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Blindsided is the word Nigella Lawson has reportedly used to describe her breakup with media mogul Charles Saatchi. On the heels of those pictures where Saatchi appears to be choking Lawson, a lot of people are expressing disbelief that Lawson didn't know something was amiss. Much as I comprehend that view, I am right there with Nigella. Why? Because it happened to me.
I was 37 when I moved from Pittsburgh to Qatar with my husband of two years, hoping for a career overhaul. His career. Mine was doing pretty well, actually.
I had several clients in my marketing and PR consulting business, and I was writing for multiple publications. Meanwhile my other half’s career had stalled in alternative newsweekly hell, where his pay in no way reflected his value or his hours. Furthermore, if we were ever going to start that family, I wanted to be able to take some time off. That wouldn’t be possible given the financial dynamics at play.
When the opportunity to take a job with one of my clients in the Persian Gulf arose, it seemed like the ideal way to catapult my journalist spouse into the world of freelance foreign correspondents. Surely that would pay better.
I was worried about the power disparity. It probably didn’t help that I was taking my partner into a Muslim culture without a job as a so-called “trailing spouse.” I was his “sponsor.” If he wanted to get on a plane, I had to sign a permission slip.
He took it all in stride. I tried to play along. And then he got a job. At the same place I worked. Ish.
I was the head of marketing for Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, an initiative that was funded by the Qatar Foundation. He became an assistant in the Foundation’s PR office. Soon we were attending the same meetings, only I was running them, and he was taking the notes. To say I hated this arrangement would be a massive understatement.
Life in Qatar was no great shakes either. For most of recorded history, the country had been a barren wasteland. My job was extremely stressful (you try introducing co-ed classrooms in an Islamic country), and left me with very little leisure time. Thus what time I had I spent planning getaways. When my husband finally agreed we should leave, I was tremendously relieved, even if I didn’t like the plan.
“I’ll go home first to look for work,” he said. “You can stay here and wrap things up till the end of the school year.”
Perfectly reasonable. Just like him.
“I’ll leave anytime, just say the word,” I told him.
“You’d be bored to death in Buffalo while I looked for a job,” he reassured me. “And I couldn’t stand that.”
Of course I believed him. Why wouldn’t I? Barring battered wives, who runs away from a marriage without leaving any clues? Like Nigella, when it happened I was floored.
My beloved had been gone for almost a month and we’d not spoken much. Late one night I hunched over my laptop in bed, composing letters. “You ass,” began one. “How can it feel like we’re fighting when we’re not even talking?” went another. “Do you even miss me?”
I regularly put together such drafts I did not send, in part because it kept me online, monitoring incoming messages. Then a missive from Geoff arrived.
"We need to talk."
This was exactly what I wanted, just not exactly how I wanted it. Because men never need to talk. I called immediately. The receptionist answered.
Maybe it was her job to screen calls, but my chest tightened when she asked for my name. “Lisa.” Still a pause. “His wife.”
Does she even know he has a wife? Is she cute?
She put me through. There must have been some kind of hello but all I remember was this, “I want a divorce.” And then my stomach dropping out of my body.
I would’ve fallen down, but I was horizontal on the bed already. We’d had our difficulties in Qatar, but I’d never seen our relationship as the source. It was Qatar we were quitting, not us.
“Couldn’t we try counseling?” I asked. “At least fighting?”
We had never talked about getting a divorce. Not even in jest.
“I don’t want a divorce,” I finally said.
His reply left no room for interpretation. “This is not negotiable.”
I’m not sure how long the call lasted. Ten minutes? Five? Two? It’s not like we could actually “talk;” he was at work.
His new old work, that is. OK, the fact that the “temporary” job he’d taken was the very same job he’d had when we first met had been disquieting. But for so long I’d felt incapable of sorting out the difference between my intuition versus my negative thinking, that I pretty much ignored any thoughts that sounded overly calamitous. And so despite some nagging fears about spending a few months apart, in the scheme of our life together it didn't seem like such a big deal.
“Well we knew that was comin’,” one woman actually said to me.
No, cruel heartless shrew, we did not.
But now, years later, I get it. And many people said to me, as they seem to be saying to Nigella, “Your success was too much for him.” Or, “you’re too good for him.” Even, "Do you think there's someone else?" Way too simple, people.
I did not know then, nor do I now, why he ran away. Many sessions of therapy and hours spent on a yoga mat later, I have realized that knowing doesn't matter. Learning to cope with becoming single again after seven years in a partnership had very little to do with figuring out what his problem was and everything to do with getting into my solution.
The fact is, as the strong woman I am and have finally learned to love, I realize I love strong men. Powerful men. (My ex may not have made much money but he did run the show at his papers.) I’m not going to fight that. Instead, I’ve learned to work with it.
When the dust finally settled and I was ready to make a move, I had to ask myself why I gave my husband the kind of opportunity I wanted for myself? Why did I think it was possible to do it for him but not for me? And so I changed my life entirely to set myself up with more time for writing.
Most importantly, I’ve stopped caring if my intuition is “right” or “wrong.” If I don’t like something, I’m gone.
Lisa Kirchner is a freelance writer who lives in New York City. Her memoir, Hello, American Lady Creature: What I Learned as a Woman in Qatar is coming out next year with Greenpoint Press.