Anna Micallef, a separated woman shares her experience of coping with marriage breakdown and her journeying from deep loneliness to peace.
I only had 24 years when my ex-husband told me “I’ve had enough of marriage! I had long been hearing these words but on that day, which I remember clearly, he told our two young children to sit down and told them that he is going to leave the house but he will still see them every now and then.
“I tried to save the marriage”
After about two years of marriage I started having indications that our marriage didn’t seem quite stable but I started doing my best to try to save the marriage like giving in and not having my way. I used to mention the idea of counselling but my husband was not interested. Personally, I had a spiritual director, who used to suggest that we do a session together where he can vent what was bothering him but my husband never wanted to.
“When the marriage ended, I felt great disappointment”
My marriage ended. He left. It was a great disappointment for me. I came from a Catholic family where I was not just raised in Christian values but where I experienced how beautiful it is to build and share life together in marriage, with all its ups and downs, journeying together till the end. It was the dream of my life. I did not just love him, but I dreamt of sharing our life together. However, he did not seem ready to carry his responsibilities, especially those pertaining to fatherhood.
The first years after the separation were the toughest
The first two years of coping with marriage breakdown, right after the separation, were terrible. They hit me hard. I felt like the lost sheep, without any sense of direction. I used to keep everything to myself as I felt that the taboo of separation was still very strong in Malta. My children sometimes came home crying from school telling me that their peers where saying that we were a “broken family”. I couldn’t stand this word. I tried to explain to them that though their parents separated, it did not mean that we were broken and that we were still experiencing unity between us like their are other families where the father died.
Death heals but separation drags
However, there is a difference between becoming coping with the death of your husband and coping with marriage breakdown. Being a widow is just not the same as being a separated woman.
There were times when I tried to tell him that he was still welcome. But as time went by, his contact decreased, including contact with the children. If I did not take them to him myself, sometimes he did not bother to come or I take them and he will not be there. I started feeling the burden of the responsibility of raising our children on my own. I also started to feel the judgement of others upon me. I used to go outside just to make errands so as not to feel the eyes of others upon me.
Even at mass, I could feel people looking at me. Once I went up to do the offerings with my children but I was stopped! It was painful. I went up to the priest in the sacristy after mass and he told me: “Of course, you should not have been stopped. You are welcome. You are still part of the community. They were really tough hard months. I also see it as a kind of ignorance. People were not aware of how to talk to a separated person.
“Writing and prayer gave me some relief but at times I felt I was losing faith”
I used to find relief in writing, writing became an important way of coping with marriage breakdown. I wrote a lot of letters to my spiritual director especially in the evenings. My children used to go to sleep at 8 o’clock. As soon as they slept, lots of thoughts used to come to my mind. Job opportunities were scarce so it was hard for me financially also because he did not give me any money. There was also a limit on how much I told my family. At times I hid from them so they do not feel angry.
There were times when my faith was a sort of sustenance for me. When I lied down in bed and felt the burden of life pressing upon me, I prayed to God: “I’m doing my little bit, please make up for my missing bits and be my guide. God was a ray of hope in my life. There were also people I met in daily life whose words of courage provided strength and hope in my daily life whilst I was slowly realising that life must not stop here. Life should go on.
There were other times when I felt that I was losing the faith. When I used to look at other couples and sometimes looked at mothers who were careless but still with there husband, I used to ask myself, why me? I am still full of energy, I take good care of myself, I look after the house, I love my children, I loved my husband, why me? This at times made me feel angry with God and I used to ask Him: “Where are you? Why did you abandon me? However, believe it or not, when I had these days, the day after I used to meet a family member, my spiritual director, a phone call or someone else who used to give me a word of encouragement. I felt like God spoke to me through these people.
“I could not take it any longer”
However, there were also very bad times when coping with marriage breakdown felt impossible, I felt I could not take it any longer. Once I opened the medicine chest and swallowed all the pills I found. Immediately after I said to myself: ‘What will I do now? I have the kids with me!’ So I drove to hospital and they removed the pills from my stomach, a procedure I did not enjoy at all. I remember that my father, whom I treasure so much and admire told me: “Anna, imagine yourself in a closed room without doors and windows and ventilator. What do you do, lose heart? No. You scratch the wall in the same place and keep scratching under you see a little ray of light. Then you enlarge the hole and shout for help until someone listens and you get the help you need. They were the first words which sank in me, which I treasured.
“I moved forward”
From then on I moved forward. I did have bad times again but I still moved forward. I had other bad periods where I felt lost. I was still young, in my twenties, so I did experience attractions towards other men. I started working to be in a better position financially, my parents also helped me. In the meantime my ex-husband cut all the contact. We never heard of him again. I started to build a new lifestyle.
Entering another relationship after separation felt complex
My parents used to keep my children once a week and I used to go out. Eventually I met another man. We started going out together once a week. This was like a breath of fresh air in my life. I looked forward to the weekend and felt attracted to him. But after a year or so, he told me that he wished that our relationship becomes more serious. However, when I heard these words I felt shocked. I was not afraid of committing myself but the thought of having another child who had both parents present while the other two I had, had only one, made me unhappy. To make matters worse, my ex-husband became a very absent father. My son especially started to feel angry at times about the lack of contact from him. Sometimes I invited them to pray for him, but he didn’t want to.
So this issue was really on my mind. I was also influenced by the pressure of the people. I didn’t want to be called “poġġuta” (cohabitating). When I expressed my thoughts with him, he was also shocked because he had the impression that we were doing well together. And we were. I felt very comfortable with this person. But we eventually decided that it would be best to go in separate ways. This was another blow in my life. Meeting him had become like a comfort zone in my life.
Dealing with loneliness after separating was tough
So I was again devastated. Waking alone, drinking a cup of tea alone, thinking and sorting out children’s stuff on your own, sleeping alone, no one to hug or hug you, the presence of nobody. Loneliness was even harder than raising the children on my own. Raising children was also hard of course. I remember starting to feel concerned as the teenage years were approaching. Thinking about Paceville etc But my spiritual director had told me calmly: “Your children are growing. And you are growing too. You are learning more how to deal with them. You are present in their life and you follow them. Rest assured that they will eventually be able to control themselves. The question of ‘why did I end up alone?’ was coming again now that the children were growing.
“I couldn’t replace their father, I am a mother, not a father”
Family gatherings were also hard occasions, Sundays, Easter and Christmas…cousins with both parents but we are always with a missing father. I remember when sometimes they used to talk about their school peers, telling me that their father brought them this and that. Really, I could never replace their father, because I am a mother not a father. Even though my own father was very present, he still had the status of a grandpa. They used to feel their father’s absence quite badly. You try to help your children carry this burden in their life whilst you are carrying your own feelings and anger.
I felt a growing strength within which did not come from me
Though my faith was not always strong, I could say that deep within me I felt that their was a strength which did not come from within me which helped me in coping with marriage breakdown. It was not just a strength to help me make ends meet, on a practical level, but also on an emotional level. I also felt at peace; and this peace grew with me along the years. If I had to look at loneliness and peace, loneliness used to control me in the first years. It was a great temptation not to let loneliness carry me and do things which I didn’t really wanted to do. Part of me was empty, lacking the man I longed for. Yet, as I say this, I cannot but remember of the people who were around me, my own children, my parents, my siblings, my family, a few friends, a few people who understood me, my spiritual director and this inner strength which I used to feel. So loneliness never took me over completely. Rather, through these people I started breaking through this limiting belief that I was lonely even though I still experienced lonely moments along the day especially when the girls where asleep.
There were even moments that I was experiencing relief in alcohol as a way of coping with marriage breakdown. I started looking forward to a glass of wine after the girls sleep, or even more up to a point that if I did not have wine in the fridge I used to feel upset. When I realised this I decided that this has to stop, also because of the money.
As I was very interested in house decorating, after the girls slept, I started to arrange some things in the house, moving furniture, painting a wall etc. My children were also very happy to see something new in the morning. The house started becoming a more welcoming place. I also realised that when I used my ‘extra time’ in things which I liked I started feeling better. I also started reading. I also discovered that I enjoyed walking in nature and felt relaxed whilst listening to a bird’s tune or saw a tree swaying. It was also a time to reflect on myself or pray increasing my inner peace.
Peace started to win
But as I grew, it was peace which started to win. Now that I am well into my middle age I can say that I do experience a strong sense of peace and tranquility. It does not mean that I do not get angry or experience the contrary throughout the day; but it means that I am able to stop and reflect and realise when I hurt other people. This is something I learnt also as I raised my children, in the moments that I hurt them through my words. I also tried to show them that I too am fragile, I have my hurts and weaknesses. This then helped me build a relationship with myself and the people around me.
Separation is a hard experience, even for those who abandon their own family
It’s been thirty years now since I got the separation; eventually I also obtained a Church annulment and he asked for a divorce which was also granted. Each one of these words carries a different status. The children asked a lot about this. It was a hard experience for all, even for those who abandon their own family.
Getting support is most helpful
As a concluding comment I would like to appeal to all those who are passing through this experience that feeling lost is a normal feeling and that support can be very helpful. Today there are various types of help which one can benefit from either therapy on a individual level or support from organisations as a way of coping with marriage breakdown. In Malta there are support groups like Cana or CARITAS. I was personally involved in setting up the YSSG – Young Separated Support Group. One does not need to share his individual story but get group support to discover one’s new identity.