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A Reluctant Cheerleader for Divorce

I really never thought I’d be a cheerleader for divorce. Hell, if you’d asked me 25 years ago about divorce, I’d be horrified to discover I’d have two of them some day. I don’t come from a broken home. My parents have been happily married 47 years. My grandparents all had unions of over 50 years. Heck, my great-grandparents, who I had the honor of knowing (they lived into their 90s), made it to nearly 70 years of marriage. Factor the familial longevity of marriages, some middle class prosperity, and a United Methodist minister father — I’m the last person you’d expect to be shooting fireworks off a roof to celebrate the dissolution of my marital bonds. (But I did. And then a blues singer sang “I’m Sitting On Top of the World” just for me. And there was champagne. As divorces go, it was pretty special.)

When I married, I thought it was for life. I certainly wasn’t a perfect spouse, but I tried damn hard. I first got married in my early twenties. My first marriage of a decade ended because my then husband descended into mental illness (OCD, depression, and hoarding) and refused to treat it. And by refuse — I mean, like on the hoarding reality TV shows (of which there were none in the early 1990s) — REFUSED. I dragged him to marriage counseling, anxiety disorder clinics, I read books, I begged, I stopped begging, I got my own life, I almost left, I got pregnant, I stayed. I spent many years with a man who would go into week long furies because I threw away a sponge. I’m not kidding. This was a functional person to the outside world, with a home, and friends, and a career as a systems analyst. But he would be completely immobilized with indecision by a pile of mail or a moldy sponge.

I thought when his illness had a name, he would seize the opportunity to learn more and treat it. I thought he would fight to get better, to save our faltering marriage. To be healthy for his son. He did not want these things. I wanted these things. I finally realized I was in it alone, and I’d been a single mother for a long time without cluing into the fact — I paid the mortgage, did the child care, had separate interests. When I spent 911 alone terrified, with a preschooler, while he decided to stay late and “work” (I lived in Arlington, Va. at the time — you could see the smoke from the burning Pentagon), I filed a few weeks later.

The Commonwealth of Virginia is a paternalistic state. If I had wanted to, I could’ve taken 10 years of his pension. Could’ve asked for spousal support. Could’ve filed on fault grounds. I did none of that. I accepted less than half of baseline child support, just to get him to sign a settlement, (which he then defaulted on for years), and paid him a shitload of money from an inheritance I had to ensure that I had physical custody of our son, and bought out our house from him. I was codependent. I felt guilty for leaving him. But what I mostly felt was a huge sense of relief.

It’s over a decade later. He’s unemployed, angry, and has descended further into isolation and mental illness. I have never for one moment regretted jumping ship.

The same Commonwealth that would’ve granted me many support privileges for divorcing him also made it extremely difficult for me to leave him. I had to wait ONE YEAR AND ONE DAY of physical separation before I could even FILE.

And of course, he did not want the divorce. He wanted a caretaker, and he made it very difficult. But I did succeed in divorcing him. although it took nearly two full years (and thousands in legal fees).

I was a single mom at 34, my son was four,  and I spent several happy years doing that gig before I met my second husband.

I was 38 then. He seemed like a stand up guy. Everyone in my close circle who met him adored him. He’d worked for the federal government for 20 years, what could be more stable and normal? He was bright — three advanced degrees, two in engineering and one in law. He pursued me, asked me to marry him after a year, and move with him to Pennsylvania where he wanted to take a new job.

I was in love. I thought I’d have more children. I thought this was my happy ever after. I was so determined to not fuck up again. I so bought into that dream, that I financed HIS dream, his career, and bought a 100 year old house with him.

I’ve told this story elsewhere. I was married 6 months when his mistress of 20 years called. He was a serial cheater.

Pennsylvania, unlike Virginia, was a no fault divorce state. I was fucked. My money? I’d commingled it into the house we purchased. I paid off his debt to get a better mortgage rate. Readers — I put the CHUMP in Chump Lady.

I should’ve run, but I spent over a year trying to reconcile with that man. I did therapy, read the books, bought HIM the books. A great part of the reason, I’m ashamed to tell you, was that I didn’t want to fail twice at marriage. I didn’t want two divorces on my record. I had a hard time bludgeoning hope that that mess could be saved. And he, of course, didn’t want a divorce either. I was a good mark. He wanted cake. A nice family front for his narcissism, and whatever side dish fucks he felt like on the side.

He would not quit cheating. I finally left.

It’s years later — and what pisses me off as I look back on this is that my two divorces are a mark I wear, to people who don’t know me, as a “failure.”

I will not argue with you that I didn’t fail. I did. But DIVORCE wasn’t my failure — my codependency was.

My first marriage — I should’ve figured that shit out sooner. My ex-husband’s actions sent a message that was very clear and consistent. He did not want to address his illness. I failed to receive the message. I kept tilting at windmills, convinced I could change that outcome. Not realizing, I could only change ME.

My second marriage — I should’ve figured THAT shit out sooner. My cheater husband’s actions sent a clear message too — he was NOT going to quit cheating on me. Now, he said he would. He begged and sobbed and did his grand theater of Remorse. But he gave me four DDays. FOUR before I left. And then he called me a “quitter.”

So, I hope you will understand, folks, how much I despise all the “stand for your marriage” bullshit that is out there on the internet. I think it plays to a terrible vulnerability in betrayed spouses — that you ALONE can FIX THIS.

You cannot. And anyone who tells you so is selling you snake oil.

Recently, Beverly Willet wrote an interesting essay on divorce for the Huffington Post. Where she essentially argues that divorce should be harder. We should all try harder. And that we should think of the children who are effected by divorce.

To which I countered — yes, divorce is horrific and it’s terrible that children suffer as collateral damage. So abusers should think of those children before they abuse, and drinkers before they drink, and cheaters before they cheat.

Why do we lay the opprobrium at the feet of those who divorce such people and not at the spouses who check out of their commitments, but hang on for all the perks and glory of “marriage”?  Otherwise known as cake eaters. We wag our fingers at those poor souls who file for divorces they don’t want and judge them as quitters — and paint them with the same brush as idiots who walk out on their marriages.

Beverly Willet was a betrayed spouse, and although we arrive at very different conclusions — me: leave the cheater! her: save the marriage! — we have a lot of common ground.

She wrote in a message to me on HuffPo:

“Well, some people change and come to their senses, and some people don’t. And some couples manage to get over fidelity, and others don’t. The choice to find that out was mine. Only our legal system and our society do not support marriage or encourage reconciliation. I felt as if I needed to take a stand, not only for my family, but for the other families in our country not only torn apart by divorce, but also forced into financial and other difficulties by a system that allows and encourages this behavior, rewards the wrongdoer and often punishes the innocent spouse and children. There were other factors involved, too. I”ll check out your blog. Here’s Glad to meet you.Perhaps life will also hold a second chance for me. I wish you well.”

I completely agree with fault divorce. I think infidelity should be factored into the split of the finances, the custody of the children, and support. I think men especially are screwed by cheating wives. It’s horrifying enough to have to check the paternity of your children — now you have to pay that person SPOUSAL SUPPORT? In what world is that right?
But where Beverly Willet and I part ways is — divorce should not be made more difficult. And we should not assume that the person who wants to “save” the marriage wants to do so for honorable reasons. Neither of my ex-husbands wanted a divorce. They both wanted to maintain a position of advantage over me, to have me support them financially and prop them up to the world as normal and married. (I suppose I can relate to a lot of divorced men.)
We cannot force people to stay in marriages that they will not commit to. We should not WANT to BE in marriages in which we are holding a legal gun to our spouse’s head to stay with us and our children.

Fuck ’em, I say. You can DO IT ALONE and you can do it BETTER than being shackled with a cheater or a loon. I’m living proof. And for all this guilt and nonsense that they heap on single mothers and children from broken homes  — hey, our last two Democratic presidents were raised by single moms. My kid, who should I guess be a quivering heap o’ neurosis from the two divorces I have selfishly inflicted upon him is on the all A honor roll. He walks our widowed neighbor’s dog. He’s got a work ethic. He’s polite, kind, empathic, goofy. He is no more fucked up at 15 than I was with  non-divorced parents. Probably a lot less than.

Oh, and marriage — I still believe in it. I never stopped believing it. The difference this time is I found someone who believes in it too. I hope Beverly will as well.

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  • Hi there. I have just discovered your blog and you’re a riot of awesome to read. I enjoy your turn of phrase a lot! Your clarity is lovely.

    I have some empathy for your first divorce. My first serious relationship was torpedoed by my dude’s hoardiness and my inability to survive without one clean flat surface in our shared environment. It’s just awful to attempt to cope with and it’s really hard for outsiders to understand that you’re not the one who creates the chaos. It can be (and was for my dude) such a source of grief and shame that the hoarding and associated behaviors become almost too “big” to deal with and so nothing ever gets better. I hit my personal done point when he started rescuing my garbage because “it might come in handy”. Seriously, no one finds “handy” expired bus transfers and old grocery lists but that’s what came back inside to haunt me again. My dude wouldn’t deal with his behavior so I dealt with mine and left. Leaving wasn’t failure due to lack of my relationship investment and I don’t see why anyone would judge your situation that way either. Unless, of course, endlessly rethrowing things away is the New Marriage Order and we missed the memo.

    One of the things I’ve read over and over is that you can’t save someone who’s determined to go down in flames and wouldn’t mind a co-victim so don’t try. I have a disconnection here and your point about the 3 “c”s (in a previous post) that you bring up is so cogent to that. I wish more people would allow themselves to NOT be responsible for the fuckedupness of their romantic partners. Someone who lets you down (justified or not) doesn’t make YOU a bad person, obligated to fix THIER shit or responsible for damage control. I also fail to understand why it is when someone has demonstrated that they’re a piece of garbage (or other noun of your choice) that if you decide to be finished with garbage collection you’re the baddie. Sounds like projection to me.

    • Amen Angela! But it’s out there, OMG it’s out there. You don’t get a “pass” if your spouse was a “baddie,” especially if you have children. Hell, HuffPo just had an article yesterday that divorce causes STROKES in boys as they age. And we should all consider the children if we want a divorce. Thank you, as if mothers on the brink of divorce didn’t have enough guilt. My feeling is, if you are in “going down in flames” situation — what else are you supposed to DO?

      And I commend you for escaping your dude a hell of a lot sooner than I did. It is a difficult condition to explain to anyone who hasn’t witnessed the crazy. There was zero awareness of hoarding as a mental health condition when I divorced. Counsellors told me, oh you know how messy men are, as if I had a division of housework situation. I didn’t allow him the “hoardiness” as you put it. Instead I lived in a state of hypervigiliance against it (and he had the garage and his office to make fire hazards), which resulted in him being irrationally furious with me for touching his things.

      Ugh. Anyway, Jesus thinks I’m a “failure” for not sticking with that and my son will have a stroke some day. We should make divorce more difficult!

  • This isn’t the first time Beverly’s name has come up.

    Here’s an interview she did over the summer:

    My heart goes out to this poor woman but the article paints her as an obsessed Christian woman with the attitude of: “My husband left me for another woman. We need to get rid of NFD!” Talk about an irrelevant conclusion and especially a false cause!

    Her ex didn’t leave her because NFD made it easy for him to do so (in his case, he moved to a no-fault state and filed for divorce there). The prevalence of NFD has absolutely no bearing on why her marriage fell apart.

    As such, “The Coalition for Divorce Reform” comes off as a little desperate, and the conditions of their “Parental Divorce Reduction Act” are borderline laughable.

    I wish Beverly the best and I hope she’s one day able to make peace with the harm that was done to her. Because right now (in my opinion, at least) she’s going about it all wrong. She could repeal NFD in all 50 states tomorrow and it still won’t undo anything her dirtbag ex did to her. That’s what she needs to work out.

    One of the best post-divorce quotes I’ve ever read came from Jennifer Aniston in a 2005 Vanity Fair article. We ALL know what happened to poor Jen (imagine getting dumped for another woman in front of the entire world!).

    Anyway, Aniston quoted her therapist, who said to her: “Even if the divorce was 98% his fault, that’s still 2% you have to own. You get one day to be a victim. Everything after that is work you should do on yourself. All you can do is keep your side of the street clean.”

    Easier said than done, but I hope Beverly takes that into consideration. She’s obviously still very heartbroken.

    On a side note, CL, I scanned that entire comments section on HuffPo and enjoyed the lengthy back-and-forth you had with her. But it’s rather alarming how stubborn she is about her viewpoint; this is the same woman who dug in her heels and flat-out refused to divorce her husband for 5 years, to the point where he moved to an NFD state in order to file for it.

    Does she STILL think her marriage could have been saved, if only we didn’t have these easy, breezy NFD laws? All that was needed was some legally mandated “divorce education curriculum, followed by an eight-month reconciliation and reflection period” (as per the Reduction Act she proposed)?

    Nevertheless, I do wish her well.

    • Well, she’s not alone Layne. Have you checked out that Hero’s Spouse site that advocates “standing” for your marriage? I think the whole concept is insane (why not stand on sinking ships too?) Just like I think mandated “waiting periods” like Virginia has to force you to consider reconciliation are insane.

      But what I do not think is crazy is putting fault back in divorce. No, I’m ALL for that. I want divorce and I want fault put back in the division of assets. Especially for stay at home mothers whose husbands cheat, and especially those douchebags who cheat on pregnant women. I also want fault for every woman who fucks around and expects spousal support.

      People are made victims by divorce — I won’t argue with that. It’s grossly unfair that someone who makes themselves vulnerable to a spouse, especially mothers with small children, are abandoned and left without support. But to me the remedy for that is a damn good divorce settlement and independence. You survive it, and you don’t stay locked in your victimhood. I really do believe the best revenge is a life well lived.

  • I want fault divorce, too. Like you, I’m closer to the man’s typical divorce experience. All told, I put over $100K into his education and divorced him right when he’d actually start to earn money. I was screwed financially, but luckily I have a great job so I can rebuild, and never have to speak to the ex again.

    • Lucky you! On the not ever having to speak to him again… not the screwed over financially bit. It does feel good though to captain your own ship after a divorce.

  • I think you need to be a little more gender neutral in your comments. What about “stay at home dads” or concern for fathers “on the brink of divorce” as it relates to concern about causing their sons to be predisposed to strokes.

  • I am torn on this one to some degree. I think marriage should be taken seriously and not entered into lightly. I think in some cases, it is just too easy to undo. Having to wait a year before you can even file is way beyond reasonable though. Regardless, I am all about the fault divorce. I am a huge advocate of taking responsibility and being held accountable for your actions.

    Infidelity warps you. Some suffer more than others but no one is left unscathed and so Beverly is left forever titled if you will. I feel for her even though I don’t agree with her. Why on earth anyone would want to remain married to someone who so clearly does not want them is beyond me. The poor girl must be crumbled inside.

  • Dear CL:

    Thanks for pointing out that we do share some common ground. While imperfect, I do think that our fault-based system of divorce was an improvement over what we have now. Through our laws, policies and culture we have stripped responsibility and commitment out of marriage in large part, however, and many don’t bring responsibility and commitment to their marriages. There ought to be consequences for actions, and the law should require those at fault to take some responsbility. I gather that you did not take your marriages lightly, but our laws and policies make it easy for others to do so. And spouses and children can be harmed as a result. This is absolutely clear.

    I’ve never taken the position, though, that anyone who files for divorce is by definition a quitter.

    I know that you have some complaint regarding waiting periods, but most states don’t have waiting periods and where they do, divorce rates are lower so there is some value in waiting periods. That’s one reason we have built-in waiting periods in our legislation. Alan Hawkins has an article on the CDR website about how stressful the time is when spouses are going through a divorce; it’s not necessarily the best time to be making such serious decisions with life-long consequences. Research by Linda Waite at the University of Chicago has also shown that many couples willing to wait out the storm — and choose not to run to divorce court — report being happy five years down the road. In the majority of cases, this would be a good thing for families. In our culture, however, many of us are too impatient. (Again, I am speaking about the majority of divorces which involve low-conflict marriages, and not directing my comment to you personally.)

    You made a decision to leave one of your marriages due to infidelity. That was your right. As I pointed out in our discussion on HuffPo,however, the decision for me to leave should have been mine, not my ex’s. That’s the way fault-based divorce used to operate — the election to divorce was given to the innocent spouse, not the wrongdoer. Now the wrongdoer can elect to leave as well with no repercussions. It’s a problem and one reason, I believe, that marriage has become devalued in our society.

    • “The decision to leave should have been mine, not my ex’s.”

      You don’t get to control people leaving you. Or cancer. Or snow storms.

      You only get to control you. The law should consider infidelity IMO the same way it considers fraud. If your business partner defrauds you, the law doesn’t make you stay in business with each other indefinitely with the hope that, hey, business might pick up and you’ll like each other again. No, you get a settlement. Divorce should be similar.

      • Your analogy to snowstorms is misplaced, and “control” is your word not mine. I prefer loyalty, responsibility, love and commitment. Your comparing marriage with run-of-the-mill business transactions couldn’t be more off the mark either. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why marriage has lost its value in our society. Marriage involves people. Throughout my divorce I heard “divorce is about money.” I couldn’t grasp it, only that’s what it turned out to be from the perspective of the legal system. Sounds like that’s your approach, too, otherwise, no, we shouldn’t treat marriage like we treat simple business transactions, ignoring the importance of marriage to benefit and protect all those involved. (Again, I’ve acknowledged that certain situations require the option of divorce.) When divorce is the end result, however, there should be some recognition with respect to the wronged party. As for “control,” I wouldn’t use that term. Nevertheless, I think you place too little faith in people and, understandably, it might have something to do with your own difficult past. But I know of many, many couples who reconciled; it might not have been possible if the other spouse had simply given up under your definition of “control.”

  • Dear Layne:

    You’re right; I do have strong views about marriage and divorce. Too many people in our culture have been too wishy-washy for years, and look at the mess we’ve made of things. Divorce is a huge problem; our children have lost respect for marriage; these things won’t repair themselves being wishy washy. I do try, however, to listen with respect to the opinions of others even if I disagree strongly.

    I’ve spent many years dealing with it personally, as well as working in this area and speaking to so many people about the difficulties of divorce. Interesting that you mention the five-year period referenced in one of my articles; however, a short article cannot possibly tell the entire story. I’ve responded to some of your points in my comment to Chump Lady below, but I should reiterate that Professor Waite’s research at the University of Chicago demonstrated that those willing to wait out the storm for five years reported that their marriages turned around! You don’t think much of the Parental Divorce Reduction Act, but as many news stories point out, that legislation was drafted with experts in the field — divorce reform experts, academics, lawyers, domestic violence experts, marriage educators, etc., and legislators are taking an interest as well. I also was asked to advise on the Second Chances Act to its drafters Prof. Doherty and Judge Sears. While you’re entitled to your opinion, these proposals have credibility according to the experts. And research demonstrates that waiting periods alone result in lower divorce rates. The Coalition for Divorce Reform has many experts behind it. The marriage education (i.e. divorce reduction education) component of the PDRA has a good track record; you can find lots of articles if you google it.

    Thanks for your good wishes. I have moved on, though I don’t believe there’s a timetable that fits every person. Part of that moving on, however, is putting what I have learned to good use by speaking up on behalf of others and trying to do something about the problems of divorce in our culture.

    • The problem isn’t divorce. The problem is fair settlements. Making sure children get proper support, that fault divorces are possible in cases of infidelity so that betrayed men aren’t paying alimony, for example. But divorce ITSELF is not a problem. And it’s lunacy to wait five years for someone who has left the marriage to recommit to it. Christ, just divorce them. I suppose it is possible you can reconnect later, but I’ve got a lot better things to do with five years of my life.

      And Ms. Willet, I don’t mean to be cynical, but I posted a reply to your comment weeks ago. The one day I’m on the front page of Huffington Post — NOW you’ve got your rah-rah reconcile against the odds, divorce is a problem gospel posted on my site? Damage control for the leave a cheater POV?

  • Let’s be civil, shall we? Using terms like “lunacy” is disrespectful. In any case, I pointed out the research from the U. of Chicago showing that couples who waited five years instead of divorcing recommitted to their marriage and were happy. You call them lunatics. Use your own 5 years to do as you like, but please don’t slander others who want to save their families and manage to. Excuse me, I had no idea you were on the FRONT page of the Huffington Post. I have to put food on the table and a child to raise so I don’t have my head glued to the front page of the HuffPo. every day. First I’ve heard of it. I was only able now to get to your email given my need to work and therefore came to your blog. And your blog was still open for comments so I posted one. Misplaced anger really is useless, and gets us nowhere to trying to find common ground over these issues and do something about it.

  • CL — By the way, there were so many things to respond to, I meant to thank you for your comment at the end wishing me well in marriage again. I’m glad you were able to find happiness.

  • My wife is the cheater and the primary breadwinner. We live in a fault state with a one-year waiting period. I’m glad for the waiting period because she quit her patent attorney job between D-Day and her filing. If she didn’t have to wait, I’d be screwed.

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