The Lure of Divorce

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

In the summer of 2022, I lost my mind. At first, it seemed I was simply overwhelmed because life had become very difficult, and I needed to — had every right to — blow off some steam. Our family was losing its apartment and had to find another one, fast, in a rental market gone so wild that people were offering over the asking price on rent. My husband, Keith, was preparing to publish a book, Raising Raffi, about our son, a book he’d written with my support and permission but that, as publication loomed, I began to have mixed feelings about. To cope with the stress, I asked my psychiatrist to increase the dosage of the antidepressant I’d been on for years. Sometime around then, I started talking too fast and drinking a lot.

I felt invincibly alive, powerful, and self-assured, troubled only by impatience with how slowly everyone around me was moving and thinking. Drinking felt necessary because it slightly calmed my racing brain. Some days, I’d have drinks with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which I ate at restaurants so the drink order didn’t seem too unusual. Who doesn’t have an Aperol spritz on the way home from the gym in the morning? The restaurant meals cost money, as did the gym, as did all the other random things I bought, spending money we didn’t really have on ill-fitting lingerie from Instagram and workout clothes and lots of planters from Etsy. I grew distant and impatient with Keith as the book’s publication approached, even as I planned a giant party to celebrate its launch. At the party, everyone got COVID. I handed out cigarettes from a giant salad bowl — I had gone from smoking once or twice a day to chain-smoking whenever I could get away with it. When well-meaning friends tried to point out what was going on, I screamed at them and pointed out everything that was wrong in their lives. And most crucially, I became convinced that my marriage was over and had been over for years.

I built a case against my husband in my mind. This book of his was simply the culmination of a pattern: He had always put his career before mine; while I had tended to our children during the pandemic, he had written a book about parenting. I tried to balance writing my own novel with drop-offs, pickups, sick days, and planning meals and shopping and cooking, most of which had always been my primary responsibility since I was a freelancer and Keith had a full-time job teaching journalism. We were incompatible in every way, except that we could talk to each other as we could to no one else, but that seemed beside the point. More relevant: I spent money like it was water, never budgeting, leaving Keith to make sure we made rent every month. Every few months, we’d have a fight about this and I’d vow to change; some system would be put in place, but it never stuck. We were headed for disaster, and finally it came.

Our last fight happened after a long day spent at a wedding upstate. I’d been drinking, first spiked lemonade at lunch alone and then boxed wine during the wedding reception, where I couldn’t eat any of the food — it all contained wheat, and I have celiac disease. When we got back, late, to the house where we were staying, I ordered takeout and demanded he go pick it up for me. Calling from the restaurant, he was incensed. Did I know how much my takeout order had cost? I hadn’t paid attention as I checked boxes in the app, nor had I realized that our bank account was perilously low — I never looked at receipts or opened statements. Not knowing this, I felt like he was actually denying me food, basic sustenance. It was the last straw. I packed a bag as the kids played happily with their cousins downstairs, then waited by the side of the road for a friend who lived nearby to come pick me up, even as Keith stood there begging me to stay. But his words washed over me; I was made of stone. I said it was over — really over. This was it, the definitive moment I’d been waiting for. I had a concrete reason to leave.

A few days later, still upstate at my friend’s house, I had a Zoom call with my therapist and my psychiatrist, who both urged me in no uncertain terms to check myself into a psychiatric hospital. Even I couldn’t ignore a message that clear. My friend drove me to the city, stopping for burgers along the way — I should have relished the burger more, as it was some of the last noninstitutional food I would eat for a long time — and helped me check into NYU Langone. My bags were searched, and anything that could be used as a weapon was removed, including my mascara. I spent my first night there in a gown in a cold holding room with no phone, nothing but my thoughts. Eventually, a bed upstairs became free and I was brought to the psych ward, where I was introduced to a roommate, had blood drawn, and was given the first of many pills that would help me stop feeling so irrepressibly energetic and angry. They started me on lithium right away. In a meeting with a team of psychiatrists, they broke the news: I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; they weren’t sure which kind yet. They gave me a nicotine patch every few hours plus Klonopin and Seroquel and lithium.

I wasn’t being held involuntarily, which meant I could write letters on an official form explaining why I ought to be released, which the psychiatrists then had three days to consider. I attached extra notebook pages to the letters explaining that I was divorcing my husband and was terrified I would never be able to see my kids again if I was declared unfit because I was insane. These letters did not result in my release; if anything, they prolonged my stay. I got my phone back — it would soon be revoked again, wisely — but in that brief interim, I sent out a newsletter to my hundreds of subscribers declaring that I was getting a divorce and asking them to Venmo me money for the custody battle I foresaw. In this newsletter, I also referenced Shakespeare. The drugs clearly had not kicked in yet. I cycled through three different roommates, all of whom were lovely, though I preferred the depressed one to the borderline ones. We amused ourselves during the day by going to art therapy, music therapy, and meetings with our psychiatrists. I made a lot of beaded bracelets.

In the meetings with the shrinks, I steadfastly maintained that I was sane and that my main problem was the ending of my marriage. I put Keith, and my mother, on a list of people who weren’t allowed to visit me. Undaunted, Keith brought me gluten-free egg sandwiches in the morning, which I grudgingly ate — anything for a break from the hospital food. My parents came up from D.C. and helped Keith take care of our children. I was in the hospital for a little more than three weeks, almost the entire month of October, longer than I’d ever been away from my kids before in their lives. I celebrated my 41st birthday in the hospital and received a lot of very creative cards that my fellow crazies had decorated during art therapy. Eventually, the drugs began to work: I could tell they were working because instead of feeling energetic, I suddenly couldn’t stop crying. The tears came involuntarily, like vomit. I cried continuously for hours and had to be given gabapentin in order to sleep.

On the day I was released, I didn’t let anyone pick me up. I expected the superhuman strength I’d felt for months to carry me, but it was gone, lithiumed away. Instead, I felt almost paralyzed as I carried my bags to a cab. When I arrived at my apartment, I couldn’t figure out where I should sleep. It didn’t feel like my home anymore. We couldn’t afford to live separately, even temporarily, but the one thing that our somewhat decrepit, inconveniently located new apartment had in its favor was two small attic bedrooms and one larger bedroom downstairs. I claimed this downstairs room for myself and began to live there alone, coming into contact with Keith only when we had to be together with our children.

You might assume that my fixation on divorce would have subsided now that my mental health had stabilized and I was on strong antipsychotic medication. But I still did not want to stay in my marriage. If anything, I felt a newfound clarity: Keith and I had fundamentally incompatible selves. Our marriage had been built on a flaw. My husband was older, more established and successful in his career. These were the facts, so it had to be my job to do more of the work at home. Unless, of course, I decided to take myself and my work as seriously as he took his. But that was unappealing; I had managed to publish three books before turning 40, but I didn’t want to work all the time, like he does.

I wondered if my marriage would always feel like a competition and if the only way to call the competition a draw would be to end it.

We picked the kids up from school and dropped them off, or really mostly Keith did. I appeared at meals and tried to act normal. I was at a loss for what to do much of the time. I attended AA meetings and the DBT meetings required by the hospital outpatient program, and I read. I read books about insanity: Darkness Visible, The Bell Jar, An Unquiet Mind, Postcards From the Edge. I tried to understand what was happening to me, but nothing seemed to resonate until I began to read books about divorce. I felt I was preparing myself for what was coming. The first book I read was Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath, which has become the go-to literary divorce bible since its 2012 publication. In it, Cusk describes the way her life shattered and recomposed after the dissolution of her marriage, when her daughters were still very young. She makes the case for the untenability of her relationship by explaining that men and women are fundamentally unequal. She posits that men and women who marry and have children are perpetually fighting separate battles, lost to each other: “The baby can seem like something her husband has given her as a substitute for himself, a kind of transitional object, like a doll, for her to hold so that he can return to the world. And he does, he leaves her, returning to work, setting sail for Troy. He is free, for in the baby the romance of man and woman has been concluded: each can now do without the other.”

At our relationship’s lowest moments, this metaphor had barely been a metaphor. I remembered, the previous winter, Keith going off on a reporting trip to Ukraine at the very beginning of the war, leaving me and the kids with very little assurance of his safety. I had felt okay for the first couple of days until I heard on the news of bombing very close to where he was staying. After that, I went and bummed a cigarette from a neighbor, leaving the kids sleeping in their beds in order to do so. It was my first cigarette in 15 years. Though that had been the winter before my mania began, I believe the first seeds of it were sown then: leaving the children, smoking the cigarette, resenting Keith for putting himself in harm’s way and going out into the greater world while I tended to lunches, homework, and laundry as though everything were normal.

In Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, as in Aftermath, I found an airtight case for divorce. The husband was the villain and the wife the wronged party, and the inevitable result was splitting up. I felt an echo of this later on when I read Lyz Lenz’s polemic This American Ex-Wife, out this month, marketed as “a deeply validating manifesto on the gender politics of marriage (bad) and divorce (actually pretty good!).” The book begins by detailing how Lenz’s husband rarely did household chores and hid belongings of hers that he didn’t like — e.g., a mug that said WRITE LIKE A MOTHERFUCKER — in a box in the basement. “I didn’t want to waste my one wild and precious life telling a grown man where to find the ketchup,” Lenz writes. “What was compelling about my marriage wasn’t its evils or its villains, but its commonplace horror.”

This was not quite the way I felt. Even though I could not stand to see my husband’s face or hear his voice, even though I still felt the same simmering resentment I had since I entered the hospital, I also found myself feeling pangs of sympathy for him. After all, he was going through this too. When we were inevitably together, at mealtimes that were silent unless the children spoke, I could see how wounded he was, how he was barely keeping it together. His clothes hung off his gaunt frame. And at night, when we passed in the kitchen making cups of tea that we would take to our respective rooms, he sometimes asked me for a hug, just a hug. One time I gave in and felt his ribs through his T-shirt. He must have lost at least 15 pounds.

It began to seem like I only ever talked to friends who had been through divorces or were contemplating them. One friend who didn’t know whether to split up with her husband thought opening their marriage might be the answer. Another friend described the ease of sharing custody of his young daughter, then admitted that he and his ex-wife still had sex most weekends. In my chronically undecided state, I admired both of these friends who had found, or might have found, a way to split the difference. Maybe it was possible to break up and remain friends with an ex, something that had never happened to me before in my entire life. Maybe it was possible to be married and not married at the same time. Then I went a little further in my imagination, and the idea of someone else having sex with my husband made me want to gag with jealousy. Maybe that meant something. I was so confused, and the confusion seemed to have no end.

I read more books about divorce. I received an early copy of Sarah Manguso’s Liars, marketed as “a searing novel about being a wife, a mother, and an artist, and how marriage makes liars out of us all.” In it, John, a creative dilettante, and Jane, a writer, meet and soon decide to marry. Liars describes their marriage from beginning to end, a span of almost 15 years, and is narrated by Jane. The beginning of their relationship is delirious: “I tried to explain that first ferocious hunger and couldn’t. It came from somewhere beyond reason.” But the opening of that book also contains a warning. “Then I married a man, as women do. My life became archetypal, a drag show of nuclear familyhood. I got enmeshed in a story that had already been told ten billion times.” I felt perversely reassured that I was merely adding another story to the 10 billion. It made it seem less like it was my fault.

The beginning of my relationship with my husband wasn’t that dramatic or definitive. I thought I was getting into something casual with someone I didn’t even know if I particularly liked, much less loved, but was still oddly fascinated by. I wanted to see the way he lived, to see if I could emulate it and become more like him. He lived with roommates in his 30s — well, that was the price you paid if you wanted to do nothing but write. I wanted what he had, his seriousness about his work. We went on dates where we both sat with our laptops in a café, writing, and this was somehow the most romantic thing I’d ever experienced. On our third date, we went to his father’s home on Cape Cod to dog-sit for a weekend, and it was awkward in the car until we realized we were both thinking about the same Mary Gaitskill story, “A Romantic Weekend,” in which a couple with dramatically mismatched needs learn the truth about each other through painful trial and error. Our weekend was awkward, too, but not nearly as awkward as the one in the story. On the way home, I remember admiring Keith’s driving, effortless yet masterful. I trusted him in the car completely. A whisper of a thought: He would make a good father.

In Liars, cracks begin to form almost immediately, even before John and Jane get engaged; she is accepted to a prestigious fellowship and he isn’t, and he is forthright about his fear that she will become more successful than he is: “A moment later he said he didn’t want to be the unsuccessful partner of the successful person. Then he apologized and said that he’d just wanted to be honest. I said, It was brave and considerate to tell me.

Through the next few years, so gradually that it’s almost imperceptible, John makes it impossible for Jane to succeed. He launches tech companies that require cross-country moves, forcing Jane to bounce between adjunct-teaching gigs. And then, of course, they have a baby. The problem with the baby is that Jane wants everything to be perfect for him and throws herself into creating a tidy home and an ideal child-development scenario, whereas John works more and more, moving the family again as one start-up fails and another flourishes. Jane begins to wonder whether she has created a prison for herself but pacifies herself with the thought that her situation is normal: “No married woman I knew was better off, so I determined to carry on. After all, I was a control freak, a neat freak, a crazy person.” The story John tells her about herself becomes her own story for a while. For a while, it’s impossible to know whose story is the truth.

I thought about Keith’s side of the story when I read Liars. Maybe it was the lack of alcohol’s blur that enabled me to see this clearly for the first time — I began to see how burdened he had been, had always been, with a partner who refused to plan for the future and who took on, without being asked, household chores that could just as easily have been distributed evenly. Our situation had never been as clear-cut as it was for Lyz Lenz; Keith had never refused to take out the trash or hidden my favorite mug. But he worked more and later hours, and my intermittent book advances and freelance income could not be counted on to pay our rent. As soon as we’d had a child, he had been shunted into the role of breadwinner without choosing it or claiming it. At first, I did all the cooking because I liked cooking and then, when I stopped liking cooking, I did it anyway out of habit. For our marriage to change, we would have needed to consciously decide to change it, insofar as our essential natures and our financial situation would allow. But when were we supposed to have found the time to do that? It was maddening that the root of our fracture was so commonplace and clichéd — and that even though the problem was ordinary, I still couldn’t think my way out of it.

Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story, by Leslie Jamison, is in some ways the successor to Aftermath — the latest divorce book by a literary superstar. It is mostly an account of Jamison’s passionate marriage to a fellow writer, C., and the way that marriage fell apart after her career accelerated and they had a child together. It then details her first months of life as a single mother and her forays into dating. In it, she is strenuously fair to C., taking much of the blame for the dissolution of their marriage. But she can’t avoid describing his anger that her book merits an extensive tour, while his novel — based on his relationship with his first wife, who had died of leukemia — fails commercially. “It didn’t get the reception he had hoped for,” Jamison writes, and now, “I could feel him struggling. He wanted to support me, but there was a thorn in every interview.” C. grows distant, refusing to publicly perform the charming self that Jamison fell in love with. “I wished there was a way to say, Your work matters, that didn’t involve muting my own,” Jamison writes.

For all my marriage’s faults, we never fought in public. Friends encouraged us to reconcile, saying, “You always seemed so good together.” (As if there were another way to seem! Standing next to each other at a party, it had always been easy to relax because we couldn’t fight.) And we never did anything but praise each other’s work. Until this last book of my husband’s, that is. I had read Raising Raffi for the first time six months before it was published, while I was out of town for the weekend. I had, at that time, enjoyed reading it — it was refreshing, in a way, to see someone else’s perspective on a part of my own life. I even felt a certain relief that my child’s early years, in all their specificity and cuteness, had been recorded. This work had been accomplished, and I hadn’t had to do it! There had been only a slight pang in the background of that feeling that I hadn’t been the one to do it. But as publication drew nearer, the pang turned into outright anger. The opening chapter described my giving birth to our first son, and I didn’t realize how violated I felt by that until it was vetted by The New Yorker’s fact-checker after that section was selected as an excerpt for its website. Had a geyser of blood shot out of my vagina? I didn’t actually know. I had been busy at the time. I hung up on the fact-checker who called me, asking her to please call my husband instead. (In case you’re wondering, Keith has read this essay and suggested minimal changes.)

I related to the writers in Splinters trying to love each other despite the underlying thrum of competing ambitions. But most of all, Jamison’s book made me even more terrified about sharing custody. “There was only one time I got on my knees and begged. It happened in our living room, where I knelt beside the wooden coffee table and pleaded not to be away from her for two nights each week,” she writes. Envisioning a future in which we shared custody of our children made me cringe with horror. It seemed like absolute hell. At the time we separated, our younger son was only 4 years old and required stories and cuddles to get to bed. Missing a night of those stories seemed like a punishment neither of us deserved, and yet we would have to sacrifice time with our kids if we were going to escape each other, which seemed like the only possible solution to our problem. Thanksgiving rolled around, and I cooked a festive meal that we ate without looking at each other. Whenever I looked at Keith, I started to cry.

We decided to enter divorce mediation at the beginning of December. On Sixth Avenue, heading to the therapist’s office, we passed the hospital where I’d once been rushed for an emergency fetal EKG when I was pregnant with our first son. His heart had turned out to be fine. But as we passed that spot, I sensed correctly that we were both thinking of that moment, of a time when we had felt so connected in our panic and desperate hope, and now the invisible cord that had bound us had been, if not severed, shredded and torn. For a moment on the sidewalk there, we allowed ourselves to hold hands, remembering.

The therapist was a small older woman with short curly reddish hair. She seemed wise, like she’d seen it all and seen worse. I was the one who talked the most in that session, blaming Keith for making me go crazy, even though I knew this wasn’t technically true or possible: I had gone crazy from a combination of sky-high stress and a too-high SSRI prescription and a latent crazy that had been in me, part of me, since long before Keith married me, since I was born. Still, I blamed his job, his book, his ambition and workaholism, which always surpassed my own efforts. I cried throughout the session; I think we both did. I confessed that I was not the primary wronged person in these negotiations, and to be fair I have to talk about why. Sometime post–Last Fight and pre-hospitalization, I had managed to cheat on my husband. I had been so sure we were basically already divorced that I justified the act to myself; I couldn’t have done it any other way. I had thought I might panic at the last minute or even throw up or faint, but I had gone through with it thanks to the delusional state I was in. There aren’t many more details anyone needs to know. It was just one time, and it was like a drug I used to keep myself from feeling sad about what was really happening. Anyway, there’s a yoga retreat center I’ll never be able to go to again in my life.

At the end of the session, we decided to continue with the therapist but in couples therapy instead of divorce mediation. It was a service she also provided, and as a bonus, it was $100 cheaper per session. She didn’t say why she made this recommendation, but maybe it was our palpable shared grief that convinced her that our marriage was salvageable. Or maybe it was that, despite everything I had told her in that session, she could see that, even in my profound sadness and anger, I looked toward Keith to complete my sentences when I was searching for the right word and that he did the same thing with me. As broken as we were, we were still pieces of one once-whole thing.

My husband would have to forgive me for cheating and wasting our money. I would have to forgive him for treading on my literary territory: our family’s life, my own life. My husband would have to forgive me for having a mental breakdown, leaving him to take care of our family on his own for a month, costing us thousands of uninsured dollars in hospital bills. I would have to forgive him for taking for granted, for years, that I would be available on a sick day or to do an early pickup or to watch the baby while he wrote about our elder son. I would have to forgive him for taking for granted that there would always be dinner on the table without his having to think about how it got there. He would have to forgive me for never taking out the recycling and never learning how to drive so that I could move the car during alternate-side parking. I would have to forgive him for usurping the time and energy and brain space with which I might have written a better book than his. Could the therapist help us overcome what I knew to be true: that we’d gone into marriage already aware that we were destined for constant conflict just because of who we are? The therapist couldn’t help me ask him to do more if I didn’t feel like I deserved it, if I couldn’t bring myself to ask him myself. I had to learn how to ask.

No one asked anything or forgave anything that day in the couples therapist’s office. After what felt like months but was probably only a few days, I was watching Ramy on my laptop in my downstairs-bedroom cave after the kids’ bedtime when some moment struck me as something Keith would love. Acting purely on impulse, I left my room and found him sitting on the couch, drinking tea. I told him I’d been watching this show I thought was funny and that he would really like it. Soon, we were sitting side by side on the couch, watching Ramy together. We went back to our respective rooms afterward, but still, we’d made progress.

After a few more weeks and a season’s worth of shared episodes of Ramy, I ventured for the first time upstairs to Keith’s attic room. It smelled alien to me, and I recognized that this was the pure smell of Keith, not the shared smell of the bedrooms in every apartment we’d lived in together. I lay down next to him in the mess of his bed. He made room for me. We didn’t touch, not yet. But we slept, that night, together. The next night, we went back to sleeping alone.

Pickups and drop-offs became evenly divided among me and Keith and a sitter. Keith learned to make spaghetti with meat sauce. He could even improvise other dishes, with somewhat less success, but he was improving. I made a conscious effort not to tidy the house after the children left for school. I made myself focus on my work even when there was chaos around me. Slowly, I began to be able to make eye contact with Keith again. At couples therapy, we still clutched tissue boxes in our hands, but we used them less. Our separate chairs inched closer together in the room.

That Christmas, we rented a tiny Airbnb near his dad’s house in Falmouth. It had only two bedrooms, one with bunk beds for the kids and one with a king-size bed that took up almost the entirety of the small room. We would have to share a bed for the duration of the trip. The decision I made to reach across the giant bed toward Keith on one of the last nights of the trip felt, again, impulsive. But there were years of information and habit guiding my impulse. Sex felt, paradoxically, completely comfortable and completely new, like losing my virginity. It felt like sleeping with a different person and also like sleeping with the same person, which made sense, in a way. We had become different people while somehow staying the same people we’d always been.

Slowly, over the course of the next months, I moved most of my things upstairs to his room, now our room. We still see the therapist twice a month. We talk about how to make things more equal in our marriage, how not to revert to old patterns. I have, for instance, mostly given up on making dinner, doing it only when it makes more sense in the schedule of our shared day or when I actually want to cook. It turns out that pretty much anyone can throw some spaghetti sauce on some pasta; it also turns out that the kids won’t eat dinner no matter who cooks it, and now we get to experience that frustration equally. Keith’s work is still more stable and prestigious than mine, but we conspire to pretend that this isn’t the case, making sure to leave space for my potential and my leisure. We check in to make sure we’re not bowing to the overwhelming pressure to cede our whole lives to the physical and financial demands, not to mention the fervently expressed wants, of our children. It’s the work that we’d never found time to do before, and it is work. The difference is that we now understand what can happen when we don’t do it. I’m always surprised by how much I initially don’t want to go to therapy and then by how much lighter I feel afterward. For now, those sessions are a convenient container for our marriage’s intractable defects so that we get to spend the rest of our time together focusing on what’s not wrong with us.

The downstairs bedroom is now dormant, a place for occasional guests to stay or for our elder son to lie in bed as he plays video games. Some of my clothes from a year earlier still fill the drawers, but none of it seems like mine. I never go into that room if I can help it. It was the room of my exile from my marriage, from my family. If I could magically disappear it from our apartment, I would do it in a heartbeat. And in the attic bedroom, we are together, not as we were before but as we are now.