Saturday, March 12, 2011

Why divorce?

Today's New York Times Magazine has a piece about Dana Adam Shapiro, who, when he was in his mid-30s, interviewed all his friends he knew who had gotten divorced. He then asked each of them for referrals to other divorced couples. Almost everyone was happy to talk to him about their divorce. He's now making a movie (not a documentary) called Monogamy based on the interviews.

The article sums up three of the couples Shapiro interviewed: "The Young Wife," "The Two-Time Ex," and "The Adultress."

So, what lessons do we learn from the article? It turns out that marriages fail due to adultery, alcoholism, sex starting to feel like a chore, people taking less care of themselves, and the realization that what they had in common from the beginning was too superficial to be a strong basis for a lifelong commitment. Stop the presses!

It's disappointing if those are the most interesting insights from 50 interviews with "people of all ages, all across the United States" about their divorces. There isn't one unexpected observation in the whole piece.

If you like the "Here are a few paragraphs about a couple and their problems" format, I recommend, instead, a book called One to One by Theodore Isaac Rubin, M.D. Here's one of my favorite vignettes from the book (102-104):

Lionel and Lisa

This couple was seen by their friends as "glittering, beautiful, fun-loving." . . . When asked how things were with them, their inevitable answer was "Great!" . . .

They gave large cocktail parties every three or four months and ate out frequently with friends, of whom they had many. In actuality, few of their "friends" knew very much about them except that they were good-looking, fun, and obviously successful. . . . [T]hey took pains to avoid any kind of "heavy talk," on the few occasions when they ate out alone. . . .

The fact is, there was very little openness, tenderness, trust or intimacy, caring or kindness between them, or between them and anyone else. . . . This is an example of two highly narcissistic, shallow people who affected a pose for the outside world but who had very little tolerance for each other. . . .

They . . . used history between them only to seek further evidence for recrimination. "Do you remember," said Lisa to Lionel, "the time two years ago when you forgot my birthday?" Interestingly, their sexual lives were satisfactory in terms of arousal and response, but neither Lionel nor Lisa was aware of any love or tenderness during sex. . . . [I]n view of their great similarity, and their high degree of narcissism and alienation, they got through the barrier of antagonism sexually by seeing each other as mirror images of themselves. . . . [T]hey engaged in masturbatory or solitary sex, even though it took place together. . . .

They came to see me, not to get help, but to use me to support them in their onslaught on each other and to win me over to believing that each was right in hating the other. . . . I do not know whether they parted company or continued on an antagonistic basis. Antagonism can keep people together in a state of mutual pseudo-aliveness for a lifetime.


Jason (the commenter) said...

Isn't it dangerous, intellectually, to reject the mundane and latch onto the exotic?

I'm skeptical of anything interesting.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Isn't it dangerous, intellectually, to reject the mundane and latch onto the exotic?

Well, I do basically agree with the content of the Times piece. So I don't "reject" it. Just because I agree with it doesn't mean I think it's worth devoting 3 pages of the New York Times Magazine to.

Grobstein said...

John, the story you reproduce ("Lionel and Lisa") is disturbing to me. The idea that there are completely superficial narcissists out there just actin' normal, like non-murderous sociopaths, is disturbing -- but also seductive, because I see myself as interior, deep, caring, etc., and want to set that in opposition to empty social facility.

Which leads me to a second and more disturbing point: Rubin took it upon himself to empathize with these people, to commune with and learn about them, right? Professionally, in fact (I presume). And his judgment is that they are shells of people, "fun" but filled with vacuum. How the hell does he know? How well did he really study these human beings before he pronounced them to be false and empty? What if he was just being bad at his job? It's very easy to fail to empathize with someone because they're unappealing.

He couldn't have given them the help they needed if he got this wrong.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Scot Fitzgerald independently created Lionel and Lisa as Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”

Whether that kind of analysis, either by a novelist or a therapist, adequately summarizes human beings, is an important metaquestion that Grobstein asks. Perhaps Rubin is too much of a novelist to be enough of a therapist. But that in turn is only my thin story about him.