“It was in a previous decade, another century, that this had started out civilly, as an agreement reached almost affectionately, that their marriage was not as warm as it had been. In the six months of therapy in which they were encouraged to break down the barriers that prohibited them from speaking frankly, Joyce and Marshall discovered that they hated each other. Issues that had never before come up–money, sex, children, vacation destinations, Joyce’s weight gain, and wildly differing estimates of Marshall’s contribution to the child-rearing enterprise–now misted the air blue within the counselor’s office, which had already been made stale by the arguments from the previous couple’s appointment. The counselor finally urged them to make the break nonadversarial and referred them to divorce arbitration.”
—Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
You are supposed to go to counseling.
If you do, and the marriage still fails? Well, at least you tried. It’s a real shame, but hey–you did everything you could. That’s what’s important. For the sake of the children, for the marriage, for each other, for your parents, for the sake of the people who’ll gossip about your divorce and want a nice neat way to make it all make sense (“And they went to counseling, too, for months, but in the end they couldn’t work things out,” they’ll say, shaking their heads in sad resignation) you tried. And now you’ve earned a nice official stamp of failure that proves to everyone you fought the good fight, and did your level best.
Oh, you didn’t bother to get the stamp? What, you think you’re better than other couples? Some of them got back together, you know. Some of them learned to work things out. How presumptuous you are, how selfish, how short-sighted! You thought you knew your marriage well enough to recognize the point of no return? Really? You knew more than a professional? But what about the children? My god, think of the children!
I’m exaggerating, and I’m being quite unfair. I myself know couples who swear by marital therapy, and I’d never begrudge them their happiness nor mock whatever it took to get them there. And I only ever felt odd about skipping marital therapy later, after the divorce was over and done and people kept asking me, “But didn’t you go to couples’ therapy?” Well, no. Not even once. In fact, we outright rejected it. When the mediator brought joint therapy up–I got the impression she was reading from a list–we both recoiled in horror. I caught my husband’s eye, and he shook his head. For a split second, it felt like the good old days, when the two of us were allies, in perfect agreement.
By then, truth be told, we were both pretty tired of talking about the divorce. My husband, one of the most laconic men in the universe, looked the mediator straight in the eye and said, “We honestly don’t have any trouble communicating about this stuff with each other.” And we didn’t. My god, we talked about divorce for two whole years before we separated. We, who’d never fought, never had a marital crisis, never really disagreed, talked and drank and talked and cried and talked and agonized for hundreds of nights before we finally rented the apartment, told the kids, and started living apart.
But there was more to it than just fatigue. Oddly, we both felt protective, I think, of the anguished demise of our relationship. The last thing we wanted to do was to start trotting out grievances, spinning the last hateful years into some kind of narrative in front of a stranger. What was the point? Nothing we could say would change the terrible salient facts–we had loved each other once, and now we did not love each other any more, and we did not want to be married. We were miserable, and ashamed, and worried about the children. We did not want to hurt each other any more, and yet everything we did seemed to hurt each other. It was over. To start telling the story again would have felt like torture to us both. What had happened had taken so long, and was so confusing, so upsetting, and so private. Somehow, talking about the end of the marriage with another person would have deprived us of the only bond we had left.