Last week would have marked my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Although my former husband and I have been parted now for many years, when the date rolled around and I did the math, I felt it as a momentous occasion. Right away I was transported to the Rose Garden in Kansas City where my parents walked me down the path toward the future I believed I would hold fast to. Friends and family assembled, cheered, and wished us well. And we wished ourselves well, exchanging heartfelt vows that we meant with all our hearts. We were naively optimistic and blithely unaware of the markers that were already in place that would suggest that ours was not actually a match made in heaven.
But on the anniversary of our marriage, I felt more than anything a deep gratitude for our having come together, for how else could we have had the son that we had? And not only that, there are invaluable lessons I learned and ways that I grew up and into the person I am now as a result of having to face the challenges of letting go that surrounded the unraveling of my marriage. Of course there were times when I felt I wasn’t up to the task of accepting or forgiving, but I found my way. We found our way.
And while we aren’t the best of friends — we don’t pal around like those divorced couples you might see on sitcoms — there is a quiet and steady love that we share, and a joy in watching our son become a wonderful man.
So I reached out to my former husband, wishing him a happy anniversary and sharing how good it has been to have brought our boy into the world. He reached lovingly back, and we shared a blessing for one another, and then I cried for a few minutes — not for sadness or sorrow, but for how sweet it is sometimes to be human and vulnerable, and to decide to leave our hearts open, even when it is so much easier to keep it closed.
“Till death do us part.” That’s the line, the vow we take when we marry — the one that makes us promise to love and to honor one another until we are no longer of this earth.
I shared with my son the exchange his dad and I had had on what would have been our twenty-fifth anniversary, and I could see that he was touched. I went on to say — and this is where I got choked up — that I realized that we don’t have to break the vow that we take “to love and to honor till death do us part.” Even if the marriage doesn’t make it, we can still love and honor. At the very least, we can try.
I know for many parents this is an impossibility. I”m a family therapist, and I know that some marriages don’t simply end, they explode in a firestorm, decimating any remnants of love and regard.
But I also know that, especially when children are involved, there is an opportunity to work as deeply as possibly to repair, heal… and forgive. And I know that when it is possible to do that, we give our children something priceless; knowing that the people he or she loves the most also love and care for one another.
We are each so fragile, so tender-hearted. It is risky to decide to reach for love when we have so many reasons not to. But when I look at my son and see how secure he is in the love and support of his parents, I am thankful for the ways I have stretched to be more of the best version of myself. The hardest things sometimes transform us into the softest.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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