‘People think this is weird, if I still love my husband, why did we get divorced? Because survival is insufficient. Even during the apocalypse, you eventually have to leave the shelter and start to live again.’
Extract taken from Split
By Katie West
Published by Fiction and Feeling
How do you survive the end of love? Same way you survive the end of the world.
I’m a divorcee. But I’m not sad, angry, or broken, and neither is my former husband. When I tell people I’m recently divorced, the look they always give me? I know pity when I see it. I understand that reaction; marriage is this thing, this contract, this relationship that is supposed to last forever. The entire goal of marriage is to have no end, till death do us part and whatever. When I tell people that my marriage has ended, the only seemingly appropriate reaction is to mourn the broken promises and then politely inquire as to my well-being. This is a reaction I don’t appreciate because it takes away from the work I have done to survive the end of love.
Think about it this way, if you’d seriously and diligently prepared for the apocalypse so that, when it finally happened, not only did you survive, but you thrived, would you like people to treat you delicately and with sympathy? I want people to high five me and congratulate me on discovering a new way of living, to celebrate with me my new understanding: that survival is insufficient.
I understand that my circumstances may be unique, but I also think it’s important to know that we don’t have to go through particular life events the same way as everyone else or feel the way that others expect us to. I believe that Apocalyptic survival – both literal and matrimonial – is best achieved in two phases: Phase 1 is Survival. If you make it through this, you can move on to Phase 2: Knowing that Survival is Insufficient. This phrase comes from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager (my favourite Trek) and is used to express the importance of freedom and individual choice. It’s used to recognise the difference between surviving and living. I’m sharing this with you because the apocalypse of my marriage was one of the best things that ever happened to me, and I’m going to tell you why, and how.
Phase 1: Survival
Everyone preparing for the apocalypse should understand the basic Rule of Three if they hope to be successful: three weeks without food kills you, three days without water kills you, and three hours without shelter kills you. These rules can handily be applied to marriage, too.
So when the world ends, what will you do? Have you thought about it much? I have. I’ve thought about it a lot and the first thing I’m going to do when shit goes south is find my former husband, Matt. We’ve talked about the apocalypse and how it will happen and our plans to survive. We’ve discussed infectious diseases, economic collapse, famine, flooding, environmental disasters, and nuclear war. We have an outcome for every eventuality; chance of survival is always slim – we’re realists – but if we make it, we have plans. We planned for every possibility. We voraciously read post-apocalyptic books and watched post-apocalyptic movies. We planned our escape routes and discussed weapons of choice. But while we were busy planning for the apocalypse, our marriage ended.
If the end of my marriage was like any particular kind of apocalyptic event, it would have been a slow flood. You know it’s raining – raining quite a bit actually – and you keep waiting for it to stop, but eventually you accept it’s not going to. That this is it. As we noticed the world was starting to flood, we were angry and blamed each other, but when the end of the world comes, there’s always more than one person to blame, so you’ve just got to get out a lifejacket, pack up your gear, and go searching for a boat. The thing that most people don’t understand though, is that while it was raining, my husband held the umbrella for me so I could put on my lifejacket, and while he searched for a boat, I kept his gear dry. By the time the flood waters were at our knees we knew that there could be life after this, but we’d have to take separate boats. We spent the last few months of our marriage just preparing to set out alone.
The end came five years and three months after we said our vows and, because of our preparation, very little changed when it did. In essence, the apocalypse of our love had come, but we had food to keep us full and satiated, water to keep us hydrated and clear, and shelter to keep us safe and warm.
Phase 1.a: Food
When you’re not hungry you feel one of two ways: either you don’t even notice it, or you feel very comfortable, safe, and content. To feel that way in my marriage meant I needed money, as unromantic as that sounds. Not having the money to buy the things you need is extremely stressful and gives a marriage a very anxious undertone. There have been long periods of time in my life, and in my marriage, where I had no money and had to rely on the kindness of strangers to support me and, by extension, my husband. This is probably why, even though I am a picky eater, I will eat any food as long as it’s free; so here’s hoping that whatever apocalyptic event we’re faced with also comes with the demise of capitalism and the destruction of our current monetary structures.
And speaking of free: do you know what’s free in a world where the apocalypse hasn’t happened yet? That’s right, basically nothing. But being married makes it much easier to live in a world where nothing is free, which, in turn, can make separating a lot more difficult. Maybe alone you can make twenty bucks last for three weeks, but married life means you have forty bucks. Married life means two people sharing all the bills and you get a bigger apartment, a faster internet connection, and you eat more than just Kraft Dinner and pizza, theoretically. So, if you’re the person in the relationship who makes less money, separating from your partner often means separating from the quality of life you’ve become used to. Your life suddenly becomes stretched, spread over distances you didn’t even know existed, let alone how to navigate on your own.
But if you’re the person who makes more money – say almost twice as much as your partner – then you’re me, and you feel like you’re creating a situation where your partner will starve. If food is required for survival, and money is food, then the best way I could ensure both Matt and my own survival was to share what I had. Which is why we lived together for eight months after we separated, shared a credit card for over a year, and just split our Netflix account a week ago. Neither of us starved, both of us stayed comfortable, safe, and content. This is probably not a very popular piece of advice, but if you’re aiming for mutually assured survival after divorce, sometimes that means sharing your food stores with someone who no longer shares your table.
Phase 1.b: Water
Finding fresh water during an apocalyptic event is paramount. Three days! You only have three days to come across a water source that isn’t contaminated, stagnant, or, you know, an ocean. Three days is also about as long as I could go without talking to my husband; my need to communicate was a thirst, especially as things got more difficult. It is the very nature of language to flow, and so, like water during end times, words during a marriage, and a divorce, are paramount. Finding the right ones, those without salt, without toxicity, is a skill that helped me survive. My former husband is my best friend. I say ‘former,’ because ‘ex’ sounds so shallow, so rough. The language we use to talk of the end of things is often small and sharp, like the wreckage of ships jutting up from a calm sea. Look at the ‘end’ compared to the ‘beginning’; everyone is so verbose at the beginning of things.
The language my former husband and I used at the beginning of our marriage was not in keeping with this idea. Our words have always been small, but instead of sharp, they’ve been full, they’ve quenched in single gulps. We lived our entire marriage knowing there would be an end. In our minds, it was the end of the world, not the end of the marriage, but it still resulted in an urgency to get to exactly how we were feeling. The end of the world doesn’t have time for you to sit around and think about what you want to say; the apocalypse demands you say it now, say what you mean, choose your words with conviction, this may be your last chance. So that’s how we spent our marriage, saying what we meant and waiting for the end that would make it all justified. We were great communicators. These words kept us sated, so we continue to share them. Our words to one another are a bracing fresh water source we can draw from anytime we get thirsty out here beyond the end of marriage.
Phase 1.c: Shelter
In some apocalyptic circumstances, finding shelter will be no problem. If, for example, a virus wipes out 99 percent of the planet’s population, there’s going to be a lot of empty houses. However, if we find ourselves in a nuclear wasteland or a Waterworld situation, shelter may be more difficult to come by. In marriage, think of love as your shelter. Love can be something you stumble upon when you weren’t really looking, or it can be hard to come by no matter how badly you need it. But the fact remains, you can only survive three hours without shelter in harsh environments, and divorce can be a very harsh environment. Many people get divorced because they’re no longer in love with the person they married, and that’s okay; there is more love being put out into the world than there are people to receive it and they will find love again. But at the end of my marriage, my love didn’t end.
I loved my husband from the day he emailed me in university and all it said was, ‘What’s your story, Katie West?’ The first time we hung out, we were both seeing other people, and we sat in the basement of the university library and he told me his theories on the end of the world. And I told him mine. And that day we started making plans, not about the future of us, but for what we would do in a future so doomed to fail. I loved him not like in teen vampire movies and epic fantasy books; it wasn’t romantic – it was necessary. I needed a place to keep my heart safe and Matt was it. He became the walls that protected me from harsh winds of criticism, the roof that kept me dry when my depression stormed around me, he generated the heat that kept me stable and functioning. And when we built this shelter, we built it strong enough to weather a flood, so it remains to this day. The love I felt hasn’t really changed; it has remained as four sturdy walls and a roof over my head. People think this is weird, if I still love my husband, why did we get divorced? Because survival is insufficient. Even during the apocalypse, you eventually have to leave the shelter and start to live again.
Phase 2: Survival is Insufficient
The phrase ‘Survival is Insufficient’ highlights the difference between surviving and actually living. This is Phase 2 of the Apocalyptic Survival Plan, wherein surviving is not enough. Survive and you’re Max instead of Furiosa; survive and you’re Katniss instead of Peeta; survive and you’re Sergeant Ed Parks instead of Melanie. You might think you’re fine, and people may even see you as the hero of the story because you survived; you survived the end of love and what could be more difficult than that?
What’s more difficult is what comes after. When it’s done, when the smoke clears and you receive your official divorce papers in the mail, you ask yourself now who are you – what are you? This is when you realise survival is insufficient. Just getting through it with food, water, and shelter isn’t enough. Now you must create new habits and ways of being, ones that push you forward towards a life that is scary and fills you with anxiety and is most definitely the best life you’ve ever had. A new habit can be as seemingly insignificant as sleeping in the middle of the bed, to something more substantial like taking up new hobbies. I did weird things, like shoemaking, tried watercolour painting, refreshed my high school skills with sewing classes, and pushed my body into new positions with yoga. I did all of these new things by myself. I wanted to understand, after over five years of marriage, who I was when I was alone.
While I was married, I was surviving a slow flood; after I was divorced, I was living a life I chose. I quit my job. I switched careers. I moved to a new continent. I wasn’t running away – I was choosing to live. I do a lot of things now that I didn’t do before; small things like drink cocktails and meet more than one person at a time, but also big things like write seriously and see a vague outline of forever.
Don’t fear the end. The apocalypse can be a herald of death and isolation, just as divorce can be a herald of loss and loneliness, but though these endings are scary times, you can survive, and you can thrive. The end of the world is coming, but I came out of a marriage happy and free and with a friend who will always have my back, so the apocalypse can suck it.
Split by Katie West is published by Fiction and Feeling, priced £12.00