What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Divorce

When I went through my divorce six years ago, after my husband brought our ten-year marriage to an abrupt halt, I discovered that getting a divorce is like being pregnant: Months of waiting, a sudden change in appetite (with the heartburn, too), nights lying awake in bed staring at the ceiling, and, at the end of it all, a result that lasts for a lifetime. And similarly, too, there’s the constant barrage of invasive questions from friends and strangers — Who ended it? Was he having an affair? Is it because you made all the money? Did you find the right lawyer? Are you going to take him for all he’s worth? — questions engineered to make you feel like you have no idea what you are doing at a time in life when the only thing you know for sure is that you don’t know what you are doing.

At least people didn’t reach out and put their hands all over my stomach as they were prodding me witha their investigation. But I still felt like my boundaries had been breached.

At first I thought I was being subject to these intense interviews because my breakup was fascinating (with the passage of time, I can admit it was actually a pretty standard-issue post-baby breakup). But little by little, I realized that in these conversations, people were merely reaffirming a single, comforting script about divorce, one that we repeat endlessly in weekly magazine headlines and coffee klatch gossip sessions: Divorce always happens because somebody screwed up.

Somebody was the nagging wife, the cheating husband, the absent father, the incorrigible jerk, the liar, the loser, the failure.

It helps, of course, that we have some spectacularly dysfunctional celebrities to feed our national imagination (ahem, Charlie Sheen). But even when two seemingly stable folk like Al and Tipper Gore announced their breakup, the rumors started immediately: there had to have been an affair. Otherwise, what would we be left to consider? The slow, steady halt of a love that wanes over time? How depressing.

Imagining affairs is fun: the raised pulse, the hushed phone calls, the scent of sex creating a tantalizing swirl in our heads. Sex belongs to everybody; solitude belongs to no one. We can always dare to ask about the dirty details of an affair — “How did you find out?” “How long had it been going on?” “Did you ever catch them together?” It’s equally easy to fill in the details of a screaming bitch or a total cad, to foam at the mouth that anyone could be so selfish/cruel/mean/ruthless, fill in your favorite rat-bastard adjective here.

What’s impossible to imagine is the humdrum — the ponderous slide that is at the heart of the decline of a marriage: intermittent silences, bungled communications, the pressing of wills against each other, disconnection, and maybe worst of all, indifference.

We don’t talk about this private side of marriage. And when the divorce becomes public, all these quiet moments of drifting away from each other become the private side of divorce. We have a lot of examples in our world of how to do divorce badly, but we don’t have a shared story in our culture about how hard it is to break up, how hard it is too fall out of love and know you have to look at the person you lived with for so many years and say “I’m done.” What we have instead is screaming headlines, The War of The Roses, Ronald Perelman, the idea that money solves anything in this mess, and the anger and the shitstorms and always, the strange, prurient glee from the spectators. We who are watching the marriage ties unbind come easily to our certainty — even though anyone who’s lived a divorce will tell you it’s an upside-down and confusing time and the reasons for the end remain murky for years, if not forever.

When I was first suffering through break-up blues, I greedily tried on everyone else’s reasons for the end of my marriage. Your husband was insecure. He hated that you made all the money. You married too young. He was threatened by your career. He had to have been cheating on you. Is he dating someone new yet? That’s how you can tell.

People wanted to talk to me about only the intrigue, the drama, the chaos. They wanted to help me be angry, as if it were some reliable source of strength. I felt like a boxer getting ready to step into the ring; everyone wanted to throw the warm-up robe over my shoulders and rile me up for the bout. But I already hurt so much. I couldn’t stand the thought of another punch, whether I was the one who threw it or not.

In the middle of all my investigations of why — why the end of my marriage, why did he want to leave me, why was this all being torn from my grasp — I finally heard a small answer that felt right.

He wanted to go.

Love disappears. Life changes. Shit happens.

Divorce ultimately is about losing your way: “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” But all of us — the divorced and the not divorced, the happily marrieds and the not happily married — so desperately need to believe that something Went Wrong, instead of accepting that sometimes that’s just how life goes.

This is an unsettling idea: Who wants to leave things to fate? It is so much better if life’s hard events are someone else’s fault, so we can jump back into the fray, make better plans, renewed promises, and try again.

But I think we can try again, even if we have had to accept the fragility of life, all that we do not know about what comes next.

After all, that’s the promise of marriage, to keep trying even when it’s hard. And it should be the promise of divorce as well: to pick up and try again, even if without the luxury of having your heartache be someone else’s fault.

Often in divorce, the only certainty is that the marriage is over. The whys of it are left to history. And the weekly magazines, of course.

(Originally posted on Huffington Post)

2 thoughts on “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Divorce

  1. I just want to let you know through the ether of electrons that i read ur book…and i hurt 4 u as i read. plz know that the remote stranger that i am cares for u. we probably have little in common, but i think the understanding u developed is wise. life can throw many major changes at us, and some r worse than divorce. I truly hope u never experience anything worse. everything we value circles around our cultivated expectations, which r easy to mangle. God bless u & keep u!

    • Thank you for this note. I am strong and well and fine, and actually am really a better person for all I learned during those years of pain. Thank you for your good wishes! Back at you!

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