When she wants a divorce

What do you do when she wants a divorce?

Posted Apr 08, 2009

Recently I received a two sentence email from a college friend:
"On Friday Louise told me she wants a divorce. Do you think this can be salvaged?"

I had just visited my friend a few weeks earlier, stayed in his house, and visited with him and his wife, so I knew of their unhappiness. He was obsessed with his law practice, basically ignoring Louise and their 7 year old son. He even slept in his office a few times weekly, so as to save time on commuting, so that they barely slept in the same house, much less the same bed. This had been going on for years. When they spoke, I noticed a harshness in his tone, and a resigned desperation in hers. We had dinner together, and I played the psychotherapist rather than the friend: "Tommy, don't you think that it would be better if you spent more time with your family?" He had good work-related reasons not to do so: he was not making huge money, but he felt he needed to work hard to prove to his firm that some day he deserved promotion to partner. Now in his 40s, he had spent a decade laboring away, with little progress, but he felt if he stopped, he would fall behind his competitors. I didn't press it, though perhaps I should have. Sometimes, as friends, we hold off too much on being truthful, for fear of hurting the friendship. But if my close friend won't speak the truth to me, who will?

After I got his email, which included one from Louise outlining a long list of past grievances, I realized I had missed my chance to prevent the predictable. Now, at least I would be frank; I wrote back:

"Tommy, based on what I saw, it seems to me that the key problem in your lives is your absence. I wonder what is cause,though, and what is effect. Are you being a workaholic because you are running away from home, don't want to be home, don't really want to be with your family? Or are you unable to be at home because you are a workaholic? Ask yourself those questions.

You can get whatever you want, as long as you are willing to pay the price for it (the psychotherapist Elvin Semrad once said).

What has the higher priority for you: Married family life or work? If the true answer is family and marriage, then what price are you willing to pay to keep it? The price might be separation, counseling, less income, less prestige, some boredom. Add it all up: is the price worth it? If it is, then pay the price, and show her that you will change your life. You need to show her, though, you can't just tell her.

My own observation of your life right now is that it is a shame: You seem to be caught up in that supremely American obsession, eating up all your energy and all your time, with work; worse, you labor not so much to become rich or famous, but just so you can possibly become rich or famous. As Louise writes, you are worth much more, intellectually and personally. You can do more than you show, and part of your anger may be about your dismissed potential.

I haven't mentioned love, because I don't think love as an emotion matters here; you may truly have deep affection for Louise, and she you, but love is only the first, and necessary, ingredient for marriage; it is not sufficient, and the other ingredients include spending time together, just being with each other, prioritizing the marriage and family above all else, being kind in day to day interactions, taking responsibility for little things....

I am not preaching. I tell you these things because I think they are true, but knowledge does not translate into action, and I know I have failed, and still fail, too. But being good is not about actually being good; it is about wanting to be good. I do not know about some of these things Louise wrote. But to the extent that any of these past hurts are true, you should seek atonement in future behavior, not accept blame or cast it. Excellence is a habit, attained by practice; you do not need to wallow in your weakness or unhappiness; we are all weak; know that you always have a road to being better, and the question is not how bad you have been, but how good you can be.

Your pal..."

Tommy is awake; Louise still wants a divorce. Maybe it is too late. Perhaps, as Milan Kundera once wrote, we live a tragic, too-late, after-the-fact life, learning what is right only after the time for acting rightly has passed: The young are always foolish; the old always weak. Perhaps. And yet: "The way in which man approaches his failure determines what he will become" (said the philosopher Karl Jaspers). Perhaps, in the end, to fail is the only way to succeed.

(Names and details of this story have been altered to protect anonymity)