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Carol Anne Riddell, John Partilla And The Myth of the Sophisticated Divorce

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On Sunday, the New York Times published its now-infamous "Vows" column about newlyweds Carol Anne Riddell and John Partilla, who met at their kids' Upper West Side pre-kindergarten class, fell madly in love, and dumped their respective spouses to be with each other.

The piece set off a firestorm of controversy in the blogosphere and on Twitter, with readers alternately blasting the couple for going public with their story (and the Times' for publishing it), or commending them both for their honesty.

On Monday, Forbes' Jeff Bercovici quoted Riddell as saying that she and Partilla had participated in the story because they just wanted "one honest account of how this happened for our sakes and for our kids' sakes." By Tuesday, Riddell's ex-husband Bob Ennis had weighed in to Forbes with the view that the piece was a "choreographed, self-serving piece of revisionist history", adding that while "people lie and cheat and steal all the time...rarely does a national news organization give them an unverified megaphone to whitewash it." Yesterday, Partilla admitted to Page Six that he regretted participating in the piece, and wouldn't have done so if he and Riddell had had any inkling of the nerve it would strike.

The story made me queasy for many reasons, not the least of which was the way in which the devastation of two families was positioned as a Romeo and Juliet tale of star-crossed lovers, but with the twist of blending a happily-ever-after ending with a story of hope and renewal; or the way in which the two ghost-exes were so casually "disappeared", or the way in which readers were asked to believe that when the heart wants what the heart wants--and then marches out and brashly takes it--all one really needs in the aftermath is a little Bob Marley, because everything's gonna be alright.

Let me be clear. This is not an argument against divorce. Nor am I passing moral judgment on two people who fell in love and decided to leave their marriages to be with each other. People do what they do for all kinds of reasons, and it's not my place or desire to judge their choices. What does trouble me, however, is the apparently delusional manner in which these two people view the consequences of their choices on the people around them.

I say delusional, because Riddell and Partilla think they're having a sophisticated divorce, by which I mean that they believe, as many people do in our culture, that it is possible to divorce and wreak havoc in the lives of others, and somehow go about it in a civilized manner. They're so sure that this is what they're doing, and are so seduced by the idea that they their divorce is a thoroughly modern model from which others can learn ("We are really proud of our family and proud of the way we've handled this situation over the past year," Riddell told Bercovici), they chose to tell their story in the Times' "Vows" column, the apotheosis of stylish and urbane marital modernity.

What they don't know yet--but will almost certainly find out--is that there is no such thing as a sophisticated divorce--even if you're a triathlete advertising executive or glamorous TV anchor with a Pepsodent smile who dresses for her second marriage in a white strapless Nicole Miller.

There's no such thing as a sophisticated divorce because when you get divorced and you have young children, no matter how devoted or high quality a parent you are, no matter how much expert advice you seek out to get your kids through, no matter how responsibly and maturely you handle the situation, no matter how much you wish it weren't so, you are setting off an IED in your children's lives. There's simply no getting around that; yet it's something that divorcing parents--especially those who have uncomfortable and messy guilts of their own to assuage--often prefer not to think about.

I have been guilty of falling into this trap, and I know many thoughtful and caring divorced parents who have unconsciously fallen into it as well. For not only do children lack any agency in their parents' decision to divorce (not to mention its life-altering consequences), unlike many of their parents, they didn't see that homemade bomb coming. It just landed in their lives one day and took them out. Once that bomb has gone off though, there's no use in pretending that it isn't going to reconfigure a lot of lives in a profound way.

This is true even if their parent didn't marry a close family friend with whom they shared dinners, Christmas parties and family vacations, as was the case for the kids in these two families. In any event, when Riddell and Partilla broke the news to their kids, their kids were distraught. Surveying the damage, these are the rationalizations their parents chose to tell themselves:

Riddell: "He said, 'Remind me every day that the kids will be O.K.' [I would say] the kids are going to be great because we're going to spend the rest of our lives making it so."

Riddell: My kids are going to look at me and know that I am flawed and not perfect, but also deeply in love. We're going to have a big, noisy rich life with more people in it."

What these two besotted newlyweds don't seem to understand--or more likely prefer not to face--is that no matter how much they congratulate themselves for their handling of the debacle, or how resilient their children are, or how successful those children become later as adults, their children will have scars from the divorce, and they'll bear those scars, in one way or another, for the rest of their lives. If you don't believe me, then look elsewhere on this page and read Judith Wallerstein.

The five kids (three his; two hers) whose lives exploded in the wake of an "unstoppable" love, have watched their parents play a game of marital musical chairs, and they themselves have been moved around like pieces in a board game. No matter how much they're loved or are shepherded through the process; no matter how much their parents want them to put all this behind them and get better and love their step-siblings and their "big noisy family", they can't be sure that any of that will happen. In fact, if you read the literature on the subject, the deck is stacked against it happening.

What's more, in my view, they're only making matters worse by failing to see that the so-called sophisticated divorce comes fully loaded with ridiculous, impossible-to-meet expectations many of which parents project onto their kids largely to make themselves feel better, but that just wind up burdening them more.

When any divorce happens, kids lose the families they have known, and their sense of safety. For a time, they're traumatized and disoriented. In this case, the children have one parent who's madly in love, and another who's been turned into road kill. What are we to reasonably expect of any child who has to wrap his or her head around that?

I have a fantasy about the young girl in the "Vows" wedding photo. In my fantasy, she grows up to become a writer, and one day she decides to tell the story of her parents' divorce from her point of view, the way Noah Baumbach did in The Squid and The Whale.

That's one sophisticated New York divorce story I think we could all benefit from hearing.

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