Divorce: The Spite in Everything

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In the Texas Law Review in April 1986, editor-in-chief Michael Diehl detailed the drastic changes that had taken place in family law over the twentieth century: "Every state has abandoned the requirement that fault be alleged and proved before a divorce can be granted." Removal of a legally identifiable "fault" opened the path for divorce "without regard to marital misconduct." Before the 1960s, a legal ground for divorce (normally adultery) was required for the dissolution of a marriage. Divorce rates at that time were half their current level.

In his article, "The Trust in Marital Law," Diehl states, "Family law today has largely abandoned the search for guilt and innocence, and with that transition have come new standards that are amorphous, discretionary, and difficult to apply." Modern divorces are granted for inexplicit "differences," and, as Diehl points out, "the reality of contemporary family law is that one spouse, regardless of the wishes of the other, can compel both a divorce and an inevitable consequent division of property."

The modern divorce court has become a legal amalgam of "non-legal disciplines" influenced by "sociologists, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists" who have transformed the issue of divorce away from a "legal system that demanded proof of unilateral fault and innocence" to something that even the ancient interpretive school of Rabbi Hillel might not recognize. "Mere mutual antipathy," Diehl writes, "was not an adequate ground for divorce." No longer. 

Susan Gregory Thomas' new book, In Spite of Everything: A Memoir, is the public autopsy of her marriage. In large measure, it is the model of the modern consequence of easy divorce even as it is has been praised as a triumph of a new civility where a marriage might be dead, but no one needs to get hurt—especially children.

The heartbreaking scenes of Thomas' childhood, where her alcoholic father left her family for another woman, frame a lifelong resolve never to let the same happen to her. Sophocles' Greek tragedy, Antigone, provides the necessary platform from which to exhume the phrase, "in spite of everything," as the lingering elegy for her marriage. "My husband and I made the happiest, comfiest nest possible; we worked as a team; we loved our kids; we did everything right, better than right. And yet divorce came," writes Thomas. "In spite of everything."

Thomas is a student of Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1980) as evidenced by her meticulous research in her previous book, Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds. She knows the trends of this demographic well and usually seeks a psychological meaning that transcends the observable behavior patterns of Generation X. Emerging from her own childhood and adolescence with a pronounced sense of being alone, she, by her own testimony, entered into marriage searching for a love that could both complete and stabilize her life in a way that was quite different from that of her parents.

What she found, however, in the aftermath of marriage were distinct differences between her and her spouse that were not initially discovered until the routines of life broke upon her personality. The daily strains of marriage slowly magnified the irritations (whether real or perceived) of the couple until they overpowered their affections for each other. Personality differences grew into hardened states of overt antagonism. Even small offenses between the couple were escalated beyond the normal scope of relational conflict, and the respect that once existed between the couple began to erode.

Thomas writes of her husband's irritation with her proclivity toward snobbery and "chattiness" as initially "on the same continuum as my irritation with his TV watching." She gave no thought to leaving dirty dishes in the sink overnight. In contrast, "the idea that food particles could be left to the open air for any longer than the time it took to eat them was so totally noxious to him that it pointed to the presence of some character defect lurking the in the psyche of the person who could countenance such deviance."

With great transparency, Thomas admits that her narcissistic tendencies diminished over time as a result of being married, but it was too late to assuage the repressed anger and resentment in the mind of her husband who felt as if he had been held hostage to her self-centered behaviors for years. The ensuing fights started out small and grew to include everything from the use of the couple's computer to the children's schedule—with the result that the distance between the couple became so palpable that they only spoke to each other when absolutely necessary. Spite took over in the relationship until it finally erupted in a decision to divorce in order to escape the misery of their marriage.