I mean, it really sucks. Got kids? If so, don’t do it.
You probably think you have no reason to listen to me. I’d agree if we were talking about shifting weather patterns or why Lil’ Wayne has diamonds instead of front teeth. But, hey, I’ve lived a pretty long time — by L.A. standards, I’m ancient — and I’ve had many life experiences, among them two marriages.
My novels The Starter Wife and Queen Takes King, as well as the original screenplay I wrote for Stepmom, all center on marital break-ups. I’ve become a reluctant expert; the poster ex-wife for divorce. My second wasband and I (I coined the term, it sounds nicer than “ex”) get along so well that we are often mistaken for a happily married couple at Little League games, the school play, or a first grader’s birthday party. We still share holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and, of course, Super Bowl Sunday. We sign off on emails to each other with a minimum three x’s and o’s. We kiss hello, we hug goodbye. Our divorce — though public and heavily laden with fancy attorneys whose grandchildren’s weddings we paid for — was actually about as amicable as one could hope. I have never said a bad word about my “was” to my children; I hope he can say the same.
What we no longer share is the bond of marriage.
The first time around, I was married just three months after meeting Starter Husband at a nightclub. (I didn’t say I was smart, just married.) My “starter” marriage proved to be just that — lasting three years, a year for each month of courtship.
I left my home, husband, four dogs, and shotgun, and moved around the corner from Canter’s Deli to an empty apartment with an empty aquarium. The first week apart from Starter Husband, I lost eight pounds. Friends forced me to eat matzoh ball soup, counting every spoonful. At night, alone in bed for the first time in years, I swam through my tears while listening to George Michael and Don Henley (the only time I’ve listened to Don Henley), weeping to Van Cliburn playing Mozart sonatas.
I also wrote my first screenplay.
I reasoned that marriage had held me back from fulfilling my dreams, from self-actualization — the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (love and belonging hovering way below, only after safety needs and stuff like “breathing”). Oprah would have been proud.
I swore to my friends I would never marry again.
Um. Hey. Guess what? I was wrong. I got married. Again.
The second was supposed to be “my” marriage — ironic. I’d been determined to make holy matrimony my bitch. I knew the territory. We drove my baby-blue Ford Falcon downtown, got married in front of a judge and several gang members . Then I dashed off, making it to work that day by 10:30 that morning.
This time I would do it right. But after over 16 years of living together, almost ten years of marriage, with a family unit of two little boys, my husband’s two older children, and a mini-dachshund named Cecil, I found myself divorced. Again.
I was in my forties, and hadn’t learned a thing about relationships. If anything, I was less sure of what I knew at this point than when I was 16 and happily engaged to Prince (in my head). Since I’m not remotely Elizabeth Taylor, this divorce thing was getting old, fast.
What I’ve learned since is that divorce lingers. It makes you sad when you least expect it. It colors everything — from a first date with a promising somebody to a basketball game where your kid makes three-pointers. And you can tell yourself, yeah, I did it for my kids, so they could grow up with a healthy mother, a happier mother who had more time for them. But single motherhood, even with access to help, is not for sissies. Sure, I have more control over my children under the circumstances — but in return, I’m more strung-out, I’m more overwhelmed.
Okay, after the second break-up, I no longer have to eat osso bucco with Sumner Redstone, and that almost makes it worth it, but I also have to answer my children’s questions about why, how, when. I have to tell them that — despite my past, despite my wasband’s past — marriage is still worth trying.
It is also worth preserving.
Ladies (and curious men), these are my top seven (and a half) reasons for staying married:
1. All men suck…
…and all men are great. All men are annoying. And all men put the toilet seat down every time. All men are needy. And all men live to make you happy. All men are demanding. And all men are easy. (Well, actually, all men are easy, especially those in politics, but that’s a whole other subject.)
All men are cheap. And all men love shopping at the Tiffany’s counter. All men keep you guessing. And all men check in several times a day, just because. All men hog the covers. And all men tuck you in at night. All men are dull. And all men will whisk you off to Napa on a moment’s notice.
All men are mama’s boys. And all men are fighter pilots. All men are complicated. And all men have basic needs, like ESPN in HD.
Do you get what I’m saying, here? Men are human. Weird, I know.
Basically, if you hate your spouse and get divorced, you will be trading him in for a similar model, only in chinos. If you’re lucky.
2. Raising kids on your own sucks…
…but this doesn’t mean you want to raise them with someone new.
Divorce with children is — mathematically speaking — 180 million times worse than divorce without children. I’m sure there’s a New York Times study to back me up on this.
Kids are not better off with divorced parents. (Hi, angry tweets from ecstatically divorced parents!) Psychologist Judith Wallerstein conducted a 25-year study on the effects of divorce on the children involved; her book chronicling her findings is more frightening than any TV commercial advertising an Anthony Hopkins movie. If I really don’t want to sleep at night, I’ll reread her statistics. For example, children of divorce are more likely than children from intact families to drop out of school, suffer drug and alcohol problems, require psychotherapy, and get divorced themselves.
Recently, there was a new study in The American Sociological Review that showed children of divorce lag in math scores and social skills. For years.
My observations of children of divorce, including my own, are simple. Divorce makes your kids’ life harder. Would you want to go to a different home every few days because it suits someone else’s schedule? Would you like to remember at which house you left your wallet, your laptop, your workout bag, your briefcase? How about sleep in a different bed, use a different toothbrush, get used to the new person in the kitchen and the master bedroom? Your kids have to remember textbooks, notebooks, backpacks, favorite t-shirts, socks, Vans, homework, football helmet, cleats… No wonder these kids are more anxious.
On top of that, they have to do science reports in first grade, master algebra in fifth. Everything’s gotten harder. I’ve volunteered in my sons’ classes, and I hate to say it, but I can tell which children have parents who are divorced. Admitting this brings me no pleasure, and a great deal of pain.
A friend of mine, a divorced mother, told me that her son was depressed about the new woman in his dad’s life. “I’m afraid I’m going to forget our Christmases, Mom,” he told her, “Someday, will it be like they never happened?”
Consistency is key to a happy, healthy childhood. Guess what’s inconsistent? Living with divorce.
3. The money sucks.
Financially speaking, both men and women are better off staying married. Post-divorce, the higher wage-earner typically pays alimony and child support. The lower wage-earner typically endures a lower standard of living.
Fighting over money turns people into the worst versions of themselves. This is true whether you’re divorced or married. Throw divorce lawyers into the mix and you have a recipe for bankruptcy, both financial and moral.
I’ve found that in dating, men are expensive — probably as expensive as women. I know many divorced women who’ve lent money to their boyfriends or bought them expensive gifts. No longer do men feel remiss in accepting, and in some cases, demanding money, clothes, cars, trinkets. Hey, we wanted men to be more like us, right? We’ve turned men into luxury items.
The only good thing to come out of this recession is that fewer people are getting divorced. Why? They can’t afford to.
4. Raising other people’s kids suck…
…because you’re also raising not only their issues, but their parents’ issues. That’s a f-ckload of issues, to put it in psychological terms. If you get divorced, it’s likely you’re going to be dating other divorced people — and guess what, they come with the same thing you have — ex-and-kid baggage. Hey, I love kids, I’ve raised or helped raise enough of them, going back over two decades — but being a stepparent, or even a stepfriend — is not for the faint of heart. Parents get bent out of shape when another adult comes into the picture, no matter how good their intentions. I’ve got the restraining order to prove it.
Fitting the pieces together with others after a divorce is a constant struggle, whether you’re talking about old exes, new marriages, or the children from either. I’ve talked and talked to women and men desperately trying to figure out how and when and with whom to start again. And why? Why put yourself through the drama? How do you fit the puzzle pieces together when one of the pieces is a hormonal pre-teen, another is a borderline personality ex bent on destroying everything in her path, including her own child, and a third is the dog who growls every time you enter the room.
This is not the most romantic scenario.
Bottom line: You may care as much for your significant other’s children as they do, but you are not their parent.
5. Dating sucks (after the first three months); your ex dating sucks and never stops sucking.
Look at your date. Does his slightly wheezy laugh grate on your nerves? What about the fact that he just called his ex-wife a b-tch? Or, better yet, a c-nt? Charmed yet? Do you like a backwards baseball cap and baggy jeans on a forty-year-old? No? Guess how much you’re going to like it in twenty years? Just. As. Much.
Every little quirk that you find the slightest bit irritating in your dining partner is guaranteed to become the central core of his personality as the years pile on. Good luck with that.
Speaking of dating. Dates will shock you — shock you — with what they believe is normal behavior. When a dinner date feels like a scene from Hangover 2, you know you’re in trouble.
Internet dating now seems like a safe, time-tested way to get to know people — until you read about the film executive who was the victim of a sexual attack by a man she met on Match.Com. Craigslist is just another name for potential date rape; to a single mother, nothing is scarier than craigslist.
Which brings me to another point: sex. Living with children is like living with parents. Except you’re not a teenager, trying to sneak one over on Mom and Dad. You are the sole member of the household responsible for the health and well-being of your children. And your kids don’t want you to date. They don’t want you to bring home someone new. Even if they like the new guy or girl, they don’t want to appear to be choosing sides against their other biological parent.
When you do go out with someone (after the kids go to bed), you size them up not only against your standards, but the standards of your children. You’re not the only one going out on that date — your seven-year-old is right there with you, with his toothy grin. Your fourteen-year-old is scowling in the background. Your stoic ten-year-old has tears welling up in his eyes.
Frankly, other than superficial dating far away from your kids’ eyes and ears, E.S.P. might be the only thing that makes sense for the single parent.
Yes, your happiness is important, but the moment you gave birth, your happiness took a backseat to that squalling bundle of joy. You’re not a teenager anymore. It’s not about you. Your self-actualization and self-esteem needs to move over and make some mac and cheese.
Keep this in mind, as well. Just as time is the only true test of love and marriage — time is the true test of divorce, as well. Time heals, it clarifies in surprising ways. The old hurts seem more minor, less lacerating. Now you’ve been hurt anew, and by someone with whom you don’t share children or a dog or a name. You’ve been hurt by someone you barely even know.
6. Bumps in the night suck.
A single mother feels it every day: When the sun goes down, there is no one there to watch your back. I have to be combination nursemaid and Rambo. I have not slept a full night in three years; it’s hard to sleep with one eye open and a dog named Peanut the only thing between you and potential threat. A phone call after nine sends chills down my spine. The other night my doorbell rang at 11:30. It was a drunken teenage girl (I’m learning there are no other kind) demanding her purse back. Er, you may not find this frightening if you have a man in the house. I, on the other hand, called the cops, and thought seriously about getting a gun.
It’s scary not being married.
7. Synergy sucks…
…when it’s gone. Prior to my divorce, an Oscar-winning screenwriter told me to keep in mind that a couple is more than just the sum of two people. Do you get it? Neither did I, but that’s probably why I don’t have an Oscar. Still, I’ve thought about what he said a lot since then. He was speaking of synergy, the mutually advantageous conjunction of distinct elements. The two of you have combined to make something that would not otherwise exist. What we are together is greater than what we are apart.
On the other hand (now ring-free), when you divorce, there’s you and the divorce.
A marriage is a living thing. A divorce — while it can go on forever in court, bankrupting you financially, emotionally, mentally and physically — is not a living thing; it’s a death.
Really hard to see that when you’re furious at each other, with one foot out the door, your middle finger raised high. Adrenalin loves a dramatic exit.
There’s that fallback saying people in a break-up often say: “You want to get to know someone? Divorce them”. I don’t believe it. I think it should be reworded: You want to get to know someone under the most stressful conditions…
On the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, divorce is just a tad less stressful than death of a spouse (presumably, one you liked). People don’t behave well under that kind of stress. Money is tight, the kids are upset, in the air is the odor of hatred. The spouse that you loved enough to marry is now a raging dick.
If your husband beat you, verbally abused you more than you verbally abused him, abused drugs, alcohol, or wanted a porn family, then by all means, leave. You’re better off. But, in other cases, maybe there’s a higher order. Maybe we were actually correct in selecting that person, that spouse, to procreate with.
In the midst of our separation, our family therapist, a cancer survivor in her 60s, who’d been practicing for many years, gave me sage advice, which I was too angry or blind to accept. “Wait until the kids are launched,” she told me. “Who knows? You may even find yourself in love again, with your husband.”