I’ve noticed that when people are talking about why someone is a mess they often cite their number of marriages. As in “What do you expect? I think he’s on, like, his fourth wife!” In a biography of Clementine Churchill, the author supports her claim that both the Roosevelts and Churchills were bad parents by totaling the marriages of their offspring –impressively large in both cases.
Lately I’ve started speaking up. When someone made a disparaging remark about a relative who was now on her THIRD marriage I said, “Careful now! Some VERY nice people have been married three times.” The speaker had the good graces to look chagrinned.
Not that I can throw any stones. I used to be the biggest judgey-pants on the block about divorce—right up until I GOT one! In my youth pretty much nobody I knew was divorced and I thought it was a truly terrible thing. Just the way the folks on Mad Men felt about the divorcee down the street. A few neighbors felt pity, most were convinced she was after their husbands and all thought she and her status were deeply troubling, very odd and mostly to be avoided with eyes averted, like something distasteful on the sidewalk. Such was the tenor of 1950s America. It seemed completely natural to assume that there was something wrong with someone who was divorced—they were lazy, didn’t try hard enough, didn’t value long-term commitments or, worse still, had a fatal flaw like infidelity or substance abuse.
Walking down the aisle for my first wedding I clearly remember thinking I was making a mistake. But marriage still seemed de rigueur to me in 1977 and I had not received any better offers. No shock then to the thinking person (not me!) when the marriage ended 10 years later. But still I drove to my parents’ house with actual fear and trepidation at the prospect of telling my long-married mom and dad that I was about to have the first divorce in our family—possibly even in our extended family. I’m not really sure when it was that a far-away and little-known first cousin got divorced but I do remember it was attributed entirely to being raised in the no-rules, free-wheeling atmosphere of that bastion of sex, love and rock and roll—-CALIFORNIA!!
In order to continue getting up in the morning following this colossal life failure, I had to temper my judgment of divorced people. I now said things like: Things happen. People grow apart. Problems ensue and only one half of the duo may want to work on them. I then quickly shifted all my anti-divorce feelings to people who did it when they had CHILDREN. I believe I even spoke the words on more than one occasion that once you had children the divorce option was simply off the table. It was so morally reprehensible to shatter a child’s in-tact family that no matter how miserable you might think you were with your spouse, you were obligated to suck it up. I remember a friend’s shock when she decided to leave her husband when their only child was 12 and her mother said, “Couldn’t you just hang in there for 6 more years until she goes to college?” Uh, no mom. Not really possible. But in truth I was kind of thinking the same thing and pretty much stopped speaking to this woman in favor of siding with her “abandoned” husband.
Of course, this judgment also had to be suspended when after 16 years, 2 kids and 5 years of therapy I finally mustered the courage to leave a toxic marriage. My self-loathing was immeasurable. Leaving had seemed utterly impossible right up until the day when I could not stop crying or get out of bed. I realized I could not go on living if I stayed in that marriage and that, no matter what pain might ensue, my children would be better off with a living mother than a dead one. That is literally what it took for me to leave because I was so convinced that people who divorced when they had children were lower than pond scum.
My years in scum-ville were the darkest of my life. I hated myself and what I had done to my children. Leaving was horrible in every way except that suddenly I could breathe and no longer felt my heart sink every time I pulled into the driveway and saw his car there. Even in the midst of wracking guilt there was this tiny whiff of lightness and freedom and ………joy at having found the get out of jail card and used it. And I was, of course, forced to alter my opinion of people who divorced with children, given that I was now a member of their club. I had to accept that sometimes wanting a family and actually being able to make it work were not the same thing. Divorce was still wrenchingly sad, but it was sometimes necessary for the survival of one or more of the parties. And the constitution does guarantee each of us a right to life.
It was four long years before I even contemplated trying again, but I eventually tired of being alone and went on line. The result was a giant gift from God called Tom. We have already covered that all-too-short, exceedingly sweet chapter and its tragic end. Just promise me that you will never say to someone who had a wonderful short marriage any of the following: “Well, at least you were together such a short time that you know you can live without him.” OR “Really you never had a chance to see if you would get sick of each other.” OR “Still in the honeymoon phase. Who knows how it might have played out.” As another widow recently wrote in response to such idiotic comments “Right! Thank God I didn’t have to spend the rest of my life with my beloved soul mate. Really dodged that bullet!”
Losing Tom was the greatest loss of my life. It made me doubt everything. God, the universe, the possibility of lasting happiness, redemption, the fucked-up health care system—EVERYTHING. Except love. He taught me how to love. He taught me how to BE loved. And those were lasting lessons that haven’t gone away.
I know I am still a super judgey person in many other arenas. But on the topic of multiple marriages I now get it. Shit really does happen and often it is not in your control. And sometimes the only way to keep living is to end a relationship. And sometimes the best way to keep living is to stay hopeful and have the courage to start another one, knowing full well that there are no happily ever after guarantees outside the Disney franchise.
I don’t know if John and I will ever get married. But we might. And he will no doubt have to explain away the fact that he is marrying someone who has had THREE previous husbands. Am I proud of that? No. Am I happy my life has gone that way? Uh-uh. Do I now accept that some basically well-meaning, not horrible people have multiple marriages? Yup. The right number used to be one. Now it seems to be pretty acceptable to have had two. I’m going to argue for a little more latitude since my third was a love match ended by cancer. But I also think there might even be something admirable about Liz Taylor’s eight for she always said, “At least I MARRY them!”.
So here is what I’ve decided. In almost all cases people are just doing the best they can in life. At least at that particular moment in that particular circumstance. Some people get lucky and are able to create and sustain a 1950s-style family that eats dinner together and stays in one piece. God love them. I truly wish that had been me. But it wasn’t. I tried pretty hard but apparently what the universe thought my soul most needed in this life was quite a few different tries at love. I’ve learned a lot. At least enough to caution you about drawing too many conclusions about Aunt Susie or the lady down the street based solely on how many husbands she’s had. Some pretty nice people have taken a few tries to get it right. At least they didn’t decide to give up on love and sit home being bitter. That’s something.
So if one day there is a #4, let the tongues wag away. I’ve learned the hard way about the perils of throwing stones when your house turns out to have a LOT more windows than you realized!