He offered to be interviewed when I put out the call for volunteers, and I knew immediately I wanted to hear about his experience of divorce, Initially I had wanted the series to be all about different peoples’ experience of sex–what they learned growing up, what constituted sex ed at at home/school, first experiences, overall attitudes. But with him I remembered getting a facebook invite to a party that was part farewell to a marriage, part estate sale. At the time I thought him and his soon to be ex-wife incredibly respectful toward each other and thus felt intrigued by his seeming drama-free divorce. He had “a lot of angles and spins on divorce in his head” which I found him quite open to discussing, as I sat in my car outside work, furiously scribbling notes while he spoke into the phone.
A man in his mid-forties, he had been in the marriage for ten years, divorced now for three. I told him about my impression of his “divorce party” to which he replied, “I’m sure we seemed very evolved. In reality it took a lot of drama for us to get there. Once we had decided we weren’t healthy for each other, if we ever had been, it was easier to be civil.” On the surface, the party had seemed to me like a sensitive way to notify people of the divorce, while allowing them a chance to come and say goodbye to the couple as an entity. Evolved was certainly the word. Yet look below the surface of any social media post and find a world of complication. His divorce was no exception.
I asked him to describe his views on divorce during the time he was marrying, and how those were shaped by his family background. He comes from a family that seemed to avoid divorce at all costs, considering it to be a “problem for other people”. He was raised Catholic, one of eight kids. Memorably, an older brother married a woman who had been previously divorced, which had been a family scandal. But because there was no open communication in the family, his brother’s marriage was never discussed openly, and his wife was accepted into the family. The scandal was sensed, not spoken, avoidance the family’s chief coping strategy.
I wanted to understand how the family culture of avoidance, and the expectation that marriage is forever shaped his views and behaviors when it came to his own marriage. “Marriage was considered a good choice to make that would last all of your life. This mentality created an unhealthy pattern of avoidance.” He described working hard to keep his marriage together, and reflected, “entertaining divorce could have helped me avoid periods of unhappiness.” Putting in the work to hold things together, without pondering a life outside the relationship could be considered a certain kind of life-avoidance, depending on your beliefs. And if the value is that marriage ends only at death, periods of unhappiness might be accepted; another form of avoidance. With no models for engaging in and productively dealing with conflict, he seemed to have lacked the insight and skills. He was not the first to divorce in his family. In fact, three of eight of the siblings are now divorced. “It turns out it does happen to people like us.” He explained that he went through a long period of denial before he realized divorce was an option, and that it was going to happen to him.
He started the story of his marriage with the ending. He and his wife had been in therapy during what turned out to be their final rough patch. They were seeing the same therapist, though individually, not as a couple. He credits their therapist with helping him learn communication skills and how to be healthier. He and B came to separate realizations in therapy that the relationship needed to end, and doing so in the context of professional help saved them from ugliness during the divorce itself. There were no lawyers, and the couple stayed in the house they owned together during the process. They were able to fairly and amicably divide their assets, including the decision to sell the house (causing the resulting estate sale/divorce party). For a time after deciding to divorce, they lived together in their house as roommates, dividing up the space and living separate lives.
Before I could utter my wonderment at the neat and tidy package, the respectful and rather emotionless way his marriage appeared to have ended he continued, “It did come down to physical violence at one point. I could do the we-were-friends-and-very-evolved spin. But dishonesty, drug abuse and addiction and affairs were happening. Eventually, these factors culminated in a physical attack.” I found myself astonished at the shift in narrative, and his matter-of-fact honesty. “She had problems managing her anger and a growing obsession with martial arts.” Nineyears into the marriage, right after her admission that she had an affair several years before, he had indulged in an affair in a kind of retaliation and was upfront with B about that fact, and the reasons for it. B physically attacked him for his confession. “I was on the floor, her knee pressed into my sternum. I realized later she was looking for a reaction from me.”
A reaction? It had been the most desperate moment of B’s attention seeking behavior in the marriage, he believed. From the beginning, he and B had been very different. B was about newness and fun. He was about his comfort zone. He appreciated her challenging nature, the way she pushed his boundaries and kept him from complacency. “I thought, well, I’m in my thirties now. A good partnership would make a good marriage. I’d never been madly in love with her or super physically attracted.” I wondered if she had sensed his stark pragmatism. “I did not offer warm and fuzzy stuff or praise. The more she wanted, the more I withheld.” This was starting to look like opposite family cultures playing out in the context of a new marriage. And indeed he was raised with the belief that a need for attention constituted vanity, and was therefore unattractive.
B had grown up differently, with a father who displayed anger issues. She saw no issue with blow-ups. “It was the East Coast way–boil over, patch up, resolve.” This was new to him. His family didn’t fight, opting for a non-confrontational style heavy on reading between the lines. The couple began to engage in terrible fights, where the status of the relationship was unstable from day to day. This went on for years, his nerves frayed from living in such uncertainty.
It turned out B was engaging in an affair about two years into the marriage. The dynamic of attention seeking and attention withholding was a sign the relationship wasn’t working. “That dynamic meant B looked further out for her needs. She had an affair and buried it. I found out sevenyears later.” He mused about the contradiction between her openness when it came to conflict, but silence about her affair. She didn’t want to talk about it, instead accusing him of not paying enough attention to her, asserting that he should have caught her. He would never learn the “why” of her affair from her. While she tended to impress people with her gregarious, unbolted nature, inside the marriage she would go silent sometimes, especially when it came to exploring her questionable behaviors.
Like her drug use. She would use for fun, but eventually become more involved. “I remember coming home and a Russian drug dealer was cooking up base on our stove.” During this incident, he played it cool. The signs B was developing a serious drug problem were there, but he was in denial. She became hooked on prescription narcotic painkillers, which led to a whole range of behaviors seen when one person in a relationship is an addict. “We began to have money issues because she was buying drugs. I didn’t confront her because we didn’t have rules about how our money was to be spent.” They made an attempt at couples counseling, which didn’t help. One day B approached him, admitting that she was an addict and informing him of her decision to go to rehab.
“She presented it as closed. ‘My issue, my struggle, case closed.’ It was as though by declaring it to be in the past no questions could be asked.” According to him, B went to a few AA meetings, which didn’t jive with her as a person. She stopped taking pills but kept drinking. I saw an eerie parallel between her tight-lipped admission of her drug addiction and less-than-forthcoming revelation of her affair, years after the fact. What was that like for him? “I had tons of questions, and anger about how drugs had played into our relationship issues. She had confessed her affair to friends while on mushrooms, and told me just to get it off her chest. Again, it was ‘you’re not allowed to ask questions’.” Because she presented the crises of her addiction and affair as issues personal to her and not the marriage, any communication was effectively shut down. “She acted as though she had total ownership. There was no room for me.” The emotional anguish of being in the relationship was intense. He resented himself for allowing himself to be duped. “I began to question, who is this person?” Because she shared so little about the impulses driving her to self-destruction, she became mysterious to him, profoundly un-knowable.
He felt foolish with these realizations. “I felt I had not even been married, that I had wasted my time.” I began to understand what he had meant when he said that considering divorce sooner could have saved him from periods of great unhappiness, years of terrible arguments, deep disconnect.
Sometimes B hadbecome infatuated with other women, bringing them home for sex involving him. “It should have been wish fulfillment; instead it was not awesome given the circumstances of the marriage.” Sexual activity with B and another woman were consistently on B’s terms. He would feel attracted to others, but stuff the feelings as trouble. Avoidance. Eventually the affair (whose admission lead to the physical confrontation between B and him) would occur, in spite (because?) of his repressed feelings.
So much of their dynamic appeared to be her increased desperation for attention and his inability to cede. With blow-up fights in place of honest discussion of difficult feelings, things spiraled out of control. What were his reactions to being violently pinned by his wife? He threw her off and restrained her. Shame about physical violence. Absolute bottom. He stayed away from their house for a time, sensing there was too much to be patched up for anything to be fixed.
He and B had decided they would divorce. “I felt I was totally cracking open. I was passing through something I never thought I’d do.”
I sensed some of the calm respect they seemed to display toward each other after the decision to end the marriage may have stemmed from relief. The crisis that had been the marriage was ending. They were getting off the ride. No need for rancor now. Their mutual therapist was helping them understand they had been such different people, had not communicated or connected, and probably even got married for the wrong reasons. He was beginning to understand that he had ignored problems, opting to do his own thing. Professional help was aiding in making sense of the marriage, the purpose it had served, what they had learned from each other. It was helping them maintain civility and even treat each other as friends. Sometimes, while living as roommates they did yoga and meditated together, two forms of self-care that he learned from her and carried away from the marriage. It wasn’t all terrible.
In the year after the divorce, he seemed to come to the realization that staying in the comfort zone, practicing the family traditions of denial and avoidance were no longer an option. They hadn’t served him in his marriage, and it was time to let go. At forty-two he embraced change wholeheartedly, seeing it as his only option for making it through. He changed careers, went back to school. He strives to use the insight he’s achieved to help others. He’s now in the best relationship of his life, with a woman he loves madly and is incredibly attracted to. I asked if he would consider marrying again, given his previous experience. He would. “I’m deeply ambivalent about the whole thing. I got so much out of it.”