Until I was 35, the phrase, “Big D” was most immediately associated with Dallas, the city. I knew its other meaning, but that came second. Now, pushing 40, “D” is divorce. First and last. It’s possible that, as mental associations go, migrating from Dallas to Divorce could be considered an upgrade. But that is beside the point. Suddenly, marriages are ending left and right. The onset of divorce apparently coincides with a particular age or stage in life. Like dementia.
Not mine, of course. I am blessed with a happy marriage. Not that I’m naïve, mind you. Both my wife and I come from broken homes. I know the myriad reasons marriages end. Most of them are good reasons, in the sense that the reasons for getting divorced often outweigh the reasons for staying married (and in more than a few cases, getting married). The part that’s so vexing is that most divorcees seem genuinely shocked that it’s over. Despite months or years of evidence to the contrary, they honestly believed they could make it work.
A few months ago, I sat in a booth at my favorite cop bar in the Mission, eating a burger, and listening to my oldest friend in the world tell me about the end of his marriage. He was truly devastated. He seemed genuinely surprised.
“I tried. I really tried,” he repeated, cinematically, through hidden tears. “In the end, I just couldn’t make her happy.”
“I guess I’d argue that she didn’t make you happy either,” I offered, trying to remind him how miserable he’d been for the past seven years or so.
But that’s the thing about misery. It’s surprisingly easy to adapt to. At some point, your life isn’t horrible; it’s just your life. You recalibrate out of necessity. Because it is often easier to redefine our circumstances than it is to change them.
“I just got good at compartmentalizing things,” he said. “Even when we were at each other’s throats, I didn’t let it ruin everything else. Maybe that’s how I was able to keep going.”
“I know it’s hard to believe this,” I said, reassuringly, “but you’re going to be a lot happier now.”
“You know what the really hard part is?” he asked. “There are a lot of good memories. We were happy more than you’d think. There are places I’ll never be able to go without thinking about how happy we were.”
It occurs to me how fine the line is between a good marriage and a bad one. All marriages take work. All marriages have pain and joy, bitterness and romance. Written down like this, these facts seem trite. But how do you know if your marriage is a good one? How do you know you’re not just redefining what it means to be happy? Maybe you can’t know. And maybe that’s why the Big D catches us off guard. Maybe that’s why, of all the divorces you experience, the one that really surprises you is your own.