On Facing Big Decisions in Life

August 30, 2023
On Facing Big Decisions


“Don’t worry, Mother! If the marriage doesn’t work out, we can always get divorced!”

Well, not in so many words, but that is what I told her. I had called to share that I had decided to marry my boyfriend of four years when she retorted: 

“Are you sure this is the man you want to spend the rest of your life with?”

I loved him. I loved him a lot. But a year into the marriage I became resentful that he didn’t appreciate what we had, for not supporting me emotionally, for keeping a distance, and not trusting me completely. It hurt to learn that instead of speaking openly with me, he called and complained to my parents that I didn’t care for him anymore. It was quite the opposite – I cared deeply about him, but we could not see eye to eye.

Are you sure this is the man you want to spend the rest of your life with him?

I had just graduated from college in Bulgaria and accepted a fellowship at the University of Arizona. I was 27 y.o. and working hard to succeed at my first job abroad. He had closed his own business back home and joined me in the States, unemployed for months, in a new country, with limited language skills. It was tough. I didn’t know how to fix things exactly, but I knew I was unhappy.

Before long, a friend asked me.  “So, are you guys getting a divorce?” 

My spontaneous reaction was “’Of course not!”, yet right then and there I felt short of breath and slightly dizzy. A moment later I added “But I guess that’s where we are heading.” 

Racing thoughts overwhelmed me. 

Was I really going to get a divorce?
Was it happening to me?
For real?

Some decisions in life will always be tough and painful. We got married after five wonderful  years together, we didn’t rush it, we were fond of each other. He was the breadwinner, I was a dreamy graduate student. Moving abroad reshaped our roles and priorities. My independent soul thrived through a budding career. Stripped of his business ownership he felt diminished, lost. We needed time apart to find our new selves before we could work on “us”. The divorce was sad but amicable.

My independent soul thrived through a budding career.

Over the years, I have tried different approaches to making big decisions. I could pretend that everything is OK, until one day I start losing my sleep because my suppressed worries erupt. Or I could go wild – parties, alcohol, friends, and random blind dates would keep my adrenaline high until I drop exhausted and face the music.

Another way is to sit on a beach and listen to the waves until a solution would emerge in my mind. Most often I sit down with the legal yellow pad, list, and count the pros and cons. At times, I would simply cry for hours. Or spend my days sleeping and hiding. Ironically, there are no signs at the most important crossroads in life, they say. Not even your closest friends know what is best for you.

A few big decisions I made over the years:

Moving from Cleveland to Chicago. 

Not many know this but I first came to the States to visit my uncle for Christmas and New Year’s. For about ten days I lived with his family in the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio. Without a driving license and a car I was stuck in their tattered house, alone, watching TV commercials and eating “Mon cheri ” chocolates, while he and his wife were at work and the kids at school. Day after day.

Instead of being happy in America I was depressed in Cleveland. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my uncle how miserable I was. I loved him dearly and I appreciated his hospitality, but that could not be my life. A college friend, who lived in Chicago, came to the rescue. “Come visit me, or come stay!”  Two days after we ushered in 2000, I made the leap and got on the Greyhound to Chicago. I slept on my friend’s sofa, took English lessons, and fell in love with the Windy City before I got my first real job and moved to Arizona. I was 27 years old.

Chicago view

Divorcing my husband while I still loved him.

We got married and moved to the States a week later. I had lived in Chicago for a few months prior to the wedding, but it was his first time abroad. Our marriage was under pressure adjusting to a new culture, new language, new everything, each of us at a different pace. Our identities were fading and changing colors at once.

I loved my husband, but I didn’t know how to fight for us and keep up with everything else. I didn’t want fear, frustration and fury to overwrite the happiness we had till then. I believed some time apart would heal us and let us find our way to each other again, later on.  It was hard to swallow the parental disapproval and disappointment,  but I insisted we divorce before it all turned ugly.

It was important to me to preserve (protect?) the happy memories and the hope, because the alternative was agonizing. It took a while but we learned to be friendly and keep in touch, enjoy a conversation from time to time, like grown-ups.

Traded money and status for happiness. 

When I landed a dream job with one of the most prestigious companies in my field I was the envy of my office. I relocated from Madison, WI to a stone throw away from London in the UK.

Everything was taken care of – my belongings were packed and shipped, my work visa was a breese, I was handed a plane ticket, and it was all paid for by my new employer. My salary was twice the average for Europe and I didn’t pay tax on it because of the company’s international stature. My car had a diplomatic license plate and I could park almost anywhere in London for free. My colleagues were exceptional, the company was a well oiled machine.

I however did not fit in. I was too outspoken, overly assertive, I didn’t care for hierarchy. I was Bulgarian, yet acting too American. I made a few friends but that was not enough. 18 months into the job, returning from a getaway to Denmark I realized that it was the 8th weekend in a row I was traveling and being away from the UK. Was this my life? Three months later I moved to the Netherlands where the job I took didn’t pan out, but the country fit me like a glove. Once I found my people everything fell into place and I was happy.


On Facing Big Life Decisions


In my books, a life with no regrets is a life well lived! And if not now…when?! Facing big decisions is merely part of it. Every decision is a reflection of one’s life experience up to that moment. The next day we’d have lived more, know more and yesterday’s decision might not seem as good, but it was the best one for yesterday. When things don’t play out exactly as we hope, take a moment to reconsider, then decide again. As Mark Twain said it so eloquently:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover”


Top photo credit by Iliana Genkova. In article photos by Unsplash. 

About Iliana Genkova

Iliana Genkova is a scientist and a living abroad strategist. She has published science and non-fiction, facilitated memoir workshops, and won The Chicago Literary Club’s Collyer Fellowship 2021-2023. She likes big cities, Dutch bicycles, maps, weather satellites and Greek food. Follow Iliana on Facebook at @olivemaps and Instagram at @ilianagenkova.

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