The matrimonial culture we live in was never so apparent to me until I left it... I've felt ashamed of the times I overlooked another person's unmarried status in my writing, in my thinking, in my self-congratulating pride at being married. But now, I identify with the "single mother" in Toy Story 3. I notice naked, dented ring fingers. I get irritated by announcements of silver anniversaries and the chipper way marrieds toss out "Love you, Babe" on Facebook walls and their friends comment how cute they are together (not ever knowing, even, if that couple is kind, faithful and generous to each other, or secretly enmeshed in verbal terror, infidelity and/or cold, stale, long-term indifference).
The pressure to stay married is tremendous, which is why so many do—long beyond mutual joy, emotional safety and family well-being. The reason so many marrieds think "every" couple has huge fights or deals with cruelty and meanness is that so many of those couples stay married and report that this is what it's like. We tell ourselves that we aren't worse than anyone else... and on we go, putting up with what no one should. We mistake intensity for intimacy.
I've read many of the standard "how to stay married" books and frequently, they aren't in the arena of what is wrong. The deep problems in marriage aren't about money or sex or kids. Often, communication problems aren't really about communication, but a flawed fundamental disposition toward the other person.
Better to ask:
Do the partners revere each other? Do they operate from goodwill and generosity more often than not? Is there the capacity for empathy and mutual understanding? Can both people be themselves—the real person, as he or she is—without being a disappointment or source of ongoing irritation to the other partner? Is the marriage a wellspring of strength and nurturing or is it a relationship of egg-shells and pretending?
In other words, if the advice in marriage books to resolve differences doesn't work, might it be that the issues are more fundamental—not about bedtimes and budgets, but what it takes to provide consistent regard and care, shared power and mutual support? Do the parties esteem each other in both the global ways (who you are in the world is someone I am proud of and admire) and in the tiny, hidden ways (I protect your well-being by my tone of voice, by believing the best of your motives, by hearing your anxiety and fear... and relieving them, by cherishing your friends, habits and interests)?
Anyone who thinks divorce is easy clearly ain't been there, done that. Staying married (even in painful, hurtful marriages) goes with the flow—it's downhill, it's the path of least resistance... at least, until it isn't. No one steps out of the powerful, culturally-approved current of marriage because, "Hey, it's so easy to divorce in our state, and you kind of bug me, so bam! I'm filing." I haven't met that divorced person yet.
And I'm certainly not her.
But I'm also not someone who willingly conforms to the cultural viewpoint of divorce as the Great Epic Tragedy of a Failed Marriage. As a dear friend said to me at one of my low points of self-doubt about my decision, "I'm sorry that you are second-guessing your divorce since it's the healthiest thing you've ever done for yourself and your family."
That was a moment.
But I do get it. No one gets married looking forward to the day you get to get divorced! The best option is not an option anyone wanted.
Still, divorce doesn't have to mean a shipwrecked life. One of my biggest disappointments is that I have to "stop counting the years" as though I'm "out of the race" or am no longer qualified to be a happy, successful family. I decided a few weeks ago that all those years count and if I ever remarry, in my heart I will start at year 26. After all, I have been married 25 years. They were real years of investment. They are simply at an end for now.
One of the lessons of divorce for all involved is that there are some behaviors, some issues that deserve a no tolerance policy even if it means completely overhauling the structure of your family. Divorce makes it possible to extricate oneself from those destructive forces, to build again, to teach one's children that a love relationship must be grounded in deeply committed, honest respect. Anything less is not intimacy; anything less is not what I want to model for my children as a marriage.
Last week on the Bachelorette, we had exhibit A of Jake's emotional abuse of Vienna (that television constructed villian-ness to Jake's good boy image). How odd it was to watch the whole thing flip—suddenly Jake was unmasked as the arrogant, defining, controlling, abusing male to Vienna's inarticulate despair and humiliation. In that flash, I saw something that moved me. This young (widely disliked) woman of 23 had more self-esteem than I had for most of my adult life. She said in effect, "Fame, fortune, my reputation be damned. I won't be with a mean person. I deserve better."
That's what divorce is often about. The culture of marriage sweeps meanness under the rug—we're urged to "deal" with it, to endlessly turn the tiles of the Rubix cube in search of a solved puzzle. There's some idea that if I hear your story and it "doesn't seem that bad to me," then you must be able to deal with it. But there is never any way to convey an atmosphere, a pervading sense, an inner knowing that you are not being respected. The isolated incidents can be untangled and re-imagined, they can be forgiven and left behind. Who hasn't done that ad nauseum in a long term marriage than ends in divorce? What no one can understand without living through it is the way your psyche and spirit are diminished in a slow yellow-wallpaper kind of way that leads to a one-day inner cry of "Enough!"
When that day arrives, divorce is the long lost friend. It's the passage, the ticket to Europe, the remodel of the house, the great chance at a do-over. I know people want to convey sympathy when they say to me that they are sorry. I do get that. What I feel now, though, is that I want people to feel relieved for me, to be optimistic with me, to believe that if this is the choice I made (and they know me), they can't imagine it wouldn't be the right choice for my family despite the enormous pain it creates in the aftermath.
I know that's a tall order. I accept all offers of kindness no matter how packaged. I also know that divorce feels like a contagion. Who wants to get close to it, particularly if your own marriage is one of those challenging ones? I certainly don't "recommend" divorce like a good book or fine wine.
I do, though, stand by one principle over all others:
Your life is your responsibility. Protect (with a mother bear's fierceness) your right (and your children's right) to peace, respect, love and safety. Whatever it takes to achieve these is what it takes. That's all.