An Optimist’s Guide to Divorce

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Beka told me about her self-care plans for the day of her final divorce hearing as we were getting pedicures. Her two daughters sat between us in child-size pedicure chairs, chattering away and paying no attention to our conversation.

“I scheduled a facial, a massage, and lots of drinks beginning at 2 p.m.,” she said. “I’m going to need this. We know half the attorneys in town, and I bet we’ll see someone in court. Watch it be one of the loudmouths.”

We both laughed and sipped our wine.

Beka is my boyfriend’s wife, and the girls are their children. I met her husband, Josh, the summer before, on Mother’s Day, which coincided with their 12th wedding anniversary. Beka had shooed him out of the house to host a mother-daughter tea, and he appeared in the seat next to me at a neighborhood bar.

He says it was love at first sight, while I thought he was just another sexy married guy — strictly off limits.

Over the next two months, as I cycled in and out of tumultuous relationships, he kept popping up. Occasionally we would wave across a coffee shop or exchange a few words on the street. One day he took a seat next to me at another bar, where we joined in the happy-hour conversation about politics and sex.

When he left to pick up his children, I wasn’t surprised when he said, “Can I see you again?”

I thought: “Just another creep trying to fool around behind his wife’s back.” But I agreed to meet him again, mostly because it was easier than explaining why I wouldn’t and because I was certain I would never have an affair with him.

I was wrong about Josh. He wasn’t a creep or even a cheater. He was a man who loved his children more than anything. Josh and Beka were a powerhouse couple — affluent, attractive, highly educated, generous — and the backbone of upper-middle-class respectability developing in my bohemian neighborhood.

They had married in their 20s because they got along, had a lot in common (both are lawyers) and the timing was right; many of their friends were tying the knot. Twelve years in, their marriage seemed to be compatible and right. But it was a union of practicality more than passion, and Josh was miserable. He didn’t think he had any right to be miserable, but he was.

I didn’t understand why Josh was willing to break apart everything he had to be with someone like me. I was a struggling academic recovering from a messy divorce, deliberately childless at 40. My devotion to my students and my love for my dogs served as a stand-in for stable and nurturing human relationships.

After many years of struggle, I recently had learned I had bipolar II disorder, which meant I finally had the right medicine. But I was wrestling with shame as I realized how many of my spectacularly bad decisions had been influenced by mental illness. I had to learn how to trust others and myself, and at times it felt like I would never get there.

Josh said he liked me simply because he did. “I am married to a wonderful, successful, beautiful woman,” he said. “By any calculation, I should be happy. But I’m not, so I have decided that I am not going to calculate anymore.”

As we spent more time together, everything about our relationship felt natural. There was no imbalance in our love for one another, and we shared the same values and sense of humor. It turns out that Josh’s refusal to calculate — and my distrust in my ability to calculate — led us to the best decision of our lives: to do what it would take to be together. But that meant inflicting undeserved pain on others.

On a sticky Sunday in August, when Josh and Beka’s children were staying with his mother, he asked her for a divorce. At first she refused to believe he was serious. Then she grew so angry that she shook.

A visibly upset Josh met me after she told him to leave the house. He was ashamed, relieved and almost physically sick with sorrow.

“I could handle her anger,” he said. “And I agreed with everything she said. It’s unthinkable for me to dismantle all we’ve built. But I fell apart when she started to cry. She put her head on my chest while she cried. I’ve never felt so horrible in my life.”

About a month later, he told Beka about me. This time, her anger was not tinged by sorrow; she was furious. After hours of shouting, however, she began to feel better than she had since Josh first mentioned divorce.

“It makes more sense for the divorce to be about another woman,” he said. “Many of our friends are going through divorces for the same reason. And I’ll admit, she felt a lot better when I told her you’re four years older than she is. She assumed you would be about 25.”

Then Beka surprised us both. Through Josh, she invited me to dinner.

“What?” I said. “Seriously? How is that going to work?” I didn’t see how a dinner could be pulled off without the whole thing erupting in open conflict or stalling into awkward silence. But, again, I was wrong.

“I had to meet you,” Beka said as she opened the door. “Josh wants you to meet our girls, but I need to get to know you first.”

Her smile seemed genuine, her eyes kind. She was small and beautiful, somehow elegant in casual shorts. Although I am short as well, I felt huge and ungainly next to her.

Josh was practically disabled by anxiety during that three-hour dinner. As Beka and I got to know each other, he drank nonstop. But Beka made sure I felt totally at ease. Our conversation ranged from trivial matters and uproarious stories about neighborhood matters to serious acknowledgment of our unusual situation.

After we all had hugged good night, I thought, “This won’t last.” I braced myself for the wrath to come, but it never materialized. Instead, Beka introduced me to their adorable children, and my immediate bond with them made me silently rejoice that I didn’t have children of my own. It was as if I had been saving my maternal love for Rose and Alice, who were then 7 and 3.

One day they brought tears to my eyes when, after a raucous game of me holding them upside down and tickling them, we snuggled on the couch to watch a movie.

“I love you,” Rose whispered. “I’m so glad you’re part of my family.”

Beka was the one who worked the hardest to make me part of the family. She invited me to birthday parties and smoothed the socially turbulent waters by introducing me to friends who had been indignant on her behalf. Afterward, we giggled at the shocked faces people made when they met me.

When Josh moved out of their house into a duplex, we had family dinners and celebrated holidays together to ease the transition for the girls. While friends and family shook their heads in bafflement, we forged our relationship based on mutual respect, empathy and an overpowering love for those two beautiful children.

The one thing I don’t know, and may never know, is whether our bond is genuine affection on Beka’s part or the result of her sheer will to make this work, to avoid falling prey to bitterness, to refuse to be a victim.

It isn’t my place to ask such a thing, and ultimately it doesn’t matter.

I am in awe of the grace and maturity she has displayed throughout what I suspect is the most traumatic event of her life. She even liked this essay, telling me after reading it: “I’m so glad you get it. I wish more divorces ended up like this. It’s better for the kids and the parents.”

I have silently mourned with her, though I suspect she wouldn’t appreciate that. She never breathes a word of anger or resentment to her children, and they have never reproached their father or me for the immeasurable disruption we have caused to their lives. She and Josh and I have done everything we can to shield them from the anger and damage so common in divorce.

Every now and again when I have thanked Beka for an invitation to a family event or gone out to get medicine for a sick child in the middle of the night, she has texted me words of gratitude that I treasured even while feeling I didn’t deserve them.

“The girls adore you,” she wrote. “And you truly treat them like they’re your own. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.”

And I can’t tell her how much this family we all have forged means to me.