First it began as a fantasy. Then it turned to reality. Read Wendy Swallow’s experience of initiating and then dealing with the death of her marriage.
Living the fantasy
During the twelve years I was married, I spent many hours fantasizing about divorce. At first it was just a whisper of an idea, held guiltily for a moment and then dismissed, but as the years passed it became something of an obsession. Whenever my marriage made me unhappy, which was often, I escaped in my head into the world of divorce.
It was a place where women were free and could choose, where women decided everything from the mood of their day to what to watch on TV or where the family would go on vacation. It was a place where I didn’t have to compromise with a difficult spouse. It was a place where I could make my children infinitely happy, a halcyon world of simple pleasures and contented days. I knew it wouldn’t be an easy life — money would be tight and I would have to learn how to mow the lawn — but I imagined the inevitable hardships as lessons that would somehow make us all stronger and bind me closer to my two little boys. With middle class parents who were still alive and willing to help, I didn’t have to worry about ending up in a homeless shelter.
One of those taboo subjects
This fantasizing was the perfect antidote to a marriage that had become a struggle for power over the smallest of choices. The problem with my life, as I saw it then, was my husband, and I imagined divorce as a process that would remove him but change little else — a sort of neutron bomb that eliminated men but left the rest of the world intact. When my husband went on business trips, I played at being divorced, reveling in the freedom his absence afforded and the peace that would descend on our little world when he was gone. It would be so simple, I thought, so pleasant. There would be less yelling. The boys and I would stay in the house and I would get my parents to help me fix the things my husband never got around to fixing. I would get a nice student to live in the basement apartment and help out with baby-sitting in exchange for a lower rent, so I could get an occasional break from the kids.
I could rearrange furniture to my liking, perhaps get a dog. If the mortgage got too oppressive, I could rent out the attic as well, maybe to another single mother. We could sit together in the kitchen at night, soul sisters chatting about our kids and conspiring about men. Compared to the cold war of my marriage, it sounded pretty wonderful.
Most people, though, will tell you that divorce is a nightmare rather than a fantasy. Many, in fact, will tell you it is the American nightmare of the late twentieth century. And in many ways they are right. Divorce is, unarguably, a deeply troubling trend in society, a corrosive and often unpredictable force that erodes families and cripples children. It has become so ubiquitous that it threatens even strong marriages, as if it were something that could be picked up in crowded malls or during the coffee hour at church. Yet despite the wide experience of divorce in our society, most people who’ve been through it don’t talk about it much — outside self-help circles and therapists’ offices — because other people don’t like to hear about it. They don’t like to think about how it happened to their parents or how it changed their friends, and they can’t bear the thought of what it would do to their children. It’s one of those taboo subjects — like cancer or war — too difficult to explain to those who stayed home, too depressing to ponder for more than a moment.
Tempted by divorce
And so it gets pushed down into the collective subconscious, where it rustles about like a monster under the bed. But like every nightmare, divorce has its fascinations. There is hardly a married person I know who has not confessed to me, in a whispered aside, that they have been tempted by divorce. Just my presence in a room full of married friends is enough to make people uneasy, especially if I appear happy or talk about what I do in my free time when my children are with their father.
Marriage is complicated, and sticky with hurt and disappointment. Divorce, from the outside, looks simple, neat. Like suicide for the depressive, divorce is something unhappy spouses dream about with a mixture of fear and longing.
Someday the monster will break out, sowing destruction in its wake, but it also will sweep aside all that is old and knotted and unfixable. The monster will bring renewal because there will be nothing left to do but start again and make it better.
For thousands of unhappy people, this has actually worked. Divorce has liberated them, given them a chance for a startling rebirth, a chance to correct debilitating mistakes made early in life and restabilize children shell-shocked from the marriage wars. Divorce can save lives. Divorce can even, ironically, save families. Divorce can be an astonishing blessing.
Fantasy turns into reality
In the last few years of my marriage, that seductive voice intensified and my fantasy began to harden into a plan. I watched with a clinician’s interest as my older sister struggled out of her marriage and set herself up in a tiny cottage with a breakfast table just big enough for her and her little boy. I spent countless hours reading up on divorce, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the library because I didn’t dare take the books home. I talked with friends, talked with my counselor. I plotted and planned.
Through it all, I came to believe that I was prepared, that I knew what divorcing my husband would bring. I knew I would be alone. I knew I would have less money. I knew I would be a single parent, and that divorce would be difficult and painful for my children. I knew that, eventually, I would have to tell my husband what I was doing.
And that was when it all blew up.
Place of little support
Divorce, like marriage, turned out to be a game with two players. In all those years of silently indulging in my divorce fantasy, it hadn’t occurred to me that I needed to consult my husband, that divorce was something we were going to do together. Divorce, as it turned out, was the last act of the marriage, the final dance. And true to form, we had a lot of trouble agreeing on the steps.
When I finally stumbled out the front door of the comfortable brick house that was the only home my children knew, I found myself in a place so removed from my fantasy divorce it left me breathless. Everything I’d anticipated — the money problems, the loneliness, the pressures of single-parenting — turned out to be true, but even so I had no real idea what divorce would be like. Over the last seven years I’ve moved from a secure, two-income life where everything predicted success for my children to a place that is financially vulnerable, with the deck stacked against us. I didn’t know what the days would feel like, how many small but significant things I would have to give up to buy my freedom, or how little I would ultimately be able to keep safe. Even my departure, planned for months to cushion the impact on my little boys, tumbled out of my control, knocking down best intentions with every turn.
More than that, though, was that divorce threw me into a remarkable and unexpected emotional landscape, a place outside normal society. It is a shockingly unprotected place, windswept and empty. There is little to lean on for support.
A major transformation
It is the very privacy of marriage — that no one else can really know what is happening inside a marriage — that makes it either a place of freedom or a prison. When a marriage begins to break down, that old privacy becomes part of the cage. When the bonds of marriage are broken — and they are stronger than most imagine, even in the worst marriages one is utterly alone. There is no longer a shared experience or, more significantly, a shared drama. You find yourself on the stage that has been the final years, still speaking your lines but playing to an empty house. The play is not concluded, or wrapped up. Somebody just shuts off the lights. So you find yourself in a new place. Either the old house of the marriage, now bigger and emptier, or a new place that looks suspiciously like the places you lived in when you were young and just scraping by. And you begin to wonder if instead of moving forward you are falling back, instead of starting over with a clean slate you are starting over with all the responsibilities of middle life but no way to pay for them.
Divorce robs you of much. It takes away your mid-career wealth. It takes away your place in society. It takes away the easy reassurance of two-parent child rearing and all the benefit of the doubt we give to intact families. For many people it even takes away their children.
Yet loss creates space, and emptiness brings possibility. All people who divorce ultimately seek renewal, but it is hard to understand that the transformation will be to something entirely unexpected. What it takes to get out of an unhappy marriage is not what it takes to rebuild a life, and sometimes what it takes feels impossible. The challenge, I’ve come to discover, is believing anything is possible when it looks like nothing is there.
Death of a marriage
This story is about a divorce. It’s about a descent, an excruciating choice, and a recovery. It’s about rebuilding my life so that my children can live within a structure that gives them strength and support and the courage to thrive. But it is also about the dissolution of a marriage, and that is the hardest part.
Even today, seven years after Ron and I separated, seven years of working together to find the strands back toward each other so we could trust again, the death of my marriage is still the hardest part. And make no mistake — divorce is a death. It kills the dreams of your youth, those innocent beliefs that your marriage can weather sickness as it can weather health, that life will be kind and fair, that the joys will be shared and the vicissitudes bring you closer.
I can’t even imagine now what it would be like to live through my middle age still believing those things, still having them be true for me. I know that some marriages manage to hold on to those beliefs even as they are squeezed and burnished by experience, because I can see them burning like gold at the core; and I know I will never have that. I left my innocence behind that still September day when I walked out the door of my house. Left it behind with the wedding presents and the Christmas ornaments and the memories and all the familiar corners of my life.