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by Wendy Swallow
Hyperion Books, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jul 31st 2001

Breaking ApartWendy Swallow writes about her life, how married, had two boys, then soon separated, and eventually divorced. She is ten years younger than her moody, creative, and highly educated husband, Ron. Ron was susceptible to depression and had a hard time dealing with his anger -- at one point she says she wondered whether he was manic depressive -- and she felt that in some ways he was never able to fully share a life with her. She was nearly always unhappy in her marriage with him, but she stayed in the marriage for enough time to have her two boys, hoping that they could work things out. Eventually, with the help of many self-help books, books on divorce, and talks with her friends and her therapist, she decided she could no longer bear to remain in the marriage.

She describes the difficult process of the separation, worrying about the welfare of her children, who were three and five around the time she moved out, the troubles of finding and dealing with lawyers, the negotiations with her husband, and the shock she experienced about the process despite her research and knowing other divorced people. She had initially expected that she would get sole custody and that she would be the one to stay in the family home, but it soon became clear that she would have to jointly share custody and it turned out that she was the one to move out into a different home. She describes the feelings of failure she had about herself, the dread of being judged as a failure by friends and family, and the fear she had that she was hurting her children by seeking divorce. She tells of the difficulties of being a single parent, and how she manages to work with Ron to do what is best for their boys. She explains the dismal dating scene she experienced and how it is nearly impossible for her to find a man who meets her expectations -- all the good ones are married. This memoir gives a fairly clear picture of what she has had to deal with, and why, despite it all, she still believes she made the right decision.

While many features of her life will be familiar to other people who have considered or gone through a divorce (and she says that nearly all her married friends have confessed to her that the idea has at least crossed their minds at some point), her story is in other ways atypical. She was a successful journalist, working at the Washington Post, before she became a journalism professor at American University. She is highly educated, articulate and she has a great deal of support from her friends and family. One of the most distinctive aspects of her story is her success at maintaining a dialog with her husband through the divorce -- while it was painful, neither she nor Ron engaged in bitter fighting and they did not try to manipulate their children against each other. Both of them stayed living in the same area, and although they were not rich by contemporary standards, they were both able to afford their own mortgages, and they did not have a massive drop in their quality of living. They did not end up spending over a hundred thousand dollars on lawyers -- and they are able to talk with each other without fighting all the time. Their boys do not seem to be having more problems than their friends and peers with married parents.

So this book could be an inspiration to people considering divorce. Swallow is clear how much she still envies people with successful marriages, and she is certainly not preaching the benefits of splitting up. She says that many married men seem to view her with suspicion, as if she might be a destabilizing influence on their marriages. However, her message is only that divorce does not have to be an unmitigated disaster, and that people who need to divorce can work to escape the pitfalls that so many experience.

Swallow tells her story well. Although her prose does not shine, she does write clearly and the book is an easy read. She acknowledges that her version of events may not be shared by her ex-husband or indeed her children eventually, but she makes an effort to be balanced and fair. Yet, it would be very interesting to know exactly where Ron would disagree with her, and what information he would include that she leaves out. It is noticeable that she says nothing about their sex life -- which is not surprising given that the book is likely to be read by her colleagues, students, family and friends, as well as her children in a few years -- but of course it's often an important part of a marriage. She says nothing about her patterns of relationships in high school and college, and she does not reflect much on how she could have avoided a doomed marriage. She does say that she tends to avoid conflict, and one could speculate that if she had been more assertive, or had chosen a partner with whom she felt more equal, she might have been able to sort out some problems. On the other hand, she also seems very able to express her own views, and given that she succeeded in the rather tough world of journalism, so it is quite possible that she is not as pacifist as she makes out.

It's very likely that different readers will bring their own interpretations to Swallow's story. After all, most of us have some very personal connection with divorce, and it's an issue that provokes strong emotional reaction. My own parents separated with I was twelve, and it was an unpleasant divorce. My father moved to a different city, and I saw him on occasional weekends and during some holidays. Both parents remarried within a few years, although neither of the new marriages was successful in the long run. Such details don't really convey much of the texture of the experience -- in order to do that, I'd have to say far more about the lives of both my parents, their personalities and their approaches to relationships, as well as the day-to-day events that led to the end of the marriage. Of course, I don't know many of the relevant episodes, and my parents certainly are not keen on reflecting on the end of their marriage. As a child of divorce, I can speculate about the effects it had on me, but it is just about impossible to really know how different I would have been if my parents had been able to make a success of their marriage. Knowing the two of them, it is laughable to try to imagine how they could have managed to work it out -- indeed, it is mind-boggling to imagine why they thought they could have made a successful marriage in the first place. With divorce so prevalent in western society today, it does not make much sense to claim victimhood as a child of divorce these days, and there are many other factors that go to build one's confidence in oneself and one's ability to have successful relationships. As a married adult, I find that one of the main effects of my parents' divorce that still lingers is a desire to succeed where my parents failed, combined with a worry that their examples doom me to always feeling that I will never be able to be sure that my marriage will be secure. It's not clear to me that the divorce made my life harder than it would have been, although I fit the profile of children of divorce set out by Judith Wallerstein in her study of the subject. The stresses I experienced while growing up may have exacerbated my tendency towards depression, although it's clear that at least one side of my family is prone to depression and alcoholism even when divorce does not occur. I don't know with any certainty what effect my parents' divorce had on me, but I certainly have thought of myself as a child of divorce for most of my life.

My point is that even with the uncertainty of the effects of divorce, it very likely does at least give one an interpretation of one's life, a lens through which to examine one's emotional reactions and relationships. Swallow's memoir of the break up of her marriage adds to our understanding of divorce and our ways of talking about it, although some people may be somewhat suspicious of her version of the events. It is at least a potentially uplifting story that anyone with an interest in divorce will find compelling reading. It might even help some people to go through a divorce in a way that minimizes the damage to their children.

© 2001 Christian Perring