Divorce: What is it Good For?

By Daniel Isanov 08/04/14

There are a lot of answers out there, but for me, divorce isn't one of them.


Here's what I'm not saying: I'm not saying that marriage is a commitment that will work just as well with anyone you could pick. I'm no secret believer in arranged marriages. I'm also not saying that we should stay together for the sake or our children. I'm really not saying that. Why should this generation have any more advantages than we did? Besides, I'm not sure that bad marriages necessarily help children anymore than a good divorce hurts them. I'm also not saying that marriage is a covenant in the eyes of God which is only broken at great risk to your soul. Or let me put it this way: I hope I'm not saying that.

Here's my problem with divorce: I've rarely known it to actually work. And when I say "work," I mean it rarely ever seems to actually result in, well, divorce. It hardly ever seems to achieve what it's supposed to achieve. At best, it's a good way to borrow more problems for yourself: custody battles, child support, online dating.

The problem I have is with the pretense of divorce, not with the inevitable multiplicity of partners that divorce so often produces.

My experience is, of course, colored by my own parent's attempt to dissolve their marriage. My father, who died a few years later, never stopped asking me to broker a reconciliation. And now that he's been dead for 20 years, it still only takes a well-chosen sentence to get my mother into a flying rage about his behavior. And this is after another eighteen year relationship to another man whom she would tell you was the love of her life. That level of anger is something that I am deeply familiar with: it's how my current (and only) wife often feels about me.

This morning, I had coffee with a middle-aged man who had recently stopped wearing his wedding band. That bare finger might as well have been a nipple ring or a swastika tattoo for all the subtlety it had for me. This guy is an oddly tight-lipped but also loquacious southerner who caught my glance at his hand. We don't talk on that level of our lives, but, even if we did, what the hell else does he need to say? I left the coffee shop feeling an almost physical revulsion to that empty finger, and I told my wife when I got home, in what might qualify as one of my weirder sentences in a lifetime of weird sentences: "Even if we, God forbid, ever get a divorce, I'm never going to stop wearing my wedding ring." My wife, who often doesn't understand what I'm actually saying to her, replied: "So long as we're never going to get divorced, I think we need to start having a good time with each other, don't you think?"

At least in this country, divorce has become a sort of complicated polygamy. My journey toward understanding this began when my friend Jack, who has married twice, with children in each union, said: "I'm going to tell you the truth that no one else will tell you. The real problem with divorce is none of that crap that you hear. The real problem with divorce is that there's no such thing as divorce, especially when you have children. You don't lose one wife, you just open the possibility of getting another. And then you have two wives, one of whom hates you and won't sleep with you anymore."

Hearing Jack say this was one of those moments in my life –  like being told that there was no Santa Claus or getting my ass kicked by a younger man – that confirmed what I already suspected, but desperately didn't want to know. The truth will set you free, but first it will really really piss you off.

The possibility of getting off one train and onto another – or maybe even hanging out at the station for a few years between trains – has always been the Holy Grail for me. Although I was unequivocal in my desire to marry my wife and have never once seriously considered the possibility of marrying anyone else, it's rare that a day goes by when I don't imagine the possibility of sleeping with someone else. When times are hard for us, I think about it much more than once a day.

These daydreams are certainly selfish, but, more to the point, they are childish, too. I slept with more than enough women before I got married to know the truth of what my sister felt she had to spell out for me: "When a woman tells you that she wants to have sex with you, no strings attached, she's lying, Isaac. I figured you were old enough to know that by now." A man who can convince himself that a sexual adventure will cost him nothing is a boy. Or gay. But I'm starting to believe that even the gay men who believe this are boys, too. Those of us who envy our sportfucking gay friends have less to envy than we think.

I said that I hope marriage is not a sacred covenant in the eyes of God, but in my heart I suspect that it probably is. Frankly, I have no other way to explain this vast phenomenon that rules and confuses my life. Could it be that my marriage vows actually meant something? It sure felt like they did. I wasn't even tempted to marry until I was thirty-seven years old. And when Jesus said that a man who divorces his wife makes her into an adulterer, I think I know what he meant. I'm not a Christian by any culturally meaningful standard, but it seems to me that the bigger the caterer's bill that attends a public commitment, the more meaningful that commitment must be. Which is why, among other reasons, certain US Presidents are going to hell for promising to "protect and defend" the Constitution. 

It's also why men who refuse to commit themselves to one woman (or one man, or one legal system) end up looking so different from men who do. That haunted incomplete soft look of old bachelors is, I'm telling you, the inevitable result of a refusal to activate a profound and important piece of your soul. Like a car that never gets driven or a trail that never gets trod, the faces of those men start to reflect a loss of purpose. There's a softness there like the softness of the skin underneath that vanished wedding ring. I don't want it to be this way – I DON'T WANT IT TO BE THIS WAY – but what was the human male designed for if not to be harassed and vexed and hardened by the women and children whom he loves? Against his instincts. Against his will, even. Certainly in contradiction to the information he's been getting from his penis every day of his penis-haunted life.

But don't get me wrong: I'm not against polygamy. Far from it. If I could figure out how to get that engine started, trust me, I'd be the first to drive out of the show room. The problem I have is with the pretense of divorce, not with the inevitable multiplicity of partners that divorce so often produces (Let's not even talk about the stress it puts on the gene pool – do we really want the richest men to be fathering the most children?). Just don't tell me that you've ended a relationship when you clearly haven't. And don't offer this to me as a solution to my problems when it clearly isn't. A solution is supposed to make my life easier – not infinitely more difficult – and it increasingly seems like anyone who offers divorce as a solution to matrimonial problems is a lot like someone who suggests that the best way to deal with lower back pain and aggravated tendonitis is to volunteer as a Sherpa on the next international ascent of K2. Yeah, I'll get right back to you on that. Wait here while I go cure my headache with a hammer. And don't get me wrong about that, either: I'm all for crossing the Andes in a wheelchair with unmedicated Parkinson's Disease – I think that stuff is cool – but don't pretend to me that extreme challenges make anyone's life easier. The only thing that I can imagine that's infinitely more difficult than having one beautiful and unreasonable woman squeezing my balls is to have two such creatures fighting over who gets to squeeze my balls. 

(Let's not even talk about how most of the second wives I know look an awful lot like the first wives that I knew. It's like we train them to be the bitches that we left for them. That's exactly what we do, isn't it? We train them to be the bitches that we left for them. Ah, shit. The more I think about this, the more screwed I feel.)

Yes, absolutely, there are such things as psychotics and wife husband-beaters and alcoholics and pederasts and even those who, like myself, become unbelievably boring in their middle age. But is that really what we're talking about here? Is that really why most people you know get a divorce? Is that really why most people are encouraged to divorce?

Don't piss on my head and call it rain. Don't tell me that there's another Arab country ready to hurl nuclear weapons at Indianapolis. And don't even think about telling me that there's a better way to get through life than living with a woman who seems to love me and hate me in equal parts, who demands brilliance and success from me without giving me a clue how she wants me to achieve them, who loves me like an axe loves a tree that's being murdered to build a home.

Or, to adapt Winston Churchill's utterly brilliant sentence on our current (we hope) system of government: Marriage is the worst possible kind of sexual relationship between two adults. Except for all the others.

Daniel Isanov is a pseudonym for a novelist. He's previously written about Chuck C., shame, and time.

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