Ashley Collins: Fairytale Lost

ashley-collins2When I told my friend I was finally getting a divorce she said, “You’ll be fine.” I didn’t feel fine. I was gutted. She acted like I’d just scraped my knee instead of about to end a twenty-five year marriage. She started listing my assets, “You’re smart. You’re fun. You look young for your age. You’re a great catch!” But I didn’t want to be caught at this stage of my life. I’d rather go fishing.

The thought of starting over with someone new seemed incomprehensible to me, never mind exhausting. I had spent half my life living for other people, building a family, and I wanted the happily ever after with my husband. I couldn’t just wave a magic wand and write a new fairy tale just because my husband decided to write himself out of ours.

Part of the problem was that I grew up being fed the fairy tale love story of my parents. They fell in love at first sight, had a romantic courtship and whirlwind wedding, like something out of a movie. My father was a good storyteller, and described the winning of my mother in heroic scenes. I absorbed the details of their romance the same way I did in the stories of Cinderella and Snow White. I would have been better off reading the sequels, if the Brothers Grimm had written any.

By the time I realized that my parents’ fairy tale had missing pages, I was an adolescent. I was in love (with the boy who would become my future husband), and determined to be more realistic, to overcome my need to mimic the storybook plot of my parents’ marriage, of my culture even. But when college graduation and the wide-open road loomed ahead of me, fear of the unknown weakened my resolve. I was torn between wanting the freedom to pursue my own path, and afraid to lose my version of the fairy tale, but the emotional blueprint stamped inside of me proved stronger than my independence.

The love I felt was real, and powerful enough to dismiss any doubts I might have had about my attachment. My lofty goals in high school and college of becoming a writer, journalist, or anthropologist, were diluted by the idea of the fairy tale. I allowed my relationship to become my passion and my path. I married my high school sweetheart when we were twenty-five and followed his career without even asking myself how I felt about following, when my nature had always been to lead. The reality was that his career was more established, he was making more money, and we wanted to start a family. Logic overrode the niggling feeling that I was giving up my freedom, that I was being a coward. Putting my own career aside conveniently avoided the risk of failure, and from the outside I was already living the dream. Friends and family saw us as an attractive young couple that had ventured away from home, acquiring New York City sheen, some London sophistication. It was easier to look at myself through their eyes, to quiet the voice inside of me crying out for more.

Although my husband and I had trouble from the beginning, I attributed that to our passionate natures. We met at sixteen and didn’t have the emotional maturity to handle such an extreme attachment. Over the years our relationship settled into a pattern of volatility. At times I loved him truly, madly, deeply. At others I hated him with the fury of a woman not so much scorned, as neglected. We squabbled like siblings, able to eviscerate each other with a sidelong glance. But just as easily we could make each other laugh, finish each other’s sentences in a language all our own. Passion could ignite between us with a flare of the nostrils, the graze of fingertips on a sleeve.

For decades we fought and made up. Our love rose and fell, largely dependent on our circumstances and stress levels. We lived in other countries, traveled widely, and raised three children. Their adolescence strained our marriage even more, triggering our own unresolved issues. Therapy helped, but I could feel my husband slipping away from me. My heart, pieces of which had been breaking off from unrealized dreams of my own, began to crack at a structural level. Fear pulled at my insides. I had thrown everything I had into our relationship, betted the whole pot. To lose it seemed unimaginable. I couldn’t separate us from our story, and stubbornly held onto the sleeves of our marriage, while my husband was shrugging free of the coat. I tried to convince him that we were worth saving, that there was more good than bad. I reminded him that we had a history, a family, that we still loved each other. The hardest part was behind us with our children grown, all but one out of the house. He remained unconvinced, although he didn’t have the strength to leave me. I lived in limbo, and told myself it was enough. I kept hoping our relationship would get better with time, with improved circumstances. Even then I was more focused on him than me. I didn’t ask what I wanted out of the marriage, beyond keeping our family together.

The future I had imagined was one where we would have time for each other again, like when our relationship began, when our hearts were bare and we bathed in emotional and intellectual connections, when romance kindled passion. I believed we wanted the same things, to travel and have more adventures together, to share family time when our children came home, to marvel at the lives we had created. I thought I could endure the present pain in anticipation of future happiness.

It took me years to realize that I couldn’t live on the crumbs of love my husband scattered behind him. My heart shriveled from the rejection and withdrawal he sprinkled on it like salt. He made me feel as if my desire for emotional security was somehow dysfunctional, that my neediness was due to leftover cravings from my childhood. He knew enough of my past for that to ring partially true, but I had talked myself into accepting a relationship without the kind of love I wanted, still hoping for the happy ending to our story. I wanted my marriage to last and I believed that if I worked hard enough, and learned to manage my own needs, that I could save it. I didn’t want to admit to myself that it wasn’t just up to me.

When I finally acknowledged the truth, that my husband couldn’t stay with me in the story, I was devastated, then bitterly disappointed. I felt like a sore loser, furious that the fairy tale was being pulled from my grasp. I blamed him for letting me down, for stealing my happy ending. But if I’m honest, I was also angry with myself. For years I had felt the cold chill of unrequited love seeping into my body, like the dull ache of mountain river water when it penetrates fishing waders. You don’t know how cold you are until you’re half-frozen. I rationalized that numbness as part of life that must be endured, those challenges of marriage and parenting, and the need to compromise. I spun the truth like I was spinning a slot machine, trying different combinations over and over hoping I would eventually land on the pattern I wanted. Needing to feel hope was a survival mechanism, not a comprehensive assessment of my marriage. Instead of analyzing my own feelings, I had been clutching that fairy tale to my breast in desperation, still hoping that love would conquer all.

After countless therapy sessions where my husband remained paralyzed in ambivalence, reality forced me to re-evaluate. He was unable to leave me, but paradoxically unwilling to commit. “I don’t love you like that anymore,” he said to me, in our last session. That sentence was like a final blow to the head, strong enough to crack my skull and leave my mind exposed to those epic words. He didn’t value me, and the pain of that thought became our death knell. It seared a path into the core of me where I remembered that I was worth loving, and that I was working much too hard to hang onto a one sided relationship. I asked him to move out.

We had been a “we” so long that separating into an “I” felt as painful as a death in the family. I cried a river. I didn’t think I could produce so many tears. But once I accepted the loss I felt lighter in spirit, calmer, and more at peace. I realized that I felt better without my husband than with him, the ache of longing removed with the remover. I recognized that hanging onto the fairy tale had steamrolled my emotional wellbeing. When hope finally died, I could identify the pain I felt as grief, and knew that I would eventually recover.

I still feel pain sometimes, like a phantom limb. I have lost the person who was closest to me for most of my life. In some ways it is irrelevant whether he made me happy or not, the years themselves made us symbiotic. And the fairy tale still echoes inside of me on certain days, when I long for the pretty picture of my family together. But the death of that dream was like cutting back a wisteria vine to encourage new growth. I wouldn’t have chosen to start over at fifty, but I am grateful to have had the pruning. I can feel the healthy part of me reaching for the sun, ready to bloom fat, intoxicating flowers. The fear to fail that held me back in my twenties is gone, along with my marriage. Maybe my happy ending is to be caught after all, but not by a man. I’m going to catch myself.


ashley-collinsAshley Collins has three grown children and lives in Connecticut with the pets they left behind. Her work has appeared online at Grown and Flown, Horse Network, and in several anthologies. She is currently working on a memoir. Find her online at or


Poet, Promptress, and Coach providing fierce encouragement for writing + life and gentle creative guidance for writers all over the world.

3 thoughts on “Ashley Collins: Fairytale Lost

  1. Oh, I just love this. So many great lines, but that last one was like the best kind of sucker punch 🙂 Reminds me of the premise in Glennon Melton Doyle’s latest, Love Warrior.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, such an emotional and engaging story. The fairy tale is the exception I think but you wrote about the journey so beautifully.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s