Divorce and the Marriage Edifice: Façade and Structure

by Dr. Fatah Al-Hobo

Translated from the Arabic by Steven B. Kennedy

Marriage is a house if not always a home. Sometimes that house is a grand one, sometimes only a bed to share and a stove on which to cook meals. In time a couple’s house may grow in size or it may shrink. Its status as a home may deepen or fade away altogether as children leave it and the couple retreats to its separate corners. When the house ceases to be a home, couples often divorce. Divorce, unlike marriage, is not a sacramental occasion. It is rarely joyous (and when it is, the joy is probably closer to surcease and relief), but it need not be miserable. The point of this essay is to explore the conditions for “the happy divorce.”

Like a house, marriage is an edifice composed of façade (appearance) and structure. It has two façades, one for each participant in the marriage. Behind the façades lie two corresponding sets of structural blocks, some of which can become cemented together over time. With divorce, the blocks are disassembled, and the façades must be adjusted to reflect this.

The façades are show. They are ego. They depict our married self to ourselves and to the world. They are an identity that we try to project and in which we may come to believe, often to the exclusion of any other personal identity. Sometimes a couple may endeavor to create a unified façade, but this is almost always factitious. The “true façade” (if this is not a complete contradiction in terms) is always personal and individual. Paradoxically, couples who indeed have a shared façade have first dispensed with the need for personal ones. In other words, a shared façade can exist only where the individual ones are unnecessary.

The structure of the marital house lies behind the façades and supports them, makes them plausible to the partners in the marriage and to the world. That structure is composed of blocks, the major ones being the following:

·       Emotional security: someone with whom to share a bed, worries, dreams, schemes, defeats, and victories

·       Physical security: a roof and walls, heat, food, clothing

·       Financial security: beyond the day to day, some confidence about one’s happiness, comfort, health, and safety in the future

·       Giving and caring, notably to one’s children and parents, but also to extended family and friends

·       Social participation as a unit in the community, society, and polity

When a couple divorces, the blocks are disassembled, and what is left to each party may no longer support (or justify) the façade he has built. When a friend I know left his wife after eight years, he could no longer sustain his façade (his projected self-image) of successful suburban homeowner. He has had to invent a new one (successful translator of Arabic). Another friend is suffering because she is losing the façade of the successful second marriage. Now she sees herself (and fears that others do, too) as a two-time loser, someone unable to sustain a marriage. Her husband faces a different set of losses. He is losing the beautiful wife of whom he was very proud. He is also losing the fancy home that sustained his projected self-image as a successful professional.

But what about the structural blocks?

How the structural blocks of marriage are divided in divorce has effects that ultimately are more serious and permanent than any alterations to one’s façade. Most of us are quite adept at inventing new roles in which to star. It is usually much more difficult to adapt to structural setbacks.

The disassembly of a marriage almost always further erodes whatever emotional security has survived the years preceding the decision to divorce. The loss of emotional security is seldom equally distributed. Divorce can leave one partner bereft, torn in half, while the other feels (at least initially) quite whole, having found, perhaps, another source of emotional security or never needing as much as her spouse did to begin with.

Divorce usually erodes the partners’ physical security. They may have to move to more modest dwellings. If one stays in the house, her responsibility for it doubles. Even if she has plenty of money, she has to take care of everything: learn to operate the snowblower, climb a ladder to clean the gutters, fish dead chipmunks from the pool, or find and pay others to accomplish these and countless other tasks.

Divorce almost always causes alterations and disequilibria in a couple’s financial security. Because two can live as cheaply as one, assets are shrunk by half in divorce. To the extent that one partner was relying for his financial security on assets owned and controlled by his spouse (as my friend and translator has twice unwisely done), those assets disappear with divorce, unless we can capture a share of them in the settlement, either by legal action or through the indulgence of the wealthier spouse.

In marriage, the couple’s relative dependencies (and interdependencies) evolve over time. Our façades change over time like reflections in water, and I won’t dwell on them here, other than to say that those changes can affect how much emotional, physical, financial, or social security we derive from an unchanged amount of love, house, or money in the bank. More fundamental, however, are actual changes in the structural blocks of the marriage as our individual fortunes rise or fall through a constantly shifting mix of individual effort (mitigated by our happiness and health) and external events (from chance opportunities or setbacks to major disasters such as a hurricane or recession).

We may achieve independence in one or another area, and this may alter our behavior toward our spouse. Where once we felt we needed her, she may now seem only an obstacle to our hard-earned, well-deserved happiness.

Conversely, we may become more dependent, even much more dependent—emotionally, physically, or financially—on our spouse. We may lose our job, our health, our confidence. We get old.

These constant evolutions alter the balance of forces and the dynamics of a marriage. A previously proud and dominant man may become timid, fearful, and clinging if he loses his job or virility or health. That’s why the Bible, written in and for an age when society depended on households staying together, joined couples “for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health.” Today, men plead, with Kenny Rogers, “Oh Ruby, don’t take your love to town.”

The balance of happiness may shift over time in a marriage. One partner may become happier, more emotionally satisfied in the marriage, while the other, for various reasons, sees her level of satisfaction drop. 

The best divorces, the easiest and happiest ones, the ones from which the partners are most likely to emerge as friends or at least not as enemies, are those in which the split requires the least adjustment to the couple’s respective façades and the least change in the main structural blocks: emotional, physical, and financial security; access to and opportunities to enjoy children and family; and ability to participate in social life.

Two couples I’m close to have had very happy divorces (though in both cases it took one spouse a long time to realize it). In neither case did divorce bring much change in emotional security, because it hadn’t been a feature of either marriage! In both cases, each partner ended up with a perfectly comfortable house and each retained a source of income and future security. In both cases, interestingly, the assets of the couple were unbalanced, posing a challenge that had to be overcome.

The toughest, rockiest, most desperate divorces are those that destroy the façade (projected self-image) of one or both partners and that leave one or both (usually one more than the other) with a radically lower amount of one or another form of security previously enjoyed. This often occurs in cases where one partner held all the wealth and retained nearly all of it in divorce, while the other partner must adjust to a far lower standard of living, either immediately or prospectively (in the future). In such cases, divorce means that one partner must radically lower his expectations.

This difficulty explains why many cultures discourage marriages between people of widely divergent means. It also explains the now vanished practice among the very wealthy of the Gilded Age, who, when they married someone far poorer, brought the new spouse closer to their level through an early (one might say preemptive) bequest: a precursor to the now ubiquitous prenuptial agreement. Finally, the difficulty of dissolving a marriage between spouses of unequal means accounts for the longstanding maxim of divorce law, now largely gone by the boards, whereby the dependent spouse was to be supported after divorce “in the style to which she had become accustomed.”

If upon applying this analysis to a dissolving union one sees that the partners are disproportionately affected by the dissolution—that is, where one party must adjust his façade, his standard of living, and his expectations for the future far more than the other, one may expect a very contentious, bitter divorce that likely will produce lasting enmity. This is the law of the social jungle: the poorer party is, in a sense, fighting for his life.

A particularly difficult situation is one in which the poorer partner has, during the marriage, taken advantage of the richer party, wittingly or not. Whether the poorer party intended to take such advantage may not matter if the richer party feels abused. Under such circumstances the richer party, at the time of divorce, may feel that the poorer party has already received “as much as he deserves.” I know one couple in which the husband borrowed from his richer wife a substantial sum and promptly lost it in a business venture. She then allowed him to “pay back” the sum by adjusting her will. Now, as she contemplates divorce, she is not disposed to give him any more money than he is strictly due, even though doing so would make him more willing to cooperate in achieving the divorce she seeks.

To facilitate a divorce under such circumstances—that is, to make it speedier and less contentious and to ensure greater harmony or at least less acrimony in the future—the parting partners should strive to separate in a way that does not leave either one feeling stranded, desperate, cheated, or deceived concerning the distribution of one or more of the structural blocks upon which one’s façade (ego, self-image, self-esteem) depends.

Usually this boils down to money or custody of children, as the others, emotional security and social participation, are not fungible and thus are impossible to divide.