Divorce - Taking The Blow
( Originally Published 1952 )
There is no use starting this chapter with a cheery statement that even the most sorrowful widow or heartbroken divorcee will find everything all right if she keeps her chin up and has enough courage. She won't. For a good, long period everything will be just about as bad as it can be and she'd better expect it. Even the women who wanted divorces for reasons no one could question have the problem of re-adjustment and are torn by memories, both happy and unhappy.
A woman's life can't be completely disorganized without serious damage. And that is exactly what happens. Marriage is, for one thing, a job—but it is a twenty-four-hour-a-day job, it is a job in which a woman's heart, as well as her mind, is involved, it takes in her work, her social life, and her private life. If she's all that she ought to be, she wants to make it a success, both because of the deepest affection of which she is capable and because of her pride. For a woman, ninety times out of a hundred—well; anyway, seventy-five—failure in marriage is failure as a person. The old saw about marriage being a fifty-fifty business is, in our opinion, nonsense. A far bigger proportion of the responsibility lies on the woman, and ought to—tradition and social setup, to say nothing of masculine and feminine temperament, being as they are. In any case, losing one's husband is the most completely devastating loss one can experience. When a man loses his wife, he still has his job, which is important to him. When he loses his job, he has his wife, which is important too, if she's made it so. When either loses a child or a parent, they have each other and their jobs, whether hers is home-work or something quite different. But when a woman loses her husband, for whatever reason, both her job (her most vital job, though she may have another) and what should be the closest companionship she can hope for, are gone all at once and what's left seems flat and unimportant.
If she has young children, the change in her life will not be as complete as though she had none or only grown-up children, no longer at home. Many things in this book will not apply to her, since she won't want to start quite all over. But a large proportion of widows, and a great many divorcees, must face this problem alone.
One may say that the problem of the widow and that of the divorcee are quite dissimilar. Certainly, the latter is a matter of enormous interest and concern at the moment and thousands of words on the subject are being turned out every week. We make no claim to be an authority on divorce, our knowledge, quite frankly, coming only from a fair amount of reading and the confidences of a great many friends. But what we do know makes us believe that there is a basic similarity in the two problems that outweighs their differences—an underlying sense of loss and loneliness and a deep need to start all over.
Strangely, it is not the first days that are so difficult, though they seem bad enough at the time. But, either be-cause of numbness from shock or an inevitable undercurrent of excitement, most women impress their families and friends as remarkable in the way they "keep up." For a time, that is. All too soon, this fortitude ebbs away and no amount of determination prevents them from being shaken and nervous.
The fact is that your nervous system has had a tremendous shock, or perhaps been worn down by a long strain, and physical damage has resulted which you just can't help.
It does help to realize this. There is nothing more comforting than to know that somebody else has had the same symptoms that you have arid come through them safely. And most people do have this experience, unless they have an iron constitution and no nerves at all or are lacking in the matter of deep affection. Even men. A minister of our acquaintance, a man of courage and character, told us recently that for a long period after his wife's death he suddenly woke up in the middle of every night feeling completely shattered. He disliked talking to anyone about it, feeling that a minister was supposed to have a special inner strength which put him beyond such experiences. But he was finally driven to going to his doctor, who convinced him that his difficulty was a physical one beyond his control and one that would eventually disappear—a reassurance that helped him enormously. We know, too, of a man recently separated from his wife, whose life has become a succession of colds, virus infections, and nervous indigestion. He blames it on overwork, but would be better off if he recognized it as a good case of personal unhappiness which is bound to pass.
Through the first weeks, or months, it is easy to feel frightened, to think that the way you feel isn't a phase, that things will be like that forever and ever. They won't. But for a time you probably will feel Simply Awful, and as likely as not you'll have some strange symptoms that you're sure nobody else has ever had before. Sometimes, for in-stance, you won't be able to concentrate. You'll find yourself reading the same paragraph six times and still won't know what it's about, and you'll be certain your mind is deteriorating, if not already gone. This may go on and on, far longer than seems reasonable to you. But it won't go on forever.
Or maybe you can't sleep. Perhaps you've counted a million sheep and done all the relaxing exercises in every book you could lay your hands on and recited all the poetry you ever learned in school, and you still hear the clock strike half the hours of any night, which is very, very wearing. Or you may have dreamed up a bigger and worse symptom all of your own. We could think of a dozen possibilities with no trouble at all, but there's no use in putting them into your head. You'll do all too well with no help from us.
Whatever else you experience, you're certain to be exhausted. There is nothing as tiring as grief or a long period of wearing unhappiness. Our advice, at this point, is to turn to someone else for help. It may well be your minister, for religion ought to bring you the greatest consolation. But many people who haven't given very much thought to religion when things were going well don't know how to draw help from it when trouble comes. Some feel in their hearts that perhaps they shouldn't; that religion isn't some-thing to be turned on and off as you need it. We think they're wrong; that it is the ever-present help we've all been taught, and that by turning to it now, it can become a permanent help.
Whatever your personal decision about this, we are sure that this is a time when there is no sense whatever in being a Strong Character and bearing your own burdens. Now and then, every woman is entitled to be a clinging vine and this is one of those times. Tell your ailments to your doctor; if you have business problems, tell them to your lawyer; if you feel that you can, tell your troubles to your minister.
Cry while you're doing it, if you want to. Borrow the gentleman's handkerchief or, better still, his shoulder, and go right ahead. None of the three will enjoy it, but they won't mind as much as most laymen (or they shouldn't) and you'll feel better about it afterward. After all, crying women are occupational hazards of all three professions and they knew it when they chose theirs, if they had a grain of foresight. The one you choose may not help you, but the chances are he will help you very much indeed. There are men in all three groups with a sincere desire to help people and the innate kindness and long experience that have taught them how. There are also those who would like to help, but wouldn't know how after three lifetimes of experience. And, of course, there are a few too preoccupied with their own affairs to care about yours. But just the telling will do you good, anyway. The cry will do you even more good, and besides, at this stage, you probably can't help it.
Having looked for advice, take it. If your doctor advises sleeping pills, for instance, take them by all means (in the amount prescribed and no more), even though your oldest family friend refers to them as "opiates" in the shocked tone of one discussing marijuana. Follow any other regime he prescribes. Your doctor knows infinitely more than your friend about these matters, and if he tells you that lying awake will do worse things to your health than his meditines, giving them up won't be noble—it just won't be very bright. He isn't going to let you become a drug addict or a hypochondriac. He's had dozens of patients with just your problem, and he's probably seen them all through it successfully. That is, if they did exactly what he told them to. Doctors can be very understanding people and they've cured a lot of heartaches, as well as a lot of bad hearts.
At this stage, your friends will be full of advice, on this and other subjects, and most of it won't be as good as your doctor's. The line you will hear most often is: "What you need is a drink."
Well, maybe you do, sometimes, but you probably don't need two and you certainly don't need three. You feel drinks more when you're exhausted or emotionally upset, and the results may be far more unbecoming than the tears we advised a little earlier. The knowledge that you were seen lurching into the dining room not very long after your husband died will make you feel much worse than anybody else. As to the divorcee, one drink too many may start people saying, "He had to let her divorce him—she took to drinking." Our advice is to watch your drinks as never before.
It is not, however, to go strictly by that old saw about the evils of drinking alone, once you are really alone. This may be the time when you do need a drink. Those first dinners all by yourself can be pretty grim and one cocktail, or even two, will help and won't start you on the downward path.
But we said one or two, with reservations about two, and we are not even mentioning three, which would be a definitely poor idea.
Another inevitable bit of advice which will come from all sides is to have someone come to stay with you. This may be good advice, and then again it may be the opposite. It depends somewhat on you and more on the other person. You are not going to feel in the least like entertaining a guest, and a good deal of the time you will want nothing so much as to be left to yourself. Feeling that you must talk to someone out of politeness when your mind is full of something else can be irritating and very wearing, and an oversympathetic guest whose kind heart won't let her give you a moment's peace is even worse. But if you are lucky enough to have a friend or relative who will move in temporarily (be very, very sure it is temporarily), and keep busy by herself except when you want companionship, you will probably find the arrangement excellent, though rare.
There are other things to avoid, and one of the greatest is Regret, which is a futile and wasteful emotion and one thing to be strong-minded about from the first. But even a widow who was among the happiest and most devoted of wives has to fight it. She will have times of lying awake and thinking, "If I'd only insisted on that trip we talked about—perhaps he wouldn't have gotten sick." Or, "Perhaps he was worried. He may have had a pain, or some business worry that he didn't tell me about, but I should have sensed." A divorcee's regrets are bound to be even sharper and more nagging, unless she's a very blind and egotistical woman who thinks the fault can all be on one side. Either way, it's wasted emotion. What has happened is over and you can't change it. Death ends a chapter that no amount of longing can re-open, and usually, if one believes the experts, this is also true of divorce. We suspect that the exceptions are not among people who pine with regret, but among those with courage to accept the situation and make a fresh start.
There are some kinds of courage that it's just as well to check for a time, however, and one is the type that sends you off on a trip before the worst shock has worn off. Actually, it may not be courage; many people go to get away from it all. Whatever the reason, we doubt the wisdom. As we have said, now is a time when you aren't going to feel very well, once the nervous excitement has gone, and when you feel ill, there is certainly no place like home. Even if you don't actually feel ill, you probably don't function quite as usual, though you may not realize it. These are the days when you find yourself with black-and-blue spots from bumping into the furniture; when you absent-mindedly step off the curb when the traffic light changes the wrong way. These are the days when you don't notice the extra little step; when you are clumsy and tip over the coffeepot. They are also the days when you pick up a flu germ or don't digest some dish a little on the too-fancy side. And there is very little pleasure in going to Italy and spending your time in bed, or in hobbling around Mexico City with a sprained ankle. The truth is that for a time you—or at any rate, your mind—isn't quite all there. Your brain isn't working with a hundred per cent efficiency, and so long as that continues to be true, you'll get along a lot better in the place you're accustomed to, with your own things about you and your own doctor at the other end of the telephone.
Whatever you do, there will be those who will criticize you. If you show spunk, a very good quality to muster as soon as you can, they will say you are flippant (as they will of this book). This applies particularly to divorcees, who are between two camps at best. Pay no attention to this little group of serious carpers. Remember that they are the ones who, if you didn't show spunk, would say you were weak.
As good a rule as any we know (though no rule, about anything, applies to everybody) is to follow a well-worn path for a time, to do pretty much what most people do in your position. A little later will be the time to do as you please; now you won't really want to seem conspicuous or out of the ordinary. The protective coloring of being like everyone else can be very comforting indeed through a time of sorrow.
CASE 1.: Mrs. S.—Mrs. S. has a large family of brothers, sisters, aunts and cousins, all of whom are overflowing with kindliness. When Mr. S. died, they decided with one accord and the best of intentions that they mustn't leave their bereaved relative all by herself. One after another, they moved right in, spelling each other off, with great inconvenience to themselves and even more to Mrs. S. Not only is Mrs. S. so tired that she would welcome a little privacy, but her maid, while a Family Treasure of the first water, is also tired from the extra work involved by Mr. S.'s long illness. A crisis is imminent, and we fear that Mrs. S.'s nerves are about to be further frayed by the necessity of deciding whether to offend the Family or the Family Treasure.
CASE II.: MRS. R.-Mrs. R. recently got a divorce, a step heartily approved by all who knew Mr. R. Being a woman of spirit, she made up her mind to go on as though nothing had happened, overlooking the fact that a great deal had happened to her health and her heart. She accepted invitations as usual and was surprised and hurt to find that there was still a remnant of the old guard who did not extend them to divorcees, regardless of circumstances. She was still more surprised to find that her best friends' parties seemed a trifle dull, her own interests weren't very interesting, and the theater was in a serious state of decline. Like most people, she failed to relate this point of view to her own state of mind, till her doctor persuaded her to spend the summer at a quiet resort not too far from town to reach him if necessary. (Something quite different from the wear and tear of travel.) Two months of complete change, plenty of sun-shine, and a few newly made friends did wonders for Mrs. R. She came home eager to take up her old interests and delighted with her friends' parties and the newest plays. It is the friends who don't invite her who now seem dull to Mrs. R. We think she's right.
CASE III.: Mrs. H.—Mrs. H. is a woman of character and great reserve, and when her husband died, her deep grief turned the reserve into frozen stoicism. Not even the sympathy of those closest to her could penetrate it and, as is usually the case with emotion too long pent up, the effect began to undermine Mrs. H.'s health. Her troubles went round and round in her mind during most of her waking hours, in-creasing as they spun, till it began to look as though Mrs. H. were headed for a sanitorium for nervous breakdowns. Fortunately, a conversation with a complete stranger whom she met at her brother's house and who had a very special gift for Drawing People Out, cracked the barrier. Mrs. H. poured out her troubles with a completeness that surprised her much more than it did the stranger, and both the telling and the understanding acceptance on the part of her listener made the troubles suddenly seem not unlike those of other widows, instead of the Very Special Case she had considered them. Mrs. H. went home and had a good cry and since then, she has begun to feel definitely better.