Today divorce is rampant but while I was growing up it was rare. Not surprisingly, I came to believe that marriage was forever.
That is not to say that relationships between husbands and wives were always good back in the fifties. I am sure they weren’t, but for cultural and economic reasons couples tended to stay together, although there were some exceptions.
So, despite the slightly faltering start to my relationship with my future wife, I expected my marriage to last forever. After all, we were from similar backgrounds, had shared values, and we both viewed matrimony as a sacred institution that you did not enter into lightly, nor did you leave it without good reason.
In fact, for many years it seemed we were going to live out my vision of marriage and family life in much the way I had grown up to believe and expect. We lived pretty harmoniously, enjoyed doing things together, and had a wonderful circle of friends. We happily invested time and energy in our three children because their welfare was our primary concern. Overall the atmosphere in our home was relaxed.
This familial bliss continued for about fifteen years before cracks began to appear. For numerous reasons my relationship with my wife gradually deteriorated until we reached a stage where we were hardly touching each other and resentments began to build up. It was a dark period for me generally.
My solution to my mid-life crisis was to seek therapy for myself. By contrast, my wife’s response to our predicament was to have an affair. When I found out, about two months later, it hit me like a thunderbolt. I felt like I had been slit down my middle with a knife; opened like a tin can. The pain just seared through me. What I felt was an agonizing mix of betrayal, abandonment, hopelessness and impotence. It was as if my world had collapsed. My life partner, my wife of nearly twenty years, mother of my three children was saying, “It’s over. You are not good enough. I want a new man.” In the early stages I was completely swamped by a sense of my own inadequacy, as a man, and as a husband. Later these feeling turned into anger and rage.
Betrayal in the form of adultery is always painful. In my case, its exceptional power lay in the fact that it reawakened my deepest emotions: my wife was rejecting me in much the same way I felt my mother had “rejected” me by dying when I was ten years old. In effect the situation that resulted was similar, only now it touched the core of my being.
Initially I wanted to file for divorce and started proceedings. Then some incident occurred which convinced us that we should try to “make a go of it.” We made a little progress but it never got very far. Sadly, we got into a roller-coaster situation in which neither of us could ‘leave the marriage’ – a sort of paralysis. We descended to levels of acrimony that we would never have believed possible for us. It was not plate-throwing but it was pretty horrible. So we were on this see-saw of occasionally wanting to glue Humpty-Dumpty together again while knowing deep down that it was futile.
There are various versions of hell but one of them must be: an estranged couple living in the same house, sharing the same facilities and sharing responsibility for three children.
After almost three years of this misery, left with no choice, I finally initiated divorce proceedings. Within months we had split up and were legally divorced. Amazingly, there was virtually no argument at all between us over the terms of the divorce or the child custody/care arrangements. We shared all our modest possessions equally and each bought a house in the same area. By this time our older daughter was already at university and the two younger children had no problem moving between our two homes.
With the advantage of hindsight, I can see that the breakup of my marriage inadvertently turned out to be a transformative experience for me. The upheaval, coming like a bolt from the blue and feeling like hell, jolted me back to life and forced me to begin afresh. It shook me out of the fog I had been living in for years and liberated me in the process.
As it turned out, my breakup was a wakeup call.