People who equate truth with fact are missing the point.

Independence Day

Midmorning on Friday, July 4, 1997, my then husband, Robert, was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and our den, holding our 19 month old daughter Abbie and screaming at me. “I’m leaving! Do you hear me? I’m out of here! I don’t love you anymore! You make me sick! You’re a fucking cow! How can you expect me to be married to someone who won’t even have sex with me? I’m out of here!”

Abbie was crying and squirming, trying to get away from her dad. Jacob, 3 1/2 years old, was behind me, silent. I was standing in the middle of the den, ice cold down to my bones, a basket of toys in my hands.

“If you’re leaving, go now,” I said. “You can couch surf until you get a place.”

To this day he tells people that I kicked him out of the house.

Amazing how a day and an event that I dreaded for over a year and from which I took nearly two years to recover has become so unimportant in my memory. I almost never think about it anymore, but at the time I was afraid I would drown in the fury of my feelings.

From the vantage point of 13+ years, I can look at that relationship and understand when it really ended for me, the thing that broke us for good and for always.

Which is not quite true; we were young and foolish and had no business getting married, much less having children together. Walking down the aisle on our wedding day, the thought bubbled up, “This is a bad idea. We’re not going to last.” I was already pregnant and figured that calling the wedding off at that moment was not an option, and honestly, I didn’t want to.

Sigh. If I’ve made a more selfish decision in my life than that one, I don’t know what it is.

The illusion of us, of Robert and Adrienne, young couple in love, began to crumble for me on December 30, 1993, when Jacob was 20 days old. We’d been married 7 months.

I was over the moon with joy about my new baby. Motherhood agreed with me, largely because there was never an easier, happier baby than my Jacob. I was tentative and uneasy, a bit overwhelmed, but mostly I was enamored of my beautiful little boy.

Happy as I was, I was also pretty raw emotionally. I didn’t suffer from postpartum depression, but I had a decent case of the baby blues; I was weepy and sensitive, a little bit anxious. I sought frequent reassurance from Robert that he didn’t love the baby more than me. I was happy, but out of balance, a little off my center, disoriented.

On that evening in December, 1993, I got out of the shower to find Robert standing in the bathroom door. He looked shocked.

“Is it your mom?” I asked. Robert’s mom was in Wyoming, dying of cancer.

“No, it was Jackie. Remember I told you about her? My high school girlfriend?”

“Before April, right?” I think I’ve mentioned before that Robert liked the ladies; keeping track of the relationships he had before me (or during one of our many pre-marital break-ups) was not easy.

“Yeah, before April. When we lived in Colorado. She was calling about my son. She was pregnant when my mom moved us to Albuquerque and she had a son. He’s seven.”

I stood there on the bathmat, staring, with the towel pressed against my breasts to staunch their enthusiastic, near-constant dripping of milk. Several minutes passed.

“What’s his name?” I whispered.

“I don’t know,” he said, and then he began to cry. I stood a moment longer, my hair dripping cold water down my back, while Robert wept quietly. Eventually, I walked past him into the bedroom so I could get dressed.

How Robert came to have a child whose existence he did not know about for over seven years is long and convoluted. I’m not sure I know the whole truth. I do know, though, that on December 30, 1993, a tiny flame of contempt sparked to life in me. I wasn’t aware of that at the time; after Robert told me about his first child (not my child; not our child), the only emotion of which I was consciously aware was shock. I was angry, too, but I was young and in love, and a brand new mother, too, so I carefully kept that secret from myself.

The most important lesson I learned in the two years after Robert and I divorced (when I was busy dissecting and analyzing every one of our seven years together) was this: contempt is poison in a relationship. As corrosive as sulfuric acid, as poisonous as the venom of a brown recluse, contempt eats a relationship from the inside until it’s hollow.

Of the many mistakes I have made in my relationship with Brian, contempt has not been among them. I remain ever-watchful for feelings of moral or intellectual superiority, for secret angers and judgments.

If I feel rage rise in my throat over things that should be no more than minor irritations (the damp towel in a heap on the bathroom floor; the pizza with the wrong toppings; the car with an empty gas tank), I know I’ve missed my mark.

So I back up and look for the thing, the one that’s chewing on me. I find a way over, around, or through it.

That first marriage wasn’t worth saving. We were blessed with two magnificent children, and for that reason I will never regret our relationship, but we had no business trying to live our lives together.

This marriage, this life I share with Brian, is worth any amount of effort to keep it from rotting away. He’s in this with me. No matter what mistakes we’ve made, how often we’ve hurt each other, we’re partners.

I could survive without him, but I’m immeasurably grateful that I don’t have to.

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58 comments to Independence Day

  • Someday I long to have a relationship with someone where our respect for one another equals our emotional attachment. I’m learning now that I can survive on my own. I like being on my own, making my own decisions, answering to myself and my responsibilities as a mom. Someday? Maybe I’ll want to complicate my crazy life even further…and when I do, I hope I find something like you and Brian have.

    • Yes, first the healing, THEN the being-open-to-something-new. The 2 1/2+ years I was single between between the day Robert moved out and the day I met Brian were critical, for myself and for my ability to be in this marriage.

      This marriage has had plenty of significant issues, too, but we’re both 100% in it, which is the real difference.

      I hope you find a wonderful relationship someday, too. Really hope that for you.

  • I am glad you get to live your life with Brian too. You need a Brain. So glad you have one. We all need to be accepted for everything that we are. Not just part of it.

  • A man who calls you names like that in front of the children cannot be the same man you say “yes” to.

    I stand behind my theory, marriage is a gamble, when husbands become fathers, anything goes. But often you don’t have much of a choice as marriage is ‘meant’ to preface children.
    Robert had many, many other problems it seems like. Turns out he also brought a lot of luggage.

    Can I just say I am totally in shock with how much crap life has thrown your way? I hope whoever ‘up above’ is responsible for all of this will make sure your family is safe for a long, long time.

    I’m incredibly touched by and impressed with your courage — a little bit more each time I read your life stories.

    • I think I can get behind that theory! Since Brian and I were both parents already when we met, I knew what kind of father he was. Of course, blending families has a whole ‘nother set of nightmarish potholes.

      I’ll agree that life has thrown a great deal of crap in my direction, but this miserable marriage followed by painful divorce story is all on me. Not that Robert didn’t have his own lousy behavior; he did, but I chose this ill-fated marriage.

      Honestly, sometimes when I pull back and look at the whole picture, I’m a little stunned, too. There has been a great deal of ick (and I’ve only just begun with the stories), but somehow, it’s just my life.

      Thank you. Many, many thanks.

  • Yet another thing we have in common. I would love to hear more about what happened after the discovery of the 7yr old son. My husband found out about a 9 yr old son in January 2009. It’s still totally crazy. But my husband is my “yes” so we are dealing,….as best we can. I love your posts, and I wish I had your courage.

    • Honestly, almost nothing. We were barely scraping by and for fear of Jackie insisting on child support, Robert didn’t have any contact. He did go visit once a few years later, but from what both Robert and Jackie told me later, the visit didn’t go very well.

      Thank you, but I’m not quite sure it’s courage. I think it might just be my nature, you know?

  • Beth

    There’s a bit in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink about this psychologist who analyzes people’s relationships to see if they’ll last or not. The number one predictor of failure, according to him, is contempt. I read that for the first time while on the path to break-up and I remember thinking, crap, that’s about right, because I had nothing but contempt for the life choices the guy I was dating was making (mostly because they involved him staying in his parents’ house forever, but yeah). And voila, a couple weeks later… I hope someday I find someone to love as much as you love Brian.

    • Interesting. I think I first read about the evils of contempt in one of Dr. Gottman’s books. The minute I read it, there were bells going off in my head.

      I hope you find a wonderful relationship someday, too!

  • Wow! Such honesty and self exposure is something that I don’t read every day. It sure in heck isn’t what most people talk about. I nearly walked down the aisle in a situation similar to yours. I could feel that it wasn’t right, that I would regret it, that I would end up in hell and so would my child, so I walked away. I was determined to go it alone rather than raise my child in a household where the parents hated each other like I had. Someone, maybe God, maybe Fate, who knows what, had other plans for me and I lost that child.

    It hurt like heck then and I spent a while blaming myself. It has been a long time though and I can’t help it wonder where I would be now if it had all turned out differently. Still, I am grateful for the life I have led and it wouldn’t have been possible if I had been dealt another hand.

    I know have a step daughter that is about the same age as my son would have been. So no matter what, I am still stuck with paying for college, worrying about her partying too much or if the latest boy will break her heart. I am not so much a mother as a caring ATM machine and I wouldn’t go back, even if I could.

    Thank you for being raw, I haven’t talked about that in a long time.

    • I was so young, I’m not sure I even thought about my future as something I would create; I looked at it as something that would happen to me. You obviously didn’t have that problem!

      It took me a long time to tease apart the threads and understand what I had done wrong and to lay down responsibility for his part.

      I’m so glad that you’re satisfied with the place where you’ve landed!

  • This is so beautiful. I will be sharing it.

    I use different words for a similar concept. I tell people that the day I realized there was no goodwill left in my first wife toward me, that’s the day it became okay with me that we weren’t working out. I mean, not OKAY, as in hey, no worries, but okay as in I knew it was best, even though it made me cry a lot, and still does sometimes, even after 8 years with someone with whom the goodwill is ALWAYS obvious

    Thank you for sharing this, truly.

    • Yes, no goodwill! I like that. I knew it was completely dead when we stopped fighting altogether. We were generally polite and we bickered a little, but our emotional response to each other were severely limited.

      I’m so glad that you’ve found a relationship full of goodwill. It’s a great gift!

  • Adrienne, every time I read a new post of yours I get sucked in like I’m turning the pages of a 500-pager that I can’t put down. I can literally picture every scenario, feel your emotions in my gut, hear your voice narrating the scene. You are a wonderful writer and a wonderful person and I feel honored to know you through your words.


  • WOW! I’m sitting here crying my eyes out! Anyone who has ever divorced (I have twice) had looked back and found the moment when they knew it was dying. I too, in this marriage, am determined not to ever have that moment! Contempt is a very dangerous thing! So glad you have your Brian!

    • Yes, I think that’s part of the healing for most people, to look back over the whole relationship and try to make sense of things. I’m so grateful to have learned my lesson about contempt before Brian because honestly, we’ve had some divorce-worthy issues in our marriage. Working hard to deal with our feelings before they twist into contempt is part of what I credit with saving us.

  • I am so glad I have a “Brian.” The day we got married, I kept waiting for what people had called “cold feet” but I couldn’t get to that altar fast enough. I would’ve run if I hadn’t had two men walking me there.

    Isn’t it a wonderful feeling knowing that at the end of the day, there is that constant? That one thing you can rely on? I am overjoyed that you have your Brian. They are so few and far between these days.

    • Thank you! I’m so glad you have that, too. It means so much, to have that one person who is my most important, and for whom I am most important. Intimacy, friendship, partnership…all of that is a great and wonderful gift.

  • Two things I like: número uno…the rawness. Oh how I love a put it all out there person! Truth is the antidote to that poison. And two…the familiarity, just minus the children. That gut wrenching knowledge that something isjust wrong. Those years of introspection when it all falls apart. I’m glad I’ve forgotten a large portion
    of that time, myself. Many kudos to you, for sure.

    • Heh…yes, put-it-all-out-there definitely describes me! Maybe not all the details, but all the feelings.

      Yes, I’ve forgotten a lot, too. It’s been a long time since we split, and it’s easy to look at it all with a sort of clinical eye now. Back then, the heat and turmoil tried to swallow me. Awful feelings.

  • CDG

    To be so eloquent about something so awful?

    It’s a gift.

    What an utterly lovely soul you are.

  • Shawna

    First marriages are only practice anyways! Funny, my awful practice one was also with a Robert and I had the same thought going down the aisle.
    The big difference between a doomed marriage & one with a future, I think anyways, is if you are running “to” the person you are with or “away” from another person or situation. I was definitely running away during that first ceremony and thankfully I was running to my current hubs.
    16 years later he’s still the one I run to.

    • Yes! I was floundering when I met Robert; I should have been in college, but I was scared to do that, and I wanted a family. I’m still not quite sure why I was in such a hurry. OK, that’s totally a lie. I DO know why I was in such a hurry – same reason I got married. I didn’t know what else to do, and I wanted something exciting in my life. Having a baby is exciting.

      When I met Brian, I knew that I could live my life, even raise my kids, on my own. I had a plan for myself. That made all the difference.

  • My Big Secret

    I didn’t miss the point of this post, however the part that stuck out most to me, your ex having another child you never knew about, who was 7 years old. I was served custody papers last July, while husband was away for work. I was 7 months pregnant and nearly brought to my knees. He claims he didn’t know, he claims it *might have* been his. We called a lawyer, I insisted on us not admitting to anything, after all we didn’t know for sure. We were broke, how would we pay for legal help AND a nearly 6 yr old AND a baby?? I went into preterm labor from the stress (thankfully stopped with a shot and a some rest). We paid for top of the line lawyers, he snuck visits with her behind my back, hid pictures and I’m sure devastated the little girl because this past June we FINALLY got the papers that said she wasn’t his, he was not a daddy before OUR little girl. It was the hardest thing to live with, I’ve only told one other person, but even though this little girl has nothing to do with us, I obsessively think about the situation and what if it had turned out differently. I know that his lies about seeing her and talking to her still bother me and I know with time I’ll heal and get past it.

    I’m so happy you found your forever partner. I’m so glad you’re healing.

    • Oh my God! That’s really, really hard.

      One thing that probably helped me was that there was never any doubt. Jackie sent pictures and it was immediately obvious that he was Robert’s child. They did eventually have a DNA test that confirmed it (long after we had divorced), but I never had any doubt. To me, uncertainty is worse than knowing for sure in most circumstances.

      I’m sure I would be obsessed with a situation like that, too. For the 3 1/2 years that we were married after we found out about his son, Robert never mentioned him. I always brought him up first. I was the one who told our kids about their brother. Just a mess all around. I don’t guess, if we’d found out he wasn’t Robert’s child, that I could have just let it go.

      The lying…that’s rough. I hope you have plenty of opportunities to talk about that, and that he understands how hurt and angry you are.

  • This was a great post. And so true about the contempt. And a good reminder.

    • Thank you! Yes, sometimes my posts are more about reminding ME than anything else. We’re in a good place together, Brian and I, but I’ve been irritable lately. I have to watch where I point that stuff!

  • Wow. So glad you have learned so much from the yuckiness you’ve been through!

  • It’s interesting…I was just thinking about my ex-husband this morning. Our relationship was never so volatile, but I knew we shouldn’t have gotten married.

    I admire you for sharing this. It is pretty raw.

    • Thank you! Know what’s weird? Several people have mentioned that it’s raw, but it doesn’t feel that way to me at all. Honestly, I was thinking of this as kind of middling post – not light and fluffy, but not intense, either. Probably because it was all a long time ago, I guess?

  • When we hear stories of true love, we mainly hear about the rewards of that relationship. Rarely does anyone discuss the work necessary to build those happy relationships.

    My favorite stories are the ones that include the work. Those are real. Those are attainable.
    Thank you for sharing your love story.

  • Jen

    This was an amazing post. I am so glad that you found true love and happiness.

  • I sometimes wonder how my parents ever existed together for 16 years. Nothing about them goes together. And then I look at my sister and me, we’re the reason they found each other, and even though they hate each other now, I wouldn’t be who I am doing what I’m doing without them.

  • I love the honesty in your writing. It surely must be cathartic for you all the while it touches the hearts of your readers. You got something special, girl! I’m glad you share with the rest of us!

    I, too, was married very young. But luckily my husband never had such earth-shaking revelations see the light of day. We’re still plodding along nearly 30 years later. I guess you could say he’s my Brian … although he goes by the name of Jim. :o)

    • Awww, thank you!

      That revelation was far from the only reason (or even the largest reason) that we divorced, but it is a piece of the story that’s been right behind my eyes lately. I remember that day like it happened to someone else, almost.

      So glad that you have had so many years with your partner; here’s to many, many more!

  • I got the marriage thing right the first time, but there were big mistakes of the non-marrying sort before that wedding. And if, when I was young and stupid and in the process of making those mistakes, I had gotten pregnant?

    I also would have gotten married. I just know that I would have.

    And that would have been a terrible mistake.


    Marriage to the right person is work, but of the good sort. For the last 20 years I have woken up every day happy to be doing the work of making it work with this man. Some days are easier than others, but every day is worthwhile.

    I’m glad you found your place in this world.

    Your other.

    Big love to you.

    • Terrible mistakes grow exponentially in their stupidity when there are kids involved because then, you’re making decisions for yourself AND for small people. That’s the shittiest part of all.

      Yup, there is always work, but there is a world of difference between “hard times” and “fundamentally broken.” I hate the hard times, and we’ve had some really, really bad ones, but that broken thing is a freaking nightmare.

  • Amazing how we are able to write with such a distanced view of something that was so horribly real at the time.

    How we are designed to protect ourselves so we can keep going, and reach the higher ground.

    Lovely to meet you, and thank you for your kind words on my blog.

    You were blessed with a fantastic sense of humor, that has saved you many, many times. Hurray for the sanity it provided!

    love…and peace, friend.

    • The intervening years make that distance possible. Even 5 years ago, I probably couldn’t have written this.

      And yes, the humor! Often, I’ve been chided for using humor to avoid dealing with things, but that’s not true! Humor is one of the ways I deal with things, among many ways! I am much more at risk for taking myself too seriously than for avoiding them with humor.

      Love and peace to you, too, mah dear.

  • Some days it’s very, very hard to back up and think about the real reason I’m so angry when my husband leaves his dirty socks in the middle of the living room floor. Thanks for the reminder of why it’s so important to do so.

  • Wow, there seems to be a running theme here, because my first “starter marriage” was also to a Robert. How funny is that? Luckily there were no kids involved in that one, so it was easy to just walk away.

    My husband also has exes – 2 wives and a long term live-in girlfriend who was really like a 3rd ex-wife. This is what happens when you get married later in life. At our wedding our mothers both said memorable things. His called me “the best one yet” and mine said “This one better stick, because I don’t think I can go through this again.” Those lines are now in rotation in our line-up of running jokes (because we’re that kind of people.) I’ll be falling asleep and he’ll lean over me and whisper. “You’re the best one yet.”

    Really I think we can be so light about it because neither of us had kids in our previous relationships so there are no tethers and drama there. And this was a great post.

  • This is brilliant. Sometimes the only way we learn is to make mistakes.

    • Mmmm…brilliant. One of my favorite words!

      Brian and I have had some seriously ugly times and I’m convinced that without the lessons we learned before we met, we wouldn’t have made it. I’m sure lots of people learn those lessons without having to get divorced, but that’s how it happened for us.

      Thank you!

  • contempt was the end of my marriage though it took a lot of years to finally accept the marriage had died. I remember when the seed took root, I remember all the times it was watered and fertilized and I remember when it was finally too much. You are right, learning about contempt and doing all you can to prevent it from ever taking root again has completely changed my life. Changed my life in more ways than just my personal relationships.

    • Thanks! Yes, I agree. When I’m judgmental, it poisons me. It might hurt my target, but probably not. I’m always hurt, though. You’re right; it’s an important lesson for so many reasons.

  • Adrienne, I linked to this post ’cause it’s a valuable lesson to everyone, married or not. We all have to watch for contempt.

  • Rilosa

    Sorry, new reader here. Not sure if this is appropriate or helpful, or the correct post to respond to, but I remember you saying somewhere that you had never been in an abusive relationship. From these types of posts, it definitely seems like you were abused by your ex-husband. Also, whatever IQ Carter has, he seems very bright.

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