Books

Thank U, Ex

A writer reflects on their ever-changing relationship with their ex-husband.

In this excerpt from the new anthology Sex and the Single Woman, writer Rosemary Donahue reflects on their divorce, and how they’ve stayed close with the person they now call “a love of my life.”

Thanksgiving 2015–2016

Dane and I have a history of contracted timelines. We first connected through comments on mutual friends’ Facebook posts. After a few days of rapid-fire messaging, we exchanged numbers and started texting or FaceTiming for the better part of each day. Three months passed, and I booked a ticket to JFK. After only a few days together, our individual visions for the future came into focus, and he decided to put his life in a storage unit to come live with me and my dog, Milo, in Southern California for the summer, after which we’d move back to Brooklyn together. Though in hindsight a big jump like this could have been a disaster, we loved living together and left for the East Coast as planned. After six days driving across the country, mostly staying at campgrounds in a small tent I’d bought years before, we finally opened the door to an apartment that was truly ours. Within a month, we’d adopted another dog, Lily, and six months later we decided, over text, to get married.

My family, both immediate and extended, loved Dane. My parents aren’t very traditional and had never put any pressure, implicit or explicit, on me to partner or have children. However, they liked who Dane was as an individual and who I was around him.

When he met my extended family in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, it seemed they felt similarly. Some of them are Jewish, some Christian, and others aren’t really anything at all, so we typically split the difference and celebrate the holiday season on Thanksgiving (a day with its own set of problems). We gather over turkey, my grandmother’s pumpkin chiffon pie, and my aunt’s kugel. This annual tradition became Dane’s, too; he grew close with the entire, sprawling crew in our first two years together.

But planning our nuptials was stressful, as we both navigated the uncertainty of looking for jobs, the election and inauguration of Trump, and what I now realize was increasing tension before my inevitable coming out as queer. Perhaps it would have been kinder, easier, less expensive to call off the wedding then, but I’ve had to learn a lot of things the hard way.

Maybe that’s why I still went through with the wedding even after I told everyone that I was queer, why I said I didn’t need to know more about this side of myself first or to experiment with my sexuality, and why I continued to chalk up my years-long depression and low libido to ineffective medication and severe trauma. Maybe it’s also why I popped a Xanax before I walked down the aisle hand in hand with Dane in front of our family and friends, or why the first drink I’d had in over a year was on my wedding night. Acknowledging the story of my queerness meant reframing the story of Dane and me as the romantic loves of each other’s lives — and I wasn’t ready to do that yet.

The thing is, I tend to let myself get pushed all the way to the edge before making a necessary leap, even if someone else is out there hanging on for dear life beside me. It’s hard for me to pause, reconsider, and change course, because I’ve learned to repress my needs as a survival tactic. It’s only when it becomes so urgent that a manual override of that system is necessary — when something within me wakes up, sweaty and screaming from a nightmare — that I’m able to finally make the jump.

Thanksgiving 2017

I don’t remember much about it; one of my two married Thanksgivings.

Thanksgiving 2018

I burst into tears during our weekly couples therapy session with such an uncharacteristic loss of control that I shocked both my husband and our therapist. Dane had been filling in John — who always wore a patterned, short-sleeved button-up with a contrasting bow tie — on his recent work trip to Austin, and all of a sudden there I was, blubbering on the couch and saying something including the phrases “open marriage” and “my sexuality.” John looked at me with concern, and I realized that I needed to slow down. I grabbed a few tissues, sopped up the mascara streaming down my face, took a breath, and started over. I told them I felt as though being out as queer in theory but not practice wasn’t enough for me; I was worried that the longer I went without dating other queer people, the more I’d resent myself for never trying. I needed to date — and eventually have sex with — people other than cis men.

While he was always a wonderful therapist, John couldn’t hide his bald-faced shock at the turn the last forty-five minutes had taken. As we left the room, he urged us to take it easy for the next week and think about how we wanted things to look in the future, rather than acting on anything right away. And, of course, like the good gay therapist he was, he suggested we read both The Ethical Slut and Opening Up, but not before warning us of the books’ heteronormative language.

Over the next few days, Dane and I began to discuss the vague outlines of this new thing we were about to try. Were acquaintances off the table? Would we use Tinder? What other questions should we be asking ourselves?

We told my parents about our new arrangement prior to my family’s annual holiday dinner so they’d be sensitive to shifts in our dynamic. While they presented a supportive front, they later revealed they were worried we might not make it. Still, they helped us dodge well-meaning but slightly invasive questions from relatives about a future that now had a giant question mark over it. We left New Jersey right after dessert.

During our next therapy session, we discussed the rules for our open relationship. Dane went on a date that week and felt optimistic about the possibilities of nonmonogamy for us; I went on a date and quickly knew that our marriage needed to end, for his sake as much as for mine. Within three days, I found my own apartment, packed up my things, and moved out. A whirlwind ending equal to our love story.

Thanksgiving 2019

It was going to be my first time seeing everyone since the divorce had gone through in May, though my brother — a trusted buffer for all things familial — was staying behind in California with his girlfriend. While my parents and extended family lean more progressive than not, I’d been feeling more protective of myself since I came out. Strangely enough, it seemed Dane was, too.

“I’ll go with you, if you want,” he texted me as I sat on the floor of my apartment, petting Milo and staring off into the distance.

After a minute or so, I typed out a response: “Thank you, that’s so sweet. Ultimately, I think that would confuse them all even more. I’ll just skip it this year.”

If you’d told me back in, say, April of that year that Dane and I would be talking at all — let alone that he would be offering to make the annual family trip to Jersey with me — I might have burst out laughing. I knew it was unusual to be so close again after any breakup, let alone a divorce; then again, it was never our style to follow typical timelines.

So, even though I decided to forgo the big gathering, Dane and I still spent Thanksgiving together. We holed up with some terrible TV, ordered Chinese food, and watched our dogs — which we still share — play together in my tiny living room. He posted a photo of us on Twitter, joking, “Almost a year since @rosadona broke up with me #thankful.”

While I try to be discerning about the information I share online, I do tend to talk about parts of my personal life — whether experiences with sexual assault or mental health or relationships — in that space. Over the years, I’ve had many people say, both in public replies and private DMs, that my words have helped them.

As Dane and I found our way back to friendship and reinvented what our post-divorce relationship might look like, we began to share our process online and found that many others our age were going through similar transitions. Our tiny, 280-character stories would be retweeted with phrases like “divorce goals,” and though internet-speak can make me cringe when applied to deeper matters, it was heartening to see our experience resonate with others. There were people in our DMs who were getting divorced and wanted to stay friends with their exes but weren’t sure how to navigate the process. Others had been repressing parts of themselves for years and wanted to feel less alone as they disclosed these truths. Others still were dealing with the heartbreak of suddenly being left. Though the most common narrative attached to divorce is the tired story of a broken home, many people are looking for a blueprint that proves something better can be built in the aftermath.

Then again, we were also accused of desecrating the sanctity of marriage (isn’t a little trolling a sign you’re doing something right?). Often, marriage is presented not just as a revered institution but as a worthy pursuit — a goal — so to choose divorce is to choose failure. To call it quits is to eschew the traditional family structures we’ve been told uphold society. In many ways, it’s seen as selfish to get divorced, and most of us have learned that selfishness is ugly, a major transgression.

I firmly believe that, for the most part, people don’t opt out of a marriage unless they need to, and almost all divorces — even those most painful for one party or both — are necessary and good. After all, even if someone else makes the choice for you, isn’t it the right decision, in the end, if it leaves you open to a love that’s reciprocal?

Thanksgiving 2020

In the city where we live just a block apart, Dane and I walked our dogs together and talked about how we were dealing with the isolation of the pandemic. He told me about his girlfriend, and I talked to him about what it was like to try to date while COVID-19 was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. It felt natural as anything, and it was. We’ve been through so many iterations of what a relationship can be, and we’re still standing. I no longer call him the love of my life — in fact, I’m no longer sure I believe in that concept at all. I’ve settled on calling him “a love of my life.” And now, without the pressure of “forever” hanging over our heads, it actually feels more likely that we’ll be in each other’s lives for a really long time.

Excerpted from SEX AND THE SINGLE WOMAN: 24 WRITERS REIMAGINE HELEN GURLEY BROWN’S CULT CLASSIC FOR A NEW ERA, edited by Eliza Smith and Haley Swanson. Copyright © 2022 by Harper Perennial. Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.