When a Marriage Ends and You’re Nonbinary

by Joanna C. Valente

I came out to T as nonbinary after we’d been married for a year. Over dinner I told him nonchalantly, hoping that nonchalance would soften it. I was nervous he wouldn’t understand, that I would just feel ashamed like I was still in 5th grade and trying to fit in but knew I would never fit in with my Ramona Quimby haircut and Doc Martens.

“Okay. So, can I still call you my wife to my friends? And use ‘she’ as a pronoun?” he asked.

I smiled quickly, didn’t even let myself feel the disappointment. But in the back of my throat, I felt sad, unseen. It wasn’t about the pronouns for me, it was about the question. It wasn’t about what I wanted.

“Of course you can. So, it’s like O. O is nonbinary too, but is more masculine than me, whereas I’m more femme. I mean, we’ve talked about how I think binaries aren’t helpful anyway. It’s not like masculine or feminine traits even mean anything. We’re all the same, we’re all humans. We’re just socialized to think in binary,” I tried to explain, using my best friend as an example. T always liked O, so I felt like this would help him understand.

“Sure. I mean, I don’t know. This whole thing just seems like a huge trend, a phase,” he said, laughing.

He always made everything a joke. I didn’t mind it unless I was trying to explain something serious—and this was one of those times where I didn’t want the answer to be a joke. I wanted him to see me. I wanted the person who married me to see me. Sometimes I wonder when I really stopped being a wife.

I realize now that I stopped “being a wife” when I stopped feeling seen by T. How can we stay in worlds, in realities, that don’t feel true to us? We construct our own homes, our most personal and truest realities, in hopes that we can find a sanctuary outside of the capitalist heteronormative society we live in—as a way to dismantle a false world for another. We shouldn’t have to constantly navigate different identifies that massage our authenticity into easy boxes and bite-sized ideas. It’s not about leading double lives or contradictory realities, but going between our different identities, like wife and colleague, so often we forget who are are—or try to change who we are to be seen.

A year later, he found an article about the third sex in history and culture; I remember wanting to feel proud of him, and I did, but I also remember feeling so alone. I was waking up as he mentioned it, and pulled the covers over my shoulders, bookmarking it to read for later. Sometimes I wondered if my love of language became too semantic to the point that I was destroying something beautiful; isn’t being too semantic a way to miss the point? Or was I simply just used to pleasing others? I remember how the word “wife” sounded weird in my mouth and offered partner instead. He felt it was too clinical, like a hospital bed. I wanted to find the right words, the right everything, for us. I’m not sure why I couldn’t.

The strange thing is, it’s not that I stopped finding him attractive or began to despise him over time, I just stopped wanting to have sex with him. There are, of course, a million reasons why this could have happened. I was sexually assaulted more than once by the time we met while I was finishing my MFA, I was still figuring out my queer identity, and I often suffered from chronic UTIs during our relationship. The UTIs became a scary cycle: we’d have sex, I’d have shooting pain, take antibiotics, try holistic methods to no success, and the cycle would repeat. Sometimes after sex, I’d spot pale pink blood blending into the toilet paper. My body was broken. I felt like I was broken.

My body was continually traumatized, so of course, I stopped wanting to do something that ended with pain. I became used to it. I shamed myself, as if there was something wrong with me. No doctor really tried to understand it, tried to help me in a real way. Were we just incompatible? I’d find myself thinking.

T was supportive, to a point. It’s hard to understand how to help someone who suffers from sexual trauma, who stopped wanting to have sex with you even though they still love you. The problem was, I realized, I was expected to figure it all out by myself; T would listen when I would confront him, but offer little help or solutions. I was alone. I went to therapy on and off—to little success. One therapist even told me I wasn’t sexually assaulted in the first place, while another mostly listened, but never said much. Resentment seeped into me like pus filling a wound. My entire body, my entire being, felt like a wound. A scab.

***

On the morning I moved out of my one-bedroom apartment with T, he helped me drive a truck with what I could fit into my new bedroom in an apartment shared with three strangers—because I couldn’t afford to stay in our apartment by myself. That’s the thing about New York City; it’s a city for couples, because hardly anyone without financial support or a hefty salary can afford an apartment on their own. I was delirious with a fever, dealing with a chronic ear illness. It all felt too messy, too overwhelming, not real. I convinced myself this was good: I’ll discover myself and find ways to save our marriage—which largely meant, I’ll find ways to want to have sex with T again. After all, it was my idea to move. I craved space. I wanted a space to find myself.

During the beginning of our separation, we still saw each other a few times a week, slept over each other’s places; we were dating, basically. In retrospect, it’s hard for me not to feel like I was dangled, as if this was just a way to fade me out easily; perhaps that wasn’t T’s intention, but I was still afraid. I was afraid if I didn’t perform “wife” the right ways or do the right things, he’d leave. I can’t say I wasn’t wrong. He was seeing someone else he met at work earlier that year, but I was hoping it was just a fling, something short-term and fun. I was going on dates myself, but none of them mattered.

Two months after I moved, I started to feel him slip away; his fling was turning into a fully-fledged relationship. I didn’t want to be unsupportive, so I supported him; I understood how it must have felt, having sex after years of intermittent sext hat felt often very fragile, like feeling for a cobweb in the dark. And yet, I felt abandoned, betrayed—left for someone else, someone new, someone fun—someone with less hang ups. I felt betrayed to be left when I was sick, dealing with an illness that left me with a hearing impairment, unsure if my hearing would return “back to normal.” It did, but with 24/7 tinnitus. Nothing, of course, is the same. A few months after our separation, we met for dinner. I couldn’t help but cry and say I missed him. I missed us. I missed my home. One of the hardest things about the breakup, any breakup, is rebuilding a home. I wanted us to work out, go to therapy, do something.

“How do you feel about us?” I asked him.

“I feel so, so guilty. I don’t want to abandon you, but I feel like we’re just friends. We’ve always been friends, but I need passion. I want something more. I want to see where things go with R… But I also don’t think I’m abandoning you, since I’m still here for you. We’re still friends,” he said, firmly as tears formed in his eyes.

“I mean, if this is what you want, I want you to do it. I just want you to be happy. Obviously, I don’t want you to stay with me and then just resent me… I do feel rushed, though,” I said, trying to choose my words wisely, pausing and then said, “And I do feel blindsided. I want to try. Go to couples’ therapy. I just feel like it hasn’t been long enough to just give up.”

“But I’ve spent so much time with you,” he said, “I don’t want to keep prolonging this. I feel like I did try.”

“I know, and I’m not saying things would necessarily work out. I just want to feel like we did everything we could. I also wish the timing was better. It kind of sucks that a lot of this happened when I was sick. I did feel abandoned then,” I said, trying to push away that familiar ache in my throat.

“I was there for you though.”

“Were you?” I asked. “I wanted you to come to urgent care with me and you said you couldn’t because you had a date. Remember when I told you a doctor thought I was at risk of getting meningitis and you said you couldn’t deal with it, that didn’t want to talk about it because it stressed you out. That hurt.”

He paused.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that, I don’t mean to be cruel. I’m just trying to do what’s right for me. I don’t remember saying that to you, but I’m sorry if I did. You know I was so worried about you and stressed out that would happen.”

“I know. I know you care. It’s just…so hard,” I said, looking down at my tuna melt, taking a sip of water. I blamed myself for so much of it, how I could see where it all went wrong. I couldn’t stop crying. I wanted to be calm; I knew wishing I was different was useless.

“But you are so good,” T said, “It’s not your fault. It’s just what happened. We’ve been friends for awhile now anyway. It’s easier this way.” For him, but not me, at least not at the time.

While at work another day, we bantered on Gchat, traded animal gifs while talking about how we want to support each other through our breakup. He affectionately called me a “magical beasty.”

This only hurt me more. There was never a moment where we said we didn’t love each other anymore. There are just moments where I asked myself, could it have worked out? Could we still try? And the answer, he says, is no. I wanted it to be yes—like the yes when he asked me to marry him, when he actually did marry me on the Wonder Wheel in Coney Island. I remember when he said yes in front of a few of our friends, I was dressed in black and he was in his bathing suit and a NASA t-shirt. On the outside, it looked effortless, calm and waveless. It was like any other Saturday. Maybe that was the problem.

Right after our separation, everyone always remarked about how “calm” and amazing I was to be so strong, to deal with a separation so well. Even talking with T at dinner, I reverted to being calm, stoic, therapist-like. He told me how easy I was to talk to.

Most times when someone says this, I think, if only you knew. A “what if” blame game became a typical part of my day (“I shouldn’t have moved out. I should have pushed myself to have sex more. I pushed him away with my own ambitions, with my art and my writing.”) These thoughts were like a Greek chorus. How does a queer sexual assault survivor stop blaming themselves for their traumas? I try to forgive myself for my sexual traumas ruining my marriage. I blamed myself because of other men’s abuse and violence. I blamed myself for how I convinced myself I had to have sex because if I didn’t, the relationship was over. In a way, I was right. The relationship did end. But I was wrong to think so. My body was reacting to what happened to itself. Yet, I couldn’t let these thoughts go unless I was with friends and at work. There were mornings full of grief where I didn’t want to get out of bed, where the world felt impossible. I forced myself to go to work, grateful for something that bring me out of myself and into the world around me, ivy growing in new directions.

If life post-separation has taught me anything, it’s that love is a choice. You choose to stay in love, to work on love, to work on yourself. You can’t expect anything to “just work out.” T, like me, thought love should be easy most of the time, because that’s what we’re told, from movies and social media. No one ever talks about how you have to work at sex, or how shitty it feels when your partner wants to have sex and you don’t, but you feel obligated to and then it hurts. I wish people did, so we wouldn’t have to suffer alone—instead of posting about their perfect vacations with their spouse. Does our obsession with social media only make lonelier people lonelier? The answer is yes. Social media, as much as it’s connective, is also triggering—triggering of a life I no longer have. Loneliness is why so many people want to find someone, but it doesn’t go away; it doesn’t take pain or trauma away. Being T’s second wife made me examine loneliness more closely, in myself, in us. Why do lonely people stay lonely, marriage or no marriage?

Like many people at the end of a marriage, I find myself asking, did I do this to myself? But then I realize, he made a choice—and I can’t change his mind. I didn’t want to be his second choice, to essentially create a PowerPoint presentation to market myself. That night over dinner with him, I asked if he was happy with her, if she was the right one. He said yes. I wanted to rip out all the years from inside my body, but I knew I couldn’t. I wanted to be happy for him, and I was, so I said so. Antagonizing or trying to persuade him was useless. It would alienate both of us. So I didn’t. Instead, we watched a movie together after dinner. I laughed after I finished crying. We all know climate change is coming, but I felt all of the glaciers shift that night. I watched him bike away down 5th Avenue in Bay Ridge as I took a car back to Williamsburg to the four-bedroom I felt like an alien in. I hadn’t lived with other people, strangers, in six years. I thought that part of my life was over, but that sinking feeling in my body told me otherwise. I felt the ice melt over my body, freezing me into a cube, freezing me into nothingness. I felt like a failure. Instead of moving ahead, I was only going backwards.

***

When I met R, T’s new girlfriend over dinner, I fumbled with my umbrella as she introduced herself and felt the metal dig into my finger—felt the irony of this new cut as I saw them together. She was walking arm in arm with T, both of them giggling. I immediately felt like Ursula, old and unattractive and outdated.

The three of us sat down and awkwardly looked at our menus, made small talk for what seemed like an eternity about her move from Australia, what she wants for her career, that time a snake broke her arm. She was light, like pale lavender crystallizing into something bright. Except that lightness seemed to miss the point; there was something off, as if it wasn’t light I was seeing at all, but something else.

As I sipped my soda, slowly, trying to seem calm and collected, I wanted to tell her the only reason he asked me to meet her was because they got into a fight over dinner where he called her by my name. He asked me over lunch a few weeks before to “do him a favor” and meet her to quell her “insecurities.” When I mentioned it sounded like she didn’t trust him or trust that he was over me, he added,

“She does trust me, but I think meeting you would just help.” Why did it feel like everyone was missing the point but me?

I didn’t know what to say, and most of all, I didn’t want to ruin his relationship. If it didn’t work, I didn’t want to be the one at fault, the vindictive ex trying to destroy everything. I didn’t want to be Ursula. I wanted to be the cool ex. I wanted us all to get along. How naïve. How foolish to put my own needs last—but also how typical of me.

“I’m sorry I have to ask you something awkward,” she said, all of a sudden.

“Go ahead… You can ask me anything,” I said, warmly, trying to be what everyone wanted me to be. Trying to be happy.

“Well, why did you two break up? I just want to make sure our timeliness are correct, you know, because men can be awful and I’ve been hurt before,” she said.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to tell her that I had been hurt, over and over and over by men. That I was hurt right now. Instead, I massaged my feelings into a softer batter.

“Well, we faded into friendship, basically. It’s hard to say when it happened, we had been together for five years from a young age. I think sex in general has been hard for me, because I was sexually assaulted only two years before we met. I was still dealing with that trauma. And I think, because of all of those things, it lead us to where we are today. We didn’t have a big fight or a falling out. We obviously don’t hate each other. I still love him, as a friend,” I added, looking at him as I
finished.

He nodded, then turned to her.

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. Thank you for telling me that, for being so honest,” she said.

She looked down at the table momentarily. Maybe she felt ashamed for asking me. Maybe she didn’t know what to say. I put my hands in my lap to prevent them from shaking. The rest of the conversation reverted back to small talk until she went to the bathroom and he asked if I wanted to split the check with him. I stared at him, feeling my eyebrows lift. It’s not that I didn’t want to pay for my own meal, but I also didn’t want to pay for a meal I didn’t want to be at—that was a favor to him.

When she came back from the bathroom, he put his card on the bill and gave it to the waiter. I held back a smile. Everyone’s performance was convincing.

It was still raining as I got off the subway and walked home, put Miles Davis on repeat until I didn’t even notice the sounds, didn’t even hear what was playing.

***

When I finally realized I needed to stop hoping I’d move back in with T, I started to decorate more. I needed to build myself a home, because I deserved a home. So, I bought 1950s containers for my salt, sugar, and flour. I knew I needed to make this apartment a home, even if it is a four-bedroom in Brooklyn and my piece of it is small. I had to actively try to move into my new life as much as I wanted to lay in bed depressed, wanted to cover my face with a pillow.

It’s funny how registries exist when something happy happens, like a wedding or baby shower. I didn’t need any plates or pots when T and I got married because we’d already been living together for over a year at that point. If anything, I needed the help when I moved out and start over from scratch. When I initially moved out, we thought it would just be temporary. When that didn’t happen, of course, it felt strange going back to take our shared belongings. How could we separate everything without a fight? Would he be vindictive in the divorce if I wasn’t submissive, easy, complacent? Letting him keep our shared silverware, the apartment, most of the furniture, felt like a failure sometimes. Stuff is just stuff, I reminded myself. But I didn’t always believe that, not when I felt like I couldn’t even afford to start fresh. As Sarah Bregel wrote in an essay about life post-divorce, she wrote, “When we’re sad, lonely and rebuilding our lives, we do the financial work of it alone.”

I remind myself that I’ve always been independent. This is what I wanted; this is what I need with or without a partner. Women and nonbinary femmes aren’t taught to be self-reliant. We need to teach ourselves.

I’m re-learning how to sleep alone, to do things alone. I used to feel guilty wanting to be alone sometimes, wanting to make my own friends. Some of this was a way to distract myself, perhaps, from my real problem: avoiding dealing with trauma and communicating what I wanted out of sex. In many ways, I still didn’t believe I had agency of my own, but merely was a vessel to please others—despite being an outspoken feminist and queer person. As someone who was raised as a woman, it’s hard for me to undo these structural, learned habits like wanting to make everything better for everyone else as I did with T. I’m learning to be more honest, to say what I feel even when I know it will hurt others. Mostly, I’m trying to put myself first.

When I feel like a failure, I try to redirect my thoughts to my fierce self-love. Divorce doesn’t mean love is gone from my life forever, even when it feels that way. Especially when a former coworker cracked a divorce joke right in front of me, knowing what I was going through. It’s easy to pass a joke off as just a joke, and sometimes I want to. But as the only queer person in that room, I couldn’t help but feel extra othered, even though I pass. Being queer means you can never truly hide, especially from yourself.

***

As I started to go on dates, I couldn’t help but wonder, am I a just a weirdo who won’t let myself be loved? Do I carry my trauma too heavily? When do I tell people about my marriage? When do I tell people I’m nonbinary? Being in a relationship as a nonbinary person in a world of binaries is confusing—and it’s easy to see my identity as an “unnecessary complication” in a relationship, as if I am less worthy of love because of who I am. Our lives are many things at once. We are all caterpillars turning into butterflies, but butterflies only have three days to live. How bittersweet, how true.

Mourning, even for the undead, for those still alive, is ongoing and complicated. It’s just a different kind of mourning. I can still see the sunsets, sunrises, thunderstorms, and late nights in my old apartment with T, where lives alone now. I remember how I found myself there, with him, without him, with and without any of the people I once loved. I remember the Saturday mornings he would make us espresso and foam the milk just right, the smell of pancakes lingering as I woke up and put on whatever TV show we were watching at the time—then water the plants, each tenderly named and cared for.

I am a pot waiting for new life to grow out of dead things. I remind myself that everyday. Sometimes I still mix up my keys and pull out the wrong ones, the ones that open the door to an apartment I no longer live in, an apartment where a man I used to love still lives. Sometimes this makes me sad, but sometimes I smile.

Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (Operating System, 2017), Sexting Ghosts (Unknown Press, 2018), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), and the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes Poetry and the senior managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, BUST, Spork Press, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente