"Divorce and Gratitude" by Marcus Banks

Marcus Banks

Marcus Banks

Marcus Banks is the Manager of Education and Research Services at the UC San Francisco Library and Center for Knowledge Management. Previous positions include a fellowship at the National Library of Medicine and work as a reference librarian at the New York University Medical Center. His writing has appeared in professional journals, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Gotham Gazette.

Divorce and Gratitude  


1. THESIS: Getting divorced is a pain in the ass.

2. She was born in Hong Kong and was not a US citizen. If any relationship defined "opposites attract," it was ours. She was more logical than me, yet more carefree; I was softer, but somehow more uptight.

We married when I was 23 and she was 20, which seems shockingly young but was perfectly suited to my nature (if not to hers.) There is no doubt that we rushed into marriage so that Helen could become a US citizen...but there is no doubt that we loved each other too. From Chicago to Washington DC to New York City, the marriage thrived. We said "I love you" often, cooked Sunday dinners together, and traveled all around the world. There were many rituals, from watching "The Practice" every Sunday to reading the "Metropolitan Diary" in the New York Times together every week. Or my favorite: Helen falling asleep on my shoulder late at night, on all forms of public transportation, as I was reading on the way home.

When we lived in Washington Helen published an essay in the Washington Post's "Life as Haiku" column (in which you must encapsulate your life in 100 words.) It was about how we walked a bloodhound named Maude through our Cleveland Park neighborhood every Saturday morning, as a favor for our neighbor Sue. Helen acknowledged that she was solicitous of Maude's needs during these walks, more so than of mine the rest of the week. Really I was just happy to be with her, because most weeks she traveled for work and we had to cram all the fun stuff into the weekend. But, looking back, Helen had a point.

We moved to Berkeley in the summer of 2007, when Helen began studying for an MBA at Haas. Here is where things unraveled, and that Post piece began to seem prescient. In Berkeley Helen began to treat me as old baggage, yesterday's news. I'll never forget going to parties where she insisted that we walk around separately, as though I were a pariah. The business school staff had warned that an MBA was very hard on relationships—the students have such an intense experience that the partners are often left behind—and in our case they were right. Helen was always independent anyway, with clear hopes of traveling the world and no serious desire to raise a family. I hoped that the lifestyle in the Bay Area would temper those impulses. But an MBA from Haas opens up doors all around the world, and that's what happened for Helen.

One year ago, after things had dwindled down terribly from what they had been, we decided to split. That's not true—Helen wanted out, and I had no choice but to accept her decision. If she is anything she is stubborn, and I'd grown weary of being in a loveless marriage anyway (although I never would have made the move to leave.) Once the decision was pronounced, I immediately recognized the benefits for me. I didn't have to pretend that I wanted to keep hop-skotching around the world, and I could meet someone who wanted to be with me and raise a family. This logical analysis was correct but insufficient, a much too clinical approach to what is ultimately an emotional and lengthy process of healing. I could admit that I was sad, sometimes, but was never able to admit that I was angry.

3. TUMULT: In fact, I was very angry. I knew that I'd been a caring and faithful husband, and that most of the friendships Helen was making in business school were fleeting and shallow. Why was somebody in some random class more important than me? I was especially angry about how I filed the divorce papers although it was her decision. Of course, I didn't have to do this. But for more than a week those stupid papers lay on our coffee table, as a maddening rebuke of everything I thought was irreversible. And since the die was cast anyway, why not get it over with? On the morning of February 4, 2009 I checked off a box that said there were "irreconcilable differences" between us (the other option was "incurable insanity") and went to Alameda County Superior Court to file it.

Since I'd filed suit, I had to do almost all the follow-up. This required several return trips to court to push around papers. Helen never went with me, and had to go to court far less often. Each time I experienced a mixture of shame and class bias. Most of the people waiting in line seemed at their wits end, as though they never should have been married in the first place. I'd always thought Helen and I had it all together. People like us hire lawyers to do their dirty work, but I didn't want to spend one penny more than the already exorbitant filing fee. So I would stand in line experiencing liberal guilt about feeling superior to others, before admonishing myself for thinking far too much. This was the cycle every single time I went to court, and it only happened because I was in charge of making the divorce official even though it wasn't my idea.

Last year I wasn't able to acknowledge my anger. I tried to be positive by focusing on the good years, or negative by focusing on how bad it had become since we moved to Berkeley. I sometimes cried, talked with many people, went to see a therapist, and wrote a lot. When people asked I would say I was sad but not mad.

Sometimes it felt like people wanted me to be more angry, to lash out in disgust at how Helen had done me wrong. My seemingly resolute approach to dealing with the death of a marriage didn't comport with notions of the "angry divorce." But, while I was more angry than I could admit, ultimately anger seemed (and seems) pointless. Anger is hollow—it doesn't solve anything or return things to the way they were. My approach of focusing on the positive while acknowledging the marriage had run its course was sound, I believe...except that it pushed me to try to re-create what I'd had with Helen much too rapidly.

4. DATING: In addition to writing, talking, and suppressing my anger, I began dating very quickly. Here's where my logic got me into trouble: I figured that since my relationship with Helen had been a shadow of its former self ever since we'd arrived in Berkeley, I was ready for a real relationship again. But I wasn't accounting for the fact that I'd still believed in the marriage long after the evidence pointed elsewhere. So it's not true to say that the marriage effectively ended in August 2007 (which is what I said often, and believed) because it really didn't end until February 2009.

The mind is a terrible thing, prone to all manner of rationalizations and evasions of harsh truths. As I started dating I honestly thought I was ready. But the proof that I wasn't lay in my lack of patience, an inability to let new relationships grow naturally. After being with Helen for 10 years (8 of them married), I didn't know how to be alone. With people I had barely met I sought to rapidly recreate what Helen and I had built over many years, convincing myself that the divorce was a bump in the road that I could surmount on the return to "normal."

I ended up dating two great women seriously last year, and both times my impatience was the problem. After the second relationship collapsed, I finally accepted that I wasn't as ready to move on as I'd thought. I remembered that Helen and I had gotten to know each other for a full year before becoming serious. When people are older they have more baggage and this process takes even longer...and that's the process I was trying to circumvent entirely.

So despite all the emotional work—the talking, the writing—at some level I perceived the divorce as a problem to be solved. Very male. Helen, meanwhile, seemed to have no emotion whatsoever and to be treating the divorce (if she thought about it at all) as just another task to check off on the road to her MBA. Also male in spirit.

5. GENDER: Growing up, I was very displeased about the fact that I'd been born male. I noticed that the rapists, murderers, and muggers who made appearances on the local news were always men. And that was just in my hometown. Around the world the soldiers who do terrible things, and pretty much all the tyrants ever in the history of the world, are men too. I couldn't understand why female babies are left to die in some parts of the world, and what the big deal is about having a son anyway.

In some ways I still don't understand this, and never will. But last year I gained a good measure of sympathy for my fellow males. Perhaps we are the gender of extremes, from unbelievable cruelty to a very fierce desire for connection. Men marry sooner after divorce than women, and so I wasn't alone in not knowing how to be alone. Women live longer into widowhood too, for that matter, and usually have better skills for making many connections rather than tying everything to their romantic relationships.

So last year I softened the male bashing, for the first time in my life. Rather than glorifying women and demonizing men, it seems more fair to be gentle with everyone. I've noticed that adulthood often contains a curious mixture of cynicism and softness—we've all suffered losses and made mistakes, and whatever youthful idealism we once possessed seems ever more distant. But this often comes with a heightened sympathy for the fragility of others, and with genuine gratitude for moments of grace. Maybe this is what love is all about: the ability to create and hold on to those grace-filled moments.

6. LOVE: "I love you." Helen and I must have said this thousands of times over the years, and last year it stopped abruptly. Even though it's not spoken anymore, the fact of our love for each other remains. Last year was horrible and the California years have been hard, but there are countless good memories.

A sampling: Helen helping me make posters to protest Madeleine Albright's planned commencement address at Northwestern in 1999; the time she threw a surprise party for me simply because I said I was lonely; the shorts into which she sewed the words "I love you"; the daily I love you emails she used to send me. A lot of this was early—a sign that it was destined to be a passionate relationship more than an enduring one. But not all of it. For many years, as she traveled for work, Helen put a stuffed animal named "Mama Bear" in a prominent place in our apartment to stand in for Helen herself while she was away. And even in Berkeley, as things were unraveling, Helen could be kind. She worked at an internship in Connecticut in the summer of 2008. I'd been hunting around town for The Joy Luck Club just before she left, with no luck. Helen found and bought it for me, and scattered it among various nice notes all around the apartment.

If Helen had truly been cold-hearted, perhaps the divorce would have been easier to take. Often I sought to focus on her bad side, as a way to make the medicine go down. But I always knew, deep in my heart, that there is goodness and love within her. This made the marriage precious and made its ending much harder to accept. After she earned her MBA Helen began to acknowledge what we'd built together, which was gratifying and sadness-making all at the same time. This complicated mixture is the stuff of love.

You'll notice that Helen was gone a lot, for work and even for that internship. While this was definitely a sign of distance, I knew that she loved to travel and had a fierce independence. Helen's confidence and assertiveness is what made her attractive, and if I'd somehow tried to keep her at home it would have backfired. Love means letting people be who they are truly are, rather than trying to manage them into who you want them to become.


Getting divorced is a pain in the ass.

What's painful about divorce is that it unsettles everything that seems certain. I felt rejected even if I knew that Helen was rejecting the constraints of marriage more than me. Or maybe she was rejecting me and that pissed me off. I don't know—nothing is ever clear, the mind plays many tricks, and in the long run things work out even if the short term brings misery. The pain comes from not being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel even though you know it's there.

All of life is hard, not just divorce. But it's precious too. I wouldn't wish the experience of divorce on anyone, but I also don't regret being married even though it ended. That's a confusing and sometimes heartbreaking realization, but it's also a blessing.