What if your failed marriage was really a success?

mexican cowboy wedding cake topper


I have a story that used to be a confession.

On the day I got married I wore a pretty, silk white off-the-rack evening gown (because that’s the kind of no-fuss bride I was!), and my mom (again, irreverent!) escorted me to my groom-in-waiting. I was happy and felt lovely and proud and the sight of my soon-to-be husband in his tailored black suit and orange shirt (again!) made me smile. Genuinely smile. Not a phoney “Say Cheese!” for the wedding photographer or a nervous grin. A real, for-real smile.

At the same time I heard a voice — clear as day — ring out in my mind. It said, “Emmanuel will not be the last man you love.”

It was simple as that. It was not a call to jump on the nearest white steed and bolt. It was not an ominous omen. It was a statement of fact. I was supposed to marry this man. And then there would be at least one other man.

I never told that story to anyone until the last year or two, when it has come up with girlfriends or lovers or therapists. After all, Emmanuel and I didn’t spend all that money on that faux low-key wedding and commit to each other for ever and ever and ever for the sake of me knowing it would end. It’s taken me a while to process it, but the takeaway is this:

My marriage to my husband was perfect for that time of my life. And divorcing when we did was also perfect.

My marriage was a success, even though — and maybe especially because — it ended.

When we were married, I chose to push aside all the things that made us wrong for each bride-groom-wedding-cake-topper-yarn.originalother (constant arguing, competing, tension, lack of sexual chemistry), to make room for all the things that were amazingly right: We were both highly ambitious, creative media professionals who loved to take crazy trips around the world. We come from similarly dysfunctional families and were equally committed to raising our children differently. We loved it when our many  friends oohed and ahhed over our pretty apartment and we loved nothing more than giving or attending parties. We were spontaneous and adventurous and we laughed and laughed and laughed together. I loved him so much. I still do.

And so for eight years starting when I was 25 I had the perfect partner, and then we had two perfect children together. I did so many things with that man and accomplished so much.

Then it ended.

I think about all that I have done and accomplished since then. How the sustaining of so much disappointment and heartbreak and upheaval forced me to tap into a stronger, more tender part of myself than I would have known without those challenges. How that makes me a better mother. And how that — paired with financial necessity — has led me to professional and creative highs that were impossible under the stress and economic arrangements of my marriage.

And men and love. I am still finding my way in romance, but I have found sex and passion in new chapters and spades – mind and heart and body-reckoning experiences that would have eluded me had I honored the “death-do-us part.”

Instead, whether it was a soothsaying higher being whispering my fortune, or my own subconscious calling for me to find my joy, I don’t know. But since my husband I have loved one man in a full, whole way that convinces me that the world is indeed abundant with love, and gives me the confidence that I am equipped to survive love’s end — again and again.

By accepting that successful relationships often have a time limit opens me up to experiences that I would otherwise pass up.

Until recently I spent a lot of time with a man who was both intoxicating and unfamiliar to me. On one hand he made sense – his kids and his career and his interests aligned with my kids and career and interests. He was attractive and good and strong. We enjoyed each other very much.

Yet there was a wildness in his intelligence and in his mannerisms and stories. It both drew me in and scared me. He had a family pedigree that tormented him and rendered him to me exotic, foreign. Despite his affection, he felt always different than me, and made me wonder if I should turn away. But I couldn’t help myself. I was compelled to turn towards him again and again. Each time I did, I heard that same voice, the one I heard on my wedding day.

It said, “Go to him. You have something to learn there. But do not stay too long.”

One night when it got so late that it was then early, we were talking under the bedside light and he smiled at me with one eye closed. I teased him about it a bit, and he explained in a few words — words that were not wild or tormented or foreign. The words were straight and plain and real. He explained that his eye was lazy, and when he gets tired it looks away. It’s been that way his whole life. I saw him then as a little boy with that eye, and I saw him now as a man.

And I saw in him that quiet place that mirrored the quiet place in me. For the first time I found where two people — people who may not completely match — can be together for a time, and that can be better than being alone. In realizing that, the new tender and stronger place in me started to fill up with him. Up in a way that is ancient, and up in a way that is also new.


**My 10-year marriage contract has been mentioned in:**



Emma Johnson is a veteran money writer, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, REAL SIMPLE, Parenting, USA Today and others.

The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children (Penguin, 2017), was a #1 bestseller and was featured in hundreds of media, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, Oprah.com and the New York Post, which named it to its ‘Must Read” list.

Her popular blog Wealthysinglemommy.com, and podcast Like a Mother, explore issues facing professional single moms: business and career, money, sex, relationships and parenting. Emma regularly comments on these topics for outlets such as CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine, Woman’s Day, The Doctors, and many more. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” one of “20 Personal Finance Influencers to Follow on Twitter” by AOL DailyFinance, “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and “Most Eligible New Yorkers” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker on gender equality, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality.

Emma grew up in Sycamore, Ill., and lives in New York City with her children.

33 thoughts on “What if your failed marriage was really a success?

  1. You write so beautifully and authentically. I cannot help but relate and see my story and many of those I’ve heard in yours. You inspire me with how fearlessly you embrace life and make the choices that are so right for you. Rock on, you’re amazing!

  2. Honoree – thank you. That is no small compliment. It is often hard for me to write so honestly. But I am always glad when I do.

  3. I’m not sure I buy it. There’s an emotional necessity to say that where we are currently is better there where we used to be, but the actual circumstances leading up to those two respective points in time could have been as much due to chance as they are to your need to learn something new in each relationship. I think you’re just basically doing what everyone does: justifying. Providing ad hoc reasons that make sense given your emotional relationship to your story. After all, what kind of inspiration do you provide if you tell us that you lost the only man you loved and are destroyed by it? Much better for your site hits and your rankings in the broader community, not to mention your mental health, for the alternate to be the case: that you learned what you needed and nothing more, and that your failure was a success because of that. But was it? Not so clear. Never is so clear. I’m glad I am where I am, but I’m not going to pretend that there weren’t alternative stories that could have been told with equal beauty.

  4. Thanks Debbie! Great to see you here.

    Off: Not sure I understand your point? That my marriage was in fact a miserable failure? OK, so what? Not sure there would be any point in writing about that, except to support the status-quo acceptance that all divorces indicate failure. That is not my experience. I’m sorry if it is how you see yours.


  5. Emma,

    This was the story I needed to read this morning. I am emerging from divorce and raising a lovely four and half year old daughter. The marriage ended with a horrible crash. But I am starting to see that my life, and my daughter’s, is full of promise and possibilities–ones that were not to be while I was married. Your blog really speaks to me-thanks for sharing it.

  6. Thanks Valerie – I’m constantly amazed by how much the human condition can survive — and more than that, how much happiness and joy we can find no matter our pasts.

  7. The author of this site is an evil woman who is a prime example of everything wrong with relationships in western societies today. If you want a happy healthy and spiritually nourishing relationship this blog is your ticket to success. Just be the exact opposite of everything the author espouses and you will have what your heart desires.

    1. Michael (Im sure not your real name)

      You so are transparent. You are clearly either the WAS-band, or his friend.
      This is HER reality. If you dont like her, why are you stalking her blog? Get a life and move on. She has.

  8. Wow, I needed to hear this. I just told my husband I’m divorcing him for the best for both of us. This is how I’m feeling.

  9. Hi Emma, Thanks again for your meaty conversations. This one hits home.
    I loved my marriage, too. Until I didn’t. Ten years later: I’ve had many matches—and expect to have many more. I call them “meaningful connections.” Some have lasted years, others just a few magic days. Duration is not important. Authenticity and quality are. I’m a bachelor now. Non-exclusive, honest, and having the time of my life. That’s what works for me.

    1. Vicki – I love this attitude, it really opens one up to the wonders of relationships, connections and love by accepting that none of those things are designed to last for ever. Thank for sharing.

    2. I too am optimistic for what kinds of connections I will make post-marriage. I love your idea that those connections can be brief or lengthy, but can still be very meaningful.

  10. Emma, This is truly beautiful and so, so honest. Your writing makes me swoon. It’s so wise to think of relationships and, well, everything as having a lifespan. Taking the pressure of “forever” off of our unions might just be the best way to bring the very best of the relationship out. This is such a compelling idea and such a fresh perspective. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this piece (and peace), my sister writer. All the best to you (for however long it lasts! :) ~BigLizzy

    1. >>Taking the pressure of “forever” off of our unions might just be the best way to bring the very best of the relationship out.

      Very well said, thank you!

  11. Hi Emma,

    My divorce threw me out into the cold water of being single again after 18 years. I thought I was going to die. But I didn’t. In fact I went on to heal many of my childhood hurts and fears and now live the life of my dreams.

    Getting divorced served me very well in growing up emotionally into an adult. My new relationship of 3 years in January constantly challenges me with new learning experiences and more opportunities to heal childhood pain. Will it be forever, I don’t know and knowing is not that important to me. We are very different people, come from different cultures and moved to Mexico which is not a home culture for either of us. So there is lots of cultural challenge in our life and the one thing I am really clear about is that he loves me to pieces and I love him. Where it ends up who knows? Perhaps God has a plan. Either way it is a life enriching experience.


  12. Her husband suffered a near fatal fall and he never fully recovered. She abandoned him. Such a great woman, a great role model.

    1. Yup, this is true! Isn’t it funny how she doesn’t tell THAT part of the story? Oh and didn’t she divorced him while she was still pregnant with the 2nd child? Interesting. Again, omitted from story.

      1. This post is about marriage and relationships — not a thorough account of my entire life and marriage. There is no omission – I explain the brain injury throughout this blog. I could certainly play the victim that he left me pregnant with two kids, no offer of child support, etc., because most of my friends and family fault him for that. But that is not fair nor is that the whole story – as you say, the brain injury was a major role. It is complicated. Again, this is just a few hundred words in a giant story.

  13. Her husband certainly had his faults. Be he suffered from TBI after a horric accident. She bailed on him in the middle of his recovery. He will never be the same – as most people with traumatic brain injury. And I don’t blame her for finding life too hard. But she gave up. She is no hero.

  14. This post is about marriage and relationships — not a thorough account of my entire life and marriage. There is no omission – I explain the brain injury throughout this blog. I could certainly play the victim that he left me pregnant with two kids, no offer of child support, etc., because most of my friends and family fault him for that. But that is not fair nor is that the whole story – as you say, the brain injury was a major role. It is complicated. Again, this is just a few hundred words in a giant story.

  15. She heard a voice, and she still marries him, divorces him when he had a near fatal fall in 09, and then glorifies her actions Wow!!!! Was not that, the time(of the fall) she should have been besides him? and did the divorce settlement make her wealthy????

  16. @Ann et al … clearly Emmanuel has set up a campaign against this post– nearly a year old now — and that is his right. It should be stated that it was his decision to leave, which from the outside appeared to many to be a cruel thing, as I was pregnant, had a young child, he was barely involved with the kids and made the vast majority of the money — but only started paying child support once I filed in court. But he was also in a horrible fog of brain injury. It was not his fault. Nor was it mine.

    And there was no real settlement to speak of. After he paid child support for one year I have been completely financially independent and responsible for the kids — and am now helping him financially.

    1. No, your ex hasn’t “set up” anything to get you…you are doing it to yourself by writing this drivel to justify your hideous, narcissistic behavior. Your glaring omissions make it clear that you’re a self-serving person.

      I had no idea. I know your ex and I know you, and although I’m not into public shaming, you deserve every bit of bad karma that comes your way. Continue being mendacious; see where it gets you. You give real, hard working, honest single mothers a bad name.

      You put the “assy” in “classy”.

      Yes, I’m using my real name because I want you to know I think you’re an awful person.

  17. You may try, but you can’t have it both ways, Emma.

    If the spin is that you divorced your husband because he suffered a terrible accident, and would never be the same, I think that’s what you are trying to say, then you come off sounding rather cruel–and to some people, the quintessential narcissist.

    ….(and how in God’s name is he supposed to support anyone after the nearly fatal injury that he suffered—wtf?)

    If your story is true, and you had a child very shortly after your husband had this horrible accident, (wtf) then you should be taking care of him—are you kidding me? I can only image the horror that he suffered after taking care of you for those years, to be left abandoned, and now his name being dragged through the mud.

    What happens when your children, those you purport to care for so much, read these denigrating comments about their father one day—but in the world of the narcissist, children, like disposable husbands, are merely pawns.

    There’s a word used to describe many people that I’ve met that I have held in high esteem–its called “class.” Your behavior is not only an embarrassment but an outrage.

    Your attempts to captapult your career as a “journalist” at the expense of throwing your children’s father under the bus, renders many that knew you, speechless.

    Speaking of buses, the Karma bus is coming, there’s a seat with your name on it. All aboard.

  18. Once again: It was his decision to leave. At the time I couldn’t even fathom the idea of divorce in such a crisis. HE DECIDED. No one threw anyone under the bus and please point out where he is being dragged through the mud — this blog is about my life now, but I also have to include some of my past. I am often intentionally vague because I want to protect him. The details of this injury and its aftermath are so unbelievably complicated and I often cannot make sense of them myself.

    As for my obligation to financially support him … that is up for debate, the verdict of which I have not yet decided on myself. What if courts and doctors render a person able to work? What if that person blows any money he has on tens of thousands of dollars in tattoos, a motorcycle, toys and vacations? Would you feel obliged to give him money? And what if any money will certainly compromise your children’s quality of life? What if you suspect he has learned from his mistakes – but time and again disappoints? What about if every time you help him he is humiliated and becomes verbally abusive? At what point is a person responsible for their behavior? When do you treat them as an adult? what if they want to be treated as a normal adult – even if their behavior suggests otherwise? When do you — as you say — actually give up on any hope for him and treat him as a disabled person? What if you very much care for him, feel obliged to him because of your children, the unfairness of the situation and your own feelings for that person? Are you a fool to give him chances time and again? What if dealing with him is so unbelievably toxic and draining that it seems easier to move forward with your children and allow him to face his own challenges? What if experts advise you to apply the same rules for dealing with an addict and let him ‘hit rock bottom’?

    Do you have absolute answers for these questions (and many, many, many more)? Because I do not.

  19. This is really sad. I originally was very inspired by Emma’s story, as I could relate to the feeling of letting during my divorce two years ago. But I am shocked to learn she left her husband after he had a very serious brain injury that he suffered while reporting in Greece for CNN. I found this link: http://www.mediabistro.com/tvnewser/cnn-cameraman-seriously-injured-while-on-assignment_b28679

    It takes a small person to leave their partner during such a severe injury. My uncle had a brain injury when he was 21 and he is still coping to get his life back. I am sickened by your callousness. Friends and family should come first — it looks like all you are focused on is yourself. What a pity!

    1. There is a reason I avoid getting into the minute details of my divorce, my ex’s injury and recovery … it is so, so complicated, nuanced. It deserves a book — or three! — to spell out the whole story. And then of course that will only be one side of the story. Which is inherent in the art of memoir.

      Once more: This is but one blog post. In a giant blog (I think I’m up to 200 posts now and counting). This post focused on my thoughts about marriage in general. Take it out of context and it can be anything you want it to be.

      I write about my experience now, as a single parent making it, which at times includes reflecting on my marriage. There are certainly other people that are part of that story and I consider them heavily when I write. I don’t always do a perfect job and I’m learning as I go. And there are of course two or more sides to every story.

      But all the vitriol here is really out of line. Name calling? Common, people.

  20. I’m pretty sure nobody will read your three volume book when you cannot even relay the facts straight in a very simple blog format. I’d like to add — beware fellow daters. This woman is evil!

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