“Use your words.”
In the last year, several of the women I know – some as acquaintances and others as close friends – have either separated from their husbands or begun divorce proceedings. One night as I snuggled up to Bubba on the couch after he beat me (again) at Scrabble, I said, “Seems like everyone we know is getting divorced.” I was trying to sound casual, but really, I was shocked. Bubba and I have been married for 17 years. Most of our friends have been married as long and have kids, stable jobs, and own houses. Every time I heard of someone in our social circle having relationship challenges, my mind would begin firing from all corners, desperately trying to make connections that would convince me Bubba and I are immune to similar issues. It was very much the same process I went through as a teenager when a parent or teacher would tell the story of someone my age who got pregnant/overdosed on illegal drugs/wrecked their car. “Not me, and here’s why,” my brain would assure me with as many bullet points as it took to bring my heart rate and hyperventilation under control.
As a child of divorced parents, I always wanted to make it about the Worst Case Scenario. Well, they got divorced because there was abuse or someone cheated. I’ll never marry someone who could do that to me, right? Of course, that forced me to confront all sorts of things about my parents that I didn’t particularly want to think about, such as: how could they not know what the other person was like when they got married, or how could one of them treat the other one so poorly, etc.
A few months ago I was having lunch with a friend who was getting divorced after 17 years of marriage. The couple has three children and she and her husband are bending over backwards to make sure that the kids remain front and center in their lives. Theirs will be an amicable divorce. But that doesn’t spare either of them from the stigma and judgment offered from friends, family, and society-at-large. Those who think they are intimate enough ask for details – why? I suspect that it is less out of some sense of voyeurism than a desire to then perform the mental machinations that result in, “Whew! That’s why this couldn’t be me.” Those who don’t outright ask for details either assume answers or sneak about to discover them. This friend of mine said that one of her closest girlfriends, upon learning that the couple was divorcing, said to her, “Congratulations on 17 years of marriage. You guys had a good run and produced some damn fine kids.”
Whoa. Cool. She’s absolutely right.
It’s none of my damn business why anyone else’s relationship ends. Unless one party is a victim of the other one and is asking for my help, I don’t even want to know. Honestly, when I look back at my own life and realize what a completely different person I am now as compared to when I got married, it’s a wonder I haven’t had to change my name to reflect the metamorphosis I’ve gone through. And it’s the same for everyone.
How many of us knew beyond the shadow of a doubt what we wanted to be “when we grew up” at the age of 10? I did. A pediatrician. Or a teacher. Am I either of those things? Not remotely. Who knew what they wanted to be when they declared a college major? I did. A family practitioner in some small, rural podunk town on the West Coast. Am I there yet? No, thank goodness.
There are some fundamental things that have remained steady in my life since I was young; my love for animals and nature, my sense of justice, my idealism, and my constant search for knowledge. But my taste in food, clothing (thank God – I had the 80s rocker-chick hair and parachute pants), books, and nearly everything else has evolved. When I married Bubba, I was certain of a few, core things – I was going to medical school, I was never going to have children, and we would be married until the day we died. Didn’t make it to medical school after spending a few years working as a surgical assistant. That was a game-changer during the first days of healthcare reform a la HMOs. Lasted six years of marriage before waking up one day and feeling a yearning to be a mother so strongly that I couldn’t think of anything else. As for my marriage, it is strong and healthy and I still hope that we will stay together forever, but I’m not making any bets.
People change. There is no such thing as “grown up.” The reasons we fall in love with someone and get married are often perfectly “right” at the time. And over time we learn and evolve and grow. And our partners do, too. But we don’t always do this in syncronicity.
The divorce rates in the United States went up sharply from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s. They have since leveled off some, and even dropped a bit after 2000. I don’t claim to know the reasons for this, but I do know that as long as marriage is around, divorce will be around, too. According to a website called Divorce Guide, these are the top 10 reasons people get divorced:
2. Lack of communication
3. Abuse (emotional/physical/sexual)
4. Money issues
5. Sexual incompatibility
6. Religious/cultural differences
8. Parenting issues
9. Addiction issues
10. Priority differences
I’m pretty sure that the entire list could be boiled down to two things – communication issues and priority differences. And the fact is, those are the things that change most within individuals over time. When we are in our 20s, most of us are beginning to figure out how to communicate effectively with others. Introduce children to the mix and you start all over again. As for priorities, mine shift slightly with every new life experience I have. When I think about it this way, I begin to understand fully why my friend’s girlfriend said what she did. It is hard work to maintain relationships with people. And choosing to end a relationship is always hard, regardless of whether it is a co-worker, close friend or partner. But sometimes it is necessary. So instead of feeling sad for my friends who are getting divorced, I choose to compliment them on their success in navigating the tricky waters of marriage for as long as they were able, and support them in their efforts to find happiness in their lives as they move forward.
Lola is making a scarf for one of her teachers. She found some thick, alpaca yarn in our craft box one day and remembered that, once upon a time during a quiet moment in class, this teacher taught her how to finger crochet. She decided it would be cool if she put those skills to use and, after polling everyone in the house to see who could help her, she settled on me, whose yarn-craft skills are limited to, well, scarves.
She set about crocheting a long chain of warm, fuzzy wool and when she figured it was long enough, she came to me and asked how to turn the corner and double back. Tough to do when finger-crocheting. Even tougher when this seemed like good idea because it wouldn’t take long and now you’re realizing that the days are getting longer and sunnier and what you really want to do is go outside and shoot baskets instead of picking at yarn until your fingers cramp. She stuck to it for several days, though, and I was pretty excited.
This morning, she discovered a knot in her yarn. The scarf is nearly done and Lola was looking forward to being free of this task that has taken on a life of its own, so her frustration tolerance was pretty low to begin with. Monday mornings are not her strong suit, either, given that they require lots of transitions – weekend to weekday, getting dressed and eating on a schedule, deciding what to pack for lunch, ensuring that all the homework you did way back on Friday is actually complete and in your backpack, etc. So this knot was a problem. She pulled and tugged, gently at first so as not to rip out all of the stitches she has done up to this point, and then with more gusto as she realized this knot was stubborn.
In the beginning it wasn’t much of a knot and I tried to step in and caution her not to pull it tighter, but she brushed me off, determined to do it herself. I watched with mounting frustration, my bottom lip thrusting up and the corners of my mouth pulling down in that universal look of, “Oh, no!” as the knot itself became smaller and smaller and tighter and tighter. By the time she had reached the end of her patience it was in there good.
The last time I got really mad at Bubba I did the same thing. Instead of treading lightly and reaching in gently to unravel the issue, I pulled. Without yelling or screaming, I moved away from the knot because it made me uncomfortable. At the same time, I mortared my resolve to be mad by justifying my anger in my head, ticking off all of the reasons I was “right” to be upset. Tugging, tugging away at that knot. Even though I know that moving toward the issue and looking at it from all sides was the only way to undo it, I pulled away. Instead of trying to get those two opposing ends to come together and work around, under and through the problem, I cemented that knot in there.
Try it. Get a piece of string or ribbon about ten inches long and tie a loose knot in it. There is no way you’re getting that knot out by pulling the ends in opposite directions. But if you gently reach your fingers in there, between the strands, and loosen them, all the while pulling the disparate ends closer to each other, you’ll soon have your string back. Now, I know there are all types of different knots, some much more complicated than others, but I tend to think that the vast majority of trouble we get ourselves into with each other is of the garden-variety, regular old knot type. No matter how complex it seems, the best way I know to get that knot out is to move toward it with the intention of using our wits to unravel it. I’ve never met a simple knot I can undo with brute strength.
There is that moment when our brain strikes a flash, “I’ve seen that person before.” “I know that woman.” “What is his name?” We pass by them at the bank or see them in the frozen food aisle of Trader Joe’s or catch sight of them at our daughter’s basketball game. Who is that? It takes a few moments, or sometimes we can’t reel in the reference at all because it’s out of context.
Ahhh, the holidays. That magical time of year when all of the family dynamics, good and awkward, are laid bare and magnified. For years, it began before Thanksgiving when Bubba and I would square off to pitch our respective holiday preferences to each other. My family or his? Or neither – should we just stay home?