It’s made headlines around the world. The Great British Bake Off producers have cited (financial) distress and waltzed into the waiting arm(ful)s of Channel 4. There’s blood on the carpet (Mary, Mel and Sue, all gone) and the jostling for position in the brand-spanking marquee has begun. Will the British public accept minted Paul Hollywood’s second “wife”? We’ll have to wait for that one.
And then there’s that other divorce; Hollywood’s golden couple, the Jolie-Pitts. Another very bitter split, currently playing out as a real-time soap opera on our small screens. It’s acrimonious, it’s harsh and it’s relentless. God knows how it is for Brad (his 2nd divorce) and Angelina (her 3rd).
Thinking about divorce – especially if you’ve experienced it – probably tastes nasty in the mouth. It’s never nice – whatever the backstory, however it’s handled. There’s a long history to divorce but this doesn’t really explain why our marriages fail today. We do know societal attitudes to divorced people have relaxed, (and gratefully so for those those in fearful relationships) and that the legal act of separation has become so easy to do. In America a divorce is granted every six seconds – a nationwide divorce rate of 53%. And that’s not even the highest. Little ol’ Belgium beats everyone – at 71% – a fiercely divided country in politics, it seems to also be in it’s personal relationships. (The UK’s stands about 42%).
The stories we tell about divorce oscillate between raw pain and goofy comedy – there’s rarely a middle road. Most often our stories champion the wife and mother. This is not a bad thing – divorce was, and can still be, a woman’s surest route to poverty – but it’s probably time for a rebalance (so men write it up!)
What’s sure are the hurdles faced post-breakup all make for a dramatic retelling – the challenge of a new home and/or job to rediscovering friendships and loving again. Then for added tension – there will be the struggles (battles even) over the children. We’ve heard these stories in our workplaces and from our friends;
And read them in books – Divorce – novels and memoirs
and watched them on screen – 20 Best Movies about Divorce. (Interestingly films majoring on divorce were considered too unpalatable for the mainstream until the 1970s – when Hollywood hit Kramer Vs Kramer (Dustin Hoffman & Meryl Streep) and swept up an Oscar or two.)
And then there are those real life stories divorce cases, that astound us all;
But there are much fewer stories that examine the life-long after-effects of divorce. Where there were children there will be always be a future to navigate; Christmas’, birthdays, exam results, marriages, grandchildren… life’s biggest biggies.
It’s here though that we are most likely to find telling stories, the most revealing about our intimate relationships.
John Updike tried it, writing The Maple Stories over a 20 year period. Tracing the decline and fall of the marriage of Joan and Richard Maple, he exams a shared history made up of the happiness of growing children, and the sadness of growing estrangement and the misunderstandings of love.
And Hollywood tried it, in the comedy It’s Complicated (another Meryl Streep offering, this time a comedy; long-term divorcees find a spark again)
How the lives of Brangelina’s six children are affected by their parents woe in marriage – which we can’t really say is being sensitively handled so far – will no doubt be a feature of their own stories in the future. Like many children of divorced parents, they will probably try to avoid Brad and Angelina’s high dramas;
“Hollywood’s most storied modern couple only appeared together twice in the movies. The first time, in 2005’s “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” they fell in love. A decade later, “By the Sea” would come just a year before their relationship would come to an end with Jolie Pitt filing for divorce. Both times they played a childless husband and wife whose passion had turned to resentment.
Their real life together was full of public declarations and displays of love, children, philanthropy, humanitarian work and glamour. In the movies, though, their surface beauty was only a mask for the rot and boredom underneath. Still, even through tears and gunfire, they always smoldered…
“You can absolutely madly love the same person you want to kill,” Jolie Pitt said in 2015, seated on a silk-sheeted bed next to Pitt on the set of “By the Sea,” filmed on their technical honeymoon, but it could have easily been about either. In “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” they are actually trying to kill each other after all.” (Associated Press, 21.09.2016)
The real stories of divorce tell us that breaking a marriage is easy but the consequences are not. And when celebrity relationships breakdown we can’t help but wonder at the state of our own (Jeez what did they have to worry about?) They show us that the biggest challenge we face in our days has nothing to do with work or money or looking after the children but keeping our love alive. It’s the exactions of love then, rather than the institution of marriage, as we often blame, that drives us to divorce.
To be sincere in love, a Chinese proverb says, is to be grotesque. Go then, be grotesque with your loved one.
Watch on TV: From Dallas to EastEnders, there isn’t a soap that hasn’t used divorce as a plot turn, in it’s own house style but forensic examination isn’t really small screen style
Divorce Court TV The American courtroom show takes a look at real-life divorcing couples. The soon-to-be exes tell their stories to the judge, who gives the ruling and settles all the usual — and unusual — divorce issues by the end of the episode.
Mr and Mrs – Call The Mediator BBC2. A fly-on-the-wall documentary filmed at branches of National Family Mediation is not an easy watch, but it’s useful, brave television.
Divorce HBO – Sarah Jessica Parker’s big new show starts in the US on 9th October. Billed as “a new comedy series about a very long divorce”. Read her view here – http://www.nytimes.com/ and see the trailer
Read: From Chick Lit to Aga Sagas there are many traditional style novels featuring divorce. For a different take try these;
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk. Searing account of the author’s marriage as it comes to an end after of ten years. In the months that followed, life as she had known it came apart, “like a jigsaw dismantled into a heap of broken-edged pieces”.
The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger. A divorce told entirely through personal correspondence, office memos, e-mails, articles, handwritten notes, and legal documents.
What Maisie Knew by Henry James. This classic, written long ago (1897) is probably more relevant today. Maisie Farange, child of parents who divorce, remarry and then embark on adulterous affairs, survives by her intelligence and spirit. (See the 2012 take in the film version with Julianne Moore)
Here I am by Jonathan Safran Foer. Modern life examined in this story of a fracturing family at a moment of crisis. Over the course of three weeks in present-day Washington DC, three sons watch their parents’ marriage falter and their family home fall apart.
Jonathan talks frankly to Mariella Frostrup on why he thinks of this as his most personal novel and why it took him ten years to write – Open Book, BBC Radio 4.
Featured image – BBC