Julie wouldn’t look me in the eye. She tore off bits of paper napkin and rolled them into little balls. Every few seconds she’d glance at her girlfriend pleading for help. She was trying to explain what happened to her marriage. And then she broke down. Tears welled up in her eyes and she put her head on my shoulder. Her girlfriend reached out and stroked her blonde hair.
Julie’s 41 with two teenagers and she’s alone and scared, not to mention devastated. A neighbor ended up with her husband. The road to love and happiness: what a brutal road.
Count her among the ranks of souls who trudge forty miles of bad road, a road that leads to the City of Love & Marriage. Make a misstep and the road detours across the tracks to a dingy place known as Divorceville. And then the road splits for good.
I wasn’t clueless to how Julie felt and I knew she wasn’t alone.
The divorce rate in America for the first marriage is 41 percent. The divorce rate for the second marriage is 60 percent. The divorce rate for the third marriage is 73 percent. (divorce rate.org)
Few people divorced when I was growing up. Now it’s epidemic. What happened? Plenty of experts point to plenty of reasons: the dwindling influence of religion, the fact that divorce is more socially acceptable, an increased awareness of what constitutes an abusive relationship, and some point their finger at unrealistic expectations going in.
Some believe people are losing the ability to flat-out care for one another in this self-centered world. Others believe people have a hard time realizing what true love is.
I have a hunch the arrival of sitcoms and movies that extolled a me-first attitude got the divorce bus rolling. Whatever the reasons statistics and facts can’t convey divorce’s affect on a person’s psyche. While it is a relief to escape a person who’s become a torment you walk away with battle scars.
If you have never experienced divorce I assure you nothing’s more difficult than untangling your life and mind after a relationship goes astray. And once you are divorced? Well let’s hope you no longer love your ex. People who do say it’s worse than losing a loved one to death. “At least you know,” said one miserable fellow, “that your wife is gone forever if she passes away and no one will ever share her as you did. Knowing your ex-wife is married to another man. That hurts bad.”
A long time ago I made the mistake of marrying a woman I had taught in college. She pressured me into it. Whatever magic we shared died. I don’t know think we really loved each other; we just loved the idea of love. She was 24 and I was 29 and if you added our ages together you got 13.
I moved out and dropped out of life. Starting over is not fun and when friends ask about you and your wife it’s embarrassing. In time a friend, Jerry, upbraided me for not being more social and he insisted I come to his birthday party at a place called Fanny Teague’s, one of the old beach clubs in vogue back then. His invitation was in fact a command. Nervous, unsure of myself, and afraid, I went. People were dancing near the birthday party, which sat at a long table. Jerry beckoned me over. They were having a big time, drinking and laughing and it was all couples. Everybody knew everybody it seemed except me.
Jerry ordered me a drink. I took one sip and looked out across the dance floor and there was my ex-wife to be in the arms of another man. I left.
Divorce was a speed bump in the road, and while it jolted me I found the highway much smoother once I accepted a basic fact: I am not meant to be married. Divorce for me was a salvation. It freed me to learn the way I was meant to live.
People who go through divorce say it can warp you or make you stronger. I suggest it also makes some of us smarter. As the years roll by you witness the divorces of friends and you shake your head, “Whew, they are about to walk forty miles of bad road.” And yet how often I see them rush into another marriage only to repeat the cycle again.
In my cabinets is a coffee mug with an inscription: Marriage Is The Main Cause Of Divorce. Hard to discount that declaration. You cannot get divorced if you don’t marry. Forget the big diamond ring. Run like Forrest Gump.
But marry people do for many reasons. Often that first love in high school leads to the altar. Such was the case with a fellow from Sumter, South Carolina, who married his high school sweetheart. He was just a dreamer and she was a dream. Well the dreaming died violently. It so happened this poor fellow was driving by his house one afternoon running a work errand when he saw his best friend’s car in the driveway. Of course he was curious. He parked out of view and slowly made his way to his home through woods edging his backyard. Spying through the sliding glass patio door off his bedroom he confirmed his worst fears.
He called his brother and told him to come at once with his gun. The brother came but had the good sense to leave the gun home. A fight ensued. Soon the couple divorced and best friends were no more. Stories like this are sad. It so happens they are common, common as pine trees lining a Georgia backroad to Waycross.
Excluding a handful of friends and married couples in my family I have known comparatively few solid marriages. I say comparatively few because the divorced outnumber the married. (See the stats above again.) As I wrote earlier many divorced people marry again but it often proves to be a remake of the horror movie they starred in earlier. I’ve known more than a few women who quickly remarried just to put a roof over their head. For them marriage is an economic survival strategy. The strategy frequently backfires.
What compulsion leads to this destructive behavior? I believe the die is cast for some of the heartbroken early on. They set out on the road when they are young and easily bruised. The heart has a fragile GPS system and early love gone wrong destroys their emotional navigation. They are cursed with a bad start.
Many of the divorced tribe try too hard to prove to the world they are marriage material. A compulsion to get it right next time consumes them. It proves to be a tough journey. There’s a fundamental obstacle to overcome. Some folks just aren’t marriage material. Eventually that message gets through … to some.
A few more observations … Some people are too lazy to live free and clear on their own and they become serial knot tiers. It comes down to stereotyped sex roles sometimes. To wit the male chauvinist who thinks he should not cook and hence cannot cook. He needs a servant. To wit the woman who comes up short when it’s time to pay the bills. She needs a breadwinner. And then there are people whose identity comes from attaching themselves to others for the wrong reasons. “Hey look at my woman,” gloats the old goat with a trophy wife on his arm. “No hey, look old goat, you’re living in symbiosis like the clown fish and the anemone.”
The anemone receives protection from polyp-eating fish, like the Butterfly Fish, which the Clown Fish chases away. The anemone then gets fertilizer from the Clown Fish’s waste matter. Both are happy as clams. As for the old goat he better keep a fat wallet close by.
Some nights I go to dinner alone. When I do I make it a point to watch married couples. More often than not they eat in relative silence. Few words they share. I suppose they are talked out by the years. And jaded by the years too. Many honest women will confide that their love life is over … unless of course they have a secret admirer and some do. One woman would get her lover to do her grocery shopping. After work she would tell the husband she had to stop by the grocery store. She’d head to her lover’s place, have some fun, and go home with the groceries a happier woman. Complacent husbands be forewarned: it’s way too easy for your wife to have a paramour. And of course husbands play their own games.
Now having written so much negative-but-realistic stuff about the great institution of marriage I do believe it is a good way to live. It’s just that for too many people it doesn’t pan out (See reasons above). A good old boy I know captures the essence of the issue in a thick southern drawl.
“Tom, when I first saw the gal who would be my wife, man she was prettier than a speckled pup, but not long after our second anniversary she made me crazier than a sprayed roach.”
Crazy is right and it only gets crazier when lawyers get into the mix with their fancy edicts and papers. For many the only thing to do is to run like Forrest Gump from the institution known as marriage. Run fast from divorce’s property-dividing, friend-splitting ways. Resist the urge to “get it right next time.” Listen to Lewis Grizzard’s advice: “I don’t think I’ll get married again. I’ll just find a woman I don’t like and give her a house.”
Lewis, however, did marry again. By the time he left the green earth of Georgia the boy had walked 90 miles of bad road. It’s too bad he didn’t live long enough to write a book about marriage. I’m sure we would have gotten some great laughs from his ability to turn tragedy into comedy.
As for me, I’d love to write that folks marrying today can look forward to 40 miles of beautiful road but the statistical trends say just the opposite. Maybe it’s time to redefine marriage. I’ve heard talk about “contractual” marriages that are up for renewal on a yearly basis. When the anniversary rolls around, couples renegotiate their terms and either sign up for another year or part ways. I’m sure attorneys think contractual marriages are the way to go: for a fee of course.
We live in an era where a lot of traditions and conventions are under attack. Is it time to abolish marriage? Even an old veteran of the marital wars like me thinks that’s a bad idea. I have a suggestion however. Make it more difficult to enter into marriage and make it a two-year process. That window of time will give a lot of couples a chance to discover they really aren’t in love. And if couples aren’t happy let the divorce be quick. Dissolve the marriage in two weeks but always look out for children’s interests first.
In Erich Segal’s corny novel and movie Love Story a line ascended to fame for a bit. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” John Lennon was more realistic: “Love means having to say you’re sorry every five minutes.” Love, I say, ought to mean never having to hire an attorney in a perfect world but we’re far from a marriage utopia.
As for Julie, I saw her the other day with a new fellow. She was laughing and seemed happy. I hope she is. I hope too that she doesn’t feel compelled to prove she’s marriage material and end up dragging herself down another forty miles of bad road. I like a laughing Julie a heck of a lot more than a crying Julie, and I bet her kids do too.