Spiritual Divorce: Taking a Page from Rumi and Shams

Published on Huffington Post, Aug. 5, 2014

The debate about “conscious uncoupling” — divorce without guilt, shame or finger-pointing intrigues me. Surprisingly, it’s not a modern trend, but an approach that even the great Sufi poet Mevlana Rumi had adopted to deal with the separation from his beloved muse, Shams of Tabriz.

My folks have been married for 51 years, and there’s not a single divorce on either side of their lineage. So when I recently broke that perfect family record, you better believe I felt guilty, ashamed and utterly depressed. It was like I took a chainsaw to the family tree and lopped off the top of the ancient sequoia. I never thought I would be a divorced mother, and I felt like a complete failure, even though I had indeed “consciously uncoupled.” What would Rumi say?

I married well into adulthood at 36, putting me nine years past the national average of 27 for women (and 29 for men) in the United States, according to the 2013 Knot Yet report. My partner was almost 49. From the outset, we were aware that no marriage was a fairytale. We weren’t kids. We’d both held out for “the one” and believed we’d found it in each other. I’d gone to countless retreats and workshops, and devoured books on the subject of marriage and relationships. I knew from my own childhood that marriage had its ups and downs, but that you stuck it out; you evolved.

Though my partner had come from a family complicated by divorce many times over, he too understood what marriage involved. Like me, he wanted a partnership that would last until the end of our lives. We were what Rumi and Shams might call “a very conscious couple.”

In the spring of 2008, we said our heart-crafted vows to each other in front of 150 of our closest friends and family. It was one of the most powerful and beautiful moments of my life. I’m a writer; and I value keeping my word with others. That day we promised to honor the truth in the other and support it, including the foreseeable changes of following our path.

We both knew that marriage required work and commitment as much as compassion, kindness and humility; however, we weren’t exactly abiding by that. A close friend who was aware of our troubles told me, “Love is like a river, but sometimes it goes underground for a while and resurfaces.” If felt like our love had been sucked into a tornado. The dynamic between us wasn’t working — in fact, it was killing our spirits. My friend assured me, like so many of my married and remarried friends, that all marriages had issues. I heard a lot of secrets. I knew we weren’t alone.

We’d address our problems like any sane and sober couple. Neither one of us wanted a divorce. Who does?

When our marriage started to unravel further, we tried everything we could to salvage it, including years of therapy, couples workshops and a six-month separation to unplug from a toxic dynamic and start fresh. I was so hopeful that we’d reunite that I made reservations for our fifth anniversary at a quaint farm house inn in Olema where we spent our first Christmas. I imagined us triumphant, looking back at our separation as the smartest action we’d ever taken to save “us.”

But four weeks into our separation, my partner confirmed that salvaging the marriage was not an option. I had to face the harsh reality that we were actually headed for a divorce. In heated arguments, I had thrown down the D-word more than once, and now it had come back to haunt me. I was deeply ashamed that it had come to this painful truth: Our daughter, who was just shy of her third birthday, would grow up in two separate homes.

I fell apart. I was brought to my knees, and even thought about ending my life in some dark moments. The mind does a wild dance when its terrified. I had lost my marriage, and any hope that my young daughter would have the idyllic childhood that we both had envisioned for her.

Was all of this some dark cosmic joke? In 1273, Shams told Rumi, “I am not in the position to order you to go on a journey, so it is I who will be obliged to go away for the sake of your development, for separation makes a person wise.” I wanted to believe that was true, that there was some redemption in all of this. Would the darkness offer some kind of forced growth?

My daughter was well aware of my strife. A child of few but insightful words, she asked, “Mama, why are you crying?” And later, out of the blue, “It’s hard having two homes and one life.”

Recently, driving back from a friend’s house, she said, “Can papa move back into the garden house so that you can make us pancakes for breakfast?” I burst into tears and pulled over because I couldn’t see to drive on a six lane freeway. The pain comes and goes but always hits like a tsunami — and yet, day by day, I know that this is my truth as much as her father’s.

Did our divorce blow up the perfect picture of my life? Absolutely. Have I been able to navigate this consciously with my ex-husband? Surprisingly, yes. Here’s how we “consciously uncoupled.” Our number one priority was our daughter, not money or material or custody. We could give a rat’s tail who got the Le Crusset Dutch oven. We already agreed about dividing things equally. We went Dutch on the first date — some things just predict the future.

Our focus was our daughter. We never wanted her to have to choose between us. We wanted her to know that she was the best outcome of our marriage, and that we cherished our bond (and still do) because it permitted us to bring her into the world. Our daughter sees each of us almost every other day. We’re making it work. There’s no formula for love.

We spend birthdays and holidays together. We speak highly of each other in her presence and yet we all know there is no turning back. We are not going to remarry each other. We want her to know that we will always love each other, and despite our fractured frame, we are still a family — and a loving one capable of joy.

Should my ex-husband and I, and the many other parents who choose to consciously end their marriages, feel like they’ve failed? It’s too early to know. We have young children. I wager this is a much different and more difficult situation with older kids. The question is can we still raise mature, loving, responsible adults despite divorce? Will our children feel deeply loved? In the end, isn’t this the test that matters most and from which we’ll know we succeeded?

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