A friend of mine is going through a divorce. Mature and brave as he sounds in the decision he and his partner have made, I cannot help but notice the agony he seems to be experiencing. This agony presents itself as an occasional short remark, or the way he appears nostalgic about the past these days, quite possibly of a time in his life when he was happier and more hopeful about the future; or the way he stumbles when he appears ambivalent and unpracticed in referring to her as his “wife,” correcting himself quickly to refer to her as his “ex-wife.”
Other than what he says, many of us can imagine and feel his agony quite well, because this is a path many of us have had to take during our lifetime. I have passed this painful road, and though I would rather forget about it, for his sake I would talk about it, hoping that it can be helpful.
I believe the worst thing about a divorce or a break-up is not leaving a familiar face, a familiar space, or losing things in the process. I believe it is losing the hope and optimism we had when we were first united with our lover. No feeling in the world compares with the wonderful sense of private and personal accomplishment we feel when after thinking, feeling, wondering, hoping, trying, failing, trying again, and winning the heart of someone we found special, we are united with that person.
That first knowing look, that first proclamation of feelings for each other, that first kiss and that first embrace are all moments completely unforgettable and incomparable to any other memory or accomplishment in life. Long after we break up, something inside our hearts longs for those feelings and memories, and something in our minds resists the long and painful journey of falling in love again and the fear of another potential failure. That battle rages continually inside people who have experienced the phenomenon of divorce.
I was once watching a nature documentary on television. It was about a particular species of monkeys which bear surprising similarity in their behavior to that of humans. A female monkey’s child had died. The mother monkey was holding her baby in her arms, going about, pretending as though nothing had happened, swinging from tree to tree, and engaging in her daily activities. She refused to give her baby up to a burial which was something this particular species of monkeys did when one of them died. All the other monkeys in the tribe, who knew the baby was dead were trying to grab the dead child from the mother monkey, and she was resisting it, jumping around, avoiding the painful realization of her child’s death; until one day in an instinctively collective effort, all the other monkeys in the tribe descended upon her, took the dead child and buried it. Now she sat and wailed and cried and mourned her child.
I think for many of us, a broken marriage or relationship is like that dead child monkey in our arms. We know it’s dead, and we know it must be buried, but the prospect of losing something so dear and familiar to us is so overpowering and saddening that for a long time we go around pretending like it isn’t dead and that we can manage our daily lives carrying it in our arms, giving a Herculean effort to carrying the dead weight of something which is very heavy by virtue of its significance.
As Iranians, we are raised to believe in the merits and value of family. We value marriages and commitments immensely. Some of us consider divorce as a taboo, one which we must avoid at all costs. Some of us do avoid it at all costs, including our sanity, our happiness, our peace of mind, and that of our children’s who have to be witnesses to the ugliness of the lives of two people who don’t love each other anymore but continue to go forward with the painful charade.
Well, whether we like it or not, sometimes divorces cannot be avoided. Just the same, a divorce or a breakup is a major disappointment, a project or venture that we somehow botched. But we shouldn’t go on for the rest of our lives beating ourselves over the head with it. I think it takes brevity and wisdom to know when we have a dead monkey on our hands, and we must put it to rest, mourn it, accept its death, and go on.
In the middle of the painful mayhem and dust and blood of a divorce, depending on the circumstances and the people involved, too much attention is given to the physical manifestations and possessions of the marriage, and how they should be divvied up — you know, custody rights, the property, the savings, the retirement plan, the china — and not enough to the less tangible, yet so important possessions of it, loss of which is in some cases more devastating than the tangible things.
My friend’s relationship did not have any children in it, thank God, so I won’t talk about that awful, prickly subject in this note. A whole other book must be devoted to the painful process of divorce when there are children in the marriage. For now I want to talk about some of the other lost “assets” of a relationship gone awry.
We live in a world that is getting increasingly used to divorces and breakups, even after long-standing relationships. Most of us have had friends who have divorced, and have had to quickly and painfully learn how to act vis a vis the decision that the couple, both of whom are our friends, have made. Taking sides and passing judgment is a bad idea, and learning how to dispense advice and support is a tricky business.
I suppose most friends can continue to be friends to both people, but there are some very dear friends, the ones who will be the confidants of each of the two, the ones who know the whole picture including some sordid details, the ones who tried to save the marriage by talking to both sides, who will know more about it than anybody else.
Those friends, unfortunately, the anointed ones (!) can only be friends to one of them in the end, and there is no way out of this, at least for a very long time. That is such a very painful process for all the people involved, where friends are divided between the couple. The feelings of loss in the case of a divorce, then, take new dimensions as the loss takes away more than just a partner.
Another is the couple’s mementoes, holding the memories of the years they spent together. Who gets the photographs and things they bought on trips? Is the woman entitled to a family heirloom of the man’s family, given to her by her soon-to-be ex-mother-in-law a few years back?
And the worst thing to have to split up is that dog-eared telephone book, the one that holds the names and phone numbers of your collective friends, family, and acquaintances. Who gets to have that? What should the other one do without it? Well, I photocopied it and gave the original to my ex in the end, but the process was not as pragmatic and easy as this might sound, trust me.
To my wise and well-poised friend, who is facing this dramatic change with dignity, courage, and generosity, I say hang in there. Divorce might change our identity from one of a couple to a single person over night, making us lose our footing for a while during which we scramble to come to grips with deeply emotional and stupidly practical questions.
But if we know this is the right thing to do and feel good about the time and attention we have given this really important decision, all we can do is to carry on as best as we can, learning and growing in the process; because as we grow older and more experienced in life, we realize that there are still lessons to learn and growth to be accomplished which will hopefully make us better, smoothing our rough edges, and making us more humble and less judgmental.
We must not, however, ever lose our faith in love, which was bold and exciting and as real as anything ever got in our lives. That is our memento, our medallion, our trophy even in the wake of a failed relationship. We must not punish our hearts for having been capable of love. That would be the true failure.