Picking up the pieces: Liadan Hynes on the hardest part of marriage break-up – and what will get you through
When Liadan Hynes's marriage ended, she found herself having to come to terms with a life she had never imagined. On the eve of the publication of her new book, she writes about the hardest parts, and the things that will get you through
Were you anxious going into the marriage?" someone asked me recently. I knew what she meant, of course. The subtext was - because it ended. Was there a sign? Did you know, deep down? She was a little nonplussed when I told her: "No. I wasn't anxious at all, we had a lovely marriage." Because it is unnerving to be told that the relationship we make the bedrock of our life can change entirely and come to an end.
When you think about it, it is an almost ludicrous amount of faith to place in another person who is not obliged to be bound to you in the way, say, your family are. To make them the centre of everything. Although of course I would say that, as someone whose lovely marriage did end.
There is nothing too shocking about the loss involved in a break-up; it's something most of us will suffer at some point. But more than any other loss, that of a long-term partner is a leveller that affects every aspect of your life, from what part of the bed you sleep in, to what your house sounds like day-to-day, to how you'll raise your child.
We had a lovely wedding, with no anxious prescience of what was to eventually come, on a sunny day in a barn by a lake, with 150 friends and family. But this isn't the stuff that makes up a marriage.
It is all the tiny I'm awake in the middle of the night can't sleep from anxiety, what takeaway will we order on a Sunday night, someone to let know you will be home late stuff that enmeshes you, the tiny minutiae of daily life.
You're knitted together in ways that can make it unimaginable for a time, even when things are no longer lovely, to accept that this might be over.
To anyone on that precipice right now, the following might help as you go about picking up the pieces.
That moment when you have to force yourself to realise that this is over, the fear of it, of what the aftermath will look like, of how you will cope, and what it will do to your children, if you have them, that can be the hardest point.
Facing into it felt in some small way like taking charge.
That doesn't mean that the fear went away once the decision was made. In a crisis your entire system is overloaded simply trying to cope. I found myself to be more vulnerable to worry than ever before. This passes. The extreme nature of the situation eased, and I got better at coping with some of my fears, more able to reason myself out of a spiral.
When you are in the middle of the ending, it can feel like it will always hurt as much as it does right then. There were things I thought would always slightly break my heart, but at the beginning, I had no idea how much I could come to terms with. I sat packing toys of my daughter's to send to her father's new house quite some time after the break-up, and the only thing I felt was satisfaction at the decluttering aspect of the task.
I'm not being flippant or facetious here. You come to accept things.
Finding people to hang out with at the times my child is not with me, and on the Sunday afternoons when she is, was essential. You need people to distract you for those days when it can feel like everyone else has disappeared back into domestic bliss.
Grief is much more physical than you might expect; it is exhausting. There were days when I had to make my world as small as possible - figure out the barest minimum to get myself and my child through until bedtime. That did eventually even off, although it might take longer than you think.
Telling people was much harder than I expected. Their reactions were at times exhausting. Some people get it, most likely because they have experienced something difficult themselves. These people will be comforting, because there will be a baseline practicality to their reaction. Others will be horrified in a way that makes you feel strangely other. As if your life has become some sort of 'there but for the grace of…' to others. I avoided these people until I was truly comfortable and content (and you will get there) in my new circumstances.
I don't buy the everything-happens-for-a-reason line. Sometimes life is just awful, and all you can do is get through. It doesn't need to be forced into a narrative of 'ultimately this was the right thing for me'. But awful things, while they can make you weaker in ways (for quite a time, your life might feel unsafe, there's a sense that anything could be pulled out from underneath you), will also make you stronger, because you coped, and you know you can cope. There's a satisfying strength in that.
We're together but alone, people said a lot in the past few weeks, and I would think yes, welcome to the world of being a single parent. Surrounded (well, if you're lucky, as I have been), but also alone.
One Friday night some months after the break-up, my daughter and I were in the middle of bedtime. It had been a long week, but I was past that bit of a separation where you collapse into bed at the same time as your small child and fall asleep, just happy to have got through another five working days. I had made it to the part where I was able to look forward to time on my own; just me on my couch, no distractions from my new reality needed.
We were standing on the landing and my daughter's small foot -aged four, but still with baby chub around the toes - executed a little flourish. She was dancing, as she so often is. I saw her toes swirl, and then the next thing I knew she was up in the air, then down, flat on her back and sliding down the wooden stairs, fast, her head catching on each step with a horrible bump.
I stayed where I was, frozen on the landing. I remember screaming 'Jesus', but also thinking, illogically, that if I ran after her I might be in danger of kicking her in the head. She reached the bottom and crumpled, and I began to run. She cried out, and I knew immediately that she was okay, that her scream was more one of outrage that this had happened, than of serious hurt.
"Is it much harder?" I asked a friend once, of being a single parent, before I became one. "Idiot," I thought to myself much later, at such sledgehammer bluntness. Because of course it is. In some ways. But in others ways it's not.
"Not really," my friend replied. "Only when they're sick." I know now what she means. If your relationship has reached the point where it had to end, then things had been difficult for a while. Whether you tore each other apart, or the thing died quietly between you. And so chances are it will be easier to parent on your own, passing your child, your most beloved thing, back and forth between you, than in the toxicity of a relationship that is ending.
But when my daughter fell down that stairs, I knew then what my friend had meant: that you can do a lot, almost everything, on your own, but when they are sick, it is different. When my daughter fell down the stairs, the only person I wanted was her father.
I wanted the other person who is just as invested, who actually owns her with me. But he was working and I didn't want to frighten him when I knew he couldn't come and do his own in-person full-body check. I could have called my parents, five minutes away, but they had minded her all day; I would be pulling them from their couch.
Eventually, I brought her up to bed, where she fell asleep, and I lay awake beside her for hours, putting my face down to hover over mouth, checking her breathing. Adrenaline coursed through me; I was too wired to have fallen asleep even if I wanted to.
There was no one else to bring me down. I had to calm myself down.
After my daughter's fall, I spoke to the counsellor whom I attended throughout all this. I told her how I couldn't help going over it again and again in my mind.
How our nice cosy Friday evening had so wildly careened out of control, and how alone, and vulnerable I had felt. How scared I had been for my daughter.
She looked at me in her quietly measuring way, and then said: "She didn't break, though, did she? Throughout all of this she had been fine. Maybe you could imagine she is wrapped in a protective blanket."
If you are in the middle of something like this, maybe you could, even for an hour or so, imagine it for yourself.
Liadan Hynes's first book, How to Fall Apart, a memoir about putting life back together, published by Hachette, is available now from Easons and all good bookstores, €13.99.
Exclusive extract ... The crushing dread of post-separation Saturday nights
Saturday evenings are the worst. The first one after my husband has moved out, I am taken by surprise by the loneliness.
I am caught unawares, without a plan with which to defeat it or protect myself from it.
My father has been here for the afternoon, helping with the completion of a child’s IKEA kitchen (fully taking over while I sat exhausted on the floor watching, pretending to be deeply involved in reading the instructions that, given it is IKEA, are a handful of images which take seconds to look through). It had been a Christmas present the year before but had remained only half completed. The top half, that bit with the built-in microwave, had been a victim of things falling apart. That had been a Christmas of getting by, of doing the minimum, all efforts focused on the last bit of holding things together.
What reserves we had left had been exhausted by the putting together of the main body of the thing. The top half of our daughter’s Scandi kitchen had defeated us, left in its box in the hall, an innocent bystander caught up in events, collateral damage of a marriage disintegrating.
Around four o’clock, my father begins gathering his things to go. Bedtime still seems like hours away, hours for which I have nothing planned. We’re not ready for idle time, I think, beginning to panic. I cannot ask him to stay, a man who has spent his afternoon wrestling with plywood, tolerating the ‘help’ of a three-year-old, only to find, crushingly, at the end of it all, that we have forgotten to include the damn bar for the pot hooks. His couch and the rugby match are calling him.
It’s too late to ring anyone — plans will have been made — and I don’t really want the effort of socialising anyhow. And I have a child to feed and put to bed.
After a long, tiring week, I do not want to entertain. I want to be settling down with the other adult who lives in my house, except now there is no other adult.
This is the tricky spot in getting used to living on your own. Becoming comfortable being alone in the times when you don’t want to entertain but are not busy doing things.
My father leaves, and I decide at five o’clock, dinner time, that we should go for a walk. I panic, basically.
It’s a disastrously ill-judged idea, but I can’t face sitting around.
We drive to our local village and set out on our walk; an exact triangle taking in the strip of local shops — that, to my overly sensitive eyes, are full of parents picking up last-minute bits with which to fuel the evening of family time ahead — a grim stretch of terrace and a quiet, deserted grey concrete lane that I would normally never contemplate walking down.
It is clear immediately that the walk was a mistake, but I refuse to give up. We are going for the walk, depressing as it is.
Afterwards, at home, and after my daughter is in bed, I find a piece by the journalist Sali Hughes, in which she describes how a slow dread of Saturday nights set in after her divorce.
I am, at this time, undergoing an attempt to read the entire internet on the aftermath of separation and divorce.
My favourite are first-person accounts from those who have gone before me.
Sali describes the setting in and deepening of the loneliness on a Saturday night, at home with two small children. How it could feel like the rest of the world was either steeped in domestic (for which, read ‘two adults’) bliss or out having the absolute time of their lives.
So, she instigated movie night. Instead of stewing in her own sense of aloneness, every Saturday night she and her two small boys would climb into bed with pizzas and popcorn and watch a movie.
I hold her message close: it will get better. This too shall pass.