As I write this, it’s a little over a fortnight since Stephen and I split up, and almost exactly a week since we told most of our friends. I’ve danced to remember and danced to forget. I’ve been taken care of by family, friends and acquaintances locally and across the world – truly, it’s been a 24hr support network, and to all of you, I am deeply grateful. In particular to all those in Zurich who have provided hugs, and to those at the top of my chat list who have been bombarded day and night, thank you.
Stephen has already published his take on what went wrong, and how it could have gone this badly. Many of you have responded, and I love and thank all of you who’ve supported him, publicly and privately. Some of you have also asked whether I’d write something similar from my own perspective, and a few of you have suggested that I should be taking more responsibility for the breakdown of our marriage.
With those latter few, I respectfully disagree. To me, taking responsibility suggests that blame should be assigned, and implicitly assumes that the breakdown is “bad news”. In fact, when I first shared the news with my family and a very small group of friends, in an e-mail written while I sat at the airport gate, that was the subject of the missive. But someone I trust deeply responded, saying:
I view these things as local minima that need to be overcome so you can reach global maxima.
It’s taken me a while to get my head around that, but I think it’s true. To help make sense of it, let me bring you on a whirlwind tour of the last three years.
Stephen was unwell before we got married. I knew that, and it affected our lives, but I was happy to make those sacrifices. We were a busy couple, and our lives weren’t without stress – my graduation ceremony was the week before the wedding, and our honeymoon brought us to Hong Kong expressly so that I could help out with a conference there. (That didn’t work out in the end, but we had a lovely time all the same!) I also had my moments – our first Christmas dinner was pasta bake with a special delivery of antibiotics for the shocking chest infection that had kept me out of the kitchen
Stephen’s memory had never been great, but when we moved to Zurich, things got harder. The trouble he had remembering things compounded the trouble he had learning German, which massively compounded the trouble he had with integrating (and Switzerland’s not easy to start with!). Combine that with having to start over on all of the medical care he needed, and it all caused a lot of stress, which didn’t help anyone. Where I had previously had to keep an eye on things (like our finances) that we managed together, I now had to single-handedly take care of all the details.
To give Stephen his due, over time, he stepped up on the things that he was able to do – but, like so many other things, the division of labour was always dictated by his health, and it left me feeling isolated and overworked.
Nine months ago, Stephen went into hospital for surgery that, we hoped, would make things drastically better. So much hope was poured into that operation. If it works, his bladder problems will get better. If his bladder problems get better, his sleep problems will get better. If his sleep problems get better, his memory will get better, our ability to do fun stuff/travel/share time will get better, and so on.
Day surgery turned into almost two weeks in hospital. A few days in, I left for the airport, and headed out to ApacheCon, straight from his bedside – having always planned that there would be plenty of time to get him home and help him recover before I had to leave. Our friends, as usual, filled the gap – and again, huge thanks to those who visited him daily while I was away.
We had planned to take our dream holiday, our second honeymoon, a couple of weeks later. Until pretty much the day we left, it wasn’t at all clear that Stephen would be able to do it – and I remain grateful that I never had to decide whether we should cancel it or whether I should go alone. As it was, we had a wonderful time – but many aspects of it still sucked. In fact, before we had even left Venice, we thought we would have to pack our bags and head to the hospital.
In all of that chaos, as we looked at plans we had made together and re-evaluated them in a context where we couldn’t simply wish things better, I started spending more time introspecting, thinking, trying to work out what was really important to me. And as 2009 turned into 2010, I started building more of those things into my life. After a year of a fairly serious “flight ban” (I took nine flights in 2009), I started to travel more – in fact, I spent the first six weeks of the year in San Francisco, three of them with Stephen.
It was during the latter three weeks, after he had gone home, that I had the epic swing-dancing/Superbowl weekend. But both before and after, as I tried new things or just did the things I wanted to do without having to worry about whether he’d be waiting up for me to get home, I was conscious of how much sacrifice our relationship required, from both of us.
“Life is pain, Highness” – this I know. And I truly understand the value of compromise. But I would say that I now understand it better than ever, having seen how far compromise can go before things break.
There were many compromises in our relationship. On his side and on mine, we settled and agreed and worked within our limitations. But ultimately, the things that had brought us and kept us together were no longer strong enough to make the sacrifices seem reasonable, desirable.
It’s easy to get into the game of “if-only”. If only Steve’s sleep hadn’t been so compromised, maybe we could have had more time to do things together, and maybe that would have seen us through the memory issues. If only I had faced less stress at work, maybe I could have given more energy to the relationship and kept things going more smoothly. If only Steve’s memory had not impaired his language learning, maybe he would have had an easier time integrating and been less likely to get depressed. If only I could have been more understanding and patient, maybe we could have found better ways to meet in the middle rather than relentlessly sacrificing. If only our sex life had not fallen by the wayside, or if only it had been possible to revive, maybe we could have relied on basic instinct to keep us together!
But none of that makes any difference, in the end.
I married Stephen because I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, and to share in the rest of his. We have split up because those things are no longer true – for me, at least. And as I’ve learnt, slowly, but inexorably, my primary responsibility is to myself. I have dreams, and hopes, and ambitions, and I would willingly sacrifice many of them, but I can’t sacrifice all of them, and I can’t sacrifice the essence of who I am.
Some of you have asked about regrets. I don’t regret a minute of it. Not the worst days I can remember, nor the worse days I’ve tried to forget. I don’t bear any ill-will towards Stephen, I still think he’s great, and although things are hard right now, I hope and intend that we might remain friends.
I met a man who had a dream he had since he was twenty. I met that man when he was eighty-one. He said “too many people just stand and wait until the mornin’. Don’t they know tomorrow never comes?”