I had been following the on-again, off-again, on-again divorce of Sean Penn and Robin Wright for a while, not because I'm celeb crazed but because before Penn took off for Haiti and Wright to L.A., they lived just a few miles from me. I sometimes would see Wright around town, looking like any other San Francisco Bay Area yummy mommy shopping at Whole Foods or checking out the guitars at the local music shop, just much more famous and a heck of a lot richer.
So when I read Penn's complaint to the Hollywood Reporter a few weeks ago that he'd been "taken for one half of everything I had in the divorce," I had to laugh -- "Well, what did you expect, if you carry on like that?" -- and I had a flashback to my own divorce a few years prior.
Like Wright, there were affairs and other shenanigans. Like Wright, we tried to salvage the marriage. Like Wright, I was the one who finally said, "I want a divorce" -- the hardest words I ever had to say. And, like Penn, my then-husband was dumbfounded -- "You're leaving me?"
Yes, I was, and that's because he was doing everything that looked like leaving me except the actual leaving part.
Men, evidently, don't leave.
As it turns out, it's -- sadly -- the only thing Wright and I do share, but it's something we have in common with a lot of other marital splits. Women ask for divorce two-thirds more often than men. But it isn't so much because the wives woke up one day and "fell out of love" or realized they had "different values or lifestyles," as many 50-something men who initiated divorce told AARP in a survey a few years back.
No, something else is clearly happening. It may be true that men don't leave but you have to look at why women do; as Frank Lloyd Wright once wisely said, "The truth is more important than the facts."
So what is going on?
According to the National Marriage Project, formerly at Rutgers University, now at the University of Virginia, a lot:
"Two-thirds of all divorces are initiated by women. One recent study found that many of the reasons for this have to do with the nature of our divorce laws. For example, in most states women have a good chance of receiving custody of their children. Because women more strongly want to keep their children with them, in states where there is a presumption of shared custody with the husband the percentage of women who initiate divorces is much lower. Also, the higher rate of women initiators is probably due to the fact that men are more likely to be "badly behaved." Husbands, for example, are more likely than wives to have problems with drinking, drug abuse, and infidelity."
Last year proved to be a bumper crop of "badly behaved" husbands. Just ask Sandra Bullock, Elin Nordegren, and Eva Longoria. But if the gals didn't file for divorce, would Jesse, Tiger, or Tony have dumped them and perhaps shacked up with the other woman -- or, in some cases, women? Probably not.
A few authors who've paid attention to those sorts of things cite some rather pathetic statistics that "the other woman" should pay attention to: about 3 percent of cheating men marry their lovers, according to Jan Halper (Quiet Desperation: The Truth About Successful Men) and about 75 percent of those marriages end up in divorce, according to Frank Pitman (Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy).
So, is it a case of guys having their cake and eating it, too? I don't know, but there does seem to be some sort of disconnect between actions and reactions.
Of course, affairs aren't the only reason women file for divorce more than men. And Penn certainly isn't the only man lamenting that "it's not like I don't have to work"; men lose a lot in divorce, not just money and houses, but often access to their kids. That's not OK, either.
Still, you'd think that sober reality alone would be enough to shape up all that "bad" behavior. Instead, what it's probably doing is keeping a lot of young men from wanting to get married in the first place; with about half of marriages ending in divorce, saying "I do" is a big financial gamble for them.
And, sure, there are many, many "badly behaved" women out there. But at least if they cheat, most of them -- 55 percent, according to Susan Shapiro Barash (A Passion for More: Wives Reveal the Affairs That Make or Break Their Marriages) -- have the decency to leave.