The Ex Factor: Nora Ephron on Surviving Divorce
The most important thing about me, for a big chunk of my life, was that I was divorced. I have been married to my third husband for more than 20 years now. But when you've had children with someone you're divorced from, divorce defines everything; it's the lurking fact, a slice of anger in the pie of your brain.
Of course, there are good divorces, where everything is civil, even friendly. Child support payments arrive. Visitations take place on schedule. Your ex-husband rings the doorbell and stays on the other side of the threshold; he never walks in without knocking and helps himself to the coffee. In my next life I must get one of those divorces.
One good thing about divorce is that it sometimes makes you a better wife to your next husband because you have a place for your anger; it's not directed at the person you're currently with. Another good thing is that divorce makes clear something that marriage obscures, which is that you're on your own. There's no power struggle over which of you is going to get up in the middle of the night; you are.
But I can't think of anything good about divorce as far as the children are concerned. You can't kid yourself about that, although many people do. They say things like, it's better for children not to grow up with their parents in an unhappy marriage. But unless the parents are beating each other up, or abusing the children, kids are better off with their parents together. Children are too young to shuttle between houses. They're too young to handle the idea that the two people they love most in the world don't love each other anymore, if they ever did. They're too young to understand that all the wishful thinking in the world won't bring their parents back together. And the newfangled rigmarole of joint custody doesn't do anything to ease the cold reality: In order to see one parent, the child must walk out on the other.
The best divorce is the kind where there are no children. You walk out the door and never look back. That was my first divorce. There were cats, cats I was wildly attached to; my husband and I even spoke in cat voices. Once the marriage was over, I never thought of the cats again, until I wrote about them in a novel and disguised them as hamsters.
A few months before my first husband and I broke up, I had a magazine assignment to write about the actors Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom and their fabulous marriage. They insisted on being interviewed separately. This should have been some sort of clue. But I was clueless. In fact, looking back, it seems to me that I was clueless until I was about 50 years old. Anyway, I interviewed them in separate rooms of their Fifth Avenue apartment, I wrote the piece, I turned it in, the magazine sent me a check, and a day later, Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom announced they were getting a divorce. I couldn't believe it. Why hadn't they told me? Why had they gone forward with a magazine piece about their marriage when they were splitting up?
But then my own marriage ended, and a week later a photographer turned up at my former apartment to take a picture of my husband and me for an article about our kitchen. I wasn't there, of course. I'd moved out. What's more, I'd forgotten the appointment. The reporter assigned to the piece was livid that I hadn't remembered, hadn't told her, and had agreed to do the interview about my marital kitchen when I had to have known I was getting a divorce.
But the truth is you don't always know you're getting a divorce. For years, you're married. Then, one day, the concept of divorce enters your head. It sits there for a while. You lean toward it and then you lean away. You make lists. You calculate how much it will cost. You tote up grievances, and pluses and minuses. You start seeing a shrink. The two of you start seeing a shrink. And then you end the marriage, not because anything in particular happened that was worse than the day before, but simply because you suddenly have a place to stay while you look for an apartment, or $3,000 your father has unexpectedly given you.
I don't mean to leave out the context. My first marriage ended in the early 1970s, at the height of the women's movement. Jules Feiffer used to draw cartoons of young women dancing wildly around looking for themselves, and that's what we were all like. We took things way too seriously. We drew up contracts that were meant to divide the household tasks in a more equitable fashion. We joined consciousness-raising groups and sat in a circle and pretended we weren't jealous of one another. We read tracts that said the personal is political. And by the way, the personal is political, although not as much as we wanted to believe it was.
But the main problem with our marriages was not that our husbands wouldn't share the housework but that we were unbelievably irritable young women and our husbands irritated us unbelievably.
My second divorce was the worst kind of divorce. There were two children; one had just been born. My husband was in love with someone else. I found out about his affair when I was still pregnant. I'd had a meeting in New York with a writer-producer named Jay Presson Allen and was about to go to LaGuardia to get my flight home to Washington, D.C., when she handed me a script. "Read this," she said. "You'll like it."
I opened it on the plane. It began with a married couple at a dinner party in London. I can't remember their names, but for the sake of the story, let's call them Clive and Lavinia. It was a very sophisticated dinner party and everyone at it was smart and brittle and chattering brilliantly. Clive and Lavinia were particularly clever, and they bantered with each other in a charming, flirtatious way. Everyone in the room admired them and their marriage. In the middle of the dinner, a man seated next to Lavinia put his hand on her leg. She put her cigarette out on his hand. The glittering conversation continued. When the dinner ended, Clive and Lavinia got into their car. The talk ceased, and they drove home in absolute silence. And then Lavinia said: "All right. Who is she?"
That was on page eight of the screenplay.
I couldn't breathe. I knew at that moment that my husband was having an affair. I sat there, stunned, for the rest of the flight. The plane landed, and I went home and straight to his office in our apartment. There was a locked drawer. Of course. I knew there would be. I found the key. I opened the drawer and there was the evidence -- a book of children's stories she'd given him, with an incredibly stupid inscription about their enduring love. I wrote about all this in a novel called Heartburn, and it's a funny book, but it wasn't funny at the time. I was insane with grief. My heart was broken. I was terrified about what was going to happen to my children and me. I felt gaslighted, idiotic, and utterly mortified.
I walked out dramatically and came back after promises were made. My husband entered the usual cycle for this sort of thing -- lies, lies, and more lies. I myself entered surveillance, steaming open American Express bills, swearing friends to secrecy and finding out that the friends I'd sworn to secrecy couldn't keep a secret. There was a mysterious receipt from James Robinson Antiques. I called and pretended to be my husband's assistant and claimed I needed to know exactly what the receipt was for so that I could insure the item. It turned out to be an antique porcelain box that said i love you truly on it. It was presumably not unlike the antique porcelain box my husband had bought for me a couple of years earlier that said forever and ever. I mention all this so you'll understand the process: Once you find out he's cheated, you have to keep finding it out, over and over and over again, until you've degraded yourself so completely that there's nothing left to do but walk out.
When my second marriage ended, I was angry and hurt and shocked.
Now I think, Of course.
I think, Who can possibly be faithful when they're young?
I think, Stuff happens.
I think, People are careless and there are almost never any consequences (except for the children, as I've said).
And I survived. My religion is Get Over It. I turned it into a rollicking story. I wrote a novel. I bought a house with the money from the novel.
People always say you forget the pain. It's a cliché of childbirth: You forget the pain. I don't happen to agree. I remember the pain. What you really forget is the love.
Divorce seems as if it will last forever, and then suddenly, one day, your children grow up, move out and make lives for themselves, and except for an occasional flare, you have no contact at all with your ex-husband.
The divorce has lasted way longer than the marriage, but finally it's over.
Enough about that.
The point is, that for a long time, the fact that I'm divorced was the most important thing about me.
And now it's not.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2010/January 2011.