My Doomed Marriage: Leah McLaren on why divorce runs in the family

My Doomed Marriage: Leah McLaren on why divorce runs in the family

The kids of divorce are far more likely to get divorced themselves. How I tried and failed to beat the odds

Leah McLaren and her husband married in August 2009 and split up two years later (Image: courtesy Leah McLaren)

My husband and I spent the last eight months of our marriage in couples counselling. We were in London then, splitting our time between the U.K. and Toronto, where I kept a house. Our therapist was a tall, bald man in his 50s with doleful eyes and a propensity to blush when he was trying not to laugh. We agreed he was gay, though it’s often hard to tell with the English.

For hours and hours we sat in that basement office, always in the same chairs, going over the same scorched earth while our therapist passed the invisible microphone between us, like a cable TV talk show host on Diazepam. His main technique was to repeat what one person had said, then turn to the other for a reaction quote.

“Leah, I hear you saying that Patrick’s resistance to change is causing you a great deal of pain and anxiety about the future,” he would say, then turn his head in a laborious, sloth-like way until he faced the other chair. “And Patrick, how do you feel when you hear what Leah is expressing?”

I’ll say one thing for therapy: it’s better than a vodka-fuelled shouting match in a bus shelter at 3 a.m. But for us, it didn’t change anything. We’d dread the weekly appointment, then wind up making polite dinner conversation at the pub afterward. Counselling cut down on our level of high-octane conflict, but in the end the same major issues remained—my hurt, his resistance—their root causes unexamined, untouched.

We’d been married for nearly two years and together for close to six. In our final session I told the therapist I didn’t see a future for our marriage. “I need to move on with my life,” I said, unoriginally, therapists’ offices being dumping grounds for clichés. The truth was, I was simply worn out.

We walked out of the office building that day and embraced for a long time before unlocking our bikes. Patrick said it was the saddest day of his life. Neither of us cried.

I was raised in Cobourg, which was, in most ways, an easy place to grow up. My younger sister, Meghan, and I walked to kindergarten on our own, hauling toboggans in waist-deep snow, dawdling in the ditches. Our parents were young and, by today’s standards, ludicrously relaxed. Nobody worried about organic food or educational toys or the politics of play dates. If you did badly in school you were held back; if you got good grades you skipped. Either way there was a sense all of us would find a place in the world. Parenting, back then, was not the competitive, high-stakes sport it’s become today.

When I was eight years old my parents called a family meeting. After dinner they sat me down on the beige corduroy sectional beside Meghan. On the glass coffee table my mother had set out a plate of Chips Ahoy cookies. Something was up.

After a confusing preamble about how it was possible to love someone without being “in love,” my parents announced they were splitting up. Actually, my mother put it more subtly than that. Her exact words were: “Your father and I have decided to try living in separate places for a little while.” I don’t remember Dad saying anything. He just sat there, hazel eyes fixed on some invisible field in the middle distance, exhaling cigarette smoke through his greying Marlboro man moustache.

Three weeks later my mother moved into her own apartment, leaving Dad in the marital home, which he immediately put on the market. Mum’s new place was a two-bedroom second-floor walk-up on the other side of town, across the road from the local newspaper where she’d just been hired as a general assignment reporter. She was 33 at the time.

This was 1983, two years before the Divorce Act was amended to shorten the separation period for no-fault divorce from three years to one. That turn of events would cause the divorce rate to spike to an all-time high of 50.6 per cent. The often-quoted statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce presumably got started in 1987, the last time it was actually true.

My parents’ divorce came through that same year, making them part of the mass demographic of couples who decamped to splitsville and took their children with them. And so the divorce generation was born. The divorce rate in Canada has declined since the late ’80s, but that’s in large part because fewer people are bothering to get married in the first place. In essence, my generation has applied our slacker mantra to marriage: if we don’t try, we can’t fail.

Today, researchers report that 30 per cent of children born in the mid-’80s witnessed the end of their parents’ marriage or cohabitation by their mid-teens. And almost half of those children of divorce will see their parents’ second marriage break up—the dark irony of divorce is that, instead of teaching people to avoid bad marriages, it seems to have the opposite effect.

Children of divorce are at greater risk of suffering from depression and anxiety and becoming substance abusers. We are less likely to go to university. Most of us grow up living with single mothers, and 15 per cent of us have no contact with our fathers. We are less likely to marry, but when we wed, we often do it young—with all the foresight of Jack Russell terriers jumping off a dock. One study found that we are far more likely to split up than couples from intact families.

No reasonable person would argue that divorce is a good thing, but these days condemning it feels hopelessly old-fashioned. It has become an unfortunate but unavoidable fact of modern life, like noise pollution or overseas investment offers from cordial Nigerian businessmen.

There was nothing strange or profoundly traumatic about the failure of my parents’ 12-year marriage. They never hit each other or ended up in court (although lawyers’ letters were exchanged)—and yet the experience affected me inalterably, and determined, I believe, the course of both my childhood and my adult relationships—in some ways for the better. In other ways, not.

For an adult, divorce is a painful chapter to be struggled through, recovered from and eventually reflected upon. But for a child, it’s something more mysterious. Children of divorce often speak of the sensation of being “ripped in two” or having their world implode. For me it felt more like being caught in an unpredictable landslide of adult emotions. One moment the ground beneath my feet was solid, the next it was giving way, welling me up and weighing me down—an avalanche of marital anguish confounding my preadolescent brain.

Divorce is unsettling for children because it serves as a stark reminder that their parents, the all-knowing, larger-than-life deities who created the laws of the universe, are fundamentally without a plan. It shifts the emotional centre of family life from the child’s needs to the adults’, determining life’s logistics according to what’s most convenient for the parents rather than the children—an effect that lingers long after the papers have been signed and the lawyers’ fees paid up.

But all this reality hasn’t prevented journalists from gravi­tating toward another narrative. Twelve years ago I wrote a story for the Globe and Mail that appeared under the headline: “The Kids (of Divorce) Are All Right.” In it I quoted a sociologist from the University of Utah who assured me, “The negative effects of divorce have declined. Families now are in a much better state after divorce. Children of divorce no longer grow up as social pariahs.” This was exactly what I wanted to hear. In the course of my research I also interviewed several happily married couples in their late 20s and early 30s, all of whom were children of failed marriages themselves. I remember taking notes in the shiny, renovated kitchen of a Beaches bungalow belonging to a handsome banker and a pretty commercial litigator who’d been married for three years—the golden couple at the centre of my story. Six months later they broke up. As, eventually, did the other four couples I interviewed for my piece.

The reduced social stigma of divorce seems to have done little since the ’70s to minimize its painful effects. In this sense being a kid with divorced parents is not like being a kid with two dads or with parents who happen to speak Swahili. The liberal middle-class values that have made us more tolerant of minorities have also made us more tolerant of the ways marital dissolution can cause families to take different shapes. But this relativistic outlook doesn’t change the fact that for most kids, divorce basically sucks.

Puer aeternus—eternal boy—was the adult nickname Patrick’s school friends gave him. It was a term of endearment earned by virtue of his career choice (independent filmmaker), his boyish good looks and his refusal to marry in his 30s. His effect on a room was like an electric mixer on egg whites. He could take the dullest conversation and whip it into stiff peaks of laughter in seconds flat. Before we married I took him to a friend’s wedding in Greece. It was a four-day event in an isolated Greek fishing village, and Patrick didn’t know a soul. By the third night he was drunk on retsina, halfway up a staircase performing a karaoke version of Oasis’s “Wonderwall” as 80 wedding guests sang along. On the last verse he tripped, Gallagher brother style, and crashed ass first down the stairs. The room froze, only to watch as he leapt up in time for the final chorus, which he sang with one arm waving above his head, hand splayed like a starfish. As the crowd cheered, Patrick staggered over, collapsed into my arms and whispered, “Do you think anyone saw me fall?”

But being married to a human cocktail party is not always fun. My husband’s gregariousness belied a deeper unease. The Patrick I got at home bore little resemblance to the Patrick who could kick his godson’s ass at Wii golf while belly scratching the dog and telling the story of how he met Julia Roberts in an elevator. Eventually, I became jealous. Not of other women, but of the other him, the one everyone else got but me. And I retaliated by giving him a sub-par version of myself.

As my marriage deteriorated, I read everything I could on the so-called cycle of divorce. While there are various competing theories on how it works, from the socio­economic to the psychosocial, the one that makes the most sense to me is quite simple: the children of divorce are more likely to get divorced because we see it as an option.

The first gift Patrick ever gave me was a string of silver beads for my 30th birthday. It came in a box with a sticky note on which he’d written, with characteristic cheek, “This is not a ring.” Three years later, halfway through dinner at a restaurant in London, he slid another box across the table. There was another sticky note on top. It read: “This is a ring.”

We married on a rainy Saturday in August 2009 on the dock of his family cottage on Lake Muskoka. A good friend of mine, a judge who has been in a relationship with the same man for 35 years but never married, presided. When I’d asked her to perform the ceremony she warned me her success rate wasn’t good. “I’m at about two to one these days with divorces,” she said, “which is worse than the national average.”

From the beginning, Patrick and I prided ourselves on having a modern marriage. I never considered taking his name. We shared no assets, not even a bank account. I owned a house in Toronto, he had the cottage in Muskoka—our marital home was a furnished rental flat. We even had separate book and music collections thanks to the wonders of Kindle and iTunes. Apart from the piece of paper declaring us legally married, there was nothing tangible holding us together. And that was the way we liked it.

Months passed, and the issue of babies began to loom. Despite being in his late 40s, Patrick seemed content, even determined, to wait, and I could see his logic. There was always some champagne-soaked holiday on the horizon, some tantalizing milestone at work that didn’t quite jibe with the idea of me being pregnant and tired. But soon I found it harder to hide from the truth; despite his thundering insistence to the contrary, my husband, who was 10 years my senior, didn’t seem keen to be a father. For a while we “tried,” but our efforts felt somehow self-conscious and half-hearted. In any case, nothing came of it. Our sex life, suddenly fraught with reproductive politics, began to wither. We fought a lot, but we laughed a lot, too. Once, in the middle of a raging argument about our ever-decreasing financial stability—I wanted to buy a flat, he felt we couldn’t afford it; I wanted him to keep his office job, he wanted more time to work on spec scripts—I shouted, “You said things would get better, and they haven’t changed at all!” Patrick exploded back, “That’s not true….They’re worse!” And we both dissolved into fits of exhausted laughter.

The more we argued, the more our arguments revealed themselves as an excellent reason to delay having children. Our fighting became the thing we fought about. One year into our marriage, I said I was leaving. Patrick asked me to stay and suggested we get counselling.

As a kid growing up in 1980s Cobourg, it seemed to me that every tastefully renovated Victorian house came with a mother—usually attempting a microwave recipe in the kitchen—and a father, attacking some woolly corner of the yard with garden shears. As kids, we were mercifully oblivious to our parents’ wants and needs. What we didn’t know, of course, was that most of the grown-ups who’d created this backdrop of middle-class stability were on the brink of an agonizing precipice themselves. They were about to get divorced.

Anne-Marie Ambert, a retired professor of sociology at York University in Toronto, spent her entire career reading and synthesizing the sociological research on the children of divorce. What she found, in comparing their experiences with those of children from intact families, was that unless there are “extremely high levels of conflict or physical abuse,” most children are better off living with two parents than one. Sexually dead and loveless marriages, silently resentful partnerships or sham unions in which one partner is secretly gay—none of these arrangements is as damaging to children as even the most civil, legally well-appointed divorce. “For children it’s not important that their parents are madly in love,” Ambert explained to me in an interview. “That’s an adult issue. Marriage is a source of comfort for children even when it’s not for their parents.”

My parents were the first of their friends to split and similarly ahead of the curve when it came to co-parenting arrangements. They opted for joint custody, an agreement wherein Meghan and I would spend two weeks with Mum and two weeks with Dad, with the change-off every other Friday night.

Apart from moving house, the major thing that changed after my parents’ separation is that my mother started to tell me everything. It’s not that she talked to me more, but that the nature and subject matter of our conversations took a sharp turn for the intense and searingly honest. Despite the emotional disruption of the divorce, I remember being thrilled by this change in the tenor of our relationship. Suddenly I went from having a mother who shooed me outside to play to one who pulled me in and confided her deepest fears and secrets. The fact that my mother’s anguish and uncertainty were being conferred upon me made me feel special, as though I’d been singled out and offered a platinum membership to the VIP room of adulthood. “You’re so wise for your age,” Mum used to say, stroking my back as we scoured the Globe and Mail personal ads looking for a suitable boyfriend for her, or agonized over how we’d make rent on her paltry reporter’s salary. Sometimes I’d go to sleep in my own bed only to wake up in hers, my mother having moved me in the night, my nightgown soaked through with her tears. I learned to comfort her, and to parrot canny-sounding romantic advice I’d read in Cosmo. My mother marvelled at how well-adjusted I was. How, despite the breakup, I seemed to have everything in perspective. “You’re so much smarter than me,” she’d say. “You’ll never make the same mistakes I did.”

It was classic role reversal. As the late sociologist Judith Wallerstein described it, “Following divorce, parents often find they need the child to fill their own emptiness, to ward off depression, to give purpose to their lives, to give them the courage to go on. Consciously or unconsciously, parents in crisis turn to the child as surrogate spouse, confidante, advisor, sibling, parent, caretaker, ally within the marital wars, or extended conscience and ego control.”

The oldest child is most likely to experience role reversal with a divorced parent. Attachment disorders can develop later in life as a result. Was my marriage somehow failing because of my mother’s gratuitous confessions when I was young? The connection seemed tenuous at best. The more I read about the sociology of divorce, the less I understood about my own marriage. Was it a predictable pattern of recurrent pain or a mess of my own making? Where statistics failed to satisfy, I was sure the past would yield answers.

In the second year of my relationship with Patrick, I got pregnant by accident and had an abortion. We had a long-distance arrangement—Patrick splitting his time between London and Los Angeles, trying to balance his job as a website creative director with casting his first feature film, and me in Toronto working as a staff writer for the Globe and Mail and writing my second novel and a TV drama for CBC on the side. Things were too crazy, he said, to bring a child into the picture. I hated the thought of ending the pregnancy, but I couldn’t bear the idea of inflicting fatherhood on someone so clearly horrified by the prospect. More crucial, perhaps, was my fear of ending up a single mother if things didn’t work out. It was my first abortion; it wasn’t his.

Two days before Christmas he drove me to a clinic in Bloor West Village. As I stepped out of the car, nausea engulfed me. Inside, a girl with an asymmetrical haircut checked my health card behind bulletproof glass. In the waiting room we sat beside a mother and her teenage daughter, studying back issues of Chatelaine as if they contained the lost secrets of the ancients. A technician in a white smock gave me an ultrasound to make “absolutely sure” I was pregnant, then left the room. On the screen I saw the blinking cell cluster boring its way into my uterine wall. It was nothing really, and it was everything in the world.

When you get engaged, everyone tells you that marriage is hard work. But how hard is the hard work supposed to be? In the cost-benefit analysis of marriage, I wanted to see less cost and more benefit. I think of myself as a hard worker, but in truth I have a tendency to lead with my strengths and have an impatience for things that don’t come easily. I don’t mind bearing down on things that yield tangible rewards—writing, say, or vigorous exercise—but I’ve never been much good at work for work’s sake. Was the “hard work” of marriage like writing a book or running a marathon? If so, I was in. But if it was more like repeatedly shoving a boulder uphill only to watch it roll down again, I wasn’t sure I could do it.

The concept of marriage, for the children of divorce, is not a brick house but a mud hut constructed prior to the rainy season. It’s a well-intentioned experiment, a romantic idea that occasionally survives but more often gets washed away in the floods. For evidence of its tenuousness all we need to do is look back at our multiple bedrooms, our double-duty Christmases, our loaded-down key chains, our separate family albums. Marriage is a seductive idea (it seduced me), but there is no magic in it.

Two days before my wedding to Patrick, I’d been seized by a powerful urge to call it off. In order to force myself to go through with it (the dress was altered, the caterers paid), I decided that I would simply imagine marriage as something impermanent—a state I could try out and abandon if absolutely necessary. Instead of jumping off a cliff into forever, I would just dip a toe in and test the water. This is the logic of a child of divorce.

Patrick, whose parents celebrated their 50th anniversary the summer we married, saw things differently. After our worst fights, he would often take hold of my shoulders, look me squarely in the eye and say, “We’re married. You know that, right?”

I’d nod solemnly, but the truth is, I never knew quite what he meant.

A couple of weeks before I left my marriage, I went out for dinner in London with a newspaper editor I’d just met, got very drunk and kissed him on Shaftesbury Avenue before hailing a taxi home. I stumbled in late and Patrick confronted me, prompting a messy, tearful confession. We had a fight, complete with bad dialogue by John Hughes (Him: “How did you even meet this asshole?” Me: “It doesn’t matter! Can’t you see it’s just a symptom?”).

In the end, my own divorced parents managed to beat the odds—both are now contentedly, and it would seem permanently, remarried. When I told them over the phone, in separate calls, that Patrick and I had separated, they were supportive. “You have to drive toward what makes you happy,” said my father, a lifelong commuter. My mother spoke the refrain I would continue to hear many times: “At least you don’t have children.” I was unnerved at how easily they took it. I felt a bit like a murderer who’d just been acquitted on all counts: grateful for my freedom, but with my faith in the justice system shot.

Afew weeks after I left Patrick, I emailed my friend the judge, who had married us. I wanted her to hear from me first that our marriage was over. She didn’t seem surprised. It was her fault, she said, part of a matrimonial curse that had dogged her for years. She joked that she should have gotten out of the business sooner and saved everyone the heartache. The woman who married me was now taking credit for my divorce.

That was almost two years ago. Today I am writing from a small book-lined flat in west London where I live part of the year, when I’m not in Toronto, with my baby son and his father—the newspaper editor I kissed on Shaftesbury Avenue. We are happy and have no plans to get married. Like me, he is recently divorced. He has a four-year-old son who lives with us half-time. So in addition to being a new mother, I am now also a stepmother to a child of divorce.

Life is not uncomplicated—in truth it’s a chaotic, Cheerio-studded mess that occasionally makes me shout and hide in the bath—but it’s almost embarrassing to admit how satisfied I am with the pleasures of family life. How ludicrously, undeservedly lucky I feel these days.

People will tell you that a marriage is bigger than the sum of its parts, and even now, I’d like to believe it. I’m tempted to blame the failure of my marriage on something larger than myself—Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return, backed up by a team of crack sociologists. I’m a child of divorce, you see, and the script has already been written. If you want proof of my fate, there’s a stack of numbers backed up by decades of research.

In the end, it doesn’t much matter what the experts say about it: my childhood, my marriage, my divorce, they’re my experiences and no one else’s. I can’t change them, but I can take responsibility for what they’ve left me with. No amount of academic research illustrating the inevitable absolves me of being unable to make my relationship work. Because my marriage is all mine. Or at least half mine. Even now that it’s over.