I’m happily remarried. But I’m going to tell you the gut-real truth about my divorce. And I’ve asked three other Black women who have found happiness after the hurt to do the same. To create a safe space to share the good, the bad and the “thank goodness I survived,” we’re not using our real names, and minor details may have been altered. Comments have been lightly edited for clarity and context.
The exact moment a partnership careens toward a permanent split? It’s more often a series of moments. It’s perfectly human to deny the emotional pain for a time. We may overlook signs for years, then recognize them instantly.
The dealbreaker was when my ex-husband began hitting me on the back of my head with an open hand and proclaiming — usually in front of other people — that I wasn’t smart or slim enough, that I was frigid and a bitch.
Sometimes seeing a comparable conflict from a different point of view makes it easier to understand our own. So does sizing up our circumstances against how a marriage counselor contextualizes a similar situation. Atlanta-based S. LaShay Dowley, a psychotherapist with an MA in Marriage & Family Therapy and a specialty in Christian sex therapy, pointed out behavioral patterns as I shared these stories with her. (The women described here are not her clients.)
Dowley says that a recent study by the American Sociological Association found that women initiate 69 percent of divorces. She speaks of dissolving a marriage as a way forward rather than an end. “Conscious uncoupling is really about the art of consciously integrating and/or adjusting dynamics and relational roles that once mattered to us to a healthy path that supports preserving the commitment to move forward.”
Maybe if I had seen him in bed with a woman in my bedroom or something, that might have been a defining moment.
Marriage counselors often draw on a helpful metaphor to describe the communication dynamics that often lead to dissolution of a marriage, notes Dowley. It’s known as “The Four Horsemen.” These corrosive behaviors — criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling — were first observed and introduced by Dr. John Gottman, world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction. Cofounder of The Gottman Institute with his wife Julie, he is also professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington. We’ll see these four marital marauders (and more) in action.
Jewel’s breaking points: Criticism and contempt
Married for 10 years, she was 39 when she ended the marriage.
Months after giving birth, Jewel’s postpartum depression lingered. She felt that her husband Roger was distant and unsupportive as a coparent. More disheartening was his fault-finding — which escalated into insults.
“He called me fat in front of his younger sister,” Jewel recalls. “I had just walked into the room in my first nonmaternity outfit.” While this incident was just one amid a troubling pattern, it signaled to Jewel that it was “the beginning of the end.” She says, “It was as if a light switch had been turned off. I fell out of love.”
“I’m hearing not only was he critical, but that [comment] is contemptuous.” Dowley observes. According to The Gottman Institute’s blog (gottman.com), “Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about one’s partner, and it arises in the form of an attack on someone’s sense of self.”
Roger also signaled contempt for Jewel by dating other women — further telegraphing that she was unworthy. Alarmingly, his escalating verbal attacks sometimes became physical.
“Infidelity was not what led me to take my child and leave,” says Jewel, who remarried. “The dealbreaker was when my ex-husband began hitting me on the back of my head with an open hand and proclaiming — usually in front of other people — that I wasn’t smart or slim enough, that I was frigid and a bitch. I did not want my daughter to grow up believing verbal and physical abuse are acceptable. And I couldn’t allow my own life to continue to be soul-killing,” Jewel says.
For individuals living with violence or other abuse, Dowley recommends seeking safety and contacting Partnership Against Domestic Violence. No one deserves to live with that kind of treatment. What could have caused Jewel to normalize marital abuse? Her family of origin holds a clue. “Roger’s behaviors … mirrored those of my grandfather,” she says in hindsight. “After my parents divorced, we moved in with my mother’s parents. Her father was a large and vicious man. … When he yelled, the neighbors two houses away could hear. I was whipped for not finishing food on my plate, for
talking too excitedly at the dinner table, and once until my legs bled for asking —innocently and earnestly — what the F-word meant.”
Sandra’s breaking points: Emotional disengagement
Married for 19 years, she divorced at 43.
According to a gottman.com article referencing the organization’s research, “Over time, unhappy couples disengaged emotionally and started parallel lives. While unhappy couples who displayed Four Horsemen tended to divorce in six years on average, emotionally disengaged couples who avoided conflict divorced in 16 years.” This may explain, in part, why Sandra’s unhappy marriage lasted nearly two decades.
One sign of distancing was when she elected to visit relatives while her husband Linden chose to stay home as she turned 40. He neglected to call and wish her happy birthday. She said he widened that distance until “we lived in separate parts of the house.” Sandra also suspected that Linden may have been unfaithful. “If I had seen him with a woman in my bed or something, that might have been a defining moment,” she says.
We lived in separate parts of the house for a good year and a half.
The former couple have two surviving children. Their middle child, born premature, died in infancy. Sandra says during that tragedy “the foundation was cracking. The loss of a child is a very difficult time, very defining time.” Linden retreated emotionally, refusing to join a grief support group with his wife.
Crisis struck again when Linden experienced a mild stroke. “He was in the basement, and I ran down the stairs because I could hear him … calling.” When Linden was discharged from the hospital, Sandra gave him care during his temporary paralysis. Meanwhile, says Sandra, “I thought, Well, surely, he’s going to see that we are married, we’re a family, we should be together. But that did not happen.”
There are relationships in which a crisis can renew couple’s commitment, says Dowley. “In many ways, that crisis [may end up being] the best thing for the marriage. But [in this marriage] that’s not what happened.”
When commitment becomes a question mark, enlisting a counselor can help. Sandra and Linden attended a few sessions, “but … there was never a real effort,” she says. Dowley observes that in Sandra and Linden’s marriage, there was a change or mismatch in how much each valued and loved the other. Sandra says, “I came from a family in which divorce rarely happened. I blamed myself for not being enough until I finally got it.”
Gabrielle’s breaking points: Different values — and defensiveness
Married 21 years, she was 45 when she divorced.
“I was physically intervening when my spouse hit my son,” Gabrielle recalls. “This wasn’t disciplinary spanking. Tony was hitting him out of anger. He was not in control. I think he was a traumatized person who didn’t have the insight to sort of think about how not to do that.”
I realized, probably when my first son was about 5 or 6, that I was in a test of wills. … He felt that I was interfering and disrespecting him as a father, and I felt that I was not going to allow him to damage my son.
According to healthline.com, “a toxic parent … is more concerned with their own needs than whether what they’re doing is harmful or damaging. They likely won’t apologize or even admit that what they are doing is wrong. And the abuse or neglect tends to be ongoing or progressive.”
Disagreeing with her husband Tony’s parenting style, Gabrielle was met with defensiveness. “We had different value systems. I’d been raised [experiencing] a lot of corporal punishment. I was determined that this would not be visited on my kids. I realized, when my first son was 5 or 6, that I was in a test of wills. … Tony felt that I was interfering and disrespecting him as a father, and I felt that I was not going to allow him to damage my son.”
“I stayed to provide a ‘family’ for my children,” says Gabrielle. “When I realized some of the things he had exposed my son to, I was furious and wanted to end the marriage and protect my children.”
Dowley says Gabrielle’s issue speaks to different core values between a couple, which isn’t always a bad thing or a predictor of divorce, she explains. “However, when those central values are in competition,” and there are differences in thinking patterns, plus “ineffective communication, and resistance or rigidity, that is typically what will end the marriage,” Dowley says.
I’d been terrified to consider launching my metaphorical dinghy away from the comfort of our luxury yacht.
Anonymous’ breaking points: Stonewalling and control
— the author, married for 18 years, divorced at 44 years old.
When I went through my own divorce 13 years ago, a good friend told me that ‘divorce is like death,’ and she was right. I felt grief, shock and sadness.
Marvin was very controlling. I was there to support his career and our family, but there was no space carved out for me to grow and develop outside of that.
I tried for years to find my own career, and my ex shut down every option because it either inconvenienced him (meaning he would be responsible for child care) or impinged on his work — which included travel. Even before we had a child, he was never supportive of my pursuing even a basic job outside of the home. In one instance, he began screaming at me as I was heading out to begin teaching an eight-week video production class.
Marvin stonewalled when I communicated my needs. According to gottman.com, this happens when “in a discussion or argument, the listener withdraws from the interaction, shutting down and closing themselves off from the speaker because they are feeling overwhelmed or physiologically flooded. … Rather than confronting the issue, someone who is stonewalling will be totally unresponsive, making evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy or engaging in obsessive behaviors.”
Marvin tuned out with drugs, including nicotine, cannabis and cocaine.
I put blinders on. I’d been terrified to launch my metaphorical dinghy away from the comfort of our luxury yacht. I’d feared it would traumatize our child. Then I was offered the chance to blossom. An independent filmmaker who’d seen one of my shorts offered me an editing job. I thought, This is it. I have a way out. It felt like a lifeline.
Dowley commented on the power dynamic in my first marriage, in which partnership and support were conditioned upon compliance. She observes that it took away my locus of control, leaving me without power or agency. “And the moment you saw a choice, it created a healthy sense of hope, of empowerment.”
To empower healthy choices, it’s important that anyone navigating relationship difficulties not bury their head in the sand and ignore gut feelings. Whether finding support means connecting with a therapist, a clergy member and/or a divorce attorney, we all deserve to be in healthy and functional relationships. Tell a trusted person your truth, as these women did. No one should suffer in silence.