Irreconcilable dissonance and other reasons for divorce

Doombride, Flickr image by sparktographyI have been married once, so far, to the woman to whom I am still married, so far, and one thing I have noticed about being married, so far, is that it makes you a lot more attentive to divorce. Divorce used to seem like something that happened to other people, but not any more, because of course every marriage is pregnant with divorce. Now I know a lot of people who are divorced, or are about to be, or are somewhere in between those poles, for which shadowy status there should be words like mivorced or darried or sleeperated or schleperated.

People get divorced for all sorts of reasons, and I find myself taking notes, probably defensively, but also from sheer amazement at the chaotic wilderness of human nature.

For example, I read recently about one man who got divorced so he could watch all 60 episodes of The Wire in chronological order. Another man got divorced after 30 years so he could, he said, fart in peace.

Another man got divorced because he told his wife he had an affair. He didn't have an affair, he just couldn't think of any other good excuse to get divorced. He liked his wife, and rather enjoyed her company, but he just didn't want to be married to her every day any more, he preferred to be married to her every third day, maybe, but she did not find that a workable arrangement, and so they parted company, confused.

I read about a woman who divorced her husband because he picked his nose. Another woman got divorced because her husband never remembered to pay their property taxes and finally, she said, it was just too much.

It seems to me that the reasons people divorce are hardly ever the dramatic reasons we assume are the reasons people get divorced, like sex in churches and cocaine for breakfast and discovering that the guy you married ten years ago has a wife in another state.

It's more a quiet decay, as if marriages are houses and unless you keep cleaning the windows and repainting here and there and using duct tape with deft punctilio, after a while everything sags and mould wins and there you are signing settlement papers at the dining room table.

I read about a couple who got divorced because of irresolute differences, a phrase that addled me for weeks. Another couple filed for divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable dissonance, which seemed like one of those few cases in life when the exact right words are applied to the exact right reason for those words.

Another woman divorced her husband because one time they were walking down the street, the husband on the curb side in concordance with the ancient courteous male custom, and as they approached a fire hydrant he lifted his leg, puppylike, as a joke. The wife marched right to a lawyer's office and instituted divorce proceedings. She refused to speak to reporters about her reasons, but you wonder what the iceberg was under that surface.

The first divorce I saw up close, like the first car crash you see up close, is imprinted on the inside of my eyelids. I still think about it, not because it happened, but because years later it seems so fated to have happened.

How could it be that a couple who really liked each other, and took the brave crazy flyer on not just living together, but swearing fealty and respect in front of a crowd, filing taxes jointly, spawning a child, and co-signing mortgages and car loans, how could they end up signing settlement papers on the dining room table, and weeping in the garden, and being coldly polite to each other at the door when he comes to pick up the kid on Saturday? How could that be?

The saddest word I've heard wrapped around divorce like a tattered blanket is 'tired', as in 'we were just both tired'. Tired seems so utterly normal, so much the rug always bunching in that one spot no matter what you do, the worn dishrack, the belt with extra holes punched with an ice pick, the torch in the pantry which has never had batteries, that the thought of tired being both your daily bread and also grounds for divorce gives me the willies.

The shagginess of things, the way they never quite work out as planned and break down every other Tuesday, necessitating wine and foul language and duct tape and the wrong-sized screw quietly hammered in with the bottom of a garden gnome, seems to me the very essence of marriage. So if what makes a marriage work — the constant shifting of expectations and eternal parade of small surprises — is also what causes marriages to dissolve, where is it safe to stand?

Nowhere, of course. Every marriage is pregnant with divorce, every day, every hour, every minute. The second you finish reading this essay, your spouse could close the refrigerator after miraculously finding a way to wedge the juice carton behind the milk jug, and call your marriage quits.

The odd truth of the matter is that because she might end your marriage in a moment, and you might end hers, you're still married. The instant there is no chance of death is the moment of death.

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of Thirsty for the Joy: Australian & American Voices.

Topic tags: brian doyle, divorce, marriage, husband, wife, spouse, irreconcilable dissonace



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Existing comments

Yesterday you published two poems by John Kinsella.

Today you published the following sentence: 'The shagginess of things, the way they never quite work out as planned and break down every other Tuesday, necessitating wine and foul language and duct tape and the wrong-sized screw quietly hammered in with the bottom of a garden gnome, seems to me the very essence of marriage.'

You made my day twice in succession. Thank you so much.

David B | 15 July 2009  

When Brian says a couple got divorced because, e.g., he picked his nose, he states matters which are symptoms of relationship breakdown. They are not its causes. To some extent the American system requires people to quote reasons like this when they apply for divorce. I read that Tony Abbott wants to return us to a system which requires reasons for divorce and I remember the time when private detectives were paid highly to collect evidence, often concocted, of marital infidelity and like matters.

Brian is clearly influenced by the American system. Fortunately, we have a better one in Australia where we establish the breakdown of a marriage by the fact that a couple have lived apart for one year. That takes resolution by both of them. And it provides time for deep thinking and counselling.

Australians do not get divorced because one of them picked their nose. It takes us one year to prove that our marriage relationships are broken.

Living in America seems to have corrupted Brian's understanding of our lives in Australia.

Gerry Costigan | 15 July 2009  

What a great article. Thanks.

Rosemary Keenan | 15 July 2009  

And then there's the ways people respond to a marriage breakdown.

How 21st century is this: I recently found out via a facebook status update that an old friend had been having an affair for months, while his wife stayed home to care for their children.

It was the wife who announced this. The reasons for this tactless, public revelation? One was practical ... it saved her from making a lot of difficult phone calls.

The other would be funny if it wasn't so sad. She wanted to humiliate him and thus sabotage any chance they might have had at a reconciliation after she had 'cooled off'.

Charles Boy | 15 July 2009  

What are people expecting ... and can we first live with ourselves?

Andrew | 15 July 2009  

A beautifully apposite perspective on marriage - appreciated.

Anna LM | 17 July 2009  

I think Ron Rolheiser said that we cannot not disappoint one another. We can, however, console each other in that. We are infinite souls with finite capabilities. Why else the promise?

Mercy | 22 July 2009  

I believe, along with Gerry Costigan, that apparently frivolous reasons for American divorces would probably be excuses for a deeper malaise. However, I'd like to point out an issue which was not covered by Brian Doyle... that of the couple who didn't follow today's pattern of living together for some years before marrying, but leaped straight in, only to find that their values and priorities were irreconcilable. They may try, in misery, to make it work for years and years and eventually one or both give up in despair, leaving damaged adults (and sadly, usually children as well).

Gabrielle Bridges | 27 July 2009  

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