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A good friend called yesterday, needing to talk. It's what women friends are for: parsing life, sometimes to survive, always to understand. She was venting about her husband, and the feelings of being unloved, unseen and taken for granted he elicited in her.
I knew the feelings well, having left a decades-long marriage because of a similar litany of woes. As I listened to her, two feelings welled powerfully over me – the painful empathy of remembering, and the joyful thrill of having moved on.
Her frustration was deeply familiar: that sense that another's presence makes you lesser than his absence; that out in the world you are seen and admired, empowered and contributing, but at home you're ignored or resented, "too much" or "not enough," depending on the marriage and the mate; that it sucks the energy from the air you breathe.
Not that her husband or mine were doing any of this voluntarily, or even consciously. They are good men, see themselves as tolerant, supportive spouses. They are doing what they were raised to do, and cannot understand their wives' reproaches. They're not curious about themselves, and can't get the modern female's taste for introspection. They probably find us self-centred, emotionally unstable or a bit of a handful. Perhaps they have an underlying fear that they won't succeed at holding on to us, and shut down in anticipatory dread.
What's a nice girl to do? Most try. For years. To talk, to explain, to get help. Then they give up.
There are two ways to give up. One is to stay, resigned and often embittered. The other is to go and try your luck elsewhere, or settle for solo, a growing phenomenon. Over the years I spent hovering between these options, I studied my girlfriends' choices and their consequences.
I decided pretty early on that staying wasn't a success formula for my personality type. Settling for less, becoming one of those nagging couples that seem to despise, or simply condescend to, each other or being inauthentically pleasant when none of my needs were being met or even understood became anathema.
Being with couples who treated each other like this became increasingly difficult, dripping with a sort of voyeuristic sense of watching violence inflicted, cringing at every lash of tongue or look.
The divorce books I read seemed to have a preference for this approach. They recommended soldiering bravely on for years before you became civil again in older age, or developing satisfactions in your own life to compensate, or working on yourself because that's the only half of any relationship you can change.
The overwhelming message was that the romantic ideal of finding a soulmate was modern claptrap, naiveté cloaked as self-awareness.
But as is so often true in the modern woman's life, the message didn't match my personal experience. I watched as, suddenly, the majority of my close girlfriends decided, a couple of years on either side of 50, to jump ship after decades of marriage. All of them did it for love: love of self first, listening to that stubborn inner voice telling them they deserved more, and it was time to give it another shot – before it was too late; love of other next, as one after another they fell in love with a human of a closer kind of soul to theirs.
In loving, they discovered they were loveable, and blossomed as I had never seen them before. Alive as if for the first time.
Now, my girlfriends aren't a bunch of fading violets, I admit. They had incomes (crucial) and self-confidence (useful, though for some it was closer to desperation) to muster the courage to break free, and break a family. It was always one of the hardest things they'd ever done – hurting rather than caring, managing children through life-altering change, enduring the judgments of friends and family.
I've learned my most crucial lessons from other women, starting with my mother, an eternal romantic who never remarried after my father died, leaving her an attractive young widow at 40.
The lessons on marriage from my close circle were equally clear. The sacrificial self-death of love-lost marriages for those who stayed, believing they were doing the right thing, was a very convincing anti-role model. And my own internal yearning for more was proven possible by my newly amorous friends. They were right.
That was the other emotion that swamped me as I listened to my friend: gratitude for the man who now loves me in a way I'd never experienced – wisely, lightly and deeply. Whose heart listens to mine, who talks as naturally as he is silent, whose comfort with tears has allowed mine to flow.
My friend's words echo a now-dimming memory. Today, my days start with the delighted embrace of two people who cannot believe their luck, continue through an ongoing conversation about every topic that crosses our minds or desks or hearts, and ends with an embrace so safe that slumber seems to interrupt a dream.
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox lives in Paris and London.