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
Though I knew, too, that she probably believed her own story, she’d been spinning it so long.Changing My StoryIt was around this time that I found myself having a conversation with a young woman going through a divorce — and practically dripping with bile. The thought came to me that I must have been a woman like her once, and I was ashamed.I looked at my children — at how they loved their father and at the kind of adults they’d become, many aspects of which were easily attributable to him — and because I loved them so much, I had to love those parts of the man who’d produced them.I looked around at all the troubles people I loved were struggling with — health and money problems, career disappointments, depression, ailing parents, sadness over what was happening in so many parts of the world — and the idea that I could still be sitting in a coffee shop somewhere, recounting the story of an injury inflicted over two decades back, seemed petty and wasteful.I was sick of my story. And if I were truly to hold on to the habit of talking about it, I knew I would have to add the other part to my telling: the part that I had played in the whole mess, the betrayal that was mine.My children had evidently forgiven me for the many years they witnessed my anger at their father. It seemed fair, then, to forgive him as well. This wasn’t a totally new concept, I should add. Many times, over the years, I’d imagined a scene in which some dramatic truce occurred between my children’s father and me — something along the lines of the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri.More than once, I had delivered the pronouncement: "I won’t talk about it anymore." Only, I did. But when the sense of forgiveness finally overtook me, I didn’t call anyone up and talk about it. I did not notify my ex-husband that a change of attitude had occurred. It was enough to know this was so.There was a time, when people asked why my marriage ended, when I used to say, "My husband fell in love with our babysitter." But this was not the answer, any more than it would have been the answer to tell them, "I had an affair with his friend." It was never about the babysitter, or about the young widower, or about the cigarette, or about his playing softball and my folding laundry, or my failure to recognize — as I do now — that plastering the bedroom, slowly and carefully, by the old traditional method, to mark our 10th anniversary, was in fact a beautiful gift.Although in another way, that was it precisely. What he offered, I didn’t value. What I offered back, he also missed. We were two people who loved each other, but we had such different ideas about how to express it. The other people we sought out (both of them long gone from our lives now) were really just a way of making the connection, somewhere, that we couldn’t make with each other. I was in Michigan recently, doing research on the woman who murdered her husband, and hoping to talk with a young man, age 19, who had loved and admired the murdered husband. This young man was debating whether or not to trust me enough to talk with me for my book. So he agreed to meet me at a restaurant, for the purpose of putting a series of questions to me, he said. I had supposed he’d be asking about my career, my previous books, my credentials as a journalist. It took me by surprise when this not particularly savvy or worldly young man began his interview of me by asking, "Why did your marriage end?"It was a question I’d answered a thousand times over the years — in coffee shops like this one, on a few hundred blind dates and visits with friends. Now he was asking, I suppose, as a way of assessing where my loyalties might lie in the story of this particularly disastrous marriage. Maybe he wanted to know if I’d been a battered wife and therefore inclined to sympathize with a woman who claimed to be one herself.But the fact was, his question left me without words. I sat there in the coffee shop, unable to form a single sentence. Something about the openness and guilelessness of this young man’s face, and the simplicity of what he was asking, made it unthinkable to haul out my old stories. "We both screwed up," I finally told him. Nothing particularly profound there, but it was true."All right," he said. Then, evidently believing my story, he told me his. And we moved on from there.

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