There’s beauty in the breakup

A few years ago I was standing in the dimly lit back room of a small bourbon bar. My high school was hosting an alumni event there, and a classmate I’d stayed mildly in touch with had sent me a personal note to attend. It didn’t feel like my thing, exactly, but since separating from my husband several months prior, I’d made a commitment to doing things that weren’t my thing. Plus, our shared parenting plan meant I had Thursday nights free. So here I was. 

As my old classmates mingled and waited for the bar owner to come and teach us how to dissect flavors of Kentucky’s finest, I found myself in a circle of women catching up. We were friendly in the Facebook feed sense, meaning we knew nothing of the intimacies of each other’s lives, but felt up to speed on the broad strokes. 

When someone asked about my husband, I quietly sucked in my breath and prepared to deliver the update that we were on the path to divorce. It was still so new to share it, and every time I did, I got that feeling of being at the top of the rollercoaster, slightly sick and lightheaded. 

As soon as I’d gotten out the words, the collective “ohhh” came from several of the women. Aside from one woman who looked like I’d just told her that I’d hurt a baby kitten on the way in and seemed so uncomfortable she might vomit, the ladies seemed genuine in their condolences. 

I nodded and offered a tight smile to their pained expressions, and then one of the women leaned in a bit and said, “Gosh, I’m so sorry. I’m so shocked to hear this. You all just seemed so happy.” 

I nodded again, offering one of those slight shoulder raises to acknowledge her point. Then another woman chimed in. “Yes! I know we only get the highlights through social media, but it just seemed like you guys were a great fit.” The other women in the circle bobbed their heads in agreement.

By this point, my eyes were darting around desperate to see the bar owner carrying out the small glasses we’d soon be drinking from.. Even a burning mouth seemed preferable to this. I was at a loss for how to respond. I hadn’t built enough reps up on these kinds of conversations, and I realized maybe I should have role-played them or something. 

“We were… happy… I think,” I stumbled. “But then we weren’t. Covid, you know? And kids, and well you know how it goes…” But I could tell they didn’t, exactly, and I was ready to disappear when I  heard a glass clink to signal we were getting started. Holy hell. I made my way over to my seat. 

After a couple of hours of learning about the importance of the charred oak casts and my tongue starting to lose sensation, I found myself in bed later that night thinking about the exchanges I’d had. I was trying to make sense of why it felt so hard to talk about the ending of my marriage to a bunch of people who played infinitesimally small roles in my life. I’d come to terms with my decision to end the marriage, after all. It wasn’t like I thought, on a cognitive level, that I needed to feel ashamed or embarrassed. And yet, their pitying eyes had unmoored me. 

What I started to piece together was that their reactions, just like so many others I’d already encountered, were ones of surprise. And while that’s natural, I think, in most cases, it also seemed to be saying, “Oh! I had one idea about your marriage, but it’s not actually what I thought. I thought you were happy, but I must have been wrong. I thought you were compatible, but I was mistaken. Those things must never have been true.” 

It’s perhaps a sensical line of thinking, particularly in an era where we’re often in situations of learning how our social media filters did the filtering. 

But inherent in it is the disallowing of another reality – the one where we actually were happy. Where we were right for each other at a moment in time, or for a pretty long season, in fact. Where it wasn’t a mistake that our divorce was revealing at all.

It’s a weird thing to try to argue that a breakup or divorce doesn’t mean a fundamental mistake was made. If we are starting from the premise that we go into a marriage believing that we will be in relationship with our spouse until their or our last breath, then how could we not say that somewhere along the line we were wrong. Wrong to think this was the person we could live out that commitment with. Wrong to enter into that kind of commitment. 

One could certainly argue this, and maybe they wouldn’t be totally off to think this way. But there’s something that doesn’t sit quite right with me, and with a growing number of people who have consciously ended relationships, when it comes to characterizing our former partnerships in this way. 

It hardly seems fair, but more importantly hardly seems accurate, to not allow for a more nuanced characterization of these partnerships. In fact, it almost seems – dare I say it – a lazy way to look at marriage and divorce. Because to automatically associate an ending with failure means that we’re probably not looking at it very closely. 


I won’t sit here and tell you that I didn’t spend plenty of time during and post-divorce feeling like I’d failed at one of the most important ambitions I’d ever had. I certainly didn’t walk down the aisle in an over-priced dress thinking, “Well, if this lasts a good decade or more, it will have been a good run.” I, like most, thought it would be forever. 

That’s the whole schtick, right? Marriage was historically conceived as an institution for financial, political, and social gain, and those purposes wouldn’t have been served with a more temporary endeavor. As Katherine Woodward Thomas outlines in her beautiful book, Conscious Uncoupling, the whole happily ever after idea came later, a notion which actually referred less to romance and more to prosperity. 

Affectionate love and romance weren’t part of the early blueprint of marriage, but then they were, starting sometime in the 18th century. And once they were, there was even more on the line. Suddenly, our marital partner was not simply a match made for familial and social stability, but also expected to romance us and intrigue us. By the mid to late 20th century, we additionally expected our partner to stimulate us intellectually, make us laugh, sexually satisfy us, share all of our values, and essentially meet every interpersonal need we have. 

Perhaps it’s no wonder that an institution that began to exchange some property has failed to meet our modern needs. The data certainly suggest it’s not working for a good proportion of us, with over 40% of first marriages ending in divorce. Dr. Helen Fischer, the world-famous anthropologist most known for her work on the history and biology of love (and heartache), points to the ways in which our modern concept of marriage doesn’t match with many of our biological realities. That includes the reality that we now live much longer than we did when marriage developed. What at one point might have been literally only a several years long endeavor is now expected to endure for 50 to 60-plus years. 

None of this is particularly romantic to think about, but it at the very least gives us reason to think about what we expect of marriage and ourselves. As I sat with the ending of my own marriage, I recognized that our culture’s way of assessing relationships isn’t specific to romantic partners. We apply many of the same standards of til death do us part even to friendships as well. It’s as if any ending or evolution negates the value of said experience. I might add that there’s an irony to this in our world that’s otherwise obsessed with the fast-casual and disposable. 

But when I could personally step outside of the cultural narrative long enough to see relationship endings differently, I became more able to see them not as a failure, but as a portal. 

I remember in some of the darkest moments of my marital transition thinking to myself that I shouldn’t bother to get divorced because even if I were to eventually be with a new partner, I’d just repeat the same patterns and end up in the same unhappiness. They were lonely and devastating thoughts. I couldn’t imagine at the time being able to change myself enough to cultivate the type of relationship I actually wanted. 

Meanwhile, though, many of the people I knew in my life who had been through divorce had ended up changing in surprising and profound ways. I’d watched it happen. They had started doing deeper work than ever before, and the divorce had been a catalyst for growth. It would be impossible to know whether that type of self-actualization could have happened without a break-up, but as a therapist, I’ll go ahead and hypothesize it wouldn’t. The reality is that when we’re gliding along, even in an under-functioning and semi-miserable mode, we’re not motivated to excavate our whole beings. We don’t usually dredge up the real shit until things really go sideways.

All this post-divorce enlightenment was inspiring, and while I knew it wasn’t a given and that time didn’t magically heal all wounds, at some point I tipped from feeling forlorn to feeling ready to dig. For me, that meant asking myself hard questions – ones I honestly hadn’t wanted to ask myself for a long time. I had been too angry and hurt and defensive. It seemed like asking myself the hard stuff would be hurling me into a vulnerability I wasn’t ready for while trying to deal with the grief of what was being lost. I think I feared it would change my mind, which frankly felt like the most terrifying part of all. It had been so torturous to make a choice. I didn’t want to go backwards. 

But once I was ready, those questions became starting points – opportunities to move through the portal. I’m sharing a handful of them with you here in case they are helpful for wherever you are in your relationship journey. 

  1. What is the thing I feel most angry and self-righteous about regarding my ex-partner’s behavior? In what way was I doing that very same thing? 
  2. What parts of myself was I holding back in this relationship? Even if for good reason, what did I not feel safe expressing or showing? 
  3. What was the hardest thing for me to accept about myself in this relationship? What feedback did my partner often give that I tended to dismiss? 
  4. Where did I believe I already knew the answer and stopped asking the questions of my partner? Where did I make assumptions without data? 
  5. What were my biggest triggers in the relationship? Which of these actually pre-dated the relationship and were based in my earlier life history? 
  6. What do I wish for each of us as we move forward with our lives? What do I want to offer to each of us to help build a life of peace, joy, and ease? 

The irony here, you might notice if you’ve read this far and are blessedly not in the midst of a painful uncoupling, is that these questions can indeed be helpful while still in a relationship as well. Maybe even moreso. 


Another irony I’m finding even as I write this is that I’m not sure how to end this – this essay itself. I told a friend the other day that the hardest part of writing for me is always the ending. I struggle with how to avoid putting a tight bow on a topic that feels expansive. I struggle with how to sign off of something that I’ve myself into.  

But this writing has to end, just as some relationships do, lest it go on longer than any of us are learning from it. And so I’ll leave you with someone else’s words, someone who is perhaps better at goodbyes, someone who I know for a fact has weaved beauty from her breakups, writer Elizabeth Gilbert. She says, simply, “Eventually, everything goes away.”

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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