 PM on July 20, 2015 [7 favorites]


I am glad that the author acknowledges her insane privilege to have a "midlife crisis" because this essay came off as really whiny to me. Lots of people aren't done making mistakes when they are in their mid-20s, but there are people who can grow and mature in the relationships they have committed to. If the problem was with her husband, fine, but it doesn't seem like that's the case here.

I have grown and matured in a situation not of my choosing because it would have been very socially, financially and personally costly to throw it away. The things that people give up - mostly women or people who have lived as women* - are things that are hard to give up, and that many men would not consider acceptable to give up: sex, for instance; emotional companionship; emotional companionship from someone who acts as an equal; openness about what you're thinking and feeling about the relationship; ability to express frustration. And at the same time, you're also having to add a lot of stuff that's difficult to do but would be easier if you had the missing things - all the caretaking, all the motivating, all the checking-in. You're not single just because your relationship isn't supportive.

And looking ahead at your life and realizing that you will never again have the things you're missing, because you've chosen to mature in a situation that you selected when you were much younger and wanted to placate the people in your life.

That's hard.

I think it was probably the wrong choice, but it's too late now.

Picture yourself, too, living with a woman who has given up everything in order not to upset her parents or you - a woman who has given up living where she wants, doing the work she wants, getting the kind of sex she wants, having the kind of emotional companionship she wants - and who has taken on caring for you and managing the expectations of your family and community. How do you feel about that relationship? How do you feel about living with someone who desperately wants at least some of these things that she is missing but has decided to mature where she is and give up on those things?

Yes, ditching your life is kind of selfish and chaotic, it's true. But there isn't a nice choice. There's silently sucking it up forever, or making a mess out of your life.

The issue isn't "making mistakes" - the issue is "I did everything right". The issue is "I did everything to please everyone around me without even checking in with myself about how I felt and for some reason that doesn't make me happy at all".

*I had a big conversation that was basically about this with a trans woman friend the other day; women, cis and trans, deal with this stuff.
posted by Frowner at 12:45 PM on July 20, 2015 [92 favorites]


It's hard for me to read this article and not be an extremely judgmental "holy hell what a train-wreck of capital-I Issues"..

We're all deeply messed up folks, and when our checklist of how we're messed up doesn't align with someone else airing their own checklist's dirty laundry, it's easy to point the finger as we can't relate.
posted by k5.user at 12:47 PM on July 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


I feel awful for him.

My ex basically did the same thing as this author and while I probably wouldn't have thought so at the time, it was by far the best thing for both of us in the long run. I was too scared of being seen as the bad husband and father to be the one to leave so it was a gift to both of us for her to take the initiative. That was twenty years ago and we're friends to this day but if it had gone on longer, it would have only gotten worse for both of us.
posted by octothorpe at 12:50 PM on July 20, 2015 [12 favorites]


I was in the same position as Jess Zimmerman--I had to get out of a bad early-age marriage (that I should never have gotten into) so I could finish becoming whole, an adult, a person. I feel her a lot and honestly, I read all the judgmental men in this thread and side-eye the hell out of them.

The reason why women leave these marriages to grow up is that the men in their lives don't help them grow or give them room to breathe. I could tell you stories about things my ex said and did that would have the women nodding and agreeing and the men totally not getting it (yeah #notallmen, whatever). And I expect the same is true for Jess Zimmerman and the other women nodding along in this thread.

My ex was still young when I married him. Why the fuck couldn't he grow toward ME some?
posted by immlass at 12:54 PM on July 20, 2015 [42 favorites]


immlass, again, I don't think the blame is or should be on the husband here. It seems by the author's own account he was supportive and did all he could.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:55 PM on July 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


Sometimes people get married for the wrong reasons, and that's unfortunate but it does not mean they have to stay once they realize it.

Definitely. I'm sure you're right. But I've got people around my family now suggesting that my strong, intelligent wife of nearly 20 years never until this point in her life knew what she was doing or had the strength to know what she wanted in working so hard to preserve our marriage even as we successfully struggled through personal hardships that usually tear marriages apart for years, and I find that insulting to the memory of the woman I knew and loved all those years, and struggle not to say so too bitterly sometimes. I'm sure you're right about a lot of marriages. And maybe ours, too. Maybe my wife didn't really know what she was doing or what she really wanted when she thought she wanted to be with me for almost half her life. Maybe I'll have to accept that in the end. Either way, it seems to me she needs and deserves the space to sort those questions out for herself. And it's hard to do that now that social media's in our lives. It bugs me how many online supporters she has now who know her only or primarily from her online presence but who seem to want to influence her thinking about these matters when she's at a point in life where she may need time and space to work through a reexamination of who she is for perfectly natural reasons. I trust my wife to figure things out for herself in the end (though I know I haven't always given her that impression recently). It's not always easy to do, and it hasn't been easy not to try to talk her out of giving up on me and our family as a joint partnership, but I do trust her to make the right choice for herself in the end. She's smart. And if she decides never to make an effort to reconcile with me, that's the right choice, and we'll work it out somehow. But I do get really bitter seeing so many people who don't have the same long-term stake in her life as I or my children do inserting themselves into her process of self-discovery online. Because there are definitely people doing that both on social media and IRL now. And not all of it is motivated by the best intentions for our family. Some of it is more about people's personal agendas and axe grinding. And it's frustrating. But I have to focus on my own recovery and my kids now. And that's all I can do, except be willing to help when she asks for it.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:59 PM on July 20, 2015 [9 favorites]


I read her leaving as a pretty adult realization that her desires and his weren't compatible, and it wasn't fair for her to require him to be unhappy (the commute) so she could be geographically happier. Seems to me that she made an extremely mature choice there.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:03 PM on July 20, 2015 [16 favorites]


In the first year or so after leaving my marriage, I felt like a high schooler: hormones surging, zeppelin-tense with flammable emotions. I wanted things and people voraciously, with a fervor I thought I had quenched a long time ago.
I needed a cigarette after this passage.

Her ex is probably thankful it was not more explicit.
posted by surplus at 1:11 PM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


An interesting experience I am having reading this is that I went through basically this at the end of every long-term relationship I had in my 20s. Because I was/we were un-self-aware/lazy/unimpressed by social convention enough to not sign a legal document, it was just a breakup. Those relationships needed to end for much of the same reason the author's had to - I didn't know how to not completely subsume myself for a man, I didn't know how to be my own person in a relationship, or ask for more than I was getting.

And I don't know whether the author had this experience as well, but for me there was the knowing that most of the changes I'd have to make to get even some of myself back would change the relationship unacceptably for my partner. They were always perfectly happy with the existing terms of the relationship, for reasons that many people have articulated over in the Emotional Labor thread (from which a lot of us answering here are still pretty raw).

I guess those breakups were all my selfish horrible juvenile fault, for giving myself up and then having the nerve to want me back. I guess I owed it to those men to stay, sleep in the bed I'd made? I can't imagine wanting to be the other person in that relationship, that that's preferable to letting someone go, but it's what I hear some people saying here.

I got married at 32, and I can look back 11 years later and laaaaaaaugh at what I thought I knew then, but at least I'd gotten the most entry-level of those mistakes out of my system, made my crappiest choices, knew a little bit better by then. My marriage is far from perfect, but change is allowed and encouraged and we try to make sure we're supportive and not angling too much away from each other, as much as we can help it. We might still eventually change too much - I think that's the thing that often takes out relationships that are longer than the author's 4 years, either more change than the relationship/identity can bear or scar tissue built up to a breaking point. But I'd rather we exhaust the relationship than have someone snap under the weight of expectations.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:12 PM on July 20, 2015 [21 favorites]


Not that I have any idea how to clearly distinguish a bland, merely placeholding life that you should throw over vs. a good, sufficient one that is likely as good as you can hope for and should invest the hard work in making better - but the fact that the very idea of happiness now seems to be a tool in the financialization of the self isn't making this calculation easier for anyone, I suspect.

I don't know, maybe it will. I think we have a big problem in our culture accepting that things have a cost. The emotional labor thread over about this author's other article talks a lot about the problem that women suffer because we culturally ignore how expensive in time, will, attention, etc these tasks are that we mostly turf to them. People suffer because we ignore a price - both to them in doing the tasks and to everyone if the tasks (which we men won't do) don't get done.

Maybe financialization will help people see that choosing one thing, even if you can choose to do it just by nodding and without taking a cent out of your wallet, means paying a price in other opportunities. I am not sure the author quite got there, since she keeps using the word 'selfish' in a way that sounds like it has all the pejorative I don't think it deserves.

Everyone should be selfish with their limited life resources. They are theirs, and irreplaceable, and nobody else can give them something to replace it. That's not an excuse to be punitive with them. But I am not being malicious or disputing your right to oxygen when I breathe in, even if I am using oxygen that you could have used. I am living my life in the way I must.

I agree with fffm (hey, it happens :) - she did the right thing to pull the ripcord. I am happy in my marriage and hope my wife is as well. If she is not I'd like to fix it. If it's not fixable then - though I am sure I would not feel that way in the moment - I absolutely would want her to bail. Who wants to be part of a structure making their supposed loved one unhappy?
posted by phearlez at 1:13 PM on July 20, 2015 [9 favorites]


Her's isn't any stranger than many another story, but, then, it isn't any stranger than many another story, either.
Adolescence centers for Erikson around the question of identity versus role confusion: a person must nose out her authentic self from the midden heap of expectation that surrounds her. A teenager who navigates this successfully, who learns to differentiate “what I want” from “what is wanted of me,” emerges from this stage with the virtue of fidelity: an understanding of who she is, and an unwavering commitment to that self.
I'm very skeptical that any of us ever truly discover our "authentic" selves, or that it's even very meaningful to speak of such a thing, or that we ever discover—with more than a small degree of certainty—how to distinguish what we really want from what we think we should want. And I suspect that the hunger and the hunt for those "authentic selves" is at the root of a lot of the heartbreak that chases us through life. None of us really knows "who we are" and everyone who ever knows us will know even less about us than we ("Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent?"). As far as I can see, the dream of a perfect intimacy is just that and there's a lot to be said for trying to rely on the virtues of simple friendship, distance, and equanimity instead.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:14 PM on July 20, 2015 [12 favorites]


(As for whether or not this particular woman made the right or wrong choices, what do I look like? A guru?)
posted by octobersurprise at 1:16 PM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


An interesting experience I am having reading this is that I went through basically this at the end of every long-term relationship I had in my 20s. Because I was/we were un-self-aware/lazy/unimpressed by social convention enough to not sign a legal document, it was just a breakup. Those relationships needed to end for much of the same reason the author's had to - I didn't know how to not completely subsume myself for a man, I didn't know how to be my own person in a relationship, or ask for more than I was getting.

yes. exactly this. i know it hurts for the partners on the other side of this, but the relationships i left in a "burn it all to the ground" sort of way were ones that absolutely needed to end and i'm at peace with being "selfish" in getting out.
posted by nadawi at 1:20 PM on July 20, 2015 [13 favorites]


It's interesting to me that so many of you seem to be focusing on the end of her marriage as the central piece of this essay. It seemed like an easily substitutable detail to me, in service of a larger point about identity formation as a young woman. Maybe because the essay also really resonated with me, but that particular piece is not reflective of my experience.

This bit was a YES, YES, THIS moment for me
So at formative times in my life, when I was supposed to be figuring out my ambitions and goals, I fixated on figuring out what people expected of me.
Like the author, I really struggle with the weight of regret over things (time, mostly) that I have given away/wasted in service of ... what? and a certain amount of bitterness and self-hatred that I spent so long NOT figuring out my own ambitions and goals, and instead basically trying to be well-liked and/or helpful.
posted by likeatoaster at 1:26 PM on July 20, 2015 [40 favorites]


I loved this piece because after wasting ~2/3 of my life trying to convince a dude that I was worthy of his love and respect, I'm embarking on a journey similar to the author's, plus a decade but minus the marriage certificate, and instead of being able to spend a couple of weeks recuperating at my parents' house, I'll be on my own. Consciously hardening my heart and choosing not to have a family or trust anyone has worked out very well for me in a lot of ways, but I wasn't really expecting this part, the sense that I should want to need that kind of support. Which all makes me feel even more fundamentally broken, but I have to keep going anyway, everything that needs to be done is going to be done, somehow I will put my words and actions together to do it, and then... fuck, I don't have a clue. The world will continue spinning regardless of how hard it is for me to pull my head out of my own ass.

I don't know how long it's going to last, I have no idea what I'm going to look, act, feel, or BE like when it's all done and over with. I'm 33 and I feel newer than a newborn, like I'm stuck on top of a flagpole in the middle of a prairie during a lightning storm. It's going to be the most difficult, frightening thing I've ever gone through, and I don't even know if I'll be happier at the end of it. All I know is it needs to happen, it's going to happen, I'm the only person who can do it, and I'm (if I'm being brutally honest with myself) the only person who has to live with the fallout. I have some dim awareness of what my first steps should be, but once that snowball starts rolling down the proverbial ski hill, I have no idea what I'm going to need or how on earth I'm going to get it. Or anything. Everything already feels raw and ripped open and I haven't even seen, let alone experienced, so much as a fraction of what's coming down the pike.

So yeah, I don't give a shit if it sounds whiny or déclassé or whatever, because the bottom line is that life on this particular razor's edge is like trading places with someone who's strapped to a conveyor belt drawing ever closer to the business end of a table saw. I still have to fulfill all of my other regular obligations in life, I can't afford to take any kind of vacation to process or work through or even fully grasp what's happening, but none of that even matters because all I really want is to reach out and grab time's arrow so I can give myself a second or two to scream at the top of my lungs: OH MY GOD, I'M FUCKING TERRIFIED.

I hate to hear that other people are suffering, but it's comforting to hear that other people have been (or are currently) fucking terrified, too.
posted by divined by radio at 1:31 PM on July 20, 2015 [65 favorites]


One more for #Teamtooclosetohome

The responses to my situation from my friends seems to have had this weird gendered aspect to it which I can best illustrate in this exchange.

"how can someone do that I mean, leave you with the kid all the time?"

"Dude, do you expect me to be annoyed about having too much time with my daughter?"

"yeah but what about your time, when do you get to have a life?"

"Ummm, you did literally the same thing in your first marriage, when was the last time you spoke to your kid?"

"that's different though"

"..."

I hope my ex soars like an eagle. Hope she is as happy as she could possibly be.
Even with the shame, regret and pain at how our eventually shitty, toxic and abusive relationship ended I can't seem to bring the same vitriol to the situation that those around me do. Perhaps it's because they didn't see the vastness of the asshole I had become or perhaps it's because Men leave and Women bring up the kids is how it's supposed to be. I think maybe "selfishness", like many other things, are no longer the sole preserve of men and like many other things it hits a nerve.

Who cares though, I'm off to help someone make the Skyrim logo with Loom bands and be happier than I have been in ages.
posted by fullerine at 1:35 PM on July 20, 2015 [7 favorites]


"I feel guilty about what I did, the selfishness of it, but for once I don’t feel regret."

I think that line is going to stay with me for a very long time.
posted by griphus at 1:35 PM on July 20, 2015 [11 favorites]


divined by radio - congratulations. i mean that sincerely. it is so hard to make this choice, so hard to stop just going along, to really admit that this can't continue. it's going to be hard and amazing and gut wrenching and incredible. you'll hardly recognize yourself when you look back and that change happens fast, so yeah, once the snowball starts rolling just hold on, and take care of yourself, and don't let guilt override knowing that this is the only choice that makes any sense even while it's terrifying and confusing. love and hugs to you if you want them.
posted by nadawi at 1:37 PM on July 20, 2015 [6 favorites]


It seems by the author's own account he was supportive and did all he could.

Particularly right now, I put this kind of comment together with the kinds of discussions happening in the emotional labor thread. No divorce happens solely because of things one person in the marriage did, and hooray for Zimmerman for taking responsibility for her own choices and behavior. But men act like this comes from nowhere and one of the reasons it's such a shock is that men refuse to own that half of keeping the marriage together is ON THEM and that helping their partner grow (in HER DIRECTION, not the one that suits them best) is ON THEM.

These things are not unrelated: the fact that society privileges men right out of emotional labor and that "doing all [men] can" is not enough to keep marriages together.
posted by immlass at 1:39 PM on July 20, 2015 [39 favorites]


Me too. There is an event in my recent life, though it's very different from a divorce, that I feel so guilty about that it's eating me alive. But I don't regret it. And that's a distinction I have been trying and failing to make clear to my therapist for ages. I'm so pleased to have the words now.
posted by Stacey at 1:40 PM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


I hate to hear that other people are suffering, but it's comforting to hear that other people have been (or are currently) fucking terrified, too.

Yup. Also currently terrified with no clue how things are going to shake out or who I'm even going to be, dislike knowing others are in this boat but kind of glad to know I'm not the only one.
posted by palomar at 1:57 PM on July 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


Ohhhh, divined by radio. I'm on the other side of it. I did the whole "single Toyota's worth of clothes to New York" thing. The shitty sublet that smelled like cat pee and mold, rather than the clean loft I once had. The bed on the floor, instead of a quiet roomful of Eames. The eating Jamaican patties from the deli at 2 am, rather than the home-cooked (by me) meals. The embarrassing and lonely parade of "boyfriends," rather than the one boyfriend back home who made me feel lonely in our own home.

YES IT IS FUCKING TERRIFYING TO JUST JUMP YOU ARE RIGHT

But holy cow, do I ever not regret it. I feel bad for the way it all went down, but not for one second do I regret exploding my life. Selfish? Totally. But selfishness isn't necessarily a bad thing. Especially after you'd spent 30-odd years taking care of everyone else.

I can tell you that 8 years later, I have everything I loved about my old life back—and 1,000,000% more. I have a career that I chose, with no cap to its potential. I still live in the city of my dreams, in a clean, quiet haven of an apartment. I have a boyfriend who understands the concept of emotional labor, and we both work hard at taking care. I have an insanely close friend-group. I never feel lonely. I know who I am, to the extent I can, at this age.

So, just go with it. You have no earthly idea what's going to happen. Rollercoaster that shit. Put your hands up and yell. It's scary but you won't go down in flames.

You can do this!!! Congrats, it's gonna be awesome. It just really doesn't feel like it right now.
posted by functionequalsform at 1:58 PM on July 20, 2015 [42 favorites]


I can tell you that 8 years later, I have everything I loved about my old life back—and 1,000,000% more. I have a career that I chose, with no cap to its potential. I still live in the city of my dreams, in a clean, quiet haven of an apartment. [I have a boyfriend who understands the concept of emotional labor, and we both work hard at taking care.] I have an insanely close friend-group. I never feel lonely.

This this this. (Except for the part in brackets.)

I think of how I handled my life shortly after my husband died as tossing a match. And letting it all burn.

This made room for the new growth.

Looking back, if I have it to do over, I toss that match. I toss that match every single time.
posted by susiswimmer at 2:06 PM on July 20, 2015 [17 favorites]


Thinking about the most mundane aspects of my old, adult life—a chair the dog liked to sit on, a morning cup of coffee—would make me hyperventilate, literally breathless with the enormity of what my leaving had visited on someone I was supposed to love.

This. I still haven't been able to get to the "no regret" stage of the most selfish thing I've ever done. Being selfish is the worst thing you can be (said my upbringing and a good helping of Catholic guilt). So then you are selfish so you can be happy (worse - you are happy but you want to be happier) and it truly feels like the worst thing. I worry I'll never be unable to undo that message. But I hope I read this again at some point in the future and realise I got there. Right now...no, too close.
posted by billiebee at 2:07 PM on July 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


Just added another voice of appreciation. This touched home, not because of the relationship I bailed on 7 years ago, but the one that ended almost 14 years ago.

I was one of the left and over a decade later, I am still amazed he had the courage to go. It hurt. It destroyed the foundation of my world, and at the time, I'd been with him for most of my adult life. I didn't see it coming. I didn't see how he couldn't grow in the life I built. I had absolutely no idea it was as bad as it was until the first week after he left and I felt the beginnings of myself again.

The person that rose from those ashes is much more like the one I always wanted to be. I wish I had been the one to be strong enough to walk away, but I'm thankful he was. I thought he was a coward at the time. I thought he was too weak to work on us. I was wrong. When I found myself in another relationship that had outlived its time, I looked to him and learned from him. Knowing how hard it was for him to walk away from us, reminded me I could do the same. And the memory of how lovely it felt to find myself again after he left made me strong enough to walk.

I'm glad he found his strength and I'm glad Zimmerman found hers. I sure as hell found mine along with my happiness.
posted by teleri025 at 2:09 PM on July 20, 2015 [6 favorites]


Alice Munro has written about these sorts of issues a lot. It's surprising that, at least in terms of what the writer (in the post above) has experienced, nothing has changed very much in 60 years since Munro started her career:

Munro often writes about characters from her own generation. They tend to marry young and then smash up their marriages in their mid-30s because they feel they haven’t lived. Well, that doesn’t happen here. The woman has the affair, but doesn’t leave her husband. The memory of it is enough to sustain her. (Don’t worry, this isn’t as Bridges of Madison County as it sounds.)

All I can say is that I'm grateful for my wife.
posted by Nevin at 2:13 PM on July 20, 2015


It's interesting to me that so many of you seem to be focusing on the end of her marriage as the central piece of this essay.

We could look at that from a sexism angle and say that perhaps we view any "benefit" that a woman gets at the "expense" of a man as having cost too much. I think that's too facile by itself but it is absolutely in there.

I think we're just societally coded to be obsessed with Who Was At Fault when relationships end. Who did the wrong thing, who made the bad choice, who WRONGED the other person. We see people make endings SO much worse than they had to be because they force the other person to pull the trigger, then we malign them for being weak... and the next day we tut at someone who left him because they broke up a family even when we actually know what a fucking turd that person's partner was to her. Showing just how right that first person was to be terrified we'd judge them.

Someone Must Be To Blame (and it's probably her). We can't allow it for some relationships to just not be the right thing anymore.
posted by phearlez at 2:26 PM on July 20, 2015 [10 favorites]


My marriage ended three years ago. All I can say is that I did the absolute best I could with what I knew and what I had to work with. I gave my utmost which is all that anyone could ever hope to do.

But I had a partner who was unwilling to seek help for her depression and became increasingly unable to communicate on an emotional level. The more I reached out, the more distant she became. When I became sad or upset she accused me of being emotionally weak. In couples therapy she could not articulate anything beyond "well, people change." I was not perfect; I had some poor coping mechanisms, but I did nothing that could be considered out of bounds for a marriage. I did not cheat, I was not abusive, I held a steady job, I was a loving and attentive father, and I supported her emotionally in every way I knew how. I read a dozen self-help books. I scheduled all the therapy sessions. But in the end there was nothing I could do because she was completely checked out and refused to step up and do the work.

I'm hearing a lot of generalizations in this thread about men being unwilling to accommodate changes and grow toward their partner, and I'm not judging anyone else's experience, but I am here to say that it goes both ways and that (some) women can be just as distant, clueless, and emotionally lazy as (some) men.
posted by Ratio at 2:52 PM on July 20, 2015 [9 favorites]


Speaking as a dude, maybe we really don't need yet another #notallmen/what about the mens thing?

Like yeah, sure, this happens to men too. And it's tragic that it happened to you. The reality of the world we live in is that most of the time the emotional flow is from women to men and not the other way around. And the stories we hear are always man-focused, so really it's time for us to stfu and stop trying to make it about us, eh? /mansplain mode off.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:56 PM on July 20, 2015 [26 favorites]


My high school girlfriend, she and I were compatible in high school. We had that fiery first love thing going on, with long weepy nights of how perfect we were for each other in every way. When it came time for herto move on to college, we thought we'd be compatible through that, even though we were in different places with different experiences. Our realities changed and I could no longer meet her needs, despite my best efforts. She left.

My next high school boyfriend, he and I were compatible through the rest of high school. We got along great, enjoyed each other immensely, supported one another through low points, and loved one another. When I moved on to college, and he continued working at his retail job, we were no longer so compatible. Our relationship stopped working for me, although he still wanted to preserve it. I left.

My college girlfriend and I had a rocky relationship, but it was underpinned by love. She had issues with her family and her ex, and I was there for her. I was an oddball in the LGBT events that she was very active in. She was funny and cute and into art and writing and politics, and thought I was like a kitschy treasure. She wanted me to be more like her radical activist friends, and I wouldn't give up weird hip hop and friendships with straight boys. I left.

My college boyfriend and I were so, so, so compatible. We liked most of the same things, had read many of the same books, enjoyed the same classes, had weird senses of humor that only the other one consistently got, thought each other was just the hottest thing, and were in love. He went to Burning Man one year, and I could not go. He came back changed - he was hungrier for a more exciting, vibrant life, one filled with travel and new experiences. I wanted to finish my degree, go to grad school, get started on my career. We struggled together for another year or so. He left.

My current partner and I have been together for probably 6 or 7 years. Right now, we are deeply compatible, supporting one another in our sometimes-overlapping goals. Although we have a child together, our leaves appear oddly independent to friends and family. We share friends in common, but have friends of our own. We travel together or separately depending on the interest of the other. He does not wish to pursue further education or a white collar professional career, and finds meaning in raising our daughter, nurturing his friendships, and engaging in his hobbies. I am finishing my PhD, usually working a couple of jobs meant to enhance my career prospects and provide for us, and doing my own thing with my own friends. So far, we have both stayed.

I could not have known about the value of this type of partnership without the four major relationships I had before. In each one, there was not a mutual decision of incompatibility, but someone chose to leave. If I had married my college boyfriend, our divorce would have been no more selfish than our break-up. We did not own each other, and are obligated first to ourselves. That probably says something about how I view marriage. Even in a good faith situation, one person can change so much over time as to render themselves incompatible with another. To me, there is no virtue in keeping a promise that immiserates two or more people.

As for my last ex, both of our lives are probably better for his leaving than if he had swallowed his dreams and made himself stay. Whenver we run into each other these days, we are immediately old, good friends, so compatible in some ways, but the evidence had shown that we had diverged in crucial ways that made a long-term romantic partnership unworkable. His was a fine reason to leave, to be selfish about the course of his life, because it is his. If it was fine for him, it is fine, too, for the writer.
posted by palindromic at 2:56 PM on July 20, 2015 [9 favorites]


The next time some smug pundit is going on about young people (like me) waiting too long to marry and have kids I'm going to send them some of these stories.
posted by atoxyl at 2:58 PM on July 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


But in the end there was nothing I could do because she was completely checked out and refused to step up and do the work.

She didn't want to be with you anymore. That may very well have been a dumb life choice for her, but you can't effort someone into staying with you if they don't want to be with you. There's no amount of Trying Points that should force someone to do something they don't want to do.

It sucks, it's the worst, maybe *she's* the worst. But we are talking about women who leave because they don't want to stay, despite the tremendous pressure that they should just try to want something different that makes other people happier.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:02 PM on July 20, 2015 [25 favorites]


[One comment deleted. Let's not veer off into metadiscussion, and let's be kind about making things personal in here -- folks can try to be cognizant that this is a close-to-home thing for a lot of people here, especially women since that's what the essay is, and take some care in how you jump in here. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:16 PM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


immlass, again, I don't think the blame is or should be on the husband here. It seems by the author's own account he was supportive and did all he could.

You know, short of inconveniencing himself in one single way* in order to bring her tremendous happiness. Yeah, "all he could," definitely.

*I mean I hate commutes as much as the next person but for fuck's sake, it's your *spouse* download some fucking podcasts and try it for a year. Christ almighty.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 3:17 PM on July 20, 2015 [24 favorites]


To me, there is no virtue in keeping a promise that immiserates two or more people.

I agree, but I now ( not yet divorced, but separated ) heavily question the value of making such promises in the first place. With hindsight I'd go back and tell myself to spend less time and money on the lovingly handcrafted Gocco printed invitations and carefully curated wedding playlist and and maybe a bit more on the couples' counselling.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 3:27 PM on July 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


For my part, the thing that worries me the most in relationships is not being able to share in my partner's actual feelings and emotions, that they're secretly distant from me. Or it's the things I know I'm feeling and am hiding from them, because of shame or fear, and I know it will cause problems...

I don't react as strongly "And then my partner left..." part as much as the "without me even knowing why and refusing to talk about it" part.

I know my own self deception can be pernicious as hell, and I can imagine that the pressure on women to hide things in order to please others causes this problem on a much bigger scale. I think people in long term relationships owe it to each other to be completely open and honest with each other about their emotions. And it's not easy, it takes courage and wisdom, and leaves you really vulnerable. And maybe people in their early to mid 20's just don't have that figured out yet, either that they need to, or how to get past all the little mental blocks and neuroses that stop them from doing it.

Frankly, reading this piece, I fully expect it's especially hard for women, with experience like the authors, to do this, when they have it pressed in them so hard that they should be pleasing others and censoring everything they say so as not to offend.

I don't think it's right or fair to blame the woman for leaving her partner without a word. But it is terrible for that partner and tragic all around. Especially because maybe they would've been right for each other, would have grown together if they both had been able to be truly open with one another. But life doesn't work like that. A lot of things just end up having to be learned the hard way. And it's sad.
posted by Zalzidrax at 3:36 PM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


I acknowledge that I might be in the minority with this view, but simply "not wanting to stay" is not a good enough reason to leave a marriage. Abuse? Addiction? Danger? By all means GTFO. But I believe that a marriage is a sacred and solemn bond that carries with it certain responsibilities that go beyond an ordinary relationship. If you're not emotionally equipped or sufficiently mature to share those responsibilities with someone, then you shouldn't get married.
posted by Ratio at 3:38 PM on July 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


But there was in me an awful thing, from almost the very beginning: a tiny clear voice that would not, no matter what I did, stop saying go....

Doing what one wants to do because one wants to do it is hard for a lot of people, but I think it’s particularly hard for women. We are, after all, the gender onto which a giant Here To Serve button has been eternally pinned. We’re expected to nurture and give by the very virtue of our femaleness, to consider other people’s feelings and needs before our own. I’m not opposed to those traits. The people I most admire are in fact nurturing and generous and considerate. Certainly, an ethical and evolved life entails a whole lot of doing things one doesn’t particularly want to do and not doing things one very much does, regardless of gender.

But an ethical and evolved life also entails telling the truth about oneself and living out that truth.

Leaving a relationship because you want to doesn’t exempt you from your obligation to be a decent human being. You can leave and still be a compassionate friend to your partner. Leaving because you want to doesn’t mean you pack your bags the moment there’s strife or struggle or uncertainty. It means that if you yearn to be free of a particular relationship and you feel that yearning lodged within you more firmly than any of the other competing and contrary yearnings are lodged, your desire to leave is not only valid, but probably the right thing to do. Even if someone you love is hurt by that.
"Wanting to leave is enough." An old but profound advice column from Dear Sugar.
posted by adrienneleigh at 3:49 PM on July 20, 2015 [34 favorites]


I acknowledge that I might be in the minority with this view, but simply "not wanting to stay" is not a good enough reason to leave a marriage. Abuse? Addiction? Danger? By all means GTFO. But I believe that a marriage is a sacred and solemn bond that carries with it certain responsibilities that go beyond an ordinary relationship. If you're not emotionally equipped or sufficiently mature to share those responsibilities with someone, then you shouldn't get married.

I guess it's good you aren't supreme dictator of what people are allowed to do, then.
posted by winna at 3:54 PM on July 20, 2015 [42 favorites]


If you're not emotionally equipped or sufficiently mature to share those responsibilities with someone, then you shouldn't get married.

how does this advice matter at all in a thread about an ending marriage? like, ok? and? she shouldn't have gotten married according to you - she seems to agree! so, here we are. now what? it seems like if someone realizes they shouldn't be married to their spouse (or even in general) than the only move to make is to end the marriage.

i'm really super duper serious about marriage. my husband knew that about me going into things. and if tomorrow he woke up and he decided he just wanted to leave? i'd be heartbroken. i'd be devastated. i'd feel like he was breaking all sorts of promises. and i'd wish him good riddance because if that's a point he's come to there's nothing else for me to do but to let him go. my feelings about the work that should go into a marriage are my own issue. i hope they match up with my husband's wants and values. trying to extend that to anyone else though seems like an exercise in futility.
posted by nadawi at 4:07 PM on July 20, 2015 [22 favorites]


I can see how this piece could be powerful to read if you've left a relationship because you felt you were living for other people, especially if you're a woman, especially if your life was structured by others in order to avoid the "selfish," especially in light of all the discussion of emotional labor. And at the same time I see how reading this piece could feel intensely painful for someone whose partner recently left to find their sense of self. People always read personal essays in light of their own experiences, but this essay, more than most, strikes at experiences near the heart. Do you seek independence or do you seek love? What are the repercussions of your choice to others? What are the repercussions of your choice to you? It's a powerful piece of writing. I think all of the responses are valid.
posted by thetortoise at 4:08 PM on July 20, 2015 [7 favorites]


By all means GTFO. But I believe that a marriage is a sacred and solemn bond that carries with it certain responsibilities that go beyond an ordinary relationship. If you're not emotionally equipped or sufficiently mature to share those responsibilities with someone, then you shouldn't get married.

And yet they do and I can't imagine whichever philosophy you derive your concept of sacredness from dictates the the humane response to that is "criticize them for not trying hard enough."
posted by griphus at 4:14 PM on July 20, 2015 [28 favorites]


I believe that a marriage is a sacred and solemn bond

I do too. And I meant every word I said in front of God and our family and friends and breaking those promises causes me profound pain. Profound. But unless you've lived a seemingly never ending period of time wrestling with the decision to leave you can't know how hard someone wanted to stay but couldn't. I think, especially for women, the idea that only abuse or danger is reason to leave is why people feel so torn between wanting to do the right thing and wanting to do the right thing for themselves. How selfish you are! You have it so good! Why would you leave? Don't you know how terrible some people have it? Don't you know how lucky you are? Don't you know you made a solemn vow? You can know all of these things but when the struggle to stay or go consumes every waking thought and every dream for long enough sometimes you have to do what you feel is the right thing for you even if it is painful for everyone. You can't know what's going on in someone's life so please don't judge.
posted by billiebee at 4:51 PM on July 20, 2015 [22 favorites]


Pretty much anyone getting married for the first time*, by definition, doesn't know jack shit about marriage. You can mean really well, but you are promising to do something you do not know how to do.

*Or more.

Demanding to be entitled to someone unless you're horrible enough to them is chilling. That's ownership, not commitment.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:56 PM on July 20, 2015 [32 favorites]


[A couple of comments deleted. I'm going to suggest we steer away from the derail around Ratio's personal view of marriage. Plenty of more interesting stuff to talk about in the linked material.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:05 PM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


There is exactly one person on the planet whose personal view on marriage is pertinent to me, and at the moment she's upstairs soaking in the bath. This importance is not because I am rather fond of her, but because she's the person I'm married to. She and I are the only two people who get to decide what our marriage is.

Other people are welcome to their opinions of what we make of it (though they're also welcome to keep them the fuck to themselves because I don't care because see above) but those opinions don't change anything.

The flip side of this is that it's pretty critically important to each of us to know what each other's views on our goals and the condition of our marriage are; we're the only two people making these rules and rating the status and each of us, by virtue of the fact that you can't keep someone in a relationship they don't want to be in, has complete veto power. So it behooves us both to pay attention.
posted by phearlez at 6:44 PM on July 20, 2015 [5 favorites]


I know the relationship ending is a big part of the mid-life crisis she writes about, and I did that too (after 13 years, so definitely gave it a good shot). But I actually am more interested in how she manages to construct herself, this identity that she is rediscovering, at least partly by reversion to the past.

I remember after my mid-30s crisis, like the author, having to learn how to be a grownup and do things for myself. I knew how to cook so there was no burning crackers, but I had to do things like do all of the dealing with official people and things like utilities, real estate agents, paying all the rent myself instead of sharing, working out how to pay people back the money I owed them while continuing to live. For the first time, the only person responsible for looking after me was me. It was terrifying and also wonderful at the same time. I learned so much about my own strength.

A lot of what Zimmerman writes resonates with my memory of that time of life. But at the moment I feel I am working through a different kind of mid-life crisis: the health crisis where I am coming face to face with the results of general indifference, insufficient effort and the self-reinforcing doom spiral where everything is related to all the other problems and nothing seems fixable. The slow plod of one foot in front of the other. And I read her story about the pain endured on the way to becoming more authentically herself, and just feel like I would trade with her in a heartbeat in exchange for this pain of feeling that I have to lose myself in lists of things I must do and am not allowed to do in order to continue at all. Or maybe I'm still in the terrifying part, and it will get better. Hard to tell when you're in it.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:46 PM on July 20, 2015 [7 favorites]


Incidentally and without intending to decenter the thread from women, some of this actually felt really familiar to me as a gay man. For me I think this is because as a teenager I was under a lot of pressure early on to try to suppress my sexuality and date women, and I think partially as a result I got it into my head early on that being in a long-term intimate relationship was mainly about self-sacrifice and self-abnegation. I think there was also the aspect not just of denial but of actively trying to give other people whatever they wanted to make up for my lack of heterosexuality (I swear I've seen other discussions on MeFi about this but I can't find them now, oh well). Anyway, thanks a lot for posting this.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:33 PM on July 20, 2015 [8 favorites]


I liked this article. You only have one life, and each moment of it, once spent, is irreplaceable. Spending this most precious resource being unhappy for the sake of others, or demanding that others suffer to make you happy (because society told you that you are entitled to another human's time as long as you're nice?), is an absolute load of horseshit. I would go so far as to say that this misery is a betrayal of yourself: one of the most widespread sins that we commit as humans, and the source of much of the anguish and regret in our society as it stands today.

If you aren't in love with your life and the people in it, even when you struggle, even when you fall, you need to take a good long look at why that is and whether it's worth the expense of your time. For some people it is. If it isn't, you are missing out on the world's tremendous beauty and you may want to make some changes, as the author did, if you are able. People are organic. We grow and change as we learn about ourselves and our world, sometimes in quite unexpected ways. You do not have to be a prisoner to the ghost of who you used to be. Stop carrying the burden of past expectations and be truly honest with yourself about your needs NOW.

I want to shout from the rooftops: you are not responsible for the feelings of anybody else, and nobody is responsible for your feelings either. Stop allowing yourself to be controlled by the expectations of others, stop trying to control others, and take the space necessary to try to figure out who you are and what you really want from your time here, because life is fleeting.

You don't owe other people shit. We are not vending machines. Seek your joy.
posted by Feyala at 10:39 PM on July 20, 2015 [16 favorites]


I have to say both the linked article and the conversation in here kind of reinforces my totally unsourced belief that the mid-life crisis is often the endgame for the identity crisis of adolescence.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:47 AM on July 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


I tried to articulate where I am in this process, and by extension, what it means for my husband (and I). Let us just say the the results are not yet known but I am finally beginning to feel more true to myself.

But yep, this article nails some aspects of the experience very well.
posted by pipstar at 9:01 AM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


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