The Way We Really Were: Joyce Maynard on Divorce

For 17 years, when Joyce Maynard told the story of her divorce, she always made her ex the bad guy. But as she neared 50, she was finally able to admit her own part in the marriage’s demise

By Joyce Maynard
Maybe I was enjoying the picture of getting, from my husband’s classmates, a kind of tenderness and support that had been lacking in my life with him.One of the people in attendance at this reunion dinner was an old friend of my husband’s, whose wife had recently died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 31. He and I barely knew each other. We had met at the funeral, in fact, only a few weeks earlier. He was my husband’s friend more than mine. Now we sat together at dinner, he and I. And in a way I only came to understand years later, we recognized each other: two lonely people, each one grieving a different kind of loss and heartbreak.Over dinner and a few glasses of wine, we talked about our lives with a kind of naked trust I might not have possessed if he weren’t a new widower and I the mother of a newborn son. By the time the meal was over, I knew I was too tired, with too much wine in me, to drive back home that night. So he walked me over to the dormitory, where attendees at the reunion were housed, to find me a room.Then we were sitting on a hard little single student cot, and then we were kissing. Then I pulled out a drawer from the dormitory bureau and laid it on the floor, with a folded-up towel in the bottom, and set my baby son inside. Then I lay down beside the young man, still raw with grief from his wife’s death, and spent the night with him.In the morning, I drove home to my family. At her school picnic later that day, my 6-year-old daughter commented on a red mark on my neck. It was where the widower had kissed me the night before.My husband’s widowed classmate paid us a visit that summer, and when my husband suggested that he might like to stay on for a while with us, nobody argued. For six weeks — as my husband continued to rebuild his shattered wrist and I cared for our newborn baby and my other two children — it was the widower who kept me company.Affair strikes me as an odd word for what took place that summer, but if my husband were telling the story, he could call it that. Though the better terms for what went on then would be betrayal, abandonment. The very words I later used, in my head, to describe what he had done to me.When the summer ended, the young widower returned to New York City and I stayed in my lonely marriage — lonely for us both, I now recognize. The only indication anything unusual had happened lay in how we never talked about it, until the day — a full two years later — when my husband asked me, in the middle of an argument, if something had been going on between me and his friend that summer, and I told him yes. We didn’t speak of it again until a few years after that, when we were in counseling. I brought it up, because he hadn’t. Otherwise, the fact of my infidelity lay like a pair of blood-soaked gloves in the back of a murderer’s garage.Selective editing. It transforms the story, of course, and not just for the listeners. For the teller too. Because every time I recounted my version of our divorce, I locked it more firmly in place, until it was hard to remember what I had ever loved about this man. I look back with huge regret now, on the years from age 35 to 48 or so, as having been filled with a foolish and wasteful measure of self-righteousness and blame. The fact was, we both did a poor job of being partners to each other. We knew nothing of stepping outside of our own stories with sufficient imagination and compassion to recognize what the other person’s story might have been.Somewhere around age 50 — having lived longer divorced from him than I did married, and with our children in their 20s — something changed, finally.I was immersed, that year, in writing the story of a woman my age who had murdered her husband after a 30-year marriage. (With a hatchet, yet.) And so I was thinking a lot about rage and hurt and the stories we tell ourselves about what is going on in our lives, which may be easier to stomach than the truth.The story of this particular woman, the murderer, was that her husband had been abusing her for years — an idea only one of the couple’s two adult sons supported, while the other laid out a very different version of what had gone on in their family. And though I had entered into my exploration of the tragedy with a certain predisposition to sympathize with the wife, I ended up viewing her as a liar.

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