Originally published June 24, 2012.
There’s nothing particularly fun about divorce. Of course, this is not news to the 50 percent of American couples who seek one each year. So why do we do it? Good question. I suspect most would answer that, for whatever reason, the often massive hassle of divorce and the despair and loneliness that often go with it and follow it, are preferable to remaining in the marriage.
And trust me, that’s no easy call.
It struck me just what a hard call it is when a friend of mine said recently that in the wake of separation and divorce and subsequent failures to find Mr. Right, she actually got to the point where she would drive through tunnels and across bridges, hope that they would blow up on her, and then be angry when they didn’t. That’s how bad it felt.
I think most of us have, at some point or another, felt that level of despair in life, that “oh my god, can it please just be over because I cannot take one more frigging day” feeling that comes when tragedy strikes or life doesn’t go as planned. But who would choose to feel this way?
Because that’s what divorce is—a choice to go through hell…at least for a little while.
I’m not even sure I speak from experience. My separation has been, for the most part, amicable, and I cringe when other people tell me their horror stories of two-year long custody battles, raging and expensive wars over personal property, losses of years and years of earnings and assets. Why indeed would anyone go through such mess? Is it like childbirth? We dream of the joy that must surely follow the pain?
I’m not so sure.
How many divorcing or divorced people do you know who maintain a sunny outlook on relationships and a belief they will one day find that person who meets their expectations and needs? I’m trying to think here…I can’t think of a one.
But somewhere, deep down, that’s got to be the driver. Else why do it?
Well, it could be because married life really just sucks that bad. So bad, in fact, that we divorcees believe that trading an unhappy marriage for a potentially unhappy single life is a good deal. At least if you’re single, you can’t get mad about things like your spouse sitting at the computer for the 70th night in a row, ignoring you completely, or his lack of ambition to mow the grass, requiring you to hire a landscaper for a not inexpensive weekly fee so you don’t have to bushwhack through the yard to get to your car.
The fact is you’re just not as angry about sitting at home on a Saturday night when the person leaving you alone is not in the next room blissfully reading BBC News while you are sipping wine in front of the fire wondering what the heck. And you don’t really get annoyed about mowing the grass either when your spouse is not snoozing on the sofa while you do it. There is something to be said for minimizing one’s exposure to opportunities for funk.
But plenty of people settle. 50 percent of the population remains married for the long haul. I’m not saying all of these folks settle for uninspiring relationships that leave them bored, resentful, and frustrated for some 40 years of their lives. I do know a handful of happily married couples (and I guess knowing them and knowing “happy” just might be possible in the same sentence with “marriage” is what keeps me from throwing in the towel on love completely). But I also know what I can only call a crapload of, if not unhappily married couples, couples who certainly don’t get their kicks from being together. They have entered into something of an unspoken truce that reads like this: “I’m not all that crazy about you, but it’s too much of a hassle to get you out of my life, so we’ll just suck it up and try to stand each other as best we can until one of us keels over.”
I’m not sure that’s any way to live. So why do it?
The answer lies in the basic cynicism most of us develop about life and love the longer experience we have with both. There’s nothing easy about living. There’s nothing easy about love. Yet we grow up thinking the experience of these things is gonna be grand. We fall in love, or maybe only lust, cannot imagine ever not feeling that way and marry the wrong person or marry the right person but then decide to take him or her for granted because, being human, we are lazy. And love, like life, takes work.
It’s really not like riding a bicycle. You can forget how to do it. You can get rusty at it. And if you let it rust too long, forget it. No amount of Rust-Oleum is ever gonna wipe off the crud. There’s nothing to do at that point but toss the heap of oxidizing love into the trash and maybe try to start over. If you’re brave enough. Plenty aren’t.
While some divorcees remarry, many do not. And most of those who do not are women. I’ve heard their war stories, their “I’m done with love; I don’t need it” attitudes. They don’t feel like risking their hearts, their assets, and their sanity for another round of tennis with a blind teammate who doesn’t know how to do the laundry or the dishes. Better to settle for singlehood, less risky and probably less headache. And most report being happier single than married anyway.
Then there are those who are just settling for married life as they’ve got it. Because that’s less risky, too. Better to live with the devil you know than wander the streets sifting through the devils you don’t. And there are the kids, too, if you have them. You fake it for their sake, hoping they won’t notice you don’t hug and kiss anymore, don’t have fun dinner conversations, and stick to your own side of the bed with a book at night. And you kind of hope they won’t take those same tactics of settling into their own romantic lives.
But they often do. After all, no one has taught them differently. And they certainly haven’t observedwhat a happy marriage looks like.
Which is part of the reason I decided not to settle, not to let my daughter think it was normal for a husband and wife not to adore each other, not to respect and admire one another, not to want to play together and help one another…at least once in awhile.
But I also realize I may be engaging in another form of settling. Chances are good I will either settle for singlehood, always wondering in the back of my mind if maybe the right person could have been out there and I could have been happy, or settle for another relationship down the road with someone who doesn’t necessarily light my fire but offers tolerable companionship without too much grief.
Last weekend, I cleaned all of my ex-husband’s stuff out of the garage, wiped down all the shelves, swept the floor, creating a new space free of the clutter that never bothered him but always made me nuts. I thought about how I might have been able to accept the clutter and a hundred other little inadequacies had there been more love.
While cleaning off the shelves I found a bag of sand-peppered seashells he, and I, and Heidi had collected on the beach two autumns ago during our annual trek to Corolla for my daughter’s birthday week. Tonight, I emptied them into the kitchen sink to rinse off the sand, and, as the water cascaded over them, their colors brightened into multitudes of orange, and red, and black, and pink. And I remembered sitting on the sand in the last light of afternoon as my husband drew Heidi into the ocean with him. It was one of the last times we spent together with some level of peace and happiness as a family, a rare moment without resentment, or conflict, or spoiled hopes.
It is a good memory.
But I have no regrets. Because had I stayed for those rare and isolated moments of something not quite joy but almost good enough, I would have been settling, I am sure.
Several days ago, finding myself in a funk over divorce settlement concerns, I mentioned my despair to a friend. He said, meaning to give me hope, “You’re a survivor. You’ll make it through.”
He did not realize that was perhaps the last thing I wanted to hear—that I would survive. Who wants to survive life? I’d rather live it. Giving up on a dream that did not work out was part of my effort to live instead of settle. Because sometimes the best thing one can do with a dream is let go of it and try for something better.