Remember that New York Times “Vows” column that pissed everyone off? You know, the one about the two couples who were such good friends that their entire families took annual vacations together? Then husband A and wife B decided they liked each other better, ditched on their spouses and kids, and rode off into the home-wrecking sunset together, shrugging it off as if it were shitty and all, but hey, the heart wants what it wants? Well, this new Modern Love column is almost as good.
It too takes the devil’s gambit of trying to put a positive, or at least lukewarm, spin on infidelity. Even the title, “The Optimist’s Guide to Divorce,” all but begs us readers to go ahead and arm our nuke buttons. In it, Josh and Beka are a “powerhouse couple — affluent, attractive, highly educated, generous” — who’ve been married for 12 years and have two daughters, 7 and 3. We’re told that their relationship is practical, not passionate. The author, Elizabeth, is a self-described “struggling academic recovering from a messy divorce, deliberately childless at 40,” who instead has two dogs and bipolar disorder.
The piece opens with Beka and Elizabeth hanging out getting pedicures together while the two little girls play nearby, with Beka chatting pleasantly about her upcoming divorce to Josh, who — get this — happens to be Elizabeth’s new boyfriend!
Yes, Beka was crushed at first by the realization Josh would be leaving her for the living embodiment of a Cathy comic. But guess what? Beka turns out to be a complete saint, Josh sounds like a typical middle-aged man, and Other Woman Elizabeth is just doing her best to make this all sound cheerily legit, God bless her. We learn that Beka was so angry “she shook” when she first found out Josh wanted to leave her. We learn that once she realized Josh was leaving her for a middle-aged lady and not a 25-year-old, that she was way, way cooler with it.
This is where most divorce stories would become so bitter and acrimonious and never-endingly punitive and toxic that no one would dare write about them. But not this progressive clan. Hold on to those nuke buttons: Beka then invites Elizabeth to dinner with her and Josh! She actually tries to get to know Elizabeth. She introduces her to their daughters. They all spend time together. At every turn, Beka steps up over and over again to welcome Elizabeth into the fold of their lives, even “smoothing the socially turbulent waters” of their social calendar, too.
Then, these lunatics have the actual temerity to have dinners together! Holidays! Family traditions with Mom, Dad, and Dad’s new girlfriend! Elizabeth tells Beka she knows she doesn’t deserve the kindness. Beka plays a master class in rising above when she responds, “The girls adore you. And you truly treat them like they’re your own. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.”
Readers correctly asked the one and only question that’s relevant here:
Where in the name of all that is decent and good do these wannabe Zen motherfuckers get off?
Well, that’s not exactly how they put it. They tore into all three of these people. Josh is a scumbag? Check. Beka is a fake perfect mother who is probably a little too perfect and is actually fucking up her kids with this saint act? Check. The author is a mentally ill homewrecker who isn’t that hot and is really just a sad, easy lay? Check. Elizabeth may think things are all adulterer’s peas and carrots now, but wait until he cheats on her? Check. The very notion that these three could patch together anything like a decent childrearing setup for these two kids is appallingly delusional? Check. Elizabeth is actually just further victimizing Beka by stealing the story of her grief and writing about it in this actual column as some kind of triumph! Check:
Man, Elizabeth is so narcissistic and full of herself that she is even co-opting the ex-wife’s experience of the divorce. Elizabeth has no right to call anything “An Optimist’s Guide to Divorce” when she is not even the one getting divorced and in fact helped cause the divorce of another couple. If anything, the piece should be called “An Optimist’s Guide to Being the Other Woman Because the Ex-Wife Doesn’t Seem to Hate Me and the Kids Are Too Young to Know Any Better and the Man Hasn’t Cheated on Me Yet As Far As I Know.”
You can practically hear the entire comment section screaming GET A PRENUP YOU MORON.
Yes, permission granted to hate these people. Every person in this story is possibly full of shit. Josh could’ve ended his marriage with integrity, not cheating. Elizabeth could’ve stayed away until he did, with integrity. Beka, well, the piece tells us she and Josh are both lawyers. The author lives in Tennessee, which is not a no-fault state, a key distinction when it comes to alimony and division of assets. The cynic in me says that Beka’s playing the saint publicly and privately and then taking him to the cleaners in court—a primo legal and social strategy.
But while it’s easy to play pin the tail on the asshole here, it’s also possible that the biggest assholes are actually us, the readers. Why are we really mad at these people? Their choices have about as much relevance to our lives as the current efforts to brew beer on Mars. What’s more, we have no idea what they are really like or how sincere their efforts really are. Infidelity is actually the leading cause of divorce; it’s just most people don’t admit it in columns in the biggest daily paper in the country. Lots of people are playing out some version of this quietly pretending they and their spouse simply grew apart.
Here’s my theory: Each of these criticisms of Elizabeth, Josh and Beka is actually a brightly lit window into our own shortcomings and fears. Taken together, they reveal:
- Our shaky confidence in the institution of marriage, whose workability in modern life diminishes with every generation.
- Our Puritanical feelings about infidelity, in which we desire to see those who cheat suffer an eternal hell on earth.
- Our deep-seated belief that children of divorce never actually recover, and in fact live eternally damaged lives (research says otherwise, but who cares; we’re mad).
- Our stereotypical feelings toward other women as the most culpable party in the downfall of marriages, rather than the men who cheat.
The comments are eerily similar to our vitriolic responses to conscious uncoupling, another story of people doing Horrible Divorce Things With “Class.”
It all reminds us that most of us are not together enough, affluent enough or something enough to transcend that shit for two seconds. “‘Divorce’ means fights in the kitchen and barbed comments over plastic glasses full of 2 percent milk,” Julie Mitchell writes at Vice. “‘Conscious uncoupling’ simply means two yoga mats for each child and Google hangouts in the back of a tour bus showing whichever parent isn’t present the three-pack of lambswool scarves you bought.”
Most of us cannot remain “great” friends with an ex or throw divorce parties celebrating our dissolved unions. Most of us do not have a single faux-European sophistication bone in our bodies—let alone are we big enough to accept, with world-weary, fashionable ennui, the fact that relationships end, people stray, love fades, and we all muddle through somehow just trying to cushion the blow as much as possible. But if other people actually can, what does that say about us?
In other words, these people make us feel bad about ourselves. They set too high a bar for ordinary people. Divorce is supposed to be the one time it’s okay to be shitty and ugly, we’re told. You’re supposed to hate your ex only slightly more than you hate yourself. You’re supposed to never want to look at that motherfucker again, much less stand next to them at a recital. You’re supposed to do everything “amicable” through gritted teeth, with thinly veiled resentment, and then still pat yourself on the back for doing it for the kids without boiling bunnies.
So, we seem to be saying, these “good divorce” people can pry our right to lose our shit out of our cold, dead commenting fingers.
Losing your shit is still your right, no matter if others refuse to exercise that option. But what if some people really do manage to find a good outcome from a shitty set of choices and circumstances? What if these good divorce people actually exist? (The Times, for its part, actually fact-checked this column with Beka, who also read the column before it ran, and she backs up the story — something they neglected to do on that other Vows column, to much criticism.)
Then I guess some people are better at divorce. That’s nothing new. All that matters—even if this tale has been embroidered so much that the facts now resemble spun cotton candy—is, clichéd as it is, their kids. Who, at least it sounds like, see a fairly integrated group of adults caring about them, even after a split. Isn’t that really the point?