We all have our share of troubles but probably one of the hardest things we do is leave a spouse. Is there any way to do this well?
I doubt it. But people have devised many formal ways to end a marriage.
In some societies special courts or councils negotiate disvorces. Sometimes the village headman hears the case. Most often divorce is considered a private matter to be handled by the parties and their families. This can be as easy as moving a hammock from one fireplace to the next, or it can disrupt an entire community.
In 1988, the New York Times reported the divorce case of a young Hindu girl, Ganga, who fled her husband of five years after he had severely beaten her. The next day over five hundred people met in a field near the village to hear the couple and their kin answer questions posed by respected elders of their caste. But when Ganga accused her husband’s father and uncle of trying to assault her sexually, an argument erupted.
Insults soon led to combat with long sticks, and in no time several men lay in the field – clubbed and bleeding. The ruckus stopped only when word spread that the police were coming.
Divorce proceedings no doubt continued with bitter words behind mud walls.
Whether done in anger or dispassion, with full state of regalia, or with a minimum of fuss, divorce is indisputably a part of the human condition.
Almost everywhere in the world people permit divorce. The ancient Incas, however, did not and the Roman Church refuses to acknowledge it. A few other ethinic groups and societies do not allow marital dissolution and in some cultures divorces are difficult to obtain.
But from the tundras of Siberia to the jungles of Amazonia, people accept divorce as regrettable – although sometimes necessary.
They have specific social or legal procedures for divorce – and they do divorce. Moreover, unlike many Westerners, traditional peoples do not make divorce a moral issue. The Mongols of Siberia sum up a common worldwide attitude:
“If two individuals cannot get along harmoniously together, they had better live apart”.
So why do people divorce?
Bitter quarrels, insensitive remarks, lack of humour, watching too much television, the inability to listen, drunkenness, sexual rejection — the reasons men or women give for why they leave a marriage are as varied as their motives for having wedded in the first place.
But there are some common circumstances under which people around the globe choose to abandon a relationship.
Overt adultery heads the list. In a study of 160 societies, anthropologist Laura Betzig established that blatant philandering, particularly by the wife, is the most commonly offered rationale for seeking to dissolve a marriage.
Sterility and barrenness come next. Cruetly, particularly by the husband, ranks third among worldwide reasons for divorce. Then come an array of charges about a spouse’s personality and conduct. Bad temper, jealousy, talkativeness, nagging, disrespect, laziness by the wife, nonsupport by the husband, sexual neglect, quarrelsomeness, absence, and running off with a lover are among the many explanations.
Once again using the Darwinist theory as an evolutionary compass, it’s no surprise that given that their main motive for marriage was to breed, the main reasons for divorce are adultery and infidelity.
What turbulence hath evolution wrought. The craving for a partner, the emotional dependence on a mate, the tolerance of physical and psychological abuse, pining, grieving, jealousy – such powerful emotional reactions can be elicited when the body’s attachment system is threatened.
Most compelling, however, is the emotional cyclone some people feel when a lover leaves for good. As Emily Dickinson put it, “parting is all we need know of hell”.
If the relationship ends abruptly, shock is the first sensation the rejected person feels. Dumbfounded, he or she responds only with denial for several days, sometimes for as long as two weeks. But eventually, reality sets in. She or he is gone.
Then the transition phase begins. Time hangs heavy. Many of life’s daily rituals have evaporated and one hardly knows what to do with all the blanks. Anger, panic, regret, self-doubt and a desperate consuming sadness overcome the rejected individual (although some may feel euphoria and freedom).
Moods swing relentlessly, a decision made today vanishes tomorrow. Some turn to alcohol or drugs or sports or friends – others rely on psychiatrists, counselors, or self-help books. Many just lie in bed and cry.
And as they mourn, they begin to review the relationship – obsessively. Hour upon hour they rewind old memories, playing out the cozy evenings and touching moments, the arguments and silences, the jokes and snide remarks, listening endlessly for clues as to why he or she departed.
Themes and key incidents dominate this mental narration as the individual fixates on the worst humiliations. But with time he or she builds a plot with a beginning, middle and an end.
Sometimes this transitional phase lasts a year. Any setback such as an unsuccessful reconciliation or rejection by a new lover can hurl the sufferer back into shattered anguish. But as he or she develops a coherent life-style, the recovery phase begins.
And that’s the light at the end of the darkened tunnel of divorce and break-ups. We accept, we heal, we recover and we move on.