After the perfect marriage there’s always the perfect divorce
The woman whose story follows is a 26-year-old Canadian now working for an international relief organization. At the time I interviewed her, she was being divorced. Because of the very personal nature of her conversations with me and her wish not to embarrass her family, she remains anonymous.
She lives with a girl friend now. Sharing rooms with someone whose fate is of no great interest. Having a bed all to herself. She has a demanding job. Friends, men and women, come over for tea and suppers and wine. A lot of conversation. She reads, goes to movies and thinks things over. She doesn’t want to live alone but, for the first time, she is not afraid to. Liberation. Gone the old romance of finding life’s ultimatum in the coupling of men and women. The new ambition: life with, for, by herself. Self-sufficiency.
And yet. Living alone is too easy, too safe. The loneliness is a trade-off for living unquestioned. A withdrawal from the collisions with people — a lover, a husband, a friend — in which we discover the edges of our desires and requirements. Loneliness also means waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, heart pounding, thinking wildly, oh my God, how could I have done that? And that, and that? The purge. It started with the terror at losing companionship, the intimacy and support, at losing him, the friend, the beloved, and “winning” self-direction. Then the nausea. Sickened at the failure to do well in marriage. They had so much — the commitment, identical dreams, the warmth and respect, intelligence and forbearance — and they failed. What if? What if, with a little
more energy and courage, they could have held on to it? What if they had taken the hardest, instead of the easiest, way out? But it soured and they walked away from it, in separate directions. She hardly sees him anymore but, when she does, his leave-taking can still, unexpectedly, deeply sadden her, even though it’s too late even to want to get back together. It’s really finished.
And now he wants a divorce. Fine, he can have it. She has no feeling for it. She doesn’t even have to be in court for the process. The separation had been much harder than this legal formality is going to be. It was the separation — from home, from the centre of her life — that was debilitating. It was the “separation agreement,” the documents that he laid on her hospital bed last summer when she was ill, that shocked and hurt her, not these incantations in a courtroom, defining what she’s known for years anyway. When she got out of the hospital and asked him what was going on, he had nothing very clear to say. Something about “cleansing” their lives, sorting out formalities, clearing the way for a divorce so they could become “good friends.” But for her it was strange and unreal. She gives her consent but it doesn’t mean she understands why it has to happen in precisely this way. It doesn’t mean that they have, finally, after six years of knowing each other, faced the hidden facts of their life together. This facing, dead-on, all of the questions — what did we do to each other? — they slid past is what is important to her now. Not to “patch things up”; no, there’s no way she would go back to him. But to grasp, to apprehend the sense of their union so that
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she can be done with the wondering and the questioning and move on to the future. A sense of the patterns. A love affair, a unanimity, intensely felt, then the disintegration and the loss, also intensely felt, and then nothing but this impatience with the vagueness with which they have parted. In this story, nothing has been resolved except the ending.
She met her husband in 1967 in a university English class. She had long hair, wore glasses and lots of jewelry; he wore his high-school football jacket and had a very arrogant look on his broad, full face. She thought he was a pretentious s.o.b.; he thought she was just “strange.” It would never have occurred to either of them to get to know the other if it hadn’t been for the matchmaking efforts of the English professor. The matchmaker won a round — they spent their first “date” at the museum, talking a lot. They liked what they heard. There were more meetings, Godard films, visits to friends, intense conversations far into the night. She thought he had a very interesting mind. The contents of his head intrigued her. Her respect and admiration flourished. But what did not arouse her was his sexuality. It was the beginning of years of trouble.
There were the men she slept with. And the men who were her friends. They were never the same people. With the former, basic and immediate longings were satisfied; with the latter, more subtle and sophisticated needs were met. Because the friend who was also a lover had never materialized, her emotional world spun on at its irreconcilable poles of mind and body.
She has a reason for the categories. At 18, she had been badly disfigured in a car accident. All that remains now of that trauma is a shadow of a line across her right cheek down to the corner of her mouth. But eight years ago she spent months with a swollen, swathed and unsymmetrical face which, even when healed, she was convinced was repelling. At 19, she had a baby. After six days of labor, medical complications after birth and more weeks of hospitalization, she was sure there was something about her that would never “work” again. The certainty that parts of her body and fragments of her feelings just weren’t functioning meant, she thinks now, that she saw neither herself nor the men she knew as “whole.” There was the mind. And there was the body. There was this new love, with his keen intelligence. And there were all the others, with their gift of flesh. She could not have them all
together in one human being.
But the choice was not difficult. The more she was with him, the significantly better was the time she spent. This, with him, was much more like herself, like home, than any of the lovers. Here was a man with whom an intellectual sympathy meant harmony and relaxation; it was not upsetting that she was his first lover. Against his anxiety and insecurity, she offered her affection and “mother love”; against the mediocrity of the act, she summoned up patience and reassurance. In any case, they never discussed it. And that, too, was the beginning of trouble.
The attachment became even stronger through loyalty. She would go out in the evening; he would be at her place, saying he would wait for her. “You creep,” she thought. “Tell me to drop dead but don’t tell me you’ll wait.” And he would wait. One night she came home, drunk, with a man. For an hour and a half, while she got rid of the visitor, he sat wordlessly in her bedroom. The fact that he did this — that he did not threaten or abuse her, back her against the wall for reasons of jealousy and possessiveness — tied her to him in a decisive way. Respect for his generosity and toleration. There were not many men like this.
Later, she was to see it as passivity, as a total refusal to challenge her, even when he desperately wanted to. The refusal to act on sexual instincts through a profound mistrust of them. Sex as an animal regression, as a waste of time, as something that one’s body does while the mind is employed elsewhere. The male/female grind. His fears, her disinterest. Neither touching in the other what needed so badly to be touched.
And so they married. School was almost finished. They talked about the future. The fantasies corresponded. There would be PhDs, life in a foreign country, a house overlooking the sea. There would be books and music, sweet reason, discipline and flexibility. Just living together was out of the question, they decided. It would hurt the parents too much. And, anyway, a “piece of paper” could not make that much difference. In any case, she knew she would get married eventually, so why not now? This was a fair and decent man who would not treat her as most men would; he was gentle, friendly, bright and ambitious. With him she felt peaceful and loving. He was worthy in every way. Besides, if they postponed the marriage, was there not a chance that all of this would dribble away? He, too, wondered aloud if he would ever again find such a soul mate. So what if couples all around them were falling apart? They would be different. They would never fight or lay down rules or try to control each other. They would never be so stupid. And, lastly, that fear of being an old maid. Of
growing old in a boarding house, with straw hats and rouged cheeks, old love letters and withered flesh. At the same time that she resented having this worry on her mind, she also thought, yes, let’s get married and then it will be out of the way. The relief at having one’s mate, at dropping out of the frantic hunt — and getting on with one’s life.
In the beginning it was good. Not perfect, but comfortable and pleasing. Although they formally gave each other the freedom to do whatever he or she wanted, to be with whoever was desired, in fact they were mostly together for this was what they wanted more than any “freedom.” To their friends, they presented an impregnable unity, a consonance of opinions and values, the “perfect couple” who never fought, whose interests and viewpoints corresponded to the point where they would quote the same passages from books and the same lines from movies. It was almost incestuous. And it meant that with such self-sufficiency they did not have to turn to other people and new growth. They thought the other was enough.
In the meantime, they had trust and fair play. They never questioned each other’s motives or movements and they swore that an extramarital love affair (temporary, of course) would never be allowed to break up their marriage. Nor were other roles rigidly enforced. If she did the laundry and most of the cooking and initiated the housecleaning, it was not because he expected her to; he would have done them in her place but her own psychological “stance” vis-à-vis that Happily Married Couple in her mind put her there first. Children? In good time. There were two careers to fulfill first. Money? They both contributed. And she never worried that he would not provide; he would always come through with what he had to do. Sex? Ah, that was different. Always had been.
The honeymoon had been uncharacteristically “fantastic”; life after it returned to the normality of indifference and distaste. The repulsion she experienced in lovemaking with him terrified her; she had never had this kind of reaction before, but then all those other lovers had not offered anything but their sexuality, and her feelings for her husband were complex, intricate and multifaceted. With the disgust, guilt and fear were mingled the commitment and intellectual integrity, the freedom and satisfaction of an egalitarian and self-conscious relationship.
She had heard from other women who had experienced similar sexual sorrows. They spoke of physical pain, tension, a longing to escape, to be free of their situation. Even women who had married with great sexual compatibility reached this point quickly enough and
tried to explain it as a reaction to a certain kind of oppression. Oh, not a specific oppression at the hands of the husband but something more diffuse, something like enforced roles, unreal expectations, games and rituals of submission in and out of bed.
But whichever way she justified her coldness, it was another thing to tell this man he was not pleasing her. And so it was never told. Nor were the dread, the fantasies of violence, the “this is how I feel, how do you feel?” Just the silent grind and the wordless bewilderment, a slow death of the appetite.
Now, she says that this was her responsibility and her guilt. This consent to marry someone with whom she felt no lust. To live with a man who, she recognized early, did not animate her sexual energy nor touch her at all the points of her craving, sexual and otherwise. But this failure was only a function, as it so
LIKE GEARS SLIPPING, NOT ENGAGING, THEY SLID PAST ONE MORE GRIEF
often is, of another, larger, more expanded failure. Where it becomes difficult to define whose the blame, whose the martyrdom.
Their celebrated closeness and sympathy depended, in fact, on not talking. Oh, there were hours of theorizing and speculation, analytical argument and clever debate on every imaginable topic — except how they were feeling. There were vague references to “problems” and “hassles” but what their substance was, their specific shape and weight, how it truly felt to experience that pain and this disappointment and where they came from — for that they found no language. They circled around each other, wary of the force of the other’s suppressed anger and hostility, determined to keep the lid on all the grievances that would have given the lie to their fantasy. This was, after all, a civilized relationship. These were intelligent, reasonable people who wanted to avoid “unpleasantness” and “scenes.” There were more rational ways of dealing with hurt. And besides, what if, in her naked emotion, her shouts and accusations, her reproaches and recriminations, what if she were wrong? The injustice would be worse than the silence and so she said nothing.
One night they decided they would go to Europe. To get away from it all, they said, to escape from mundane responsibilities and the scene of their growing disaffection. Perhaps this marriage would have a better chance in foreign places. So they bought a van in Germany and traveled around for a year. Nothing happened. Instead of the old obligations, there were the new ones of
tourism. Strange languages, the search for cheap restaurants and camping grounds, the compulsion to see all the monuments and museums “because they were there” and, underlying so much of it, his obsession with spending time well. Never waste it. Can’t relax. Too much to do, too much to learn. Idle days and casual evenings an irresponsible lapse from important work. You don’t read a book, you study it. They bought quantities of books on literature and philosophy, stayed up until three in the morning reading in the back of the van and paid a fortune in electricity. They laughed about it and bought another book. Come bedtime, she was so tense she could have screamed.
They went back to school. There were men who attracted her. At first, she turned away from them; the denial of the longing was easier to bear than the threat of the bond with her husband snapping into pieces. He too was opening to things he did not want to open to and so he too turned away with his loyalty. But one night she came home, drunk, with an old boyfriend in tow. Her husband took one look and left the house. When he returned, it was to her self-confessed shame and insensitivity. She apologized for a week. He said it was all right. That was the end of that. Like gears slipping, not engaging, they slid past one more grief. Later, she was to say he had “betrayed” her that night. What have you done to me, you knew I had no feeling for that man, that I was crazy, that you were hurt and upset, why didn’t you say something, anything to put a name to what we were doing to each other? But the fact was that, if he heard her appeal, he didn’t say.
And then she met a new man. He was different. Possessive, jealous, melodramatic, mercurial. She spent more and more time with him, wanting less and less to go home. She became ever more deeply caught in her own romantic fantasy: swept off her married lady’s feet by this Lothario passing by, all the old wounds cauterized by the dazzling, healing touch of the stranger. Her comings and goings had never been questioned; nor now was her obvious growing withdrawal or her chilly aloofness. Nothing said at all until one day her husband met her at the door and said she had better move out for a while and “think it over.” Packing, she asked, think what over? He said he didn’t want to discuss it. Just go away and think it over. She went to think it over.
And still nothing had been admitted. No mistakes or failures put into words, just the inexpressible loneliness and regret hanging in the air between them and that stumbling fear of pronouncing the irrevocable to take the place of relationship. The day she left she told a friend she couldn’t believe what she was
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doing. Almost as if it were something done to please him and then she could come back. She never went back.
The new lover soured. Lothario evaporated and in his place a man who was all the things she said she hated. He demanded services like any Victorian husband, resented her time and work at the university, felt jealous of the men she knew and, in a flight of anxious proprietorship, even demanded she marry him, as a way to hold her. Alternately repelled and seduced, she resisted his demands, evoking the image of the generous and mild husband left behind; then succumbed to them and to the lover’s charm, persuasion and erotic vitality, evoking all those other images of the husband, hopeless, joyless, comfortless. All the time knowing it was to bad, old feminine patterns she gave in: to flat-
tery, helplessness and the fraudulent appeals for protection. When the woman won over the little girl, she left the lover.
Loneliness and bad dreams. Broken connections, resonating questions, melancholic accusations. The injustice of what she had done, the blows she dealt in moving from one household to another, shifting centres, transferring overnight the baggage of trust and pledge from, home to home plagued and oppressed her. The attempts to get in touch, to let her husband know the intensity of her regret, to embrace again, dissolved in a failure of nerve. She wavered and wondered and, in the end, nothing was done. One last time they had, one last meeting that was affectionate and close, the last time that they looked at their bankruptcy and backed away in the old, fearful way, one last
cowardly, familiar time and it was over.
Now she lives without a man in her house. She’s pulled together. All of a piece. She may even marry again some distant day but that isn’t nearly so important as the possibility of a brandnew, still speculative success in loving men. Learning an honest language with them, drawing them into relationships together, insisting on autonomy that isn’t isolation and on constant recommitment that isn’t possession and, of course, overcoming cynicism about the cruel games of sexual politics, games she would choose celibacy to avoid. The old dream of completion with a solitary mate is abandoned with a sad relief. The new one has yet to take shape. In the meantime, she means to live well enough alone. ■