The Emotional Truth of Divorce
I felt like the walking wounded as I mounted the stairs and opened the door of the second-floor apartment I had rented only that morning. Apartment? More like a furnished room with a hint of a kitchen and bathroom, and walls so paper-thin a sneeze would elicit a "bless you" from the tenant next door. I stared at a chair and a sofa-bed. One guest would be a crowd.
The afternoon heat trapped the used smell of drab furnishings and carried up the noise from the decaying business street below. I could almost taste the nausea welling inside me.
So began my life as a single-again man. Two evenings before, my wife and I faced the fact that continued life together was too much for us both. Hastily packed bags, slammed doors, two nights with a friend, and here I was -- looking blankly at the efficiency kitchen on the opposite wall of my new "home." Suddenly the consequences of what I had done rushed in and terrified me. How could I -- a career and family counselor, of all people -- end up in this predicament? What made me give up on twenty-four years of married life with an attractive, intelligent woman and two delightful teen-age daughters? Why, at the age of fifty, was I leaving behind a large, comfortable home in a quietly genteel section of San Francisco? For this?
Here in this apartment, a few miles and several worlds away from where I had lived, I felt like the loneliest man in the world. My internal inventory was zero. Looking back, I could see only failure and guilt -- and ahead, a vortex of emptiness, fear, and uncertainty. After twenty-four years of marriage, the prospect of living alone seemed intolerable. When you break the togetherness habit, is this all that's left?
That was June 25, 1970. Three years later I can still recall the day -- not, however, as the end of my world, but as the beginning of an enriching and enlivening voyage of self-discovery that has made me a happier and stronger person than I was before. Although I didn't realize it then, I can now see my divorce as the crisis that jolted me out of self-defeating behavior which for most of my married life had gone unexamined. By getting me out of the ruts of my earlier existence, the divorce forced me to take a good look at myself, analyze where I was and how I had gotten there, and set the stage for what has been the most exciting and rewarding period of my life so far.
Of course, hindsight makes this sound easier than it really was. It took me time to come to grips with my feelings. Even with my training and experience as a professional counselor, I was not prepared for the emotional impact of divorce when it hit me. Mine had been an intellectual understanding. I knew the national facts and figures on divorce. I knew that one out of every three marriages in this country ends in divorce, and that the proportion is increasing. I also knew that more and more marriages are breaking up after fifteen years and longer. What I hadn't known until I experienced it myself was what divorce felt like. Until then I couldn't appreciate the paralyzing impact that a feeling of failure combined with sudden "aloneness" can produce. It would be many weeks before this paralysis would wear off, and months before I could think of my divorce as anything less than a tragedy.
At some point during the divorce adjustment seminars I have been leading for the past two years the inevitable question arises, "Is divorce harder on men or women?" In one sense this question is meaningless, since divorce strikes at the emotions, and in their emotions men and women are the same. However, out of these seminars (in which women always outnumber men) I have become aware of an especially cruel kind of squeeze play our society applies to the divorced woman in the 1970s.
The women who attend these seminars, like all other modern American women, know that patterns of life are changing rapidly today. They have been bombarded by the media with the idea that there are endless vistas of happiness and fulfillment awaiting the modern woman who has the courage to escape from her cocoon of domesticity. The women's liberation movement, in my opinion one of the healthiest developments in contemporary America, has tapped a rich vein of discontent over the limitations our culture places upon women of every age. As more and more women break through these limitations and move out to become independent persons of their own making, our society can only be the better for it. Unfortunately the divorced woman -- having broken the domestic ties, and eager to reap the benefits of independent life -- must still fight a series of internal and external battles she is often unprepared for. She has been encouraged by what she has read and seen on television to strike out on her own, but has no inkling of the inner turmoil that sudden aloneness after years of marriage can produce. No one has told her that kicking the togetherness habit "cold turkey" brings on the emotional shakes and sweats.
As one woman, divorced after twenty-two years of married life, admitted, "I simply had to leave my marriage. It was intolerable. But now I wonder if I did the right thing. At least I knew who I was then: I was a wife, Mrs. Somebody. Now I'm a zero. I can't even get credit in my own name."
One of the major gratifications to emerge from my experience in divorce adjustment counseling -- of which this book is a distillation -- is to watch the women in my seminars develop inner resources that had been buried during their marriages, and use them to create happy and fulfilling lives as single people. For many of them, divorce marks the first time they have ever been single. Most of us have never known what it means to think, feel, and act single and can be drowned by the emotional waves aloneness sets in motion. Divorced people are sometimes described as being "single again," but in fact may have never functioned as totally independent adults. This is true as well for men, many of whom proceed from a childhood home, through school and the army ("a man's vacation between his mother and his wife") to marriage.
By coming to terms with ourselves as single people -- by accepting the fact that living alone need not mean living lonely -- we are laying the groundwork, if we so choose, for future relationships far more satisfying than the ones we left behind.
Copyright © 1973 by Mel Krantzler