Shall I Divorce My Wife?
DURING eight months of exile from my home I have pondered this question. Two months ago I filed suit for divorce in a near-by court; yet I still ask myself whether I should put it through. The case will not be contested. It is clear, definite, and simple, and duly substantiated. My wife herself wants it to go through, quickly. She wants to marry the man she has loved, still loves, and believes she always will love. Having given me just cause for divorce, she is willing to take her medicine and abide by its inward and outward results.
I, however, would infinitely rather she would get a decree against me instead. We consulted with three lawyer friends and tried to work up a case against me for our local courts, obviating the necessity for travel into another state, with its consequent expense of time and money. I lent every reserve of my personal history, and even considerable of my imagination to help build up a case of mental cruelty against me in support of my wife’s claim that she found it impossible to live with me. Two of our friends thought we had a case, but when we placed it in the hands of the third, who alone of the three was licensed to practice in our state, he gave it up, saying that he could not face a judge with such evidence as we had built together.
He thought, however, that he might construct a case of alienated affections if I would compromise one or another of my women friends, of whom my wife might claim jealousy!
Then a somewhat celebrated lawyer offered to get a divorce in favor of my wife, if I could provide myself with a professional co-respondent, furnish the necessary cash for detective witnesses, and meet a fee of fifteen hundred dollars, A less prominent, but doubtless wiser man of law, advised me against such procedure. He said that the state of the public mind, and therefore that of the bench, was at present dangerously against such collusion and that it was very apt to fail.
Weeks slipped by and my wife grew impatient of delay. She thought I was stalling in the hope that she would settle down again to dull existence with me instead of realizing her dream of abundant life with one whom she loved. She had acted honestly, openly, and either courageously or merely imprudently when she ran away to him on their first adventure. Courageously, I say, if she went with a full understanding of the consequences, and was willing to face them; imprudently and foolishly if she dived off on impulse from a springboard of ignorance.
I choose to grant her full credit for knowing what she was about. She seems to have faced the world and marched straight ahead. Now she was through with me as a husband, wanted her freedom, and wanted it quickly.
I had indeed hoped she might change her mind and, with it, her heart. I had wondered if this romance were not what William James once called an emotional jag, precipitated by a long and tedious strain and forgivable and forgettable as one might forgive and forget a spree. I did not know how to help her change that ever mysterious mind of hers. Perhaps some men know how. Sometimes they seem to do such things in novels and movies. I confess to failure, and I also confess to a myopic misunderstanding of what can, and does, really happen in a woman’s soul when she hits the trail of her dream, not in reverie but in fact.
I had welcomed her back to roof, food, clothing, and the material artefacts of life, not as her husband but as a friend in time of need. Having been dropped as a husband, I chose to remain a friend, and was accepted as such.
But the problem of her freedom remained, and after much more communion with legal minds (marvelous contraptions of historic sophistry!) I found myself, as it were, in the very clutches of the law.
I know very little about divorce in the abstract. I have read, since it became a personal problem to me, a few articles in the Atlantic, in the World’s Work, and in scattered periodicals here and there. None of these articles mean very much to me. Not one of them throws the faintest light on my own individual case. I sit, in enforced exile, awaiting the day appointed for me to come into court and accuse openly, publicly, a friend of mine, my one-time wife, of a statutory crime. I sit here in the very spirit and letter of those lines from Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol: —
Or whether laws be wrong,
All that we know who sit in jail
Is that the wall is strong,
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.
My little reading has led me through discussions as to whether marriage was made by God or by man; whether Church, or State, or both, or neither, should control marrying and unmarrying. I have read citations from judges, quotations from Scripture, extracts from anthropology, precedents from the law, and a host of opinions, lay and clerical, legal and medical; and I seem not one whit wiser, and certainly not the least trifle comforted by all these acres of printed word.
What concerns me is a definite, bitterly earnest conflict of feelings within my soul, or heart, or mind, or whatever it is that becomes the battlefield of one’s emotions. Shall I end these days of uncertainty, of anxious waiting, of inward perturbation both for myself and for my erstwhile wife, by throttling my sense of courtesy and even decency, go to court, and pillory a woman whom I respect and admire; or shall I drop the case and go my way, leaving it to her to find her freedom as best she can, alone?
Nor does retrospective analysis of the factors invoked in this case lend a helpful hand toward the settling of my question. It has become a struggle of almost pure feeling, in which facts, dates, figures, picture-memories, opinions, and abstractions serve as a mere hazy background, or as a dimly interested audience of wearied faces. The outcome seems to lie in the final resultant of two tugging, striving, major forces, pulled on tangents by minor issues of chance circumstance and time.
If it were only possible for me to be angry, or to feel deeply injured or dramatically jealous — how easy my answer would be! As it is, my coming approach to the law has all the semblance of cold-blooded, maliciously calculated murder. The end may justify the means, but I am not as yet a convert of Machiavelli, nor an emulator of Benvenuto Cellini, both of which worthies I read with considerable delight. Yet I cannot even work myself into a rage against the man who has stolen my w ife, to use a phrase rooted in the time when wives were private property — like swords, or pipes, or horses.
He is no villain. He is a most admirable young man in many ways, many years younger than I, and several years younger than the woman he loves and wants to marry. Physically he triumphs over me at every point. His shock of curly brown hair would turn the Apollo Belvedere jaundiced with envy; he has the shoulders of a young gorilla, while as a typical caveman he would enthrall the feminine element in any movie audience. I, on the contrary, am built along lines of the proverbial bean-pole, regret a sprinkling of gray over my ears, shall probably be nearly bald within six years and, as a movie-actor, would make an admirable bookkeeper or professor in a boardingschool. I do not jot down this contrast in levity, but in quite serious earnest. Physique doth count in unmarrying as well as in first marrying.
Only inscrutable Providence knows why my wife elected me the successful candidate from among her bevy of would-be husbands before we were married. The fact remains that she did, and that she afterwards regretted her choice. On the contrary, I know full well why I selected such a charmingly buoyant amazon for a possible wife, and I have not regretted it even through our latest storm, and perhaps our last. The hand of the great potter did not shake when he fashioned her frame, and he breathed a remarkably vital spirit into her clay.
There must be primal, fundamental reasons for a romantic revolution in a woman’s heart, and sheer quality of physical fitness for reciprocal matehood doubtless plays an all important part. I mean more than a mere functional capacity for paternity or maternity. Our vibrantly wholesome daughter, reincarnating so much of her mother’s magnetism and versatility of physique belies such a physiological level. Nor am I persuaded that Mr. Wilfrid Lay’s thesis, in his interesting but enormously padded Plea for Monogamy, has solved the major problems of the matrimonial universe. There seems to be, at least on the part of my own wife, some conscious or unconscious physical standard or ideal to which I have not measured up; and this probably accounts, in part at least, for her change of mind and spirit toward me in our married life.
This factor cannot be affected practically by any academic, literary, legal, clerical, or scientific discussion of our problem. It remains a constant, or at least a very slightly variable factor. The odds here are against me. I accept a defeat which was written in my ancestry before I was born into this droll, Darwinian world.
The variables in my perplexity consist of that multitude of wavering, stressing, straining, and conflicting thoughts, feelings, words, and acts, which, together with desire, sympathy, and sometimes with love, go into the building of married life. Only an impossibly complete record of these, in the hands of an omniscient psychoanalyst, would prove of much practical value in an attempted solution of such a problem as I have faced during the last eight months and more.
I have had ample leisure, lately, to go over these elements very thoroughly and even microscopically. I have tapped long-buried memories in retrospection, reread years of diary and stacks of old letters. My wife and I have chatted over our historic petty differences and major conflicts of opinion in a friendly attempt to sift their proper worth, and perhaps to understand each other better. These items, fit for amicable discussion, are welcome in law courts, and would make delightful material for gossip among our acquaintances ; but to one’s own soul the details are like so much wind-blown chaff, and may become as irritating as they are useless.
Stripped to the skin, exposed in primal nakedness and unashamed, our case seems to be that threadbare story of a self-satisfied husband, content with his wife, believing he loved her, and feeling quite sure that she was as happily content with him as he was with her. It is the same old story of yet another woman who has tried to adjust herself, in married life, to less than she had hoped and dreamed of in that supposedly blessed state, and then suddenly decided to snatch from life by sheer force that which it had failed to give her with an open hand. Who shall say that she is wrong? The law court, yes; the clergy, yes; her neighbors, acquaintances, and even some of her friends, perhaps; but if within her own heart she believes she is right, what boots it judge, Church, or people? Where, in literature, or in tradition, or in our own convictions is there a solidly satisfactory answer to such a query?
I ask myself these questions in what is perhaps a futile attempt to be intellectually honest with myself and with her. I doubt if anyone is ever completely honest with himself in such a situation; but one may keep on trying.
My wife seems to feel something, to understand something in life that I do not. She seems to want something of which I have only a cloudy and somewhat poetic conception. Love, to her, seems to be something vitally different from what it has been to me. She left me, not because she hated me, or even because she greatly disliked me; but because she did not love me and because she did love somebody else.
That somebody has no money. He has no home. He has no job and does not want one. He is a romantically independent fellow, intent on building his own independent career outside of our vast system of corporation slavery. He offers her nothing save himself and his ambition and his own peculiar brand of love, with which she felt imperatively impelled to mate and there found happiness. For him she was willing to leave home, fireside, husband, child, and friends. For him she is willing and anxious to do this again, after her temporary return during a time of material stress.
Yet she loves and wants a home, a fireplace, motherhood, and friends. I provided these, but failed to provide a satisfactory husband with them. Things — solid, tri-dimensional things — we had in plenty. I even supported for her a yearly new edition of the most famous motor car in the world. But these things were not enough; nor were my affection, my variety of devotion, my quality of love (if we may dignify it by that name) enough to make her feel that she was living a life instead of leading an existence.
The essential fact is plain. I have failed to provide that subtle and supreme something, perhaps a mystic fusion of physical and spiritual elements necessary in an ideally reciprocal relation between man and woman, which my wife feels it is her right to have from life. And having failed here, what, I ask, have legal, clerical, ethical, scientific, or social precedents, conceptions, dogmas, theories, and traditions to do with this essentially individual and imperatively personal fact?
Just as verbal and printed discussions of the divorce problem have been drably arid and hollow to me, so all those sages who have discussed my own theme so wisely seem thrust like foolish prophets forth; their words to scorn are scattered and their mouths are stopped with the dust of their own exegesis. Freud, Forel, Ribot, Krafft-Ebbing, Kisch, and even such sympathetic souls as Stanley Hall and Havelock Ellis have left me stiffly cold with my haunting perplexity. I have had ample time to read scientific, medical, and even mystic views upon love and marriage, and have even added such creampufleries as Elinor Glyn’s complete and final philosophy of practical erotics. Yet the inner mystery of my wife’s primitive and protean mind remains to me as inscrutable as ever. She continues to hold the benefit of all my doubts and blundering surmises. She continues to hold my respect, and no little of my affection and admiration.
I have found no reason under heaven why this woman should remain my wife in name and to outward appearance when she is wedded in spirit to another. I have found no shadow of excuse to justify my asking her to live with me, save only the problematic welfare of our daughter. But this small girl has never heard a cross word, or seen a bitter look, or had reason to suspect the least note of discord between her father and mother, and there is no reason why she ever should except as she may absorb the opinions of others than ourselves. My wife and I have set our stage and played our appointed parts right well in the sight of our youngster, and played not without considerable reality of feeling — especially where she herself was concerned. Yet my wife is weary of play-acting, and wants to live. She believes that only by true living can she be to herself, or to her daughter, or to anyone, that which is worth being at all.
She claims that the quicker we remove our wigs and wash our faces, the happier we shall be with ourselves and with everyone with whom we dwell. She regards one phase of legal mummery in such a cause as noxious as any other, and prefers to suffer acutely if need be as a result of quick action from me, rather than to endure the almost chronically painful lengthiness of bringing a suit herself under the circumstances as we find them. To her the way seems clear, and the problem appears simple enough. To me it remains a conflict into this eleventh hour.
I feel, as the time draws near for me to enter a courtroom for the first time in my life, like a man drifting without a paddle in a lost canoe. I seem to be headed toward a sudden plunge into water of unknown depths. Perhaps the fall will prove short, the current merciful, and I may be landed gratefully on a green and solid shore; but I cannot see ahead.
So easy it is for folks to say, as I have heard them sa, or heard they have said: ‘Serves her right; he ought to be rid of her quick. . . . He should drop the matter and leave it up to her. . . . She ought to he spanked into her senses and settle down in her own home while she has the chance. . . . He’s a damn fool to let that youngster steal his wife.
. . . Abnormal creature, deserves to lose her. . . . They ought to get together, forget themselves, and live for the child. ... It would be ridiculous if it were not so pitifully tragic. . . .’ This last utterance is the only one that seems to hold the least glimmer of understanding. I do, indeed, seem to be playing in a comedy fit for a Sunday supplement, and in a tragedy suitable to a highbrow novel; but opinion and comment have in no wise helped me to decide what is best for me to do.
I have always hated Adam’s reply to God in the Garden of Eden. Eve very bravely and impudently ate her apple and disobeyed the Almighty. I respect her for it. Adam whimpered excuses about his wife’s misconduct and example. That makes me sick. Men seem to have been justifying themselves in much the same way before the Lord ever since, and if not before God, then at least before judges and their fellow men.
Imagining myself in court on this case of mine, I feel like a miserable incarnation of that cowardly progenitor of our human race, and no amount of logic, or law, or custom, or man-made justice serves to make me feel one whit, better about it. If I arise in court and solemnly swear, hand on Bible, that my wife has criminally injured me, I shall feel like an Adamic cad. I shall deserve to be cast out into a land of thorns and sand, and to have the serpent proceed to bruise my heel.
If I drop my case at the courthouse door, as I sometimes feel I shall be impelled from within to do, I shall have added a cruel weight to the shoulders of my wife and friend, who already bears as much of a burden as any woman should be given. I shall postpone indefinitely the day when she may realize her heart’s one supreme desire, which, be it a sublime reality or an absurd illusion, has held, holds, and shall hold my respect as the integrity of another person’s mind. I shall seem to have backed out of a painfully difficult job simply to satisfy a whimsy of courtesy and personal preference on behalf of my own ego.
My lawyer writes me to keep my nerve, to play I am a surgeon about to perform a necessary and saving operation. Now I have already performed minor surgical operations upon my wife, with a scalpel, when those were necessary. I have also held her hand in mine through a major operation, and assisted in the birthing of her daughter. The legal operation that confronts me, however, seems sometimes quite beyond my small powers of endurance; and there seems utterly no answer to my inward perplexity save that resultant of struggling forces within me which must lead, right soon, to conclusive action. I do not know, to-day, what that action will be. And I do not ask anyone for suggestion or advice.
I am not a moralist. I rather hate ‘morals’ tacked on, like label-tags, to the end of a story. I have set down an attempt to crystallize a mood, or set of feelings, and I do not want to preach. Yet to any man who has spent a goodly portion of eight months thinking along a certain line, there ought to come a few tentative conclusions, if not in regard to the problem as a whole, then at least as to his own future conduct in the wake of its consequences.
Were I to proceed with this case, what should I do next?
Obviously my wife is taking a chance where the odds are tremendously against her. She steps from a world of friends and congenial acquaintances into a land organically inimical toward anyone who acts openly against its more sensitive mores. She enters a union whose success is doubted, if its consummation is not wholly disapproved by her family and friends. She gambles on the promise of integrity, solidarity, lasting affection, moral and financial support of a young man still a verdant freshman in the school of life, into whose hands she is willing to place her future as a wife, and as the mother of children, a profession she elected early in life to pursue. She knows she is playing with chance, though perhaps she has not tried to calculate the odds. That marriage is a job at adjustment, she has also learned, but she believes she can do better a second time than she has the first.
Personally, I wonder if she will be better able to adjust herself even to a man so different from myself. I do not think I flatter myself. I am sure I must bristle with irritating negatives like an Arizona cactus, and I probably remain as serenely unconscious of their sharp and stinging points. Yet, from the little I know of this young man, his surface is not smooth as an apple; and, as to my wife, she is not without antagonizing traits which call for adjustment in return.
I somewhat fear that they both bank on the indubitable, but perhaps overestimated, power of physical attraction, of biological love, if you will, to bring the necessary compensations; and yet every intelligent person knows that sex as a physical mechanism is subject fundamentally to the law of diminishing returns, and perhaps even to Helmholtz’s psycho-physics law of stimulus and reaction, both or either of which would at least modify the solidity of such a foundation for life.
Altogether I have reason to wonder whether their experiment will prove a success. What am I to do, I who gave my word of honor to love and to cherish this wife of mine until death do us part? Shall I so easily pragmatize the situation, let her lie on the bed she has made, and go my way relieved of further worry? I can hardly do that. I think without doubt she will leave me; it is probable that she will marry again.
There remains, it seems to me, but one thing for me to do: keep friendly. She will need financial support for a while whether she marries or not. I can help there through an allowance, or what you will, for the care of our daughter, for I shall certainly not take the girl from her mother, whatever judgment a bench may hand down. She will need moral support, the thought of a few friends in the world, more than once. This I can give as I may be able.
Does that sound sentimental? or like a merely verbal pose? Think of our daughter. Marriage may be dissolved, a home may be broken, man and wife may drift apart on their respective ways; but the child remains, concrete, steadfast, a lovely reality.
With respect to our daughter, my job seems to be, again: keep friendly. Without friendliness between my wife and me, the child will be hurt, deeply, lastingly. With concord and cheerfulness, for her sake if for no other, she will weather whatever physical and nominal changes a divorce may bring about, with only a surface perplexity and pain. She is now of that grimly realistic age when everything is true which does not go contrary to her own inward wish. Santa Claus, Mother Hubbard, God, her daddy’s power, and her mother’s goodness are equally true.
Marriage is a reality to her, but if ever there were to be a time when her mother and father might be unmarried or remarried without any more disturbance to her own little soul than would be their getting a shave or a shampoo, it is now. Thinking seriously about it will come much later.
I think she should know the truth regarding our separation of ways very soon. I think she should know it in the same spirit and atmosphere that she has known me to come and go ‘on business,’ or has bade her mother good-bye when she has gone ‘to Europe.’ She can live with me in the future, as she has in the past, and trade back to her mother, and to her grandmother, or to one of the half-dozen loving and lovable women who have mothered her temporarily while her own mother has been ‘away.’ Gradually she will get perspective. Slowly she will gain a knowledge of the way things are done in the world, the way they ‘ought’ and ‘ought not’ to be done; but for one thing I sincerely hope, and for that one thing I shall diligently work: that she may grow up in an atmosphere of friendliness, of coöperation, and of as much cheerfulness, as possible.
Further, I shall endeavor to lead her to feel that marriage and motherhood are the supreme goals of life, and to believe that marriage can be successful, and that it may be happy. Does this sound impossibly grotesque? Perhaps; but I feel sure that here, at least, I shall have the child’s mother in full sympathy and in active help. If her own second married life is happy, the task will be easier than if it is not; but even should it not be, this effort can still be made. Perhaps our endeavor will have more power of feeling and thought and sympathetic effort than even an average mother and father might give to such a job. Emerson’s law of compensation often works strange miracles in life, does it not?
I seem to have then, two very definitive personal angles to my problem, or at least toward its aftermath. For myself, I want to follow out as far as I can my promise (and my desire) to cherish, at least, and to help a woman and a mother who has meant much of happiness, and somewhat of sorrow in my life. For our child, I want to make every effort to keep her happy and unperplexed in childhood, enlightened as well as we may know how to enlighten her in youth as regards her coming life, and especially concerning love, marriage, and parenthood. And by every means I shall try to keep hope high in her heart that, whatever mistakes and blunders and even tragedies have befallen her father and mother in their attempts to adjust their life together, she may, by hard work and a resolute spirit and a steadfast faith in her finest inward feelings, make life worth living, with happiness as a possible by-product.
- This paper is, of course, an absolutely true record. — THE EDITOR.↩