Re-Imagineer: Emily Henry

You are a highly successful Interior Designer, and while business was going well, in your late forties, you decided to end a marriage while still raising two kids. That took great courage. What advice would you give someone who is struggling with a long-term relationship when they know in their heart that it isn’t working any longer?

Our marriage was a story about two people who start out as kids, grow up, and then grow apart. We had fun in the beginning. But then the stress of children, careers, and responsibilities began to take its toll. We were young, naïve, and lacked self-awareness. Overwhelmed and exhausted, we withheld love and were dishonest with each other. We both grew up in chaotic and dysfunctional homes so we had no ability to understand how broken we were as human beings until it was too late. I can now look back and see the red flags from the beginning (hindsight is always 20/20, as they say…), but I was too young at the time to understand any of that. 

Eventually, the cracks grew into chasms of irreconcilable differences. Eleven years into our marriage, we began counseling and we continued therapy for the remaining 8 years of the marriage. Sadly, our relationship continued to fall apart. In fact, the therapy seemed to make things worse: I often left the sessions with gaping wounds, yet the painful sessions were not shifting anything in our relationship. My connection to him was lost to frustration and resentment.

Soon after we started counseling, I began to do some serious work on myself. It was painful work, admitting my faults and shortcomings, and connecting the dots to my bizarre, dysfunctional (and very colorful) childhood. The reward was finding my weak -but still intact- spirit underneath the wreckage. There was hope.

I know too many people who are frustrated and unhappy in their relationships but are afraid to make a change. I understand why: the fear of being alone and of financial insecurity can be crippling. So, they slog on, playing the waiting game, becoming brittle and cranky, and being unkind to each other. When I realized that this was the road I was on, it filled me with dread. My “recovery”- so to speak- was teaching me that we are put on this earth to be happy, joyous and free. Free to learn our lessons, explore new possibilities, and find love. Happy to be of service and of use to others. And to experience the joy of having a bouncy soul that helps us rebound from life’s challenges.

On my spiritual journey, I confronted another disturbing truth: Our marriage was setting an example for our children, just as our parents’ unhappy marriages set an example for us. Was I teaching them on a subliminal level that marriage is an unmanageable, unhappy existence?  Was I teaching them to cope with the disappointment by leaning into avoidance and denial? One thing for certain, kids are smart and wildly observant: they absorb and integrate their parents’ emotions, behaviors, and coping skills with precision. As much a product of DNA, we are a product of our upbringings.   

This realization was a profound one and I was determined to break this cycle: The change I wanted was not just for me, but for my children as well. I wanted to show them that if you are unhappy, there are options. It’s OK to change our minds. We must be brave enough to take care of ourselves. What if I could set an example of courage? 

Right around that time, I had another inspiration: I realized that he had every right to be who he is, and I had every right to be who I am. It was that simple. I had to stop expecting him to change. This significant moment of clarity brought everything into focus and it became clear we needed to move on. The moment was a gift. All the fear and doubt dissolved to show me the truth. I decided to let go, stop wishing he was a different person, and find a way out. That very moment was the beginning of profound change in my life. Acceptance is a powerful thing.  

So, the best advice I can give is to stop blaming and shaming, and focus on ourselves to understand how we need to change.  If we are unwilling to dig deep and be honest with ourselves about who we are, our behaviors, and our part of it, we will never have the strength of character to change.  If we can’t take responsibility for ourselves, we will repeat the same mistakes over and over again. We will get nowhere in life playing the victim.

Once you made the actual decision to get a divorce, what practical advice would you give someone to expect if they made this decision, especially in that first year when things can get a bit chaotic, ugly, and fraught with drama?

I had an angel in the form of a remarkable friend in her 70’s. Wise and elegant, Martha guided me through the confusion and fear of the final years of our marriage with unconditional love. Her lessons were often in the form of slogans and riddles (“When life turns on me, I turn on myself”, she often reminded me). She held my feet to the fire and held me accountable, but she never once told me what to do. Instead of advice, she filled my emotional toolbox with a perspective brimming with positivity and love so I could find my own answer.

Everyone needs to find a Martha who can teach them the awesome power of love.  Years before I finally had the strength to call it quits, the writing was on the wall, and Martha lovingly helped me prepare for the inevitable fallout. We had good laughs and thoughtful discussions about fear and its power. She reminded me, over and over again, that regret is about the past, and fear is about the future. Our best bet, then, is to stay in the moment.

Self-reliance (a personal trait I used to be so proud of) wasn’t going to get me through this mess. I can’t stress what a difference it made having someone say, “you are going to be alright”. She believed in me before I believed in myself and she showed me how powerful faith is. Faith gives us courage, and courage lets us walk through our worst fears, compassionately and responsibly. As I would walk out her door, on my way to couples therapy, Martha would shout to me, “Emily, remember to put down the bazooka!”

After I asked for a divorce, my ex was deeply hurt, confused and angry. The 12-month separation and the 3 years after the divorce were incredibly difficult. It took tremendous discipline to keep it together. My family of origin was unsupportive and offered no help, financially or emotionally. My ex, being an attorney, used brutal legal tactics.  In exchange for my freedom, I signed away all rights for financial support for me and the kids and relinquished any right to the property and retirement. I leaned into the most basic Martha principle repeatedly during this dark time, asking myself, “are you OK right here, right now?” Acknowledging to myself that, yes, I was OK right then, would get me through that hour. Hour by hour, day by day, I got through that dark time. I focused on my children and my work. I tried not to think about myself.

Through it all, I recognized a strength in me I never knew existed. The mediation was a blur. After all my requests were denied, and I signed the papers, I remember getting in the car and saying to myself out loud, “Whoa, Emily, that sure didn’t go very well…”, and I sat in the car laughing. It was one of the most profound moments in my life. I made the decision to let go, accept the consequences and move forward. Most importantly, I avoided mudslinging. When he was lashing out at me, insisting that I ruined his life, I refused to direct anger back at him. I didn’t care about the stuff anymore. My perspective had evolved. The idea of dragging my children through the mud to fight over, say, the furniture, or who was wronged, was insanity. I had realized that the only way to get what we need is to give it all away. Acceptance and surrender are the answer to true freedom.

You are a great example of Reimagination…. someone who ROAR’d into a new life as you approached 50. Your business is thriving, the kids are off to college and you have a new man in your life. It all seemed to work out. What would you tell people who are scared, nervous and reticent to take the kind of personal journey that you took?

Everything changes. My definition of a life well lived is change and evolution. We never know what the future holds. I had no idea 8 years ago, when we divorced, what lay ahead. My new life exceeds my wildest expectations. My children, both in college, have grown into kind, self-aware, compassionate, funny people. They respect and trust me more than I ever thought possible. I have gone from living month to month in a rental with hardly any furniture to owning a charming, lovely old adobe on Santa Fe’s east side that we remodeled ourselves. My business has grown considerably. I have a kind, loving, strong man in my life, and we respect and are kind to each other. He makes me laugh.  Most remarkably, my ex and I are now close, dear friends. We hang out often, giving advice and helping each other. If that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.  But if it happened to us, I am certain it is possible for others. The power of love and forgiveness is free to all, if we are willing to do the work. Life is what we make of it.

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