A couple of people asked me why I was reading a book about divorce, when they saw me reading Split, a book edited and contributed to by Katie West.
The simple answer, the one that does not require a longer conversation, would have been that I have followed Ms. West’s career for some time and I was interested to read the book; so much so that I pre-ordered it on the first day of the pre-sale.
Now the simple answer is true, but it’s not the whole story…
Before I go any further, no I am not getting divorced. I am not even considering getting divorced. I don’t imagine that it is unusual for married people to think about divorce from time to time, and I would admit that I have, but never in a longing way. Married people are confronted by divorce from time to time and on other occasions it flits in and out of the transoms of our minds, but until it is something that you want (and even then I imagine it is a conflicting set of feelings), it is not something that you are excited or happy about. Society makes it pretty clear that divorce is failure and ignominy and is about who did what and who gets the kids, the house and so on.
This is probably the first reason that I wanted to read the book. I want to be with my wife forever, and cannot imagine a scenario in which I would want a divorce. Of course we all suffer moments of self-doubt; in mine I sometimes confront the frightening prospect that my wife might want a divorce. I wanted to read about other people’s experiences, in part to inoculate myself from this fear. I hoped to discover that if it was coming it would not be a creeping, self-maiming fear, but something that if I was honest with myself I would be expecting when it came. Not only that. I wanted to see if, despite the difficulties, it could be said that people “get past” it in the end; if divorce were to come looking for me, would I survive?
I have an unusual experience of marriage, I suppose. We learn from our parents and my parents’ marriage, while I am sure not the perfect idyll it always appeared to be to me, was and still is a happy one. I grew up in a time when almost a third of marriages in Britain ended in divorce, so I knew my share of people that did not have happily married parents. My closest friend at primary school’s parents were the first that I really knew about; they were divorced when we were seven. Well, maybe when we were eight?
I can remember spectating, from one remove, seeing the effects it had on my friend and his brother, gleaning hints of the push and pull between his parents over custody, money and so on. I remember being very scared. Suddenly my parents were not the rock solid foundation that they had appeared to be. They did a great job of reassuring me, and I became less worried over time, but I remained a little fascinated. As I grew older other friends’ parents separated, divorced and in the fullness of time many of them had new partners. Modern life and the modern family seemed to be about second and even third tries and half-siblings and step-children and all of that.
In my own adult life I have known people who seemed happy, and some that never did, who have married and divorced before I even got around to getting married myself. I have been through relationships breaking up, of course, but divorce is a much bigger thing, not only in terms of the spectre it represents but also in terms of the practicalities that need to be untangled and the sheer pragmatic pressure that people are put under to start again – new house, new friends (in some cases), new lifestyles.
This was the second, deeper reason that I wanted to read Split. I know that reading a book cannot help me really understand my friends’ experiences, but perhaps it could shed some light on this shadowy part of life that is so very present and reasonably commonplace, but at the same time so wrapped up in taboo.
I am here to tell you that this book is wonderful. I know, it is full of stories of sadness and hurt and disappointment and betrayal and just plain old change and circumstances, but through all of it, it is also wonderful.
I am not sure that I can properly explain how refreshing it is to have the shutters thrown open wide and the honest truth about the endings of marriages be shown the full light of day. There are stories in this book from the conventional to the positively twenty-first century, from the upbeat to the equally down tempo, from recovered souls and people still finding their way. In every case there is a new truth about human relationships waiting to be found by the reader, and by the time you reach the end of the book I am sure you will have learned something; I certainly did.
This book is not supposed to be a “how to” manual, I knew that on some level before I started and I was pleased to be proven right. This book is both a collection of stories about hope and a collection of stories about a part of the human experience that we do not talk about, that is mostly hidden from view and as such can seem frightening.
Having read Split I am not frightened by divorce any more. I do not welcome it, I am not inviting it, but I don’t fear it any more. Here is the proof that no matter how complicated the circumstances it can be survived, and that sometimes, frankly most of the time, it is the right thing for the people involved.
I strongly recommend it to anyone, single or involved, married or unmarried, monogamous or polyamorous, straight, gay, bi – this is a book about living truthfully, and how that can get you through anything, even things that society has probably told you to be afraid of.