‘I haven’t wanted to be with you for a long time.’ I felt the life drain from my body.’: Woman escapes toxic marriage, navigates single motherhood and self-love, ‘We created our own meaning of family’

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“I was no stranger to this pain. The aching suffocation in my chest, the choking lump in my throat, the numbness in my body felt like those old holds you couldn’t leave behind. Same players, new game. The sun strained through, casting a light on my body collapsed on the foyer ground. I was a shell of myself. He had just walked out the door moments ago, slamming it as he said words that would echo in my body for years: ‘I haven’t wanted to be with you for a long time.’ I felt the life drain from my body in that moment. Everything went numb, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t feel who I was, I felt…nothing.

It was in that space, that moment, when I realized I had lost myself in him. I can’t describe the emptiness that comes with realizing you have no idea who you are when you need yourself most, but it felt like a black hole pulling me endlessly in to its depths. My whole identity since we had said ‘I do’ was being his wife and our children’s mother. I was perfect at those things. Our home was immaculate, our children looked Instagram-worthy at all times, our life in a new city where we had both found our dream careers was everything. It was perfect. I went to church, prayed, budgeted and paid the bills, meal planned, attended play dates, and was the societal example of a perfect wife. I was perfect.

Woman in toxic marriage takes a selfie with her long brown hair curled while wearing a black button-down shirt
Courtesy of Sarah Carpenter

There was every warning sign in the books months (years) leading up to this moment. Desperation kept me searching for answers on how I could help him, or rather, keep him locked in for my own sense of security and self worth. My Google searches went from ‘Bon Appetit chicken cacciatore’ to ‘how to tell if your husband is cheating.’ I counseled with my pastor’s wife who told me ‘pray more.’ I counseled with various experts and male therapists who told me to ‘fight for it.’ I asked my mother what a good wife would do: ‘Stay together.’ And in a final Hail Mary, we packed up our entire life living close to my family in Virginia and moved 12 hours away to Nashville, Tennessee. We left every ounce of support system I had ever known, and it was just us 4 starting our new lives. Surely that would fix everything, right?

Woman takes a photo with her two daughters while sitting on a white couch at a Mother's Day banquet
Courtesy of Sarah Carpenter

It’s cruel how the panic numb holds no discrimination for when it will strike. I didn’t even mean to see the text that night; it showed up when he was sleeping. We had only been in our new city for a few months. My state of delusion told me there’s no way he would be repeating the same patterns in such a short amount of time. The numbness tried to completely overtake my body as I asked him about her, but I stifled it and played ‘understanding, compassionate wife,’ as always. He promised it was nothing, it would stop, I had nothing to worry about, he chose me and our daughters.

My state of desperation was so deep, it’s hard to imagine how much more I would have spiraled if he hadn’t ended our marriage. How many more times would I have had to find out and claim I was staying with him ‘for the kids?’ It was in this moment I realized he was actually gone, I had actually lost him, and it disintegrated every façade of self worth I had from thinking someone found me valuable. ‘If I do enough, if I’m perfect enough, if I give enough, pray enough, make myself available, if I’m pretty enough, if I’m quiet enough…’ Enough. I just wanted to feel like I was valuable enough for love.

Woman in white button-down shirt and black skinny jeans smiles for a photo in front of a city landscape behind her
Courtesy of Sarah Carpenter

The fairytales had always convinced me one day I would meet someone who would become my family and fill every void I had from a painful childhood. Society convinced me if I married my best friend everything else would be perfect and there would be nothing too challenging for us. It took years of infidelity and a stack of divorce papers to realize they both got it wrong. Here we were, two wounded humans who were now wounding two other humans, because we had tried to do everything right.

No one could have braced me harder for what came next. My pendulum had swung so hard right for 5 years where I was playing pretend; when it swung left, it hit in a wave of lows I couldn’t have anticipated. If perceived stability had landed me here, what would a spiral of self-destructive chaos do? My unresolved abandonment traumas were all rearing at once, demanding to be felt, and I didn’t have the insight to handle any of it in a way that made sense, so I stopped trying.

I wish this was a story where a mother faced betrayal and pain and used it to re-write her future, but facing this part of myself felt like trying to cross a canyon with no bridge. I didn’t know how to be her. I left a timeline of rising from the ashes to choose a spiral of self destruction, alcoholic benders, abusing my body, and living every day like it didn’t make a difference to me if I stopped existing. I didn’t really want an escape from life, but I was so tired of fighting; I wanted an escape from the pain.

Woman wears fancy, sparkly cocktail dress while mussing her hair and holding a glass of champagne
Courtesy of Sarah Carpenter

There’s no manual on how to raise two young girls while you’re going through a divorce at 25 years old. There’s no guidebook on how to be a good mother when you had no example of one. Every dream I had created of building a beautiful life with a family who loves me felt so out of reach, and I threw myself fully in to the sea of instability; the familiarity of chaos welcomed me like an old friend. I spent my mornings leaving for work before the sun was up and my evenings numbing the void with whatever liquid form of escapism I could find. My girls needed me, yet I had no solid ground to stand and rise up on. I was sinking in quicksand, reaching for anything I could find to keep from going under. Here, I found a faint glow that hadn’t been completely extinguished in the sadness of the times, the tiniest sliver of hope.

Woman in black dress takes a photo with her daughters, both holding a bouquet of flowers, while sitting on a table on their porch
Courtesy of Sarah Carpenter

The shift started small. The fear that had buried down my grief started to subside as I peeked deeper in to my dark parts to see who I was. I didn’t have to feel the tidal wave all at once, I couldn’t – the weight would take me out. The hope I clutched on to allowed me to be curious. She held me as I started noticing the small moments where my feelings were asking to be heard. Grief asked for answers, anger screamed injustice, loss spoke softly…I became so familiar with learning them.

When it came time to feel them, it didn’t seem so daunting. The wave turned in to ripples and I started to fall in love with the little moments of myself. All anxieties of repeating my own mother’s cycles of trauma started to diminish as I found the woman waiting underneath. The more I peeled the layers of myself back and created space for healing, the less escaping appealed to me. It felt safe to be present, to love my girls, to allow them close enough to where I could fall deeper with them. I stopped drinking, stopped being afraid of family, stopped repeating the generational cycles of abuse, pain, and codependency and allowed space for something unknown to bloom.

Woman learning to love herself after leaving a toxic marriage takes powerful, vulnerable photo
Courtesy of Sarah Carpenter

At first, there wasn’t much. I would find the little moments that felt peaceful and unfamiliar and water those with everything in me – my youngest’s big brown eyes beaming with innocence and joy as she told me about her day, my eldest’s hugs around my waist where it felt like she would hold on forever. The more I allowed love to flow, it started feeling sacred, not scary. We came back together closer in the little times that most people never notice, but I did. Movie nights cuddled up on the couch, breakfast conversations before school, dancing in the living room to the same 5 songs, quiet talks on the floor of my bedroom; I allowed my heart to soak up every millisecond like sweet nectar. We created our own meaning of family. The hope that was once a small glow grew to saturate our life as we talked and dreamt of our future together. My healing poured out in overflow to them.

I don’t pretend anymore. I don’t strive for perfection, I don’t act to have all of the answers, I don’t wish to appear as anything other than the woman I created. I don’t get everything right – I forget things, I struggle, I raise my voice, I allow tears to flow, and I don’t always know what to do when life feels hard. But I am whole. I can love my girls and my tribe in such overflow because I don’t feel I’ll lose myself in it. I can sit and allow space for my daughters to feel their hard feelings because I know how to help them come through. I can teach them how to be madly in love with every part of the beautiful beings they are because I walked it first.

Perceived perfection was never where the beauty was found, it was in my human-ness, my vulnerability, my depths. The acceptance and appreciation for my whole self as radiant, powerful, and alive as she is was created through fire, through the undoing, through loss I now view as gain. There is no need for another seemingly perfect mother in this world, but there is for mothers who can teach their children how to live as their most whole, loving, full-acceptance self. It just takes that first sliver of hope.”

Woman on self-love journey takes a photo with her two daughters while they sit on a white fireplace
Courtesy of Sarah Carpenter

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sarah Carpenter. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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