Nathaniel Brooks, 47, says his silence killed his 20-year marriage
If I ever get into another relationship, I'm going to do like I did the first time I met my ex-wife: I'll talk until my tongue falls off. Except the next time around, I won't stop talking. I learned how crucial it is to communicate-and I learned that the hard way.
Back in 1987, I saw my future wife coming up the escalator at our job and I waited at the top for a chance to speak to her. I loved the way she carried herself-feminine, but strong. The conversation lasted 35 minutes because I couldn't wait until our first date to cover the basics: Are you seeing someone? Do you have kids? Tell me about your family. I asked everything that popped in my head because I wanted to know all about her. When we married six months later, I was more than ready. I come from a very close-knit family, so I was committed to being a good husband and making our marriage work.
In 1997 my wife, a beautician, and I eventually quit our nine-to-fives to focus on her dream-opening a beauty salon in New Haven, Connecticut. I was working as a corrections officer by then, but I left that and began to manage my wife's shop during the day. While she worked, often well into the night, I took care of the kids-we have two, Nathaniel, now 20, and Maygan, 11. When the business took off, I felt she was putting work before me and our children and I told her so. Whenever I brought it up, we had arguments. She told me I didn't understand that she was working so many long hours at the shop to make sure our family remained financially secure. I did understand, but I wanted to spend more time with her too. Instead of trying to get through to her again, I started to keep my feelings to myself. I would also act out in petty ways, like not paying the bills on time or overspending and telling her, "Hey, we only live once." After a while, we were both so fed up that we just didn't talk at all, about anything. Ultimately, instead of trying to work on our marriage, I just moved out.
Although we were separated, we still saw each other regularly. I was staying with my brother in Virginia, but since my daughter was living at home, I drove up at least twice a month and every holiday to see her. A year or so into this arrangement, my wife called to tell me it was time to get a divorce. I just said "Okay" and promised to sign whatever papers she sent and show up for court. I'd mentally checked out of our marriage years before I left, and I was numb about the possibility of its being over.
That day in the courthouse was surreal. Up until then, reality hadn't set in. Men always try to appear like a rock of strength, but we're as sensitive as women when it comes to stuff like this. When the judge said, "All you have to do is sign the papers and you're no longer married," I was filled with regret. I thought about all the what-ifs, like if we'd each tried harder to communicate what made us unhappy or if we had gone to counseling. At that moment I felt a profound emptiness and a sense of loss. I started crying like a baby outside the courtroom. I told my ex-wife that I loved her, and I apologized for whatever I did to bring us to that point. Very calmly, she told me we would still be friends and I'd be okay. Clearly, it was too little too late.
It's been a year since the judge banged the gavel, and I'm proud to say my ex-wife and I have a good relationship. I still love hearing her voice, and when something good happens to me, she's the first person I call. Even though she's doing fine without me, there are still nights I go to sleep alone and worry about her. I've never stopped caring, and the scary thing is, I don't think I ever will.
If I found the right person, I'd get married again. I still believe in two people loving each other for the rest of their lives. But that's not where my focus is now. I don't have a desire to go out with someone new just yet. And I don't want to get with somebody, just so I won't be alone. I'm still learning from my mistakes so that when the next good woman comes along, I'll make sure I won't ever lose my voice-or her-again.