Who Smiles and Who Cries When They Divorce?

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Some marriages end with shared sorrow. Others end with lasting longing by one partner and hardly a backward glance by the other. It's comforting for people to believe that divorce is sought by a couple who fully agree that the marriage has failed. But often only one person wants out.

Take infidelity. Studies tell us that infidelity is the most frequent cause of divorce. Typically when infidelity is discovered it engenders outrage, intense pain and humiliation, and can lead to enduring suffering. The confrontation which follows discovery often brings pleas for forgiveness, and the promise to reform. The marriage may or may not continue. Sometimes the hurt is too deep and the trust that held the couple together has been lost beyond repair. Martha age 30, a mother with two preschool children, left for a few weeks to care for her ill parents. When she returned she learned that, during her absence, her husband had an affair with the teenage babysitter. She cried for days. But despite his devotion to the children and his pleas to continue the marriage, she filed for divorce. She was convinced that she could not trust him ever again. She never remarried. He remarried twice.

In some marriages, as more than one woman told me, "His having girlfriends were part of the deal." Often this agreement was acceptable for several years, but did not survive the birth of children. Typically then, the wife called for fidelity. One woman said, "After our second child was born, he took a special apartment presumably so he would have privacy to write his music. I decided that his 'music' had lasted too long. He didn't understand my change of heart and indignantly reminded me of our early agreement. I explained that having children made a big difference to me. We weren't playing games anymore but he didn't get it. So I filed for divorce anyway against his wishes."

Some marriages break up because one spouse wants children and the other does not. These breakups can be heartbreaking because they can happen in passionate marriages where the spouse who does not want children fears that the child will end their romantic idyll and intrude on their intimacy. In one too familiar sequence, Kate proceeded to became pregnant against her husband's wishes. Ken began to drink to excess, and to stay out all night. Stung by his behavior, Kate angrily filed for divorce hoping that would bring him round, but unfortunately their love affair soon became a distant memory. Strangely enough, when such couples divorce, both partners may struggle for custody of the child. Kate and Ken were no exception. They fought for years over custody of their beautiful child who strongly resembled her mother.

A crisis, such as unemployment or the unexpected death of a family member or close friend, can send shock waves into a functioning marriage. The grieving partner often experiences a wide range of powerful reactions, including wide mood swings, depression, excessive drinking, and reduced desire for sex. Sometimes the partner provides neither understanding nor compassion. I recall one devoted husband who was overcome with grief when his brother was killed in a head-on collision. He was numb, unable to speak or eat, or undress for bed. His wife of many years failed utterly to realize that his troubling behavior was caused by his traumatic loss. She was offended by his lack of responsiveness and angrily moved out, with their child, leaving him alone at a time when he most needed comforting. She soon filed for divorce.

How avoidable are these tragedies?

Judith Wallerstein PhD
For fuller description and advice re marriage see my study of marriages
Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee .The Good Marriage. How and Why Love Lasts. (2006) Warner Books. New York Boston.

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