Christmas Day 2011 I was given the worst gift I had ever received in my life. We had just returned from a family Christmas trip and I was already dreading the first Christmas Day without any of our children present. Our refrigerator had turned into a freezer while we were gone so what little food we had was frozen solid. There was no ham roasting in the oven or friends coming to share this most special holiday with us. I was sad about the state of our Christmas Day but heartened when he said he wanted to talk after he returned from church. Our relationship had been in troubled waters for a number of years and I was hopeful that maybe the family trip had worked some magic; maybe he was willing to really work on us; maybe this day would be the beginning of a new relationship. It was and it wasn’t.
The worst Christmas present I ever received was my husband of 33 years telling me he no longer wanted to live with me or be in relationship with me. To say I was devastated would be a huge understatement. I had drawn a line in the sand months before but hoped that it would incentivize him towards working on our relationship rather than ignoring it. I was the first one to utter the word “divorce” but hoped that it would be a reality check for him—that he would feel the urgency that I did to re-animate our dying relationship. I still held hope for us; I still believed in us; I still wanted “us.” I knew in my gut that he didn’t really want “us” but I refused to admit it to my heart. But once he uttered those words, my heart broke with the knowledge that my gut had been right and like Alexander, my day was a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” It was the worst day of my life, or so I thought at the time. It was the worst gift I had ever received, or so it seemed.
His uttering those horrible words were perhaps the most honest thing he had ever said to me or at least said in years. My gut knew his “problem with pornography” was greater than he believed but his arguments were so persuasive. My gut knew that his attraction to children was sexual but his denial and rationalization made sense in a crazy way. And to argue against his position was to argue with his “therapist” as well and created unbelievable discord and difficulty for days. So I silenced my gut; I disconnected from the truths it was screaming; I ignored the knowledge that it tried to communicate to me. Until he gave me the worst gift ever. And therein lies the paradox: the worst gift became the best gift because it gave me freedom to reconnect with my gut, to leave the destruction and death of a shell of a marriage, to begin to rediscover myself, or maybe discover myself is a better description. I wonder if I ever truly knew who I was outside of relationship.
The worst gift ever was my exit ticket. As a domestic violence advocate, I understand cognitively and theoretically why women stay in destructive relationships. We are committed to the fairy tale of our relationship—you know, the rose-colored version that ignores the facts our gut screams to us. And in the cycle of violence, the honeymoon phase gives victims a glimpse of their “knight in shining armor” once again. Survivors of domestic violence often stay in the relationship in spite of the violence just to experience the honeymoon phase again. It confirms their belief that the relationship is good; that their partner is kind; that the violence is an anomaly and often that it is their fault. While my relationship was not violent, it was destructive but it wasn’t all bad—he wasn’t a “monster” but rather a respected and accomplished member of his profession. He was generally kind to me but always distant. And he had a zillion excuses as to why our relationship wasn’t thriving. So my hope persisted even when the evidence was overwhelming.
The worst gift gave me permission to listen to the truth in my gut. After Christmas Day, he vacillated once or twice in his decision, which was confusing to me. And once or twice, I was tempted to beg him to reconsider—after all, ours was a great “love story,” wasn’t it? What a shame to consign it to the divorce heap. But I had begun listening to my gut again and I could no longer ignore the evidence it presented to me—much like a prosecutor laying out the case against the accused. I began telling myself the truth about the relationship and the truth began exposing the lies of the “rose-colored, fairy-tale” version.
The worst gift revealed the heart of my “prince” in a way I had never seen before. While he professed to love me, I believe he married me because he saw me as the solution to a problem he had wrestled with for most of his life. When I failed to solve the problem for him, I was disposable. For many years I was confused by his intense anger towards me and the resentments he nurtured. I only saw brief glimpses of the anger and resentments. It came out in very passive aggressive ways but was there nonetheless. It didn’t make sense to me. And to be honest, on that Christmas Day, I didn’t see all of this. But my heart opened to the truth and the reality that he did not love me the way I thought he did, that he had never been as invested in the relationship as I was and that he had not been attracted to me in over two decades.
The worst gift gave me freedom to walk away; no, it was more like a mandate or order to leave. As the oldest of four children in a family that had all the dysfunctions of an alcoholic family without the alcohol, care giving and responsibility were my middle names. I had long carried the heavier burden of care giving in the relationship. He needed me and I loved to be needed. I was like a first responder to an emergency—first on the scene and last to leave. But his gift gave me the permission I needed to walk away—to begin to focus my care giving on myself. To finally lay down my need to take care of him—I had outgrown it many years earlier but the roles we had established early in our marriage were firmly entrenched. It was hard to change them and he had little desire or motivation to do so.
These gifts hidden within the worst gift ever became critical in the days that followed. Without them, I may have chosen a different course of action; I may have felt obligated to stay in a destructive marriage, to my own detriment. Two months after that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, our house was raided by a task force charged with tracking down those trading in child pornography. They arrested my partner the next day and his employer fired him two weeks later. Without the gifts, it would have been hard to divorce him when his life had just exploded in a very messy, serious way. All that I had been taught as a child about denying or minimizing my own needs in order to care for others would have kicked in. I would have felt the social pressure to stay and “help” him through this. But the gifts revealed by that worst gift saved me and offered me another option.
In a few weeks, I will celebrate Christmas again but this time I will celebrate as a newly divorced woman. Last Christmas, my ex-husband gave me the gift of a new relationship—just not in the manner I would have chosen. It will be an important mile-marker for me; one that I want to commemorate by sharing and savoring what I have learned thus far about the best gifts of the worst gift. There are new gifts that were birthed by this worst gift that I will examine and cherish during this season. No longer am I living with an active sex addict; no longer am I in a confusing relationship with a pedophile; no longer must I deny the truths my gut knows. I can choose my destiny now—it is no longer tied to his. I am free to be me and to learn just who I am and what my place is on the planet. I have been given the opportunity to turn loneliness into solitude and to embrace the solitude. The greatest loneliness I have ever experienced was what I experienced during my marriage. Living alone for the greater part of this year has been a gift and one I am entirely grateful for.
Yes, there is grief as well but I am learning to embrace it as a gift—the tears I shed are cleansing and help loosen the knots in my soul that came from so many years of denying the truth. This is neither the road I envisioned nor the place I thought I would be in one year ago but it is good and maybe it is even better than what I envisioned. I am learning to grieve and yet feel gratitude at the same time—another paradox.
 Viorst, Judith. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. 1972. Aladdin Books.