Divorce as Struggle and Avoidance

People have been begging me not to write about divorce. But I can’t help it. My fingers dance over the keys, reflexively typing out the word: divorce. It’s a rich topic.

I have written often in these pages that I was born in a crowded urban neighborhood where divorce was unknown. Pain, loss, even violence, yes, but no divorce. Kids grew up in a troubled family, a family that was familiar, then ensconced themselves on the psychotherapist’s couch to discuss their family engendered neurosis. It was a sweet life.

Women assert that divorce has liberated them from the confining bonds of the past. Men, conversely, must have enjoyed losing their fingers in the factory or wrestling with angry dogs as they delivered the mail. The conjugal agreement of the past was one of finely shared misery. Life dealt the blows, and families contained them, progressing across the course of time with an innocence that has been forgotten in today’s take-charge, fate-free culture.

Back then, divorce carried a stigma resonant of the Christian stigmata, the spiritual wound that originates from the inside. Now, the media mega-stars, celluloid figures of television and movie fame, marry and divorce with the seasons, exchanging mates like N.B.A. teams trade free agent forwards. The chemistry is bad, so move on. Now, most people are divorced, remarry, divorce again, marry again in a wild, heavily spiced soup of names and homes and offspring that sorely challenges the geneological skills of the lawyers hired to sort out the mess.

Many of the young people I talk to today appear to have emerged from Hillary Clinton’s amorphous village, drifting toward adulthood and the strange stresses of autonomy while wondering how they can leave a place they have never really been. The ancient familial archetypes of mother and father have faded to a nebulous, ghostlike status; old people who drop into your life, hang around a while, only to drop out again to be rediscovered in Phoenix or Miami or Chicago entwined in some new network, with new cousins or half-siblings you most likely have never met. Little do you know that the man who fixes your car or the woman who diagnoses your flu might have emerged from the same gene pool as yourself. But you walk on, just another stranger in the great grand modern extended family.

Recently I talked to a woman who had some problems in her marriage, went to therapy with her spouse, had five or six good years, then things went south again and she sought a divorce. I wondered; what if you went back to therapy, had a second five or six more good years before the next crisis? That’s twelve good years out of fourteen; not bad, in my book. Today, a fifteen percent misery rate is grounds for divorce.

I wonder if the casualty of easy divorce is mature love; the tolerance of another person’s imperfections because you value their assets, the unique gifts they bring to the game. To know someone is surely not only to love them, but also to see their weakness, their fatigue, their long passages of struggle. All of us are born flawed and, sadly, remain so throughout our lives. These days, to be flawed is to tempt rejection, so the great modern game is to shine like a movie star every minute of your life.

What happened to the great, moribund figures of the past, Tolstoy, Twain, Fitzgerald, who somehow gave human misery the stamp of greatness? The gambler, the idiot, the social misfit each carried a complexity born of the tolerance of struggle, a willingness to wed themselves to an identity that shone as clear as the stars on a winter night. The consequence of divorce is the belief that people can swap personalities as easily as they do marital partners; always merry and bright.

Now it is struggle, tolerance, and pain that carry the stigma, not divorce. It is bad to feel bad, a double dose of self-rejection that sends the sufferer sprinting for those imaginary greener pastures that live in the media-compartmentalized half-hour segments radiating softly into our living rooms.

But after the set is off and we sit staring out the window, watching the snow cover a browning lawn, growing old with each passing moment, then we wonder what all the fuss was about, why we worried that the future would be no better than the past, when in reality all we ever had was the present, a present that was lost before it was even possessed.

Now we realize that mid-life divorce is the modern rite of passage, the crisis that is the opportunity to grow way more than you ever wanted to. Change is good because it avoids the terrible stresses of tolerance and keeps us flitting about the surface like figure skaters performing pirouettes on thin ice. When the collapse comes the immersion is sudden and cold, the edges fragile, the consequences of frantic, and tardy, struggle simply more fractured ice.

Stillness, and sameness, lets the ice grow thick so you can drive a truck on it, drill a hole and maybe catch a trout. It takes time and patience and a willingness to put the tedium out of your mind. After divorce you wonder where you are going to get your sameness, or if you will once again be caught up in the surface dance with all the other wounded skaters.

There; I wrote about divorce again, maybe, my friends hope, for the last time. Or, judging the depth of this quintessentially modern phenomenon, maybe not.