“There are those who believe it is simple selfishness that leads people to divorce. For those of us who have lived it, it’s hard to see why anyone would rip out their veins for some immature or narcissistic desire to get what they want, because that is what it feels like.”
Writing in a style that is both piercingly honest and profoundly moving, Wendy Swallow traces the arc of her marriage to a complex man ten years her senior. She looks into her heart and at her own childhood and young adulthood to understand the relationship and its breakdown, then she recounts her struggle to balance a burgeoning career with the demands of motherhood. Finally, she writes of the divorce as it unfolded: the hopeful fantasies she conjured while still in her marriage, and the harsh realities she faced when she and her husband finally separated.
Featured on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, the CBS Early Show, and in Readers’ Digest and other national magazines, Swallow’s gripping memoir illuminates – with heartbreaking candor – the emotional and financial stresses of divorce. “People say marriages break up,” writes Swallow, “but mine finally broke down.” She writes too, however, of the joys of independence and renewal. Her journey offers encouragement and inspiration to anyone struggling in an unhappy marriage.
(Breaking Apart was published in 2001 by Hyperion/Theia.)
Q: There aren’t many divorce memoirs in the bookstores. Why did you decide to write a personal book about divorce?
A: I wrote Breaking Apart because I wanted to read a good divorce memoir when I was in the middle of my divorce, and I couldn’t find one. There are lots of good self-help books about divorce, but they didn’t address the emotional pain I was experiencing. My divorce experience also seemed at odds with some of the myths of divorce, and I wanted to write about that. I think divorce changes with each generation, and that much of the conventional wisdom about divorce is out of date. I kept bumping up against things that surprised me; as a writer I wanted to capture those surprises and write about them in an authentic way, one that would make other people say “Yes, that’s the way it really is.”
Q: What surprised you about your divorce?
A: My favorite example is how married couples viewed me once I was single again. I had always assumed married women would find me threatening because they would worry I was out to steal their husbands. That is the standard myth. Instead, I discovered that married husbands found me threatening because I led a life their wives envied. I was sharing custody of my two little boys with my ex-husband, so I had days when I was free to meet friends for lunch, go for a walk in the park, sit around reading the newspaper in the morning. I was often lonely for my kids, but what my married women friends saw was that I got free time without the constant drain of family or work. Their husbands worried that, like Pied Piper, I would lead their wives off to this never-never-land of divorce and joint custody, where moms finally got a break. I thought that was fascinating and truly something new in our generation. None of my married women friends worried that I was going to steal their husbands.
Q: Joint custody often seems like a mixed bag for the kids. Do you think it is the best way to raise kids in divorce?
A: I wrote a memoir, not a self-help book, because I don’t know the right answers for every divorcing couple. Each case is different. That said, I do think there are some advantages to joint custody: most important, the children don’t have to give up one of their parents. Many people question whether the back-and-forth of joint custody is good for kids, but I think it is far less damaging than when children lose their daily relationship with their mother or father. My kids got adept at packing up their favorite things and moving to the other house. Sometimes I think they liked the change of scenery. They had certain toys at each house, different computer games, etc. My ex-husband and I tried to ensure they felt completely at home in each house. Their stuff was theirs, and they could move it back and forth if they wanted. It was easier with two, because they went back and forth together. As a result, they weren’t as lonely as they might have been if they were single children. It is difficult to manage joint custody, though, if the parents are still fighting. You need to be able to tolerate a lot of interaction with your ex. If that is going to be high-conflict, that’s not good for the kids. Some conflict is understandable, but you have to be willing to be forgiving, overlook little things, be patient, be helpful, make sacrifices.
Q: Was it difficult for you to learn to live without your children?
A: It was excruciating. I never imagined I would end up in a place where my kids weren’t with me every day. That was the worst part, and I’ll never make my peace with it. I missed them all the time. Any day I could be with them, I jumped at it. I volunteered in their schools, and went to their baseball and soccer games, even if it wasn’t my day with them. Our time together was very precious, and we tried to make the most of it.
Q: Was writing this book cathartic or therapeutic?
A: Many people ask this question, and certainly I had a need to tell the story in a way that would give it depth and meaning. I wrote bits of this book early in our separation, during the worst years, and those pieces were therapeutic to write. But most of it, particularly the section about the marriage, I wrote long after our divorce. That was very difficult because I had to unearth hatchets I had buried long ago. By then my ex-husband and I had been apart for eight years, and we had long since developed a good working relationship. But there I was, going through old journals and reliving that painful time in our lives. It was hard to put it aside and stay in the present when I was around him. He understood, however, and was patient with me through the process.
Q: Is this the kind of book that unhappily married people read in secret?
A: I hope this is a book that reaches out to unhappily married people of both genders, and that it will give them a sense of hope while validating the confusion, self-doubt, pain and unhappiness that is an unmistakable part of the divorce process. If they need to read it secretly, then that is what it takes. I read most of the divorce literature sitting cross-legged on the floor of my public library because I didn’t want to bring the books home. People move through divorce at whatever pace they can muster. I hope this book will help.
(This interview was conducted in 2001. Publisher Hyperion Books is now owned by Hachette Book Group.)
Learn more about Wendy Swallow’s memoir about remarriage, The Triumph of Love Over Experience.
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