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How Cultural Shame About Divorce Shaped My Life And Choices

by Sunny

In early 2015, I was divorced from my husband.

It was clean, in terms of assets. It was a short marriage and relationship, so we didn’t amass too much, and we didn’t have kids. He didn’t want to contest anything, which I much appreciated. I can’t even imagine having to fight and drag this out in court, while my life seemingly ended.

Truthfully, though, this marriage should have ended long ago, maybe not even have happened. Escalating commitments and a strong desire for this not to be a failure was what kept me going. I was afraid, afraid that if it did not last, I would experience something again that played a huge role in my life growing up. It shaped most my decisions, and even the anticipation of it kept me on path, however wrong.

That something was shame, and I’m all too familiar it.

When I was 7 or 8, my parents separated. We were the first family I knew that had divorced parents, much less the first Asian family.

It was a tumultuous time; I didn’t know what it would mean for us as a family anymore. None of the adults talked to my older brother and I to try to make any sense of it for us. It was probably thought that it was best not to involve the kids, as we may not understand anyway. But I remember the feeling of someone talking about you behind your back. The hushed tones and quieting up when you come into a room. That feeling.

And, I acutely remember instructions from my aunt. She was the only person who ever mentioned my parents’ divorce to us, just so we would know what to say, or not say.

“Don’t tell anyone your parents are divorced, or they will make fun of you. They will make fun of you that you’re from a broken family. If anyone asked where your mom is, just say she went on vacation.”

Laughable now, but that was the beginning of the long road of internalizing shame.

She could have never known that, while trying to protect us and upholding her values, she set off a decades-long, deep-seated feeling of inferiority and not belonging within me. After that, I hoped to God no one would ever ask me about my parents, because then I’d have to lie. It didn’t feel good to lie. So a few times, I told the truth.

The reactions, especially from other Asians, confirmed my aunt’s truth. They didn’t make fun, but they were shocked. Then, always the awkward silence, and the look of pity. And that didn’t feel good either.

I kept that shame with me wherever I went. I never learned the skills to fight it, as Asians do not believe in mental health disorders or getting therapy. You just dealt by not thinking about it, by numbing, hoping the passage of time would heal all wounds. Seeing my dad today, I venture to say it’s largely true. He’s no longer bitter, but it took him a long time to get there, and during that process, he unloaded an unhealthy amount of baggage on me. It was too much for a barely-tween to handle.

In 2010, I met my ex-husband. Red flags and gut feelings surfaced, but I just dismissed them, not wanting to rock the boat. More arguments would inevitably lead to the divorce discussion, and that was a topic best kept at bay.

And so I soldiered on… longer, harder than I ever have before, until I physically and mentally just couldn’t anymore. I remembered looking at myself in the mirror, and thinking that I was just a shell of who I used to be. I no longer was that vibrant, laughing, silly girl. It was in that moment, that I decided the pain of staying was far greater than the pain of leaving. And so I left. But I knew the real battle was about to begin.

In my mind, I had already begun prepping myself for when I was to face my family. I consoled myself, telling myself that in a couple of years, when the dust settled, no one would even remember and blink an eye. No one would see you as a failure and an embarrassment. More importantly, no one would die from your dishonor, from your family sustaining yet another divorce, from you being over 25 and now unmarried, which solidly classified you as a leftover woman in Chinese culture. A divorced leftover woman. Basically used goods.

It was easier said than done.

I was living overseas with him, and did not tell my immediate family I was back stateside, for good, until about a month in. I couldn’t. No matter how logically I thought about it, there was no way to override that emotional imprint that shame left when I was a kid.

Not only that, people carried the shame for me. My mother, not wanting her coworkers to see me with her, lest they ask questions. My family not talking to me about it, or talking to me about anything. Awkward silences.

That is shame at its best: silencer, isolater, inferior complex.

I decided this time around the shame outcome was going to be different. I am older, and have much more resources available. The next few years, I took my time to really unpack it. I no longer want shame to tag along wherever I went. I wanted to finally live my life for me, hold my head up high and know that a broken marriage should not, and does not, define me. I wanted to break the cycle and not give it the power it clearly does not deserve. The journey was tough and intense, but needed to happen.

I won.

Today, shame is no longer my shadow. This past Thanksgiving, my aunt… the same aunt who long ago unwittingly set my path of shame in motion, also the person I love and respect the most in this world… spoke about my divorce to me in hushed tones along with some hurtful words. She did not mean to hurt. She was actually being very loving, loving in the only way she knew how. Because I’ve since let go of shame presiding, I was able to take what she said in stride, which was meant for my best, and no longer feel the burden to carry.

The divorced status brought me down, but also set me free.

*Sunny is a Medium writer who writes about persona growth and spirituality. You can read more of her stories here on the Turning Point