The Dirty Word
Divorce affects every person differently. And every person has their own description of divorce. That description can also change. If you have never gone through a divorce, then suddenly you find yourself in the midst of one, everything changes. We know how divorce affects us, and others can tell us how it affects them. And still others, for instance our children, might not be able to put it into words. All portrayals are right; there are no wrongs. There are as many descriptions as there are people. Here is one perspective, from a young twenty something now married with two beautiful daughters.
Growing up in a strict, Midwestern family, the word “divorce” was a dirty word in our house. “No one in our family has ever been divorced,” my grandma would tell me proudly. And from what I could gather, this was true; outwardly, we were all happy, nuclear families, with moms and dads intact.
This all changed for me when my mom died when I was nine. My first concern when I found out that she had died was that I would be stuck with my dad, who I felt like I rarely saw. As a football coach, his hours were much longer than my math teacher mom’s. In his case, remarriage was acceptable, expected, even. From that day forward, I’ve been regaled with stories about how in love they were — and they had to have been. My mom had cystic fibrosis, and yet, my dad took his “till death do us part” vows knowing that, in their marriage, that might be much sooner than later. His “in sickness and in health” meant nightly massages during her breathing treatments to help loosen up the phlegm in her lungs; it meant innumerable doctor’s appointments and a breathing machine at night that I still hear in my sleep, on occasion; it meant regular hospital visits, and, I can only assume, the looming fear that this person that you love so wholly can be gone at any time.
I so desperately wanted that kind of love story for myself as a child, not realizing that each person’s story, while often intertwined with a similar, deep love, is completely unique. When my father remarried, it was hard for me to accept that he could love anyone else. But, as time went on, she gradually became my best friend, a confidant. About a month after my engagement, my dad called me, crying. “Rachel, Patty and I are getting divorced,” he said, one of the only times I can remember his voice breaking that way. The dirty word. My dad was now the black sheep, the first person in our family to get a divorce.
I was determined not to let this black cloud follow me into our marriage. Statistics about children of divorce constantly followed me, and I always pushed them away. I am not a statistic, I would remind myself. I create my success.
And so, my husband-to-be and I enrolled in premarital counseling in order to better our “odds” by pledging ourselves into a Covenant Marriage. In the state of Arizona, it meant that we were taking an additional precaution to protect ourselves from the dirty word. If either of us wanted to get a divorce, we first had to undergo two full years of marital counseling. Together we learned what the two most common reasons for divorce are, and how to safeguard ourselves. The lessons themselves made me think I was prepared, though experience is always the best teacher.
Naturally, my maternal grandmother became even more of a maternal figure to me in the wake of losing one mother to cystic fibrosis, and another to the dirty word. It seemed only fitting that the couple who had been married the longest at our wedding was my grandparents. I took my grandpa’s hand so proudly, thinking about what a resilient family I had come from, and how much I could learn from role models like them. They had set up a wonderful life for all of us, and I was filled with so much love and joy that I was able to dance with them on my wedding day, a testament to all that I could look forward to in my own life.
Three years and my first born later, I was staying at my aunt and uncle’s house on a family vacation when my grandma said something about their 50th wedding anniversary; under her breath, my aunt said, “which one?” My cousin started to laugh, and after my grandma left the room, I asked my cousin what she had meant. She looked at me like I had slapped her.
“Grandma and grandpa got divorced,” she whispered to me, as we sat in the kitchen. “About thirty years ago. Then they got remarried. So they have two different anniversary dates. You need to talk to grandma about this,” she told me.
When I confronted her with the dirty word, my grandma was gentle with me, like she knew that my fragile preconceived notions would surely crumble after this conversation. It turns out, about sixteen years into their marriage, with lots of fighting, and both of them being “stubborn,” in her words, my grandparents divorced. Six months later, they remarried.
I cried that night, said fragile notions completely shattered. This mountain of family values and solid family history that I thought my marriage rested upon had just turned into a molehill. I wondered how my marriage would survive. Like my grandparents, my husband and I fight often. We’re both stubborn. We both come from the dirty word. How could we possibly do it? Who could we turn to?
I can’t tell you that I have all of the answers, and I guarantee that I never will. But 6 years into my marriage, I’ve learned that love is what makes a family. We joke that we both have “crazy” families, and we do. The concept of “normal” and “nuclear” certainly don’t apply to our situation. But the dirty word does not define me, and it certainly does not define my marriage. If anything, I’ve learned to take the experiences of perseverance and love and apply them to my life. The dirty word has finally come clean.