Like a fine wine, life is made richer through its complexity. The bitter notes can add depth, making the sweet moments more blissful. And time has a way of marrying them all together into a tapestry of joys and sorrows that are unique to you, lending fullness to your character.

When it comes to divorce, people tend to think of it as one of the bitter notes. No matter what the circumstances, sadness, and regret well up when a relationship ends. But often there is light at the end of the tunnel, helping people reclaim a sense of self – for people who want to look for it. Four people who went through divorce were generous enough to share their stories with THE EXIT, and to describe the emotional journeys they went on, and the lessons they learned. Here is what they had to say:

Richard*, communications strategist in his 50s

(Richard asked us not to use his real name out of sensitivity for his ex-wife.)

What happened: Richard took the plunge and got married, but his heart wasn’t in it. After dating a few years, the couple said their “I do’s” in a romantic ceremony on a tropical island. But almost immediately afterward, he started to feel anxious and depressed. “I pulled the parachute after 90 days,” he said, adding that he packed up all his stuff, put it into a car, and booked passage on a boat to a foreign country.

The struggle: Having been raised in the Catholic tradition, which places high value on marriage and family, Richard battled mightily with pangs of guilt. “It was extremely embarrassing because my parents had been at my wedding just weeks earlier, and so had her (parents), and there’s a huge social bond,” he said. “You’re making a promise not only to your spouse, but to all your friends and family, too.”

Lesson learned: After beating himself up for years over the divorce, Richard eventually “came to peace with it.” He was surprised when he discovered that so many friends and family, including Catholic friends and family, showed him compassion. “They aren’t actually let down,” he said. “I’ve pleasantly found that all of those people were very supportive when I wrongly assumed they would think less of me.”

Melissa Gaffney, journalist in her mid-30s

What happened: After being married for about 10 years, Melissa said she “really came to know myself as a woman and as a person, and in doing so, realized a lot of what I wanted in a partner and in a relationship and how I wanted to be treated. And that was not what my marriage was.”

She realized she had been filling a void in her life with things like shopping: “Like, I’m literally willing to spend money to have this interaction that makes me feel human again.” The couple filed for divorce, and she moved on in December 2019.

The struggle:
At first, Melissa felt an “overwhelming sense of failure” and conflicted about some of the better moments spent with her ex. “There are so many good memories of that chapter in my life, which is also what makes divorce hard, right?”

Lesson learned:
Melissa was surprised to find her family to be remarkably supportive of her decision. “The people who love me, they want me to be happy,” she said. “They don’t want me to live this miserable, unfulfilled life.” She also learned that it was OK to allow herself to mourn the loss of the relationship. “It’s OK to look at the pictures and to look at the video clips of the dog and to be sad.”

The people who love me, they want me to be happy. They don’t want me to live this miserable, unfulfilled life.

Melissa Gaffney

Steve Horsmon, life coach (formerly an engineer), in his early 60s

What happened: Steve was married for nearly 30 years to a “blue-eyed, blond-haired girl I went to high school with” before the relationship ended. When his now-ex started feeling unhappy and pulling away, “the way I responded at first was incredibly toxic and controlling.” When he tried other approaches, she was “way too far gone” and they decided to divorce.

The struggle: Through his divorce, Steve had to confront “pain, self-hatred and confusion.” He searched Google madly for ways to “fix” his marriage. Eventually he found something better than that, though: a book by a philosopher that opened his eyes to a better understanding of relationships and of himself. “I was becoming a happily divorced man, I wasn’t an angry man,” he said. “Her leaving me was a gift to force me to look deeper.”

The clarity Steve discovered was so inspiring that he decided to quit his engineering job, start a blog GoodGuys2GreatMen, and a life coaching business to help other men dealing with similar struggles.

Lesson learned: At first, Steve said he had all the “common” misconceptions about divorce — that it meant he was a “failure,” and that “somebody had to be blamed.” He learned those things didn’t have to be true. He also learned to let go. “I learned that I couldn’t control the world, and I lovingly helped her move on.”

Stacy*, hair stylist in her 30s

(Stacy asked us not to use her real name out of sensitivity for her ex-husband.)

What happened: Stacy “really wanted to settle down” and “this man just came into my life and said all the right things.”

The couple had a lavish wedding with 200 guests. But the fairy tale faded quickly. Her now ex-husband had mental illness issues which turned out to be much more painful to cope with than she anticipated. When COVID-19 struck, and both were around the house all the time, things got worse. She couldn’t imagine sticking it out, or possibly having children with him someday. She had to end it.

The struggle: “I really do believe in the vows of marriage,” she said, adding that she initially dealt with guilt and shame. She also worried about “what other people are going to think or say about me.”

Lesson learned: In the end, Stacy started listening to a voice inside herself — her intuition — which was telling her what she needed to do. “I was disrespecting myself by not going with my gut and intuition in the first place,” she said. “There were just certain circumstances that I couldn’t put myself through.” She also learned that her close friends and family care most about her happiness. “They were very supportive of me, and my decision, which I’m very grateful for.”