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Not for the faint of heart

April 19, 2010

It’s funny, because from everything one reads or hears, divorce ceased to be scandalous and began to be routine about fifty years ago. Fifty years. That’s two whole generations, or one and a half, at least. And yet one still feels a bit pariah-like, from time to time. I happen to run with a very married crowd, which I didn’t ever really notice much, until suddenly I wasn’t. It’s spring again, and the children are rostered on many different sports teams. As I stand on the sidelines, I’m torn between the desire to cringe and the desire to hold my sinful head high, dammit. What is with these people?

A friend of mine is flying into town from across the country tonight. She and her ex-husband divorced hideously–or, rather, failed to divorce. They’re still in the hellish limbo of legal separation (and there, but for the zeal of my ex, who has never been so eager to do anything in his entire life as he was to sign the divorce papers once he finally decided that was where we were headed, go I). I’m due to pick her up at the airport in an hour. “You were the only married friend I had who acted normal to me when Peter and I split up,” she said, casually, a few years ago, and I almost dropped the phone in shock. Really? “Oh, yes,” she said. “In fact, that whole alternative parenting group I used to hang around with shunned me, and the woman I was closest to actually invited me over to tell me that she didn’t feel she could be friends with me any more. Because the separation made her really uncomfortable.”

The alternative parenting group shunned someone going through a painful divorce? The people who used cloth diapers and petitioned the playground for asbestos-free sand and gave their little girls fire engines and their little boys Dolls of All Races? Seriously?

“Oh, yeah,” she said, without rancor. “They dropped my e-mail address from their listserve and stopped inviting us to stuff.” (Her daughter was four at the time.) “In the end, the only thing I regretted was how stupid I felt, because it took me a while to figure it out. I just assumed it was an oversight and kept cheerfully showing up.”

I suppose I’ll never know whether things would have been different if my husband had left me, instead of the other way around. (I suppose I’ll also never know how many details about the separation–who did what to whom–seeped out. My guess is that most people know the outline of what happened, given our tiny fishbowl town.) My ex-husband is determinedly–some might say bizarrely–independent and disinclined to socialize, so there was never a his-friends/her-friends custody fight when he moved out. What happened instead was that our friends split into two camps–those who continued to like and socialize, cautiously, with each of us, and those who dropped us both. You want to know what it felt like to be a leper in fourteenth-century Europe? Get a divorce, and then go stand on the sidelines of your son’s soccer game with the very conservative, mostly Catholic parents of his teammates, and attempt to make chit-chat.

Right after we separated (it was, conveniently, dead winter) I holed up in the house for as long as I could. I’d creep out to buy groceries, wildly self conscious (if I looked terrible, what would people think? If, however, I brushed my hair and put on lipstick and looked happy, what would people think?) The only thing worse than coming around the corner of the bread aisle and smacking right into someone I’d been avoiding was coming around the corner of the bread aisle and smacking right into someone who’d been avoiding me. I wanted to think that I was just being stupid, and that no one really cared. But people did care. A woman I know actually crossed the street to escape from me, after giving a tight little wave (I’d waved hugely, smiled, called her name–I thought we were casual friends, and I hadn’t seen her in months.) I stood there like a moron, cheeks burning, while she walked briskly on.

Most people were great, and some people were truly spectacular. If you want to know which of your friends have bulletproof marriages, get a divorce. They’ll be the couples that still invite you over, that act as if nothing untoward ever happened, that don’t assume your failed marriage has anything to do with them.

My friend who’s flying in to visit reports that she gets about one random phone call a year from someone in her erstwhile alternative parenting group, by the way. “Oh, hi, remember me?” the person says. “This is really awkward. Um, my husband and I are splitting up, and I was just wondering if I could talk to you about it?”

She says it’ll happen to me, too. I wonder if I’ll respond generously, or bitterly, or simply not at all.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2010 10:03 am

    Have fun with your friend! As much as I’d like to say, “Forget about all this stuff and have fun,” it’s probably a great topic for sharing. And honestly, isn’t that what friendship is about? I say make it fun! Petend you’re Tina Fey writing a few one-liners, memorize them and pull them out when you hit one of those awkward silences. “This just in: small town couple’s divorce causes global warming! In a related story, small town husbands are reporting a rise in ‘bedroom heat’ as wives scramble to keep them away from newly-divorced women.” Ok, so I’m no Tina Fey – but girl – you gotta be able to smile at yourself and screw anyone who tries to take that away from you!

  2. Ms V. permalink
    April 19, 2010 11:52 am

    again. you hit the nail on the head.

    i am divorced in a small dutch town. i remember my ex husband leaving, and someone from church calling to see if i could help the kids on palm sunday. i said…you know we just separated, right?

    her reply: which service would you like, 8:30 or 11?

    i just recently went to a party with TONS of old couple friends. this is ABSOLUTELY spot on. i was a pariah, except for my dear friend and her husband who had the party.

    and, you know what? their marriage is WONDERFUL. simply joyous.

    love this post. tweeting part of it.

  3. LMM permalink
    April 19, 2010 4:08 pm

    Wow, really? I wonder if this is a factor of where you live or maybe, because I divorced so young, no one batted an eye?
    His friends went with him and mine came with me. We did lose one couple friend, but that’s it. No one else ever treated me any differently. But we were in our 20s and didn’t have kids either. I just had a completely different experience…and didn’t know to be thankful for it until now.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      April 20, 2010 9:10 pm

      Well, we were together for our entire adult lives–since college–which makes the his/my friend category blur quite a bit. But yeah, the place I live is weird. I think if you end up hanging around with people who have children your kids’ ages, and you had your kids quite a bit younger than most people, you will be at a different stage in your marriage than many of your friends. But I also live in a bohemian-poor zone, apparently.

      The kid thing makes people judge you harshly, because no one will ever admit that divorce can be okay for the kids.

  4. LMM permalink
    April 21, 2010 8:53 am

    Again, this has just been so eye-opening…I didn’t know to be thankful that I had it so easy.
    As for kids…my parents divorced and it was the very best thing “for the kids”. My mom remarried a wonderful husband and the best father ever. We grew up in a stable, happy home. We’re better for it.
    As for me…I’m now remarried and have a 2-year-old daughter with the man that I know I am supposed to be spending my life with. We’re really and truly happy. One of those nauseating couples. Now, we’re a much better fit than my ex and I were. But I think we also appreciate how much easier this relationship is and we know to be thankful for what we have. I wish that for you and your beloved. Yes, your life will always be more complicated because you have kids with your ex and I didn’t….but still.

  5. MEP permalink
    April 21, 2010 11:51 am

    It goes the other way, too. While I was married I kept in touch sporadically with a high school friend who was a single mom and had been divorced twice. After my divorce, she welcomed me with open arms and admitted she had always been stand-offish while I was married because I was one of “them” — the coupled, the married, the intact, the perfect. She seemed to buy into the idea that the divorced are lesser, or cursed, just like some married people do, especially, it seems, those with strong religious beliefs.

    I agree with LMM — I appreciate my current relationship far more now that I understand how functional and right it is, compared to my marriage. The divorce wasn’t a curse, or a disaster, or a tragic human failure. It was a solution to an otherwise unresolvable problem. He and I and marriage were just the worst idea EVER.

  6. Heather permalink
    April 21, 2010 11:59 am

    Spot on. I went through so much back-and-forth about leaving my husband, considering the effects on me and him (no kids). What I failed to contemplate, really at all, was the effect on my relationships with friends and family. Thank God I had a few friends and one sister who were “on my side”. My parents!, and many of my family and originally “my” friends held HIM up during the beginning of our separation. No one could understand why I was leaving because I’d been faking all-is-well for so long. Now some of the “old” friends and family have come back to me since he’s re-married and moved on, and I’m re-married and re-socially acceptable.

    I try to buy some karma by being as supportive as I can when I hear somebody’s getting divorced, EVEN IF they are the ones leaving. It’s painful no matter what.

  7. April 23, 2010 9:43 am

    Yup. When my ex and I separated, our youngest son was 7 months. So in addition to people feeling awkward because now I was a threat (or a mirror depending on which shoes you happen to be standing in), I get comments like “But you just had a BABY!” or worse, “Why did you have the baby then?” I feel horribly judged, not as much because I left my marriage, but because I left it so soon after our youngest was born. Honestly, parenting is so much easier without my ex in the equation on a day-to-day basis. The people who knew us best when we were married don’t comment at all – I guess they already know that.

  8. julie permalink
    May 24, 2010 3:57 pm

    The divorce was harder on friends and family, than it was on me. After I threw him out, *my mother* let him move in with her. My mother! We were in a band together, and it was so awful… we still had a summer’s worth of shows booked, and we had to brave practices, performances, events together. We’d be rehearsing in my basement, take a break, and everyone would just have to go sit in their respective cars. Once I was out making a call, and the rest of the bandmates were sitting around, jamming about “break ups” and “lousy women,” behind my back. I came back in and threw them all out. There was a show that was billed on what would’ve been our wedding anniversary. Everyone knew it. My husband was on stage, in tears. I felt like such a chump. I was the chump. The chump that put up with his bad behavior for five years. Our friends were our fans, and our fans were our friends. The band self-destructed after the marriage self-destructed, and all the friends and fans went with him, because he was more of the party animal than I was. It was such a let down, to lose so much at once.

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