True Stories: Why My Parents Never Got Divorced
"Laziness" is only half the story.
by Daniel Addice
I'm now in my early twenties, and I've never once seen my parents kiss.
For as long as I can remember, they've never slept in the same bed. I've never seen them go out together or be affectionate in any way with one another. They don't even eat together unless it was a major holiday. Their only interactions are rare, and usually involve my mom yelling at my dad.
This is strange, because 1) my parents aren't divorced, and 2) my parents have no plans to get divorced. As the youngest child, I imagined that somehow, something had gone horribly wrong during my conception that led to this awkward relationship.
But while their mutual discontent is obvious, my parents somehow seem perfectly content staying in a marriage defined by general unawareness and willful ignorance. Growing up, I learned to accept it and just stop putting so much thought into their relationship.
My friend Alex and I were pretty much inseparable from second to eighth grade. His mom and dad were like second parents to me: they would take me out to dinner, and they took me to my first concert. Cheryl and Stan also did things that were weirdly foreign to me, like kiss each other randomly during the day.
One day, Alex and I were out mini-golfing with my dad. Alex, like he'd been thinking about it all day, turned to my dad and asked why he never kissed my mom. My dad's face turned bright red, and he mumbled a few things that I don't actually think were words. Then he turned to his fall-backs whenever I questioned him about his marriage: ice cream and Toys ‘R Us.
While their marriage often seems like a proprietary, symbiotic partnership for loners, I often wonder if they're both just too lazy to get divorced. My parents have had all the children they wanted (maybe even more). They're both done with romance, they're both over sex, they both have a roof over their heads, and they both have their own jobs, friends, etc. For them, the arrangement works. The question isn't, "What's stopping them from getting a divorce," but rather, "What's the point in putting in all that effort to get one?"
Growing up in your average New Jersey suburb, I was exposed to all kinds of fucked-up parents, and there were kids who had it way worse than I did. I have a friend whose parents forced him into twelve years of competitive tap-dancing against his will. I knew moms and dads who could battle their children for the title of "Orangest Family Member." Viewed through that lens, I had a sane mother who loved me and a sane father who loved me, so it felt a little greedy of me to ask for them to love each other as well.
Still, I ended up relating just as much to kids whose parents were divorced as to those whose parents were together. I was often the messenger between the two of them, but I never got two Christmases or two birthdays. I never had to experience that uncomfortable, post-divorce, parents-start-dating-again phase, but I never got to hear the story of them as high-school sweethearts either. (I actually have no idea how they met.) Traditional "mom" and "dad" roles didn't offer any stability: I had a brassy, dominating Italian mother who spoke her mind more often than necessary and a meek, frequently-bullied father with a hoarding problem.
My tenth birthday fell a few weeks before my parents' twentieth anniversary. I was able to save up enough to get my parents a nice anniversary gift, which was pretty difficult or a kid who was still looking for his first holographic Pokemon card. I ended up getting them a gift certificate to the nicest restaurant I could find and spent the night before their anniversary blowing up some balloons making a card.
The next day, school was a mess of eager anticipation. I rocketed out of my seat and sprinted to the bus when the last bell rang. When I got home, my dad was still at work, and my mom told me he was working overtime. When my dad came home, I called them both into my room. I ran ahead, and when they got to my door, I yelled "Happy Anniversary!"
I don't think I'll ever forget the look on their faces: they'd clearly forgotten, but put on fake, parent-specific smile and acted surprised and grateful. I kept waiting for them to use the gift card, until I found out a few weeks later that my mom used it to go out with her friends.
My parents' situation has informed my thoughts on love directly and indirectly. My mother took every opportunity to preach to her kids that marriage should not happen until we were at least thirty. If my brother or I brought home a significant other, they were immediately given the full Guantanamo treatment: questioned, isolated, stared at. She extended this courtesy to my friends too, when confronted with anyone they were dating, generally falling back on the same argument: "You are all at an age where you should be sleeping a bunch of different people, not just one." That line was also the extent of my "birds and bees" talk.
My mom also argued vehemently against having children, presumably because having a baby with someone is a pretty substantial argument for long-term commitment. It did become a little unsettling to hear, time and again, from the woman who bore me, how awful life becomes when you have a child. My mother was so anti-baby-crazy that she even tried, on numerous occasions, to convince my brother and me to sleep only with men.
My father, for his part, steered clear of any and all discussions involving love or sex. He provided for his family, he cared for his kids, and when he wasn't doing either of those, he relaxed in the basement. (When I went to college, he upgraded to my childhood bedroom.)
My parents moved houses recently, and on my last trip home, I spent time helping them unpack, like any good-kid-whose-drug-dealer-isn't-around would. (Thanks again, Matt.) The new house had two bedrooms, and now that my brother and I were living on our own, my parents officially got their long-held wish of separate bedrooms.
It was strange — even though sleeping apart was nothing new for them, in our old house, there had always been a room they shared: a place where they kept their clothes, shoes, and other knickknacks. When I was younger and showed my friends around my house, I could lie and say that room was where my parents slept.
In the new house, I stared for a minute at the moving boxes. The ones that were labeled "Mom" or "Dad," I just put in their respective rooms. But there were more than a few boxes labeled "bedroom." I left those in the middle of the hallway.
I'd like to say that I emerged from this situation unscathed, free of any sort of psychological damage. I mean, I'm twenty-two, and I've still never been in a "real" relationship, but that can't be entirely their fault, can it? I've spent the last several years profoundly believing that if I could have A) awesome sex and B) awesome friends, then what was the point of being in a relationship?
I like fooling myself into thinking these were conclusions I arrived at myself, devoid of parental input, just as everyone likes thinking they won't be like their parents. Then I find myself constantly advising friends about the benefits of single life, and I hear my mother's admonitions to me and my brother. I wholeheartedly believe that my parents' situation will remain the same for the rest of their lives, but I recognize that the lessons they taught me might need some undoing.
One of the most commonly-cited reasons for flakiness in relationships is "fear of rejection." Living through my parents' marriage didn't teach me to fear rejection. Rejection hung around our house growing up: rejection of marriage, rejection of conventional partnership mores. It just got to be another thing around the house; I don't fear rejection any more than I fear the fridge.
But love, and relationships, threaten something far more foreign than rejection to me. True love, the idea of giving yourself up for someone, that's what's alien to me — the entire idea of two people becoming one — has no precedent in my life. I've been secure in solitude for so long, I've become desensitized to the idea. Being alone offers its own complacency. My parents were comfortable in their loveless relationship; I'm comfortable being serially single. But I'm working on getting uncomfortable. In that weird way, love is like divorce: it's not for the lazy.