When Phantoms Call: Odd Ways in which a Relationship Can Haunt You
Have you ever been through a breakup that left you feeling incomplete? -like your partner somehow took a piece of you with them? Or have you ever been in a relationship with someone for so long that you felt like they had become a part of you?
I have. And it led me to experience something rather peculiar that seems timely to share in light of the upcoming All Hallows’ Eve.
Just a couple of weeks after my marriage imploded, I found myself in the interesting position of having to plan a solo trip to Europe. At first blush, that might sound kind of incredible, but I certainly did not feel that way about it (...hence me “having to plan” versus “getting to plan”). In fact, to be completely honest, the thought of it nauseated me.
You see, months before everything fell apart, my ex and I had booked a trip to Ireland - a trip that we obviously weren’t going to be taking together anymore. But when I reached out to the airline in an attempt to cancel my flight, I learned that I couldn’t get a refund - only credit to rebook the flight to Dublin for a different time later that year.
So after having a built-in best friend and travel companion for nearly a decade, I found myself trying to wrap my head around taking a trip to Europe on my own.
(Looking back on it now, I almost have trouble relating to myself at that time, because I’ve traveled extensively on my own since then. But having been freshly plucked from such a long and deep-rooted partnership, the concept of solo international travel was pretty daunting to me).
In those initial weeks after my spouse moved out, it felt like I was suddenly moving forward in life with only one of my two legs beneath me. Doing certain things alone that he and I had done together for so many years felt disarmingly unnatural, and the new circumstances left me feeling unstable, like a broken piece of furniture.
It was as if I’d undergone an amputation of some kind. The loss of my husband somehow felt like the loss of a limb - a limb that I sometimes still imagined was there despite it being gone.
And that sensation led me to recall a phenomenon that Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist, once described in his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks had observed that some amputee patients appeared to suffer from “phantom limbs” - a term that he used to describe the patient’s memory and sensation of a limb that was no longer there.
Upon further investigation, this turned out to be a relatively common occurrence. People who had undergone limb amputations would continue to have the sense that their limb was still there. And perhaps even more peculiarly, sometimes they’d even experience pain in their missing limb.
In recollecting some of the descriptions of this phenomenon, I began to feel I could relate to it in a metaphorical sense. My husband was the phantom limb that I still felt was there, that I was expecting to be there, but that no longer was.
I was confronted with that weird, haunting “phantom limb” sensation in myriad situations where I’d grown accustomed to having him present in my life. I would habitually reach out or roll over at night and expect to feel him there in bed next to me. I’d find myself parking far over to one side of the garage, as if he was still going to be parking his car alongside of mine. I would watch a funny part of a movie and instinctively look over to share in the laughter with him.
But after each of these incidents I’d feel idiotic, because he obviously wasn’t there anymore.
This was an unsettling feeling, to say the least. And it would ultimately take months for it to abate - for me to begin to get used to life without him and for my brain to stop playing tricks on me.
However, although I came to adapt to life without my husband, the “phantom limb” phenomenon was not ready to fully release me from its grip.
Instead, it found a new tack to take...a new means of tormenting me. I began to experience the phenomenon’s effect in a new way -- namely, with respect to my life path.
We each tend to have a general sense of how our lives might look over the upcoming year or two. We dream, plan, set goals, and gradually develop certain expectations.
I’ve always been a planner by nature. And for whatever reason, I’d become even more prone to planning for the future since getting married. I guess the seeming certainty and security of being in a relationship that was bound by a legal contract may have made me more likely to engage in this behavior.
My then-husband and I had been together for so long that any dreams or future plans I’d had for my life had presumptively come to involve him as well. As opposed to merely being plans for me, they’d become plans for “we”.
Unfortunately, focusing on the future can have some negative side-effects. And I began experiencing some of those very side-effects firsthand once the possibility of the future I’d been imagining dissolved before my eyes.
For a year or two there after our split, it felt like I was living alongside of some kind of alternate-universe-version of my life - one in which I was still married, and everything was proceeding in the way that I’d originally planned, envisioned, and come to take for granted over the years.
In that curated version of my life, I had anticipated that by age 29, barring any unforeseen issues, my husband and I would probably have been expecting our first child together. Only, in reality, at age 29, I found myself divorced and reevaluating whether I really wanted kids, and if I did, what my options might be for going down that path.
This perception that I began to have, this experience of my life as his wife running along in parallel to the events of my actual life, would periodically get triggered and pop-up at random times. For instance, a month or so after my divorce was finalized, I learned that my ex-sister-in-law was pregnant, and I couldn’t help but think that I probably would’ve been pregnant around the same time as her if my marriage hadn’t ended.
Moments like those always felt eerie to me, and to make matters worse, these imagined glimpses into the married version of my life would often leave me feeling inadequate - like I’d failed to accomplish what I’d been on the path to achieving.
I’d feel a sense of loss, but for something that I never actually had.
In instances like those, where I felt haunted by a sense of sadness or loss around what could have been, I’d have to take a step back and remind myself that neither of these two life paths - whether as a wife or as a divorcée - was inherently “better” than the other. I wasn’t “supposed” to be married or have kids by now. I hadn’t failed.
Thing were just different than I had presumed they’d be. And that was okay. I’d be okay. And just like my phantom limb, my phantom life would gradually fade away.