Ted’s (Painful, Expensive, but Otherwise Perfect) Divorce….

This is an article from Men’s Health (April 2016).  While it is a view of divorce ONLY from the man’s side, it brings up a number of good ideas, both about marriage and about divorce.

Article written by:  Laurence Roy Stains

“In two out of three breakups, the woman decides to call it quits.  So it was for poor Ted, who thought his wife was happy.”

When does a marriage go bad?  It may be different for each couple, but I’ll tell you this:  The wife usually knows first.  Maybe, while lying in bed staring at the ceiling at 2 a.m., she thinks, This isn’t love.  This is going nowhere.  This is not what I signed up for.  Meanwhile her husband sleeps in sweet oblivion.  Such was the case for Ted and Sarah.  They’re a real couple, and this is their story.  (I’ve changed the names and some details to protect their privacy.)  You’ll be surprised how much the narrative of one divorce can reveal about millions of others.  But first let’s hear their saga.  How they went from hot to cold.  How it all unraveled – for Ted, anyway – on a Friday night after dinner.


Just before dinner, Sarah says, “When the kids go down, I need to talk to you about something.”

And Ted thinks, Okay.  He has no idea how profoundly his life is about to change.  Maybe you’d be clueless too.  Picture yourself standing outside their house that night.  Through the kitchen window would appear a cozy scene:  a family of four sitting around the breakfast nook of their four-bedroom colonial in a gentrified neighborhood of major Sun Belt city.  Nothing to see here.

It isn’t until an hour later, when the kids are in bed, that Sarah tracks Ted down and asks, with more urgency this time, “Can you come upstairs for a moment?”

He heads up to their bedroom and stands at the left side of their queen-sized bed.  She follows him through the door and faces him from across the bed.  She looks at him and drops the bomb; “I can’t be married to you anymore.”

Ted sits on the bed.  He leans against their headboard made from a salvaged wooden door.  At that moment he could practically hear it slamming shut.  A wave of nausea sweeps over him.  “Is there someone else?”

“No! There’s not!”  She resents him for asking this, just as she’s resented so many things he’s said over their 10 years together.  For the next few hours she tell Ted every last thing that was wrong about him and the marriage, every hurtful word, every slight and thoughtless criticism.  When she’s done, they get into that bed together.  She sleeps; Ted doesn’t.  Every hour or so he wakes her with a challenge.

“Do you know what you’re doing?”  Then:  “You’re just mad, right?”

She comes right back at him:  “You never accepted me.  You wanted me to be thinner.  Smarter.  You were so critical.”

“But I’ve changed.  Can’t you see how much less judgmental I’ve been?”

“It’s too late.  I checked out a long time ago.”

At dawn Ted gets up and goes for a long run.  He stays out of the house most of the day.  When he returns, he’s ready for Round Two.  He tries shaming her: “I can’t believe you would abandon the boys.  You’ll wreck their lives.”

She says: “If we’re apart, it will be an improvement for them.  We’re so unkind to each other.”  He tries anger:  “I just cannot believe this!  What is so urgent?”  And she says:  “You can’t believe that I hate you.  You cannot believe that you were just awful to me.  You’ve got to think it’s someone else.”  He tries to negotiate:  “Why don’t we try to give this one more chance?”  And she says something he will never forget:  “You are sick to want to stay married to someone who despises you.”

The biggest study of divorce in America began modestly enough,  Back in 1972, University of Virginia professor E. Mavis Hetherington (who’s now a professor emeritus) followed 72 preschool children to see how they were adapting to their parent’s divorces.  As they grew, so did the study:  By the time Hetherington wrapped it up nearly three decades later, she ad data on 1,400 families.  As it happens, divorce is not usually prompted by men who run off with a coworker, or with anyone else for that matter.  In two out of three divorces, it’s the wife who initiates it.  And one in four men who’ve gone through divorce had no idea their wives were even thinking about leaving.

Are we that dense?  Maybe we’re just playing a different movie in our heads.  We expect to hear the d-word the morning after the big fight.  But here’s what happens:  The skirmishes stop months before the Big Talk, lulling the husband into thinking, That’s good.  We’re not fighting anymore.  Actually, that’s bad.  When she stops fighting, that’s when you want to start worrying.  In her heart, the divorce has already occurred.  Hetherington calls it “the emotional divorce” in her book For Better or for Worse.  It can precede the actual event by months or even years.  The advent of divorce is not war but silence and distance.  Most spouses know when a marriage has been pounded flat.  When women prolong it, the reason is often their financial dependence.  Men tend to hang in for the kids.  For good reason:  Two years after, many men say they feel shut out of their kid’s lives.


Sarah finds Ted his new house, a little 1950’s rancher on a quiet street with a “For Rent” sign on the lawn.  It’s just a few blocks from their present home.  She calls him about it at work.  He drives by, takes a quick tour, and signs a lease.  “It’s not sexy and impressive,” he tells me, but it has what he needs.  There are two bedrooms and a big bathroom with old ceramic tile and a place where his boys can hang their Scooby-Doo toothbrushes.

Yes, it was Sarah who demanded the divorce, but it’s Ted who’s moving.  And not soon enough.  In this short life, nothing is as weird as sleeping in the same bed with a woman who wants you gone.  Ted finds a word to describe it:  “excruciating.”  They had decided that it would be best for the children if Ted moved out.  A month and a week later, he leaves.

That’s when they finally tell their two young sons, Mark and Cameron.  On the first of March, a Saturday morning, they drive the boys over to Ted’s new house.  They all sit down; first Ted tries to explain what is happening, but the breaks down.  Then Sara tries to explain, but she breaks down.  That scares the boys, who start crying too.  Then they get up and go out shopping, like the family they aren’t anymore, and pick out sheets with trains on them for the boys’ new bunk beds at Dad’s house, where they will be sleeping every other weekend from now on.

“March and April were….oh god, I can hardly think about it,” Ted later recalls.  “They were trying to sort it out in their little heads, but they just didn’t understand.”  Then one Saturday night in early April, Mark tells him:  “I like your house and all, but it’s time for you to come home now.”  And Cameron yells:  “I don’t want to see you!  I don’t want to see Mom!  I want to see you and Mom!”  And both boys start begging Ted to come home.  As Ted recalls:  “We got in my bed and we all cried for an hour and a half.”

Throughout the spring, Mark is hurting.  As the older child, he knows more, understands more, suffers more.  He cannot bring himself to say the word “divorce.”  Instead he uses the word “migrate.”  He tell his dad:  “I don’t want to tell my friends at school that you migrated.  I don’t want anybody to know that.”  What exactly do you say to that?  As a father, how can you possibly find words to ease the pain you’re causing your child – especially when you don’t feel like you have control over the situation?  All this time, Ted has been so worried about losing his kids, and meanwhile his kid has been terrified of losing him.  Ted reaches inside himself, and after a minute he tell Mark, “I made a promise to you when you were born that I would be there forever.  And I’m making that promise to you again, right now.”

Ted’s promise to Mark is more than a momentary reassurance.  It has the power to make a major difference in Mark’s life.  A generation ago, such an assertion would have been dismissed by the experts.  The first studies of divorced children seemed to prove that the kids who saw their fathers a lot were as messed up as the kids who never saw Dad’s car in the driveway.  But recent research shows that men are not so dispensable.  Paul Amato, Ph. D., a retired Penn State sociology professor, did an analysis of 63 studies and found that nonresident fathers who engage in “authoritative parenting” improve their children’s lives.  That means helping with homework, talking about the kids’ problems, setting consistent limits, being a good role model, and supporting their accomplishments.  When that happens, kids get higher grades and higher SAT scores.  Fewer of them exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression.  Above all, far fewer get into trouble.


Ted and I are leaning against the railing, looking down on the pirate ship.  It’s part of the children’s playground where we’ve brought Mark and Cameron today.  Sarah is away for the week, visiting her sister in Michigan.  Ted has taken off a week of work to spend some time with the boys. Outwardly Ted does not seem to be hurting.  Divorce may be the ruination of some men, but with Ted it seems to be an elixir.  He’s 42, and he’s running 30 miles a week.  His waist used to measure a sloppy 36 inches; now it’s a fit-and-trim 31.  With his close-cropped haircut and air of confidence, he’s altogether an attractive guy.  And believe me, the young moms at the playground have noticed.  I watch as a blonde in tight white shorts maneuvers her stroller into his line of sight.  Ted starts to tell me what went wrong in his marriage.  Like all love stories, it had a romantic beginning:  A friend introduced them at a party; there was instant attraction followed by several months of delirious sex.  Within a year and a half they were married.  At first they took ski vacations together.  But a few years into the marriage, they started taking his-and-hers vacations.  She wanted sun and the full spa treatment; he went off to Colorado with his buddies.  The night before every trip, like clockwork, she would pick a fight.  She called him selfish and resented that he was going off without her.  Yet they never made any attempt to plan a vacation together.  Why?  “Pretty simple,” says Ted, “I don’t think we liked being together.”

It’s no big mystery why couples get divorced:  They’ve lost their connection – physically, emotionally, or both.  For more than three decades, researchers have been recording the behaviors of couples and cataloging the many variations of their marital misery.  All couples fight, of course, and we all fight about the same mundane, stupid stuff.  But not surprisingly, among couples headed for divorce, the spouses don’t listen to each other, even if one spouse is talking excitedly about something great that happened that day.  The divorce-prone keep their thoughts to themselves and do not disclose to their partners what they are feeling or thinking.  They have nothing nice to say.  They criticize their spouses more and react more defensively when faced with criticism.  They’re quick to show contempt; a lot of eye-rolling goes on.  Nothing gets resolved in these fights; the bickering escalates into insults.  They are quicker to show anger and slower to pay respect.  All of these behaviors are tough to live with.  Certainly they’d be reason enough to make anyone think about divorce.  But plenty of less-than-happy couples think about splitting; not all of them actually pull the trigger.  Those spouses who do follow through with divorce may have had their commitment to marriage undermined many years before.  Amato has discovered that if both a husband’s and a wife’s parents got a divorce, the odds that they, too, will someday divorce spikes to well over 50 percent.  In that sense Ted, a child of divorce, and Sarah, another child of divorce, were pretty much doomed from the very start.

The November before the breakup, Ted and Sarah had a conversation in the backyard.  Each asked, “Why did you marry me?”  Both where puzzled.  Neither could remember what the attraction was.  They only knew the feeling of being worlds apart.  Ted said, “I never felt connected with you.”  Sarah’s response was, “I stopped loving you years ago.”  Oddly enough, Ted woke up the next morning with fresh determination.  “I felt like we’d put it all out on the table,” he says.  “I thought, ‘Is there anything to work with here?’ My answer was yes.”  It must be a guy thing.  How many men do you know who keep putting up with less in their marriages?  Ted’s response:  “Most guys accept discontent as a normal part of marriage.  They think, ‘I’ve got my wife, I bring home the money, I do the things I need to do.  That’s love.’  Women seem to not accept it.  They’re like, ‘He doesn’t talk to me enough, he doesn’t understand me.  I’m a low priority.'”  This may sound like a sweeping Mars-and-Venus indictment, but there’s truth also.  Howard Markman, PH.D., a researcher at the University of Denver and the coauthor of Fighting for Your Marriage, says, “The biggest mistake men make is avoiding everyday disagreements because they think talking about problems leads to fighting about problems.  And they don’t like to fight, at least in relationships,”  Women, meanwhile, make the mistake of believing that if their mate doesn’t comply with small requests or follow through when he says he’ll do something, he doesn’t care about her.  At some point, the backyard talks and counseling sessions aren’t going to change anything.  Sarah had reached that point, “She was so crystal clear,” says Ted.  “There was no hope.”


Back in May, at the playground, Ted told me that being divorced at 42 “is like being 28 again, only with more money and a better car.”  But he’s since changed his tune:  “I’ve never been poorer in my life.”  He’s paying alimony and child support.  He’s also spent a bunch of money trying to create an instant home.  The small stuff adds up.  “I spent $6000 on sheets and towels and cheese graters.”  He has limited one huge expense:  lawyers.  He and Sarah decided to use a mediator instead.  They went to three sessions and hammered out an agreement; then they took it to their own lawyers for review before it was sent to a judge.  “I went in having no intention of paying alimony and came out paying $2000 a month,” he said.  “As pissed off as I was, I realized that it would definitely affect the kids if I didn’t pay alimony.”  They also traded his equity in the house for her equity in his business.  In the end, they spent about $3000 on a process that could easily have cost tens of thousands of dollars if they had dragged their private pain through the courts.  That legal process is very often friendlier to women than it is to men.  In a study of divorcing couples conducted by psychologist Sanford Braver, Ph. D., the women reported significantly greater satisfaction with their settlements.  They were more likely to get what they wanted, and they felt they controlled the process.  Ted and Sarah were officially divorced on June 12.  Part of the paperwork was a custody agreement, plus every Tuesday and Thursday from 6 to 8pm.  They take turns on holidays.  Ted insisted on a clause stipulating that if either party moves more than 25 miles away, the custody agreement will be renegotiated.  “She’s 39,” he says.  “What if she gets desperately lonely?  She’ll marry some fucker in Cincinnati and move away with the kids.”  His instincts were on target.  A move would be bad – for Ted and the kids.  Another of Braver’s studies found more mental and physical health problems among kids with a long-distance parent.  According to the study, they “felt more hostility in their interpersonal relations, suffered more distress related to their parents’ divorce, perceived their parents less favorably as sources of emotional support and as role models, and rated themselves less favorably on their general physical health, general life satisfaction, and personal and emotional adjustment.”  “We want to prevent the separation of the child from one of his or her parents,” Braver says.  “Way too often parents confuse what is good for them with what is good for their children.”  Braver also believes in quantity, not just quality, when it comes to time.  “Every other weekend is not enough,” he says, adding that dads need to have their children at least 35 percent of the time.  Otherwise, it’s hard to be more than just the good-time guy.  Sounds great – but for many men it’s a daydream.  By the time the children in Hetherington’s study reached age 15, the average distance fathers lived from their children was 400 miles.


Shouldn’t Ted be really bitter right about now?  Would you blame him?  I keep waiting for him to rip off the mask and bare some deep resentment.  It doesn’t happen.  Nine months after Sarah pulled the plug, he’s amazingly buddy-buddy with her.  She’ll hand him a leftover casserole.  He’ll help her get a couch upstairs.  He swears their relationship is better now.  “There’s not the baggage of the marriage,” he says.  “She’s not waiting for me to say something that will piss her off.”  As for that evening custody, Tuesdays and Thursdays?  Even though he lives a few minutes away, he routinely goes back to his old house, which is now Sarah’s house, and stays while she goes out with her new boyfriend, Allen.  He puts the boys to bed, and when she comes back, he leaves – or not.  Sometimes he hangs and they talk.  “A lot of people think it’s weird,” says Ted.  But in a year of overwhelming change, he wants his children’s lives to be as consistent as possible.  “In a way, I have a business relationship with Sarah,” he says, “It’s the business of raising kids.”  No, he isn’t in denial.  Nor is he secretly hoping to reunite.  “I’m trying to be high-minded here,” he says.  Besides, he’s busy falling in love with Tina, a woman he’s been dating for a few months.  They met at a wine tasting, and now his nights are filled with food and foreign films.  And passion.  “She’s the most sensual person I’ve ever met,” he says.  As we sit on his back deck near midnight drinking cabernet, he peeks at a possible future.  “It’s like, here we go again,” he says.  “There’s always that hope.  I mean, there’s nothing like the feeling of romance.  I predict I’ll be married, I hate to say this, but – relatively fast.”  In fact, new love is the single best antidote to divorce.  Hetherington, after studying hundreds of couples, found that their lives didn’t really get back on track, they weren’t truly happy again, until they found a new relationship.  “After a divorce,” her study concluded, “nothing heals as completely as new love.”

So Ted has done everything right.  After a year that would have left some guys face down on the floor of some bar, Ted is more than ambulatory; he’s a model.  He minimized conflict with Sarah and maximized cooperative parenting.  He contained all the upheaval and sacrificed his standard of living so his boys’ standard of living would remain unchanged.  Most of all, he has been there for them.  He has never given them less than his full attention.  Recent research looks at divorce as not a single earth-shaking event but rather a change that kicks off a series of disruptive events – new moves, new partners, possibly more divorces.  The sheer number of those changes can be devastating to children’s behavior, academics, and well-being.  Ted has kept those disruptions to a minimum.  But the nagging question, on his and every divorced parent’s mind:  Is it enough?  Will the boys turn out okay?  I ask Amato.  It’s an unfair question, of course.  He doesn’t know these people, and he couldn’t predict their fate even if he did.  Nonetheless, he hazards a guess:  “I suspect the kids will adapt well.”  But he quickly adds a caution:  “These children now have an elevated risk of seeing their own marriages end in divorce because they’ve seen that it can be an acceptable solution to an unhappy marriage.”  Like millions of separations before it, this might be the legacy of Ted and Sarah’s divorce:  a chain of pain.  As their children navigate their adult lives, they will be like boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.