Relationships, Your Marriage

My Story: Making Sense out of Divorce

0 Comments 06 July 2011

What causes a marriage–celebrity or otherwise–to break up? Why do people feel compelled to place blame? Stacy Morrison, author of Falling Apart in One Piece: One Optimist’s Journey Through the Hell of Divorce, shares her story.

Now that I was almost divorced, I became a student of divorced people. I asked them all the questions that I was asked, but not because I thought they had answers for me. I asked because I was puzzled by the fact that we don’t have a shared story in our culture about how hard it is to break up, no matter the circumstances that may have led to it. I had been a women’s magazine editor for years, an “expert” about relationships and love and sex and marriage, yet I was totally unprepared for how quickly everything in my grasp, even my sense of who I am, turned to dust when my marriage ended.

But more than a student, I’ve become an emotional activist, because I am so saddened by how much people don’t know about their own marriage’s demise, by the sheer number of partners who walk away from three, five, ten, or twenty years together with a simple “I don’t love you anymore” or “I’ve changed” or, worst of all, “I am in love with someone else.” I see now that if we are part of a couple that’s disintegrating, we don’t know how to truly explore why the relationship is over, even though, as spectators, we cannot squelch our curiosity.

I understand the curiosity, I forgive the curiosity. I wish I were evolved enough as a human being that I didn’t crane my neck when I drive by a highway accident, in a mixture of prayer and dread, but crane I do — and what’s a divorce but an emotional highway wreck?

But we move too fast to bury other people’s marriages, because of all the discomfort their failure awakens in us. So many times I was asked whether Chris had cheated on me — a question that was asked with the assumption that I would say “Yes, he did.” It was unsettling to realize that this was the answer people wanted, because somehow it would have affirmed that the end of my marriage was about Chris’s failing, instead of being about the way the many moving parts that make up a marriage can shift just slightly out of place, bringing the whole thing to a grinding halt. We fall in love or into an affair with someone else long after those forces have been in play.

In our culture, we romanticize marriage and love, despite plenty of evidence in our own homes that marriage is a lot of work. We pick sides in celebrity couples’ breakups: Christie Brinkley and Peter Cook, Reese and Ryan, Marla and The Donald — admit it, you have opinions. At weddings where we deem the couple ill-matched, we slyly invoke the (misunderstood) statistic that half of American marriages end in divorce, and we shrug. When our neighbors’ marriage is breaking up, we think we are in a position to pass judgment. We are not insensitive; of course we comfort our friends should they be so unfortunate — all while plumbing the depths of what we believe we know about their relationships, essentially digging through their emotional trash cans, weighing pieces of arguments we’ve witnessed, comparing notes about their conflicts. We can’t help it; we want to believe there is a reason why.

Imagining affairs is fun: the raised pulse, the hushed phone calls, the scent of sex creating a tantalizing swirl in our heads. Sex belongs to everybody; solitude belongs to no one. We can dare to ask about the dirty details of an affair — “How did you find out?” “How long had it been going on?” “Did you ever catch them together?” — but it’s impossible to imagine asking our friends and neighbors about the ponderous slide that is the decline of a marriage: the intermittent silences, the bungled communications, the pressing of wills against each other. It’s way too personal. But that’s exactly the point. Breakups are personal. They are deeply, wholly personal.

An affair we can imagine; the much more brutal act of looking at someone you share a life with and saying you want to go is something we struggle to envision. It’s too hard, too scary. And so instead of trying to name the vague, complicated reasons a marriage starts to fray — those reasons that don’t seem on their own good enough or big enough to throw away three, five, ten, twenty years — we inflate annoying personality habits and small transgressions, we blow ourselves up and make ourselves Right or make ourselves Wronged, and make things as unbearably awful as we can stand to, so we can give ourselves permission to let go.

But I believe there has to be a better, more connected, more compassionate way to help the people around us honor the end of one of life’s most beautiful leaps of faith.

The bravest, and best, thing Chris did when he said goodbye is that he didn’t wait until we had nothing left. He didn’t have the affair that obliterated our relationship, sweeping all the complicated truths of our marriage under the rug. He didn’t walk out, saying simply that I’d changed, he’d changed and we were done. He did his best to be my partner in the breakup, to be present as we both tried to make sense of what was happening to us. He accepted that he was the one who had to carry the guilt for ending the marriage. People tend to give me too much credit for the kind of relationship Chris and I have today, because, of course I am the holy one: The One Who Was Left. But in the same way that he set the tone for how we would fight when we were married, he set the tone for how we would connect when we divorced, by not being hateful, by staying open to me. And I am deeply grateful to him for that gift.

Yes, I know, it sounds like I still love him. And believe me, I do. But I don’t want to be married to him anymore, either. I got a close enough look at our marriage, and at my hidden fears, and at how we really wanted to live our lives, and at how much we each erased something important, something vital, in the other that defined who we are, that I was able to truly let go, too. Apart, we have found a new connection. A far better one.

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