Divorce Disaster Preparedness, Part II. Picking a side or the sideline.
This is Part II of a three-part blog on how to prepare for someone among your friends or in your family is involved in a divorce. It is preceded by Part I: Duck, Cover, and Hold, and Part III: What about the kids? will follow when I get up the nerve. The images in this particular entry are from LA artist Luke Chueh. I picked them because they capture some of the disconnect that people seem to feel when going through something like this. I haven’t chosen some of the more disturbing pictures, so if you’re not up for that kind of thing don’t click the picture, which links to his site.
You have to make your peace.
My lawyer had a saying: “You have to make your peace.” It was a mildly Stoic proclamation about certain kinds of things you were trying to hold on to. They were things that you didn’t want, didn’t anticipate, and perhaps, in a better world, shouldn’t have to let go of; nevertheless, they were things that you couldn’t, shouldn’t, or didn’t have control over. You had to let them go. And a big part of getting a divorce is the process of coming to terms with those things.
For those in the divorce, such moments and realizations tend to crystalize around objects (a house, the hutch, Christmas decorations, the dog) and people (friends, family, and, of course, kids) that are symbolic of, or vehicles for, the control someone once had, or now wants, over his (or her) own or the soon-to-be-former partner’s life. People will go to extraordinary lengths — utter craziness at times — to exert control over and through these things. They do it to maintain their own sense of self, they do it to maintain an emotional or physical tether on the other person, and they often use them as weapons of reprisal.
There are times in a divorce when it seems to be boiling down to money, but it’s all about control. And, from my experience, the sooner you make your peace with those things, the sooner you move on, the sooner your world will cease to be about your ex, and the sooner you will be able to start rebuilding a different, and hopefully more authentic, life.
For friends and family, however, the circumstances are somewhat different, and it really wasn’t until I started thinking about this entry that I realized just how different they are. Because for many of these people, the couple splitting up is about all they have to hold on to. And because marriage is something that holds symbolic value in and of itself, some people will see a couple’s breakup as an assault on their own marital ideals. Perhaps that’s why, when a divorce starts, it’s so terribly awkward and frightening for them, and why sometimes the tendency for friends and family is to try, whatever it takes, to put the couple back together or, failing that, leave both individuals behind as if they were gloves and have no separate usefulness.
Things will be different.
Married couples, especially young ones, go to a lot of trouble to fashion a, identity as a couple and present it to others, and it’s this couple-ness to which others often relate. So when that goes away, those who have only known the pair as a couple, or those who have become somehow personally invested in that coupled relationship can get really bent out of shape. Understandably so; it’s like one of their favorite bands is breaking up. They don’t want Lennon or McCartney: they want the Beatles back.
It’s not just the good things about a pair’s relationship that are important to others, it can also be some of the not-so-good things. Seeing them stay together despite their differences, watching them grate on each other’s nerves, and listening to them bitch privately and bicker publicly seems to confirm others’ sense that sticking it out is preferable and possible. The evolution of others’ interaction in the couple’s relationship — from double-dates to separate boys’ and girls’ nights out, from lending an ear to a broken record of complaints, to sometimes even singing along — becomes a part of the narrative and validation of others’ lives. When divorce happens, it feels like all that investment has gone down the drain and threatens to take whatever support it gave with it. Some of my old friends freaked out as if I might have contaminated their marriage with some form of communicable disease while they weren’t looking. And even though I still think that people have to remember that “It’s not about you,” I think now I better understand where that came from.
For family, things can even be more complicated. Family boundaries are difficult to negotiate in the best of times. When people first get married, there’s the whole process of initiating someone from outside the family into the inner family sanctum and allowing them to establish their place. It’s a process in which everyone pays their dues, and sometimes dearly. By then, some of the family have come to see-em-as they should–the newcomer <>as family; heck, some of them may like their new member better than the original. But when a couple splits up, all that has to be de-negotiated. And if there is someone else involved, it has to be negotiated yet again. In my situation, one of the family members wrote to say she wanted no part of it: “I can’t do this again,” she said, “I can’t take it.” Another kept a family portrait with the ex up on dining room family picture wall for a year after I was married to someone else. Both turned into major family trauma issues that really were more about who gets to re-negotiate family borders than anything else.
Ask yourself: “Who (or what), honestly, am I in this for?”
So it’s worth asking yourself honestly just what you will miss about these people. If your relationship with them was primarily about being a couple, about a surface relationship, or about their drama (or your own), you might want to cut your losses tactfully and, with time, move on. They probably will, unless they’re co-dependent on you. If they want you to somehow intervene in their demise (act as arbitrators, carry messages back and forth, or the like), I’d encourage you to encourage them to seek real, and professional, help. Helping friends through troubled times is difficult but worthwhile. But a divorce (or a teetering-on-the-edge-of-divorce relationship) is something on a whole new level. There are huge consequences for everyone, and they often involve decisions that, without professional (and often legal) protection, can be devastating for many years. If you want to do that kind of thing, become a family law lawyer or marriage therapist. Otherwise, like I said in my last post, don’t run, or get dragged, into a burning building.
But if, upon reflection, you want to maintain some kind of relationship with these people, you’re probably going to have to pick one of them. Why? Because if you’re going to hang in there, you are going to have to take a side. Why? Because there are sides. Why? Because. It’s one of those things you have to make your peace with. So you have some difficult decisions to make.
Now don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not calling for some kind of shallow and self-serving utilitarian, Machiavellian, or pragmatic calculations. I’m just calling for a few moments of soul-searching honesty before re-upping. This is something you ought to go into with your eyes open.
We all maintain a persona with others. A persona is a “mask” (persona) that represent us. It’s created by a negotiation of what we are willing to show others and what others are willing to see. It’s kinda frightening to be confronted by aspects of someone, or yourself, that you didn’t know were there (or thought had been sufficiently repressed). And even if parts of these new personas get shelved as things settle down, your future relationship will be different than the one you now have. So if the only “persons” you can deal are the ones you had, you probably will have to make your peace and move one. Otherwise, your relationship will be about trying to re-create something that no longer exists, and about pining for and rehashing old times. It’ll never work. Not honestly, at least. And, of the few good things that can come out of a divorce, one of them ought to be the opportunity to start over honestly.
Remember your long-term loyalties.
If you really are glad to see one of these people go, your choice is an easy one. And if your friendship is one of utility (for example, you’re friends because you work with her, or because he has the connections you need for your next three contracts), then your choice is also pretty straightforward. However, if your choice isn’t so clear, there are, to my way of thinking, two relationships that trump others: family, and pre-marriage friendships.
Don’t side against family. Don’t do it. Don’t. Just don’t. Not unless you are willing to live with the long term consequences and the therapy bill, which you’re not. Family betrayal cuts so deep that it virtually never really heals. And don’t expect people on the other side to trust you either — after all, who trusts someone who turns on family members?
Old friendships, too, are things that matter deeply. In a divorce, each party generally gets the stuff each brought into the marriage: family heirlooms, pre-owned property, and friendships. If you’re going to overtly side with the other party against your long-term friend, the other person gets you in the divorce. Because that’s the way it works. I had one friend, whose wife was a long-term friend of my ex’s. “We probably won’t be seeing much of each other anymore,” he told me, “______ kinda has priority here.” I got that. I was sorry to see him go, but no hard feelings. He needed to stick with his wife, his wife had to stick by her prior friend. My friendship with him came lower in the priority chain.
Now, being loyal doesn’t mean that you have participate in craziness. It doesn’t mean that you always have to agree. It doesn’t mean that you can’t try and talk her out of a vendetta or tell him that he’s being a monstrous jackass. It doesn’t mean that you have to give up your own beliefs. It does mean that you should express your commitment to your long-term relationship. It does mean that you should refrain from undermining her in the family or public. It does mean that you try to protect the him as best you can. And it does mean that sometimes you bite your lip and hope things work out in the long term.
If you’re staying around, you have to fish or cut bait.
So if you’re going to stick around, don’t say something stupid like, “I’m not taking sides.” By the time you have to say this, someone is getting screwed. If you do nothing to help someone who is getting beat to a pulp — you are taking sides. If you help someone do something that harms the other — you are taking sides. If you know that one of them is going to do something nasty to the other and you do nothing — you are taking sides. At least that’s how the person in the divorce is going to see it. To that person, “I’m not taking sides” translates into “I don’t want to soil myself with your messy problem, because forcing me to choose would upset my ability to pretend that I actually care what is happening to you.”
And if you’re going to be involved, don’t say “There are two sides to every story” when confronted with conflicting information and leave it at that. Sure, there are two sides to everything: some people deny the Holocaust, and some people don’t. Some people think there is a vast conspiracy about Obama’s citizenship, and some people don’t. Some people have facts, evidence, and reason on their side, and some people don’t. If you’re unwilling to make a call between them, you might just as well pack your bags and take the side of the lunatics. Pretending that their credibility suddenly operates on a level playing field is taking their side. Divorce is no place for cowards. So make your loyalties clear, be honest, find out what is happening, and either get on the field or at least go sit in the proper place in the bleachers where you can openly cheer the side you’re rooting for.
Try to keep in mind that you are not condemning or condoning these people’s actions by your choice. You aren’t siding with infidelity by choosing to remain friends with someone who’s been unfaithful to their spouse, and you aren’t being loyal to marriage by deciding to dump on the person who strikes you as the most culpable in the breakdown of the relationship. You don’t have “marriage” as a friend, or make a sister of “fidelity.” You have friendships and families with people, people to whom you have particular obligations based on your mutual relationship and history. If you’re only loyal to them when they continue to fit into a self-serving definitions, then you are not really friends with them but with your own ideas. You’re going to have to be a pretty a pretty controlling person in order to have any relationship, and you’ll still be lonely.
What about the kids?
You’ll notice, I hope, that I haven’t said anything about kids. That’s by design. I think we all feel — and some of us know from experience — that the kids in a divorce get a pretty raw deal. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Kids have the worst of it, especially since their primary family loyalty and psychological underpinning runs both ways. But talking about children is so emotionally and ideologically charged that I decided to try and tackle some of those things in a different post. I’m not leaving them out because I don’t think they matter — I think they matter more than I can probably think of in a paragraph, and more than I’m up to right now. But I will say that I think that the primary problem for children in a divorce isn’t the divorce but how their parents and other adults — especially the adults who are family and friends of their parents — handle the divorce. But that’s for another time.