Another one of my Dad’s old jokes. A divorce lawyer has an appointment in her office with a certain Magda and Henrik. They want her to file the paperwork for an agreed divorce. A routine matter for her, but imagine her surprise when the clients are absolutely ancient. Magda’s hands tremble as she pushes Henrik’s wheelchair in the door and makes her way to a chair. She is breathing heavily and pulls out her asthma inhaler and takes a few puffs. It takes her quite a while to dig the papers out of her capacious bag and put them in front of the lawyer.
“I have a few questions first, whenever you are ready. If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you two?”
Henrik replies in a quavering voice. “I am 101 and my old Magda here is 98. We married awful young and realized it was a mistake early on but -”
Magda catches her breath and interrupts. “Yes, we’ve been married for 78 years now. I was just turning 20 and Henrik was a ripe old 23 when we met and we married too quickly. We weren’t a good match, is all. So we want out.”
The lawyer is puzzled. “But why now? Why now after all these years?”
“Well, we didn’t want to hurt the children. So we waited until they were dead.”
Plenty of couples stay together for the children. It is a certain kind of stability to have a family home. What a blessing for children to never have to choose or be ordered to live with one parent, or to visit the other on a set schedule. To never have to live out of suitcases and be shunted between changing households. And psychologically, at any age, to have parents as a self-contained unit that can take care of itself. Above all, to never deal with parents dating. Yuk! I always found it a comfort to talk about “my folks” rather than “my Mom, and my Dad” as separate units. I am glad I never saw my parents with anybody else. I would have hated that.
Unless there is outright abuse, it seems better to just stick it out for the sake of the children. But for how long? How much unhappiness, how much loneliness, how much suffering and pain, should a parent take “for the team?” How much putting off of one’s individual hopes, dreams, and goals? How much subsuming of one’s self to support a marital unit that may be no more than a castle built on the sand? That is too large a question to answer at one sitting. There are endless sets of facts leading to endless reasoning pointing either to stay or to go. The shortest version may be that any two people in a relationship are going to have moments of anger, disappointment, even betrayal, and stay friends. But staying friends does not mean you have to live together.
I was talking some years back to a psychologist friend, and saying I would hate to put so much heart, so much effort and strain, so much work, really, into a long-term relationship only to have it fail. Her response was a good one, and I find it a comfort to keep in mind as I work through the end of so many relationships in and out of court: A relationship is not a failure simply because it ends. You can have a successful relationship that reaches a natural expiration date. Not all relationships will last in their current state until the day you die. Many people come in and out of your life and many friendships and even family relationships change character over time.
It took me a long while to accept this, because to me, marriage is a life-long commitment not just to remain friends, but to stay together and live together. I understand that in the US around half of couples disagree with me. They do not want to live in what to them is an unfair and unhappy relationship. I sympathize with them. I would love a world in which things were more fair and even, more predictable – a world in which we could know that we are going to get what we give. Then we could all invest as much as we want and be rewarded accordingly. Giving fidelity means we will not be betrayed. Telling the truth means we will not be lied to. Staying sober means we will not have to deal with addictions. Working hard in the house and yard and to rear the children would be matched effort for effort. Everything would add up to absolute fairness and equity. Yay!
There is no such rule. No such law. There never could be, no matter how much we yearn for it. Because in the end, the effort that any individual puts into a relationship is not really quantifiable. We can never know the internal struggles that another person has suffered through in order to do something we find simple, easy, and the only right thing to do. One person might be deeply gratified by staying faithful as a point of honor, where for the other person it is a daily struggle and not even a highly held value. One person may love the daily routines with small children, where the other might find it a grinding nuisance. One person might find it easy to overcome the emotions of the moment, and see beyond, where the other might the victim of horrible and dark feelings that he will do anything to avoid, including acting out in ways that will cost him the things he says he loves.
We cannot see into the human heart and know how easy or hard anything is, or what struggles any individual undergoes. Two people doing the exact same thing does not mean equal effort. And even on the surface, in most couples, the two people are not doing the same thing. One earns more money and works more hours. The other may quit school or a good career path in order to set up the family nest and rear the young. One may be a calm and peaceful presence, while the other is a dynamo of activity and planning. One might just sleep on the couch while the other does most of the work, but who is to say with absolute certainty who has the better deal, who has more joy and satisfaction, who is the “winner” and the lucky one? We cannot know. So how could a divorce judge possibly know?
In our no-fault state, the end of such a relationship does not include talking about who failed in the marriage. Who really raised the children, or whether a certain someone left dirty underwear on the bathroom floor, let alone more painful matters. Because the final orders are going to do two things alone. One, separate your finances in specific dollar amounts. Two, create a parenting plan indicating where your minor children will be at any given moment.
There isn’t much more to it, except the nuclear fallout of your feelings. Your guilt for making your children suffer and for being a horrible person whose word of honor turned out to be a nasty lie. Who has abandoned your post and is a traitor to everything you once swore to uphold, and all for selfish reasons of seeking your own happiness! Horrible, terrible you! And horrible, terrible spouse who drove you to it! And there is nowhere to vent those feelings, or get final, formal judgment assigning fault, in court.
Neither parent will be judged on their marital performance and no one gets to have a court order saying, “Yes, Mrs. Snivvers, you were the centerpoint of your family and your husband was an absolute louse. That is why we are sending him to a retraining camp where he will be forced to play the role of a housewife for six months, under direct supervision, with child actors and a bitter and morose, ungrateful husband with dubious hygiene and poor table manners. Once released, you can look him over and decide whether you want him back. Up to you, Mrs. Snivvers. Because you win. You have prevailed in this court case.” No, it never happens the way we wish.
In the thousands of cases I have interpreted for, while a few parents feel the natural relief of ending a painful situation, both parents very naturally also feel they have lost. Because they have. They always do. When two loving people share a wonderful home, they each feel that the home is all theirs. There is no sense they have half a home, or half a family. They each have a whole home, and a whole family, and a shared indivisible set of whatever they own. They don’t think of time with their children as something they have to fight for or earn or get a judge to allow them. They can both see the kids any time. They can both see the kids all the time. They can do everything together, whenever they wish to. They have everything. They don’t think about it.
One stay-at-home mother who had reluctantly agreed to shared custody to avoid going to trial came to see a family law facilitator about a month after the settlement. “I didn’t realize what I was signing. I didn’t understand! I just now realized that I have agreed on paper to miss half of my children’s upbringing. I am only going to see them for five of the next ten years. I will miss the other half, and not be there to help them or guide them. How can we possibly stay close when I am missing half their childhood? No!”
Tears started to roll down her face. “It’s like I’ve given them away, like a half-time adoption. He never took care of them alone, and he doesn’t even know how to. They need their mother! And I don’t want to miss them growing up. God, what have I done?”
She had done what half the US population who marries does – she had taken something that is more than the sum of its parts, a unit in which each parent has a full and unencumbered right to all the time they want with the children, and each parent owns the whole house and everything else. Even the friends of the couple are shared. Even the two families of origin are blended and shared. She had taken that beautiful whole unit, that shared, organic, living thing that nobody ever dissected. And then along with her husband, she killed it and cut it into pieces. And the pieces do not easily add up to a whole intact family. Because Aristotle’s mysterious mathematical equation holds true here: the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
Who can blame Henrik and Magda for waiting so long, and who would blame them if they choose to just struggle along until death do they part, as the wedding vows have it? I would not. Nor do I judge them for wanting to get a glimpse of what might come into the space between them, once they are free of a relationship whose expiration date has long passed.