The Dirtiest Word I Know
By NANCY PATRICK
I grew up thinking of dirty words as cuss words or sexually vulgar words or even profane words against God. I did not know that the dirtiest word I would ever learn would come to me in my forties. That word is “divorce.” Of course, I knew what the word meant, but my family had largely escaped the tragedy of divorce until it entered my personal life when my son and his wife divorced after three years of a marriage that gave me my only grandchild.
My uncle and aunt on my dad’s side of the family divorced after twenty-five years of marriage, but in my youthfulness, I did not realize the ramifications of divorce. Most of my other aunts and uncles on both sides of the family had remained married until death, and my grandparents had remained married just as my own parents had. My dad died shortly after my parents’ sixty-fifth anniversary, and my in-laws’ marriage has marked almost seventy-five years, so my husband and I entered marriage at the ages of eighteen and twenty assuming that we would remain married until one of us died.
I guess something of a social revolution happened during the Baby Boomers’ childhoods and adolescent years. I say this because I began noticing some of my cousins’ marriages failed as well as those of many of my classmates. Still, I felt reasonably comfortable in my belief of the stability of my family’s marriages since past marriages had lasted. Unfortunately, the reality of divorce shattered my dream as the marriages in my family began to fail.
First, one of my nephews’ marriages ended after the birth of a son, followed shortly by his marriage to his second wife with whom he had two other children. My own son’s marriage, which produced one child, ended after three years. Then my other nephew’s only marriage ended after a relatively brief amount of time. Even my sister’s thirty-five-year marriage ended.
Those divorces directly impacted me, although I observed many others’ divorces among my circle of family and friends. My brain understood what divorce meant, and it understood that some marriages, for various reasons, become unhealthy and unsustainable; however, my emotions rejected that logic. As the reality of divorce materialized in my heart, I felt broken, grief-stricken, spiritually ill, afraid, and hopeless.
As a public school teacher, I knew many of my students lived with divorced parents. I heard comments about spending the weekend with one parent or the other. I knew about issues with child support, and I knew divorced parents generally did not get along well (otherwise, why would they have divorced?). I also knew that by the 1970s divorce had become a common occurrence. I remember a colleague once talking about one of her students whose grades had suffered because of the girl’s depression over her parents’ divorce. My colleague said, “She is just going to have to get over it. Half of the kids in this school have divorced parents.” At the time, I had no idea how my colleague’s flippancy would impact me in the future.
Southern writer Pat Conroy, who wrote best-selling novels Prince of Tides and South of Broad, also wrote an article “Anatomy of Divorce” in 1978, published in The Atlantic Magazine, shortly after his own divorce. In it, he examines the intricacies and insanities of divorce, especially those involving children. He calls it the “dark country of divorce,” suggesting that divorces should occur in slaughterhouses, operating rooms, or mortuaries rather than in a courtroom.
Reconciling how the hatred, anger, and disillusionment of divorce could emanate from the same sources that had once felt love, enough love to produce children together, perplexed him the most. His fear of the long-term damage his children would suffer debilitated him the most. I used Conroy’s dissection of his marriage and analysis of his divorce to guide me through the ravages of my son’s divorce.
The idea that a divorce concerns only the married couple is ludicrous. I will concede that divorces that do not involve children may be less brutal than those that do; however, when people marry, they join their families (in-law). They want their new spouses accepted and loved as family members. When that happens, happiness abounds; when a divorce transpires, the happiness disappears as people take sides, express grief, and question why.
I completely understand that some situations necessitate divorce. No one should have to live with an addict, a violent person, a psychopath, or a cruel and abusive person. However, I’ve heard so many people say they just don’t love their spouses anymore. The magic has disappeared. Some cannot tolerate marriage to a spouse who has failed to stay fit, interesting, gainfully employed, or who has simply become lax in self-discipline. Sometimes people meet younger, more vibrant, sexier, more attentive, or simply “better” people than those they have.
No honest person who has sustained a marriage for the long haul will describe it as euphoric. People get tired, become routinized, spend less time on their appearance, and have responsibilities with work and family. People change over time. I have no doubt that the eighteen-year-old bride on my wedding day has dramatically changed during my fifty-one-year marriage. The same goes for my husband. It would indeed be sad if we had not matured and changed over the past five decades. Our commitment to work out problems together provided the key to a sustainable relationship. We have not always agreed, but we have figured out a way to transition. I think Mike and I both knew after the birth of our son that nothing could have been worth the pain that divorce would have caused our son if he hadn’t had equal access to his parents.
Recognizing both the complexities of human nature and individual personalities, values, and temperaments, I maintain that divorce wreaks havoc in a family. Not only does it dissolve a nuclear family unit but it also permeates the extended families as they “lose” members, gain new members, and divide holidays and special events—all in an attempt to keep some semblance of normalcy in a tragically abnormal situation.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing