Many men are conditioned to never give up, Uncle Woolfie writes, but when it comes to raising a family, that’s not always the best thing.
I have now been married for over 30 years. It has not always been happily, trust me on that; and I’m not talking about the occasional argument or tiff, but bone-wearying areas of contention and angst. My wife and I have suffered at each other’s hands at various times. You will understand of course, for both personal reasons and a desire to stay on the topic of what I’m writing, if I leave it at that. I’m here to talk about divorce.
First and foremost, I think it would be important to debunk one of the most useless versions of societal hand-wringing that divorce carries with it. That hand-wringing concerns the apparent fact that the divorce rate apparently is considered too high. This factoid is a favorite of the religious right, edged out perhaps only by porn and reproductive issues.
But it is not the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s or 60’s where the external forces such as finances or job prospects forced men to stay because they couldn’t afford the obligatory alimony and child support, or that forced women to stay in a lousy or, even worse, abusive marriage because in many cases there was no safe harbor for her to escape to, nor opportunity to support herself once she did. With the possible exception of extreme cases that still exist, most of those forces are now gone or minimized. I believe this is a good thing for everyone most of the time.
However, in my view, this is where it also can get sticky as hell. The absence of those forces has promoted the dubious concept of what many men describe as a tendency of their exiting spouses to “move on” due to their dissatisfaction with their marriage. This is often referred to as “greener grass” syndrome. Euphemisms concerning “shopping around” also come to mind. Making matters worse, many men aren’t aware of how deeply their relationship is in trouble until the hammer drops as the separation papers are filed, instead of their soon-to-be ex-wife doing something daring (and decent) like attempting damage control versus jumping ship.
In short, it is time we all grow up concerning our views of divorce as a society. Part of that maturation process is an obligation both genders need to accept. The disappearance of the old forces that allowed all of us to fool ourselves over both marriage and divorce rates are either gone or in serious decline. It is well past time to start being grown-ups about this subject.
There is a least enough validity in this concept of “greener grass” that it’s the major plot motivator of a movie entitled Crazy Stupid Love. I will admit I have not seen this movie. Although I can tell you that the trailers, commercials, and capsule synopsis for it piss me off to a degree usually reserved for the late Bill Bixby’s transformation into the Incredible Hulk on the old TV show. First, we have Hollywood’s new go-to guy for “hapless, victimized schlub who takes a journey of change and discovery that transforms him into a confident winner of an American male” in the form of Steve Carell. I am not begrudging him the success he’s enjoyed mining this rich vein; it was a vital part of what made his turn as Maxwell Smart so enjoyable for me.
His character is totally unaware of his wife’s dissatisfaction with their marriage until she announces in the car, on the way home from a dinner out, that not only has she cheated on him, but she’s divorcing him as well. To add even more insult to unjustified injury, this despicable news is delivered in tones of righteous indignation. Hell, even the foreign-accented Ricco Sauvé clone that agrees to help him adjust to his new situation—if not win back his cheating wife—berates him in classic “blame the victim” style with a variation of the stupid “manly-man” argument. Final judgment on this relationship comedy will be reserved for when I can afford to see it, but in the meantime, I have my doubts that this isn’t much more than a comedy that’s totally at the expense of married and divorced men everywhere. What I’ve seen so far tells me that, at the very least, this movie’s hook (if not central message) for men is “Get an Ophrah-level Seal of Approval as a sensitive, attentive married male, or risk not only your wife informing you that she justifiably cheated on you, but that she’s also dumping your sorry ass”.
I will tell you a dirty secret of long-married men that very few have the fortitude to admit. We have a fear of our marriage ending exactly that way. This fear is on a par with the fear felt by a turn-of-the-last-century London hooker who shivers against the idea that the very next shadow wearing a top hat belongs to Jack the Ripper. Married men have been exposed to more than enough horror stories (that label by the way, is not intended to question said stories’ veracity, or their number) concerning everything from child custody issues to what is now called spousal support, let alone fair asset division, to justify what I’m saying here. Yet here you are, facing what married men fear the most, ambushed with the end of your marriage, presided over by a system that claims to be equitable, but has not kept up with society’s changes to the point where it’s easy to assume that you as the divorcing husband are not only going get the short end of the stick, that stick will be liberally coated with a substance that has a disagreeable smell and has questionable promise for your personal hygiene.
As a bonus, this will be not merely at her hands alone, but with the full participation of the best divorce attorney your money can buy and who works for your soon-to-be ex, despite the nearly 40 years of stats that suggest your crumbling household was probably a two-paycheck family. I leave as an exercise for the reader how these observations play into the commonly accepted notion of who files for divorce first—and why.
We have now arrived at the common ground that both married and divorced men share. First, both groups of men know full well that in cases of “irreconcilable differences” leading to divorce, there is a way-better-than-even chance that you’re being dumped for either someone already waiting in the wings (whether your wife has actually cheated on you with him or not) or the knowledge that all men have in their collective gut that with the right weapons from the female arsenal (make-up, the best undergarment technology Victoria’s Secret has to offer topped off with stiletto heels and a strategically well-fitting dress) that can make even women considered to be rather homely desirable enough to new potential suitors that they’ll spend some time and a few drinks on them at the very least. Women know this as well, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to include it as a serious factor in “greener grass” syndrome. If this isn’t true, then somebody needs to explain to me why Mickey Gilley’s song “The Girls Always Look Prettier at Closing Time” is now considered a classic. As a male, you will not even have that small but sorely appreciated diversion from your troubles.
There is no “Sadie Hawkins Night” in bars and nightclubs where women will buy you drinks because they find you handsome or entertaining. As you recover from divorce’s economic and emotional tolls, you can easily find yourself feeling fortunate to afford a cheap six pack of beer while home alone in an apartment that’s a serious downgrade from where you lived when you were married. None of this bodes well for your seriously battered self-esteem as a freshly divorced male. In a final fit of irony, you now need that self-esteem more than ever to survive not only the death of your marriage, but to help power the sometimes overwhelming new debts and obligations divorce has brought with it for the sake of yourself and your children.
Men are trained from an early age to never give up, keep plugging away as if that alone guarantees success. We are exposed to this never-ending mantra to a degree that the opposite sex, whether they choose to admit it or not, rarely are until rather recently. Even if they are exposed to this concept by well-meaning male or female mentors, another irony is that the very compensatory efforts that have been installed by both male and female lawmakers to help provide deserved gender parity in both the workplace and academia can mean young women will be in danger of buying into this “never surrender, never give up no matter what” syndrome that never takes into account that there are times and places where a “strategic retreat” or trying something else might be a viable solution.
The punch-line here is that the very thing that so many men have been indoctrinated to believe—re: never giving up—also blindsides us as men to indicators that our marriage is in danger of collapsing. Men have also been trained to think of divorce as abandonment of their family rather than the painfully necessary step to end dysfunctional family environments that can be far worse than the pain of divorce in the first place.