There’s a persistent misapprehension that “nuclear family ” means “functional family.” It does not. Even without a divorce to divide that house, abuse, pain, addiction can all persist – along with it some unfortunate beliefs that prevent people from taking responsibility for healing those wounds.
I grew up in a nuclear family. The mantras from my parents on divorce were pat, nuclear-family stuff, from the perspective of parents with no experience with it.
Divorce wasn’t a new concept to either – both had divorced peers. But until later in my childhood, neither had to deal with it from within their families.
My father came from a generation where divorce DID NOT HAPPEN because Catholic. My mother resembled January Jones in Mad Men. If there was a problem, you didn’t talk about it. You never admitted wrongdoing because it meant admitting weakness; to allow quarter to others made for a bigger moral failing than taking responsibility. Everything children or husband did reflected on her; no choices came from the agency of thers. ((I have recently learned that this may have been a symptom of the formerly diagnosable Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It’s been downgraded from disorder from an untreatable disease to a personal choice of behavior. Either way, she fits every symptom/tactic outlined.))
The messages about divorce from my parents just got weird – they wanted to judge but got called on to be non-judgmental. Their resulting responses to the reshaping of American culture came out in strange and dissonant ways.
From my father:
“We don’t believe in divorce.” Period. There was no further discussion. He also told me that my mother was a “saint” for putting up with him. While I heard stories later on when he wasn’t present about how he was emotionally abusive, I rarely witnessed him in actions that might qualify as requiring a saint – and every fight was ultimately initiated by my mother throwing a tantrum. He did not leave. He did not challenge her emotional abuse. He just stayed.
Our conversations throughout my life were always brief, to the point, hidden from my mother and sister. They covered Big Things. I have to admit I came to see my father as a vending machine of truth. The truth as I could discern from him on it was that his opinion about divorce was just an opinion and he’d love me anyway even if I disagreed with it and took another path in life. When I did tell him about the divorce, he did not repeat a word of it to my mother for months. He offered no criticism and no comfort. He also did not offer judgment.
“People should expect to change as they go through a marriage,” she said, after starting a conversation about a woman she knew going through a divorce. She was fond of sticking me in a car with her and going on long, captive-audience lectures where I had no means of safe escape. I didn’t even get to choose music I liked on those trips lest she tantrum, and tantrum she did, every time. I hadn’t asked. She had arbitrarily decided that day, on the way to that clarinet lesson, this was something I should know.
The woman, on her bowling team, probably didn’t like my mother’s blunt questions. “She said they were just different people,” my mother said. In her opinion, the reason wasn’t good enough.
As an adult, I can see that this person gave my mother a vague, non-definitive answer to protect her own privacy and likely extremely raw feelings.
Divorce shaming was one of my mother’s favorite behind-closed-doors topics.”What about the children?” from her dinner table throne. When, years later, presented with research that children are better off in low-conflict homes with no bearing on whether or not those homes were from nuclear families, she called me a know-it-all. If she didn’t like the information, it wasn’t relevant – even if it was right. Her opinion counted more than the truth.
Incidents happened over the years that I privately labeled “Fuck yous from God” directed at my mother. When she quit one church over gays in the ministry only to have the church she joined allow gays in the ministry stands out the most. But there were others. Divorce was one of the earliest.
My mother was quite smug that no divorces had occurred in her family line. Years of generational abuse beat the family on all sides; the generation before her had beatings, starvation, cultivating dependence. But no one divorced – a much more shameful problem.
Divorce was far worse in her mind than the very real possibility that one family member might very well kill another. She laid complete responsibility for domestic abuse on the women of a partnership – if a woman didn’t lay down the law, she implied often that that woman deserved to get beaten.
Then my eldest cousin went through a divorce. Suddenly she assigned all blame to the person leaving my cousin. There was no consideration at all that my male cousin might carry any culpability for the deterioration of a marriage. Yet when two female cousins almost split from partners, suddenly all blame lay with them – not that she said so to their faces. I never asked my cousins about it, even the one who actively bullied me. Some things are just too hurtful to say no matter how much of a jerk the person in front of you is.
Both my sister and I are divorcees. I’ve remarried, my sister hasn’t to my knowledge. My mother was quick to blame my sister for her divorce, and actually carried on about her “concern” for my niece. This prompted me to seal my lips about my own divorce – I’d seen this act from my mother before.
I have no way of knowing if I was included in her anti-divorce diatribes. Probably. She did love reviling people behind their backs, especially my sister and me. Besides, what mattered to her is how bad she looks to have two divorced daughters. She certainly never inquired after my well being when I went through it.
My upbringing was not a factor in my divorce – it was a factor in my choosing the wrong marriage partner, in marrying too young and in failing to deal with our conflicts properly. I knew when I left my parents at age 18 that I could please them or I could live a happy life. Getting to the happy life just isn’t easy and happiness in itself is a dynamic process.
There was much dissonance in my house around the subject of divorce. Too much was wrong, unhealthy – and I lived out the uselessness of what I learned at home every single day. I set aside the teachings of my family as soon as I lived on my own. I wanted a functional life, not one that looked right from the outside. Divorce was part of that – the right thing to do was just not always the thing that looked good to outsiders.