Well, not really. (If anything, I suppose I left her.) And while I can tell you from personal experience that divorce isn’t the most hilarious of topics, there is something darkly funny about being left by your wife. The deadpan confession is everywhere on Twitter these days—in photo captions and replies to celebrities, a non-sequitur for every occasion.
See, we’ve long enjoyed the trope of some failed husband/father, a pathetic figure exemplified by accounts like @DadBoner, which brings the archetype to life as a divorced Michigan man who loves Van Halen, beer and muscle cars — but mostly just looks forward to the weekend.
Another example would be Kirk Van Houten, the eternal loser of the Simpsons universe who discovers just how unimportant he is after an abrupt and ugly relapse into the bachelor lifestyle, which he comes to intensely regret.
This lonesome dude takes small pleasures where he can: Maybe he plays video games or watches wrestling. Maybe he gets the kids the third weekend of every month and takes them out to lunch at Denny’s. All these details are subservient to a truth that defines the existential dead end at which he has arrived: Previously, whether years ago or just last week, his wife left him. This event casts a shadow on him forevermore.
Without a wife somewhere in his past — a long-suffering woman whose patience finally ran out, turning her into a shrew or adulteress in the months before she escaped — the divorced dad caricature cannot exist. Instead, he’d be a failson, still living at home with parental support. The faildad, by comparison, has climbed his way up to middle-class respectability, defined in large part by the commitments of marriage and family, only to backslide into squalor and impotence. By any metric, he hasn’t measured up.
Wives have made for punchlines since the heyday of Borscht Belt humor, when jokes like “Take my wife, please!” tapped into the casual contempt a man might have for his better half. (We hear an echo of this in every Borat quote that opens with “my wife.”)
But today we’re at another stage in the battle of the sexes. Where the state once made marital separation prohibitively difficult, trapping people in loveless matrimony, we now have widespread no-fault divorce, obviating the need to concoct any legal deception or establish residency in Nevada. With the establishment of family law and a surging feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the divorce rate peaked around 40 percent in 1980, and women were filing roughly two-thirds of those suits.
Since then, as non-married cohabitation became normalized, divorce rates have plummeted to historic lows. But the prevalence of separated parents lingers in the childhood memories of Gen X-ers and millennials, with the later cohort proving to be marriage-averse in adulthood. Those same millennials who remember the decisiveness with which their mothers left their fathers now constantly tweet “my wife left me.”
How does the comedy operate here? On the most basic level, we’re looking for the humor in our parents’ heartbreak. Go deeper, though, and it begins to feel as if we are mocking the hallowed institution of marriage itself, a cultural norm that turned out to be shockingly fragile. Indeed, the ideal recipient of incessant “my wife left me” comments is themselves easily rattled or given to overly defensive reaction: Witness the plight of ESPN football analyst Adam Schefter, who in June erupted with a rant concerning the many, many people who have made an idle sport of telling him that their wives left them.
“My wife hasn’t left me, despite all the Twitter comments saying my wife has left me,” Schefter wrote at the time, a bizarrely egocentric misreading that only made the joke funnier, as nobody was claiming his wife had left. “I still don’t understand what it means, or why everybody’s doing that, but that seems to be the rage every time I tweet.”
This has been going on for years.
By 2016, things had gotten so bad that Schefter tweeted a family photo to prove his wife hadn’t left him, a move that — you guessed it — threw fuel on the fire for the legion of “my wife left me” repliers. It is now his social media legacy.
To be sure, there are wives who leave their husbands. Yet Schefter’s insistence on bringing the conversation around to his own wife — an actual, living person — reminds us that “my wife” clichés are built on the nebulous idea of a wife, not real women. They are no more earnest than pleas to be choked or fucked by “daddy” Pope Francis. We see this whenever wife-related content goes viral to the point of spawning a meme. There was, for instance, the day Weird Twitter seized upon a guy’s ill-advised and publicly posted email to his “girlfriend’s husband,” in which he defended the affair while attempting “diplomacy.” The fuckup was enshrined in online history as “the wife email,” and it inspired song lyric parodies that played on the surge of cuck-anxiety that came along with the last election.
Over and over again, these wife incidents quickly metastasize beyond their particulars to become a type of urban legend. The so-called wife email had a precursor in the 2013 story of an Illinois man who spray-painted the message “don’t email my wife!” on a romantic rival’s garage door. 4chan has adopted the phrase “my wife’s son” as a shorthand for beta-male weakness, the implication being — again — a certain unfaithfulness. A Photoshop of a raccoon holding a kitten gained notoriety when it appeared on Twitter with the caption “Please. My wife. She’s very sick.”
Most recently, the internet was appalled by a man who expected acclaim for an Instagram essay describing how he loves his “curvy” wife despite her deviation from the beauty standards established by fashion magazine covers, ultimately subverting his tone-deaf body-positivity in memes that praised the shapely forms of cats and tomatoes.
It’s difficult to say whether this renaissance of “my wife” jokes reflects an evolving self-awareness of perceived assumptions about domestic partnership or the same old vaudevillian impulse behind any number of Rodney Dangerfield punchlines. We’re notably lacking in “my husband” material, a hint that we’re still far more comfortable with women in prescribed roles than we are with their independence — even if that means they’re nagging and cheating instead of cooking and cleaning.
I, for one, would like to believe that Twitter bits referencing nonexistent wives can satirize the longstanding practice of primarily defining the female sex in relation to male power and control, though I suspect it isn’t that clear-cut. As I said, I’m going through a divorce myself, and I catch myself saying “my wife” when I ought to be saying her name — Cece — or, at the very least, “my ex.” Why can’t I shake this tic? Is it because, as Jerry discovered in an episode of Seinfeld, it’s an intrinsically pleasurable thing to say? And if that’s the case, am I reinforcing the problematic wife-logic of a bygone era?
This, perhaps, is the true genius of “my wife left me” memes, and why today they supercede all other wife humor: Instead of dooming a woman to service as comedic prop, they free her from that duty, unchain her from our expectations. They acknowledge that men aren’t altogether significant or necessary to a wife’s success, and probably often a hindrance to it. When your wife has left you, she’s reclaimed her full potential. She can at last be anyone else — especially the woman you overlooked.