A Funny Divorce Story (fiction)

Not too long before my wife and I separated, we sat down and had the talk. No, not about where the kids were going to live. Not about what school or what church they’d attend (we decided on 50-50 custody, the schools in my new town, and her church).

We talked about dating again.

Both of us knew the divorce could take forever, and neither of us wanted to wait until then to date again. So we kind of checked in with each other, to see where we were at with things.

After realizing both of us were not just ready but kind of eager to move on, we agreed we’d both start soon. We also agreed that we didn’t have to tell one another when or who we were dating, but that we’d talk to each other before introducing the kids to a new romantic partner.

About a month later, well established in my new home, I met someone. We were kind of taking it slow, both agreeing to wait and see how things progressed before introducing her to my kids. But my kids and ex knew that I was dating, and they even knew her name.

Now I hadn’t heard if my ex had started dating yet. I assumed she had, but didn’t want to pry. And I certainly didn’t want to ask the girls, as I didn’t want to put them in the position of informing on their mom.

Anyway, I’ll never forget one day when my girls came home from their mom’s. They were unusually silent in the car; when we got in the door, I immediately asked them what was up. My 12-year-old looked at my 10-year-old. My 10-year-old looked back at her sister. “You tell him,” she said. “No,” her sister replied. “You tell him.”

I thought this was my moment to jump in. “Girls, is this about your mommy dating again?” They both nodded, somewhat relieved. “Look, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact it’s wonderful. Your mommy and I spoke all about it a long time ago, and we both agreed we’d start seeing other people.”

“That’s not it,” piped my youngest.

“So what is it?” Immediately my mind imagined the worst. He was a gangster. A drug dealer. Someone wanted in several states for armed robbery. In short, someone horrible and menacing, who was scaring my kids at a distance.

I could hear myself screaming in my mind. How could she do this? What the F was she thinking? Right away, I wanted to call her and give her a piece of my mind.

Then my mind raced in another direction. What if the new boyfriend was a girlfriend? I knew from clinical experience that a number of straight folks discover new or underlying sexualities after years of therapy, and wondered if my ex was one of them. If so, I couldn’t wait to get on the phone and congratulate her.

It was neither. “Daddy, we saw a picture of David.”

“Is that your mom’s new boyfriend?”

“Yes,” they said, almost in unison.

“So?” I waited. “And?”

They looked at each other again. My oldest one spoke up. “Daddy. He looks exactly like you.”

“Yeah,” her sister added. “Just a lot older, like with white hair and everything.”

I smiled, knelt, and hugged both my girls. “That’s fine, kiddos. Hey, why don’t you all go upstairs and do your homework while I get started on dinner?”

“Sure thing, Daddy.” They ran up the stairs. Once I was sure they were out of earshot, I dialed my ex.

“Hey it’s me.”

“Hi,” she said. “Is everything ok?”

“Yes, everything’s fine. The girls are here with me, and we’re about to have spaghetti and meatballs in a bit.”

“Oh good, their favorite.”

“Yes. I was calling just to let you know that they told me they saw a picture of David.”

“Oh. Hope that’s ok. They were curious, so I showed them his official portrait.”

“It’s fine. They told me he’s amazingly good-looking.”

“Well he is. And that’s sweet of them to say.”

“Well, you deserve the best.”

“Aw thanks. How are things going with your girlfriend?” She never could bring herself to say her name.

“Great. Anyway, I was just calling to congratulate you.”

“Thanks. I’m sure that if he and I ever get serious, the girls are really going to like him.”

“Of that I am certain.”

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Till Death Do Us Part

I think everyone who goes through a divorce remembers and struggles with one of the most familiar parts of the marriage ceremony. It echoes in our heads throughout and sometimes even long after our marriages, right alongside such goodies as for richer or poorer or in sickness and in health.

For us it’s the infamous Till death do us part.

Weren’t we supposed to stay together until one of us dies? You can imagine how those words can make divorcing people feel, even if they don’t believe in God.

We said all that in front of our friends and family. Did we not mean it? Did we just not understand?

I think these interpretations take death too literally. That is to say, of course bodies can die during a marriage. But a whole lot else can as well.

Love, for example, can die. Sometimes to be born again with the same person. Sometimes with another.

Sometimes love takes a vacation, then comes home. Other times, it leaves and never comes back.

But when love dies (especially erotic love), a basic warmth and affection can still remain. I think we all know couples like this who stay married forever.

Bodies are important, but they alone don’t constitute a marriage. And while love is important in marriage — perhaps even essential — the heart of a marriage is not love.

It’s respect. Respect is the retaining wall that holds back the worst of ourselves from one another. It’s what lets us be furiously angry at another without that anger in any way threatening our deepest love. And it’s what keeps us from inflicting the deadliest part of our pain upon those we’re closest to.

Sadly, it’s all too often the case that we don’t realize the role that respect plays in a marriage until it starts to fail.

When we feel disrespected, in or outside of marriage, we might say, “hey, you’re not treating me with respect.”

Sometimes such words come just in time for respect to be restored. “Oh my God, you’re right; that was wrong of me, and I’m so sorry I hurt you like that.”

Sometimes they come too late. “Respect isn’t given, it’s earned! If you want respect, start acting like you deserve it!”

When we have trouble treating one another respectfully, it might be because we were never treated respectfully, as children, or when we were most broken. Treating someone close to us disrespectfully can also be a way of restoring a sense of power and control, precisely during those moments when we feel most frail and vulnerable.

When respect falters, when we see it struggling, we might try to give it medicine. In the worst cases, we might even give it CPR. I think this is what marriage counselors and couples therapists do.

In an ideal world, respect comes roaring back to life. Spouses start once again expressing themselves fully while treating each other fairly, and without injuring one another. This is critical when spouses disagree fiercely about something important.

Disappoint, irritate, frustrate, even hurt one another, yes.  But never injure. Hurt heals when there’s respect. Injury only gets worse.

Sometimes, though, respect expires. Here’s where death gets the final word: the barriers to anger dissolve. Intimacies and secrets, which once bonded, now become weaponized. Spouses begin using one another as scratching posts or punching bags.

Things get said that can’t be taken back, and permanent damage is done to persons and relationships. Apologies cease to be made, and when they are, it’s more or less sincerely, more or less genuinely. When they come, they’re too late, and can’t even begin to heal the pain.

Time takes over that role, the role that was once fulfilled by the person hurting us.

The soul of a marriage dies when respect is lost. And that’s when marriage changes from a partnership into a prison.

Once a certain basic respect for someone is gone, there’s no bringing it back. And when you stay in a relationship where respect has died, your soul dies too, right alongside that of the relationship.

Sometimes that happens slowly and imperceptibly. Sometimes it happens rather suddenly.

Here’s the crucial point: the death that parts us is not our physical death. And love can long outlast the physical bodies that prompted it.

It’s not the death of love that parts us. Many marriages survive the death of love. Some even depend on it.

No, the death that parts us is the death of respect. It does so by announcing, more or less clearly, that we have to leave the relationship: for the sake of our soul, for the sake of our survival.