I've never written anything about divorce before that I was willing to share with anyone until now. This was because it's a deeply sensitive, painful topic, and writing about it could cause more harm (externally) than good. However, I suspect that the passage of time has rendered my "more harm than good" concerns moot (as well as time allowing some healing to occur). It's just been such a long time that I don't think it really matters anymore.
There are two parts to this post: (1) the irony or divorce and (2) how marriages fail. The former is all from my perspective and in the latter I cite an article that truly resonated with me, as well as being an incredibly articulate and insightful description of the mechanisms behind the author's failed marriage.
I had always thought of my life as inconsequential up until the point I had kids. I still believe this to be true. If, prior to having kids, say I had been hit by a bus, and, to borrow a phrase from David Foster Wallace "demapped", well, I'm sure there would have been a nice funeral service, and a handful of friends would likely [hopefully] have shown up and said nice things about me, perhaps [optimistically] there would also be some tears, and then everyone would pretty much wake up the next day and their lives would continue, uninterrupted.
"A bit macabre, yes?!" you might observe, and I would tend to agree with you, but it's worth a walk through that scenario to understand that, for the same reasons that one's life is largely inconsequential prior to having kids, so is one's divorce.
To paraphrase someone who got there before me:
I envy people I know who got divorced prior to having children. It looks so clean to me. Either there was (a) a huge court fight prior to divorce or (b) just a lot of private fighting prior to divorce, and then, given a sufficient amount of time, the divorce makes it's way through a court and a judge signs it. It's final. Ended. Over.
Even my own parent's divorce, which was lengthy, and awful, and damaging to all involved, eventually, mercilessly, was finalized. No matter how bad it was, we all knew that time would eventually limit how long the process could go on for, and that made it significantly more bearable.
At that point, your lives can become largely, if not entirely, distinct from one another. You can likely choose to not interact with your former spouse ever again.
This is not the case once you have children.
(Now before I continue: this assumes both parents want to be involved in their kids lives moving forward. It doesn't account for the trivial case where one parent goes MIA and the other becomes a single parent. Obviously, there's a significant break in the continuum of a relationship in those cases.)
Prior to divorce, the main irony I had observed regarding being in a marriage was: "only in the context of marriage is it possible to feel the true depths of lonliness." This is because it's generally the case that marriage allows people to feel less alone overall, and therefore when you feel painfully alone as a married person, it's somehow worse than feeling painfully alone when unmarried.
In the years following divorce, I've observed a number of small ironies, all consistent, that point to a larger thesis. To illustrate the complexities, and ironies, that belie divorce with children, here's my partial list of the ironies of divorce:
In other words, divorce with children is a bit of a paradox: the divorce itself frees you from almost none of the dynamics that negatively impacted your marriage (and kids actually lock you in). In this way, divorce is more of a continuum than any kind of finality.
Said another way: divorce doesn't solve any problems, it merely commutes them.
Because your kids will outlast you all of this never ends, and in that sense, neither does your marriage.
There are likely a limitless number of reasons why marriages fail. To me, the more prevalent one seems to be that people fall asleep. They forget to do the small things, day by day, that show their partner that they still care, that they still value their point of view (aka: that they're still awake).
Said more colloquially: after a short while, people start taking their spouses for granted.
This article is by an Atlantic staff writer named Matthew Fray and is titled The Marriage Lesson That I Learned Too Late.
The article is quite good, and worth reading in it's entirety. I think contains some key wisdom in terms of how good marriages function (and therefore how good marriages can turn into bad ones).
A couple of salient quotes:
The article itself begins with a meditation on the mundane: putting a dirty glass next to the dishwasher instead of in it. It's the petty stuff that seems to comprise so much of cohabitation.
It seems to trivial, and so meaningless; barely worth mentioning in the grand scheme of the complexities and intricacies of marriage.
However, the author is able to eventually puzzle out that his decision is symbolic. It means something, and what it means is that he's failing to consider, and therefore failing to value, his spouses perspective, each and every time he puts the dirty glass on the counter. He had fallen asleep in his own marriage.
I'm fairly certain that John Gottman (of the Gottman Institute) calls this series of little disagreements "the power struggle", in that both spouses are vying for power "to be right" when they disagree. (Incidentally: the power struggle is supposed to last for ten years, after which "true iuntimacy" is alleged to occur). I think Gottman is quite correct, but it's illuminating to understand the perspective of feeling disrespected: why does it "literally cause pain" when you ask your spouse to value something not because they necessarily agree with you but because it's important to you. And to consider your perspective on those merits alone?
Think about it: how meaningful it is when someone helps you out even when they intellectually disagree with your decision or MO? They help you out (or listen) merely because they value your perspective, even while they disagree with it. Which means: they value you.
One last quote, on the build-up of self-doubt over time, when you feel like you're habitually not being heard:
Reasonably smart indeed, and unfortunately, the wisdom came too late. I think Mr Fray is lucky: most often, the wisdom never comes. At least he has insight into how to change his perspective in a way that's incredibly powerful and helpful, should he give marriage another go. Married couples everywhere would be wise to learn from his invaluable insights before it's too late.