4 Mar 2020

Sarah Quigley's Divorce Diaries

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 4 March 2020

First, he was her best friend. Then he was her husband, and now he is her ex-husband. New Zealand author Sarah Quigley shares the painful experience of her marriage ending.

Based in her Berlin when her marriage broke up, she endured grief, loss, constant questioning the 'what ifs' and the process of rediscovering joy.

She kept a journal of her experiences and that is now a book called The Divorce Diaries.  

“Hang on, it gets easier. And then it gets OK, and then it feels like freedom.”

Sarah Quigley

Sarah Quigley Photo: supplied

These words on a note taped to the window frame in Quigley’s Berlin kitchen are what helped her get through what experts say is the second most stressful life event you can endure.

Quigley is now back in New Zealand and she told Jesse Mulligan she hoped by turning her own experiences into a book, others in a similar situation might find solace.

“A few months after I left my marriage, I was thinking, how can I really make sense of all this tumultuous process? And I thought being a writer, well the natural thing to do is to write about it. And so, I started to just journal actually, I was just writing down how I was feeling every day.

“But then I came to realise that I actually wanted to reach out in some way to other people who might be in a similar situation; in difficult relationships or abusive relationships and who felt alone with those problems. Because one of the overriding emotions for me in the last years of my marriage was just I felt so alone, and I didn't know who to talk to.”

She says at one point during her marriage she locked herself in the bathroom with her phone - but called no one.

“That was just one episode of many. I simply just found myself somehow in a state of paralysis. I didn't know how to move forward.

“And I think when you're in a relationship with somebody who you love and who you respect, and it's not going right, it's a very difficult decision to make.”

Despite there still being love and respect, she didn’t feel safe, she says.

“If you don't feel safe, but you still somehow want to protect the other person, what do you do? Your hands are tied.

“So, for me, it just became clear that the only thing I could do was just to leave and protect myself.”

Quigley met her partner in Berlin where they were both part of the city’s then burgeoning arts scene.

“In the early years in Berlin before it became gentrified as it is now. It was a sort of a playground for artists and musicians and writers."

They became firm friends then partners, she says.

“He just turned out to be my best friend. We had a lot in common. We travelled a lot together and we talked about our work a lot.

“So that also compounded the difficulty of leaving because basically, I wasn't just leaving my marriage, but I was leaving my friend and my daily life, you know, everything.

“My familiar Berlin was all bound up with him.”

He was a good guy for most days of the year, she says.

“You always hope that things are going to get better or right themselves, but I just came to a point where I realised that nothing was going to actually change.

“I think that you can't change other people, change needs to come from within. So, all that I could do really was just to make the break and take the leap and start again.”

Alcohol was the problem, she says.

“I saw how alcohol changed him, and it wasn't every time he drank, but something in him would shift. And I was never quite sure when it was going to happen.

“But I definitely saw that characteristic in him early on. I think probably we are somehow conditioned to look for the best in people and to tune out what we don't want to see, just put the blinkers on and believe that it's all going to be okay,” Quigley says.

Shoving things under the carpet and hoping for the best is no answer in the long term, she says.  

“I felt that because his rages were alcohol induced, that it was some sort of force outside our marriage. That it was intruding in our marriage and I think partly that's one reason why I stayed in the marriage for so long, because I didn't feel as if it was his fault.

“So, it was never a matter of pointing the finger or even a blame game. It was just that I felt completely out of my depth. I didn't know how to help him, and I didn't know how to stop it.”

Being stuck inside that situation causes one to lose perspective, she says.

“If you feel unsafe in a relationship, you need to actually tell somebody else about it or talk to somebody to get an outside perspective on it.

“Because for a while I started to try to minimise it and I thought, oh, it's okay a lot of women go through much, much worse things than this, and I started to wonder if I was over-reacting to it, but actually, in a way, I think I was under-reacting.

“I sort of forgave and just went on and if I talked to somebody, or a few people, to get different perspectives on it, then I think I would have seen earlier that it was actually quite a serious problem.”

The relationship was diminishing her in insidious ways, she says.

“In a relationship it's very easy to fall into pattern behaviour. And so, our marriage did become these kind of patterns, the outbursts, and then the apologies from him and we would just proceed as normal.

“But what was happening to me, which I didn't see until later, was that I was kind of making myself small and ducking my head down, trying not to attract attention to myself, just to let the trouble sweep over me.”

When she realised how she was adapting to the marriage, she reached a turning point.

“I didn't want to turn into the sort of person I could see I was becoming. I didn't want to make myself smaller and I didn't want to have to apologise for things that I hadn't done. And I didn't want to not to shine as brightly as I wanted to shine.”

After one row where she was locked in her study “waiting for one of the storms to pass” she decided enough was enough.

“I thought I can't go on doing this. I can't go on locking doors to keep myself safe. I just wanted to walk out of there and walk tall again and so that was the moment when I decided I had to leave.”

After she left she was in remote control mode, she says.

“I was just doing what I needed to do to get myself back on my feet. Finding a temporary apartment, learning to live alone, which I hadn't done for a long time, just going through the motions of setting up a new life, but not actually stepping forward.”

It wasn’t until the divorce was finalised that she felt truly free, she says.

The practicalities of moving out weren’t too complex, she says.

“We were living in a fairly Bohemian way, it was not too much to sort out. I mean, we didn't have a house to separate or chattels or property so I was really lucky. And then the other thing was I've always been quite an independent person.

“I didn't have to learn too much about how to cope on my own. I mean, I could cope with my taxes and I could cope with my banking and I was quite lucky in that I think.”

Immediately post separation, she says she had to establish new routines.

“So that you feel like you're starting a new life. Routines are very comforting, but they can also be quite inhibiting and of course when you are in a marriage, you build up a lot of routines and when you come out of a marriage you almost feel like you're in freefall.

“You're just like, this is so scary, I'm falling without a parachute. And you look around and there's nothing that's familiar, maybe you're in a new apartment or a new house, or you're staying with people.

“You don't have your stuff around you, perhaps, everything has changed. And that's a really scary feeling.”

New routines soon reveal the pleasures of being alone, she says.

“Focus on all the freedoms that you have when you're not part of a couple, you're completely free to please yourself. Which is something that we almost forget how to do I think when we’re so focused on a relationship and keeping each other happy.

“It's really interesting to learn what makes you happy and when you realise you only need to take care of yourself there is a certain kind of liberation in that.”

She is a much calmer person now, she says.

“I feel for the last year of my marriage, I was just living on my nerves all the time, never quite sure when the next outburst was going to come. Always trying to assess what I was doing and if I was doing the right thing, and so I feel calmer and I feel stronger and I feel much happier.”

The main lesson she’s learned is to not fear the “alone” word.

“When we're in relationships for most of our adult lives it seems a very strange thing when you wake up one day and you're alone and I think to lose the fear of the alone word is really important, because I always thought alone is akin to lonely, but it's not actually, alone can be positive, alone is independence and alone is solitude and solitude’s a really great thing.”