• Matthew Loberg

On Divorce: The Unseen Consequences

A reflection on friendship in the age of superficiality

At no point are the bifurcations of my family so evident as during the holiday season. It’s this strange dichotomy; in one aspect the season brings people together, but in another aspect it brings our divisions to light. The absence of what used to be is apparent. I see the pain in my mom’s eyes—missing what used to be. I know that, throughout everything, she has so much love for my dad. And, while it’s less readily apparent, I think that my dad feels similarly—or at least I hope he does given how much of myself I see in him. I fantasize that one day my parents will meet up, spend a day together, and reminisce on all the beauty that there was in their lives together, regardless of how broken their marriage may have been.

As I write about the divergence of my own family, to my left a family of five (that by all appearances is high maintenance) sits at a table with tall stools, eating overpriced airport food. If traveling alone over the holidays is good for anything, it is the people watching. How fascinating it is to simply sit and watch others, to glimpse their lives, with no end goal. From the mom’s curled hair and black heels to the kids’ fresh Nikes and the dad’s button up (which is peeping out of a gray sweater vest), everything is deliberate, manicured to precision. Do they ever get tired of it? Maintaining a ceaseless image of perfection? Or is it easy for them, their habits—like their iPhones, which function as fifth appendages—so neuronally wired as to be aspects of the subconscious? I don’t know whether to feel jealous or nauseated by their apparent flawlessness. Maybe if I were a better person, less vindictive, I’d feel joy in their happiness—I’d feel warmth at the possibility of a future made whole by an intact, loving family.

"But is this abject failure to celebrate our own vulnerability not counterintuitive to what gives life beauty?"

But regardless of outward appearances, I believe that every family holds, at their core, fundamental struggles that they are working through. For some these struggles are visible and manifest themselves externally, but many of us (particularly those of us within the medical profession, myself included) work through our struggles internally, attempting to outwardly exude strength. We store our emotions in the viscera of our being, failing to give them an outlet. But is this abject failure to celebrate our own vulnerability not counterintuitive to what gives life beauty?

For reasons unknown to me, I find vulnerability much easier to achieve through the craft of written word than spoken word. Perhaps it’s manipulative of me—I have the opportunity to refine my message to a pinpoint whereas through discourse I’m vulnerable in a different way, forced to answer questions. Perhaps it’s an act of cowardice, choosing to be vulnerable but avoiding being able to see people’s reactions. Regardless, I think it’s important to share the story of my parents’ divorce, focusing not on the specifics of their relationship, but rather on how it affected me and molded my development.

From this story, I will attempt to unpack larger questions on friendship, emotional intimacy, masculinity, the utility of marriage, and the perception of failure, while hinting that failure is, in fact, not always a bad outcome. I find it fitting—yet ironic given my message—that, in a society pervasively addicted to technology, I have chosen the internet as my outlet. Here’s hoping that my insight may ring true to someone or open up discourse on mental health and our evasion of open expression.

When I was transitioning from middle school to high school, my parents split. That was over ten years ago. You’d think that by now, I’d have gotten over it, and relationships would have been mended. While that’s largely true—I’ve grown out of several different mechanisms of coping, and I’m on good terms with my family—I still recognize underlying ways in which their divorce changed me and continues to change me. To be clear, I can’t cite divorce as the culprit in all instances, but rather a likely inciting event; clear correlation persists without objective evidence to declare causation. I’ve made many choices since then, both conscious and subconscious, that have impacted the way in which I’ve developed. Still, I come back to my parents’ separation time and time again when reflecting on my development.

After graduating high school in 2012 I left Oregon for Ohio, frankly terrified of moving away from home, and intending to move back as soon as possible. Instead, I’ve spent little time in Oregon—unintentionally distancing myself from those who are closest to me. Now, Nashville is home for at least seven years and, consequently, many of my memories from childhood and from when my parents’ split seem surreal—memories of a distant life that was long ago left behind.

I remember climbing up the tree outside our garage, waiting and praying for my dad’s car to come home on my parents’ wedding anniversary—their 27th; the implications of my dad’s absence growing heavier on my chest by the minute. I sought refuge at the neighbor’s house across the street. I remember sleepless nights, lying in bed wide awake, straining to hear but not wanting to hear, and trying to find ways to distract myself. I remember going to a concert with my parents, seeing them holding hands, and wondering what they were doing—this was a behavior that I had never previously experienced. Only years later did I realize that they were making an effort to mend an injured relationship.

From a purely subjective point of view, I think that few marriages fail as a result of the faults of one party. To err is to be human. I find it hard to believe that anyone is entirely faultless. (I do not intend to belittle the abuse that some people have endured—there are certainly individuals who have endured much and been blamed despite being the victim. All I’m suggesting is that relationships are like molecular pathways—more nuanced than they appear from the surface.) From an outside perspective, I think it would be easy to lay blame in the breakdown of my parents’ marriage. That’s not something that I hope to do—now or ever. I do not think that blame is an entity that needs to be cast. Nevertheless, intrigue persists regarding how a relationship of such length goes awry.

A friend of mine recently said, “Lots of people stay in relationships because nothing objectively bad is happening. But really, no one should have to do something bad or wrong for a relationship to end. Instead, it should be the absence of good that should end a relationship.” Too many relationships continue in the absence of good because of the absence of ostensible bad. While my parents’ marriage ultimately soured, uprooted by enduring the objectively bad, I think that it started along a catabolic spiral of decay long before that, deteriorating past a point capable of fixture.

One of my favorite songs from 2017, Guilty Party, by The National explores this idea.

I say your name

I say I’m sorry

I know it’s not working

I’m no holiday

It’s nobody’s fault

No guilty party

We just got nothing

Nothing left to say

As my dad is a physician dedicated to his practice, at some level this is a cautionary tale to heed the risks of an all-consuming medical profession—a relevant message to me and many of my colleagues and friends. I still don’t know what happened to my parents’ marriage that started its unwinding. I’d like to think that I love my family members in spite of their faults—and maybe, ideally, even more because of their faults. Yet the faults that I find the most detestable in others are those that I see in myself, and “no guilty party” may be just another defense mechanism that I’ve employed to accept the past—it’s as if constructing a wall of ignorance (a less than ideal mode of communication) is the bliss I’ve used to love my family members. While I do hope to have a better understanding in the (distant) future, I don’t know if it’s possible to ever grasp the whole story from subjective, time warped memories. For now, what I’m interested in is exploring how my parents’ divorce has impacted (and continues to impact) my social interactions and friendships. I’ll start tangentially by contrasting my experience to the life of Alex Honnold.

Recently, I went to see Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s movie, “Free Solo,” about Alex Honnold’s free solo climb of El Capitan. It’s an excellent movie; I highly recommend watching it. While I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, I found myself disturbed by some of the parallels between Alex and myself. Certainly we are very different people—I will never free solo El Capitan, and even if I were capable, I wouldn’t dare try. But Alex’s emotional disposition struck me as an exaggerated version of myself, distanced from those around him and achievement oriented.

Interestingly, Alex’s youth was not dissimilar to my own. My mom and dad are both phenomenal people, and I do not aim to disparage all that they have given me; I am eternally grateful for all that they have done, and continue to do, for me. Moreover, though my memories are murky, they were both superb, loving parents. Still, watching Alex’s parents divorce and seeing him seek rock climbing as an outlet was eerie; in high school, the golf course was my safe haven, my place of comfort, my El Capitan. (Not that I progressed in golf the way that Alex excelled in climbing.)

The uncomfortable part of the movie—other than the constant, gripping fear of Alex falling—is that Alex, in his emotionally detached state, seems content, perfectly satisfied living a reclusive existence. Indeed, he suggests at one point that happiness is generic and thus he does not aim to be happy, but rather to achieve. In contrast, I yearn for social connection, but simultaneously avoid the vulnerability that comes with opening up. Still, like Alex, I’ve often favored achievements over relationships, constantly striving for more, even when it is social connection that gives me gratification. It’s as if, subconsciously, a part of me believes that if I could be perfect in some aspect of my life, while simultaneously withholding emotional vulnerability, I could erase the imperfections of my past. Nobody is perfect, nobody is robotic. Moreover, nobody ought to be perfect and nobody ought to be robotic. Life is too rich to ceaselessly strive.

"There exists a repulsive, toxic, and permeating idea within our society that showing weakness is inherently antagonistic to masculinity."

I don’t think that it’s the act of single parenthood, or other non-standard family structures that has this effect. Certainly every family situation has its own unique affects on adolescent development, both beneficial and detrimental. To clarify, I’m not suggesting a heteronormative model in which a child must have a mother and a father, happily married, in order to thrive. Instead, I think that the interpersonal interactions that one experiences growing up are indicative of their future mode of interacting with others. If, like me, one grows up in an atmosphere in which open emotional communication and physical intimacy are not observed on a consistent basis, learning to develop intimate emotional connections (with both friends a lovers) and to jump into relationships without fear of commitment will be difficult. But parents aren’t the only guiding force in adolescent development.

There exists a repulsive, toxic, and permeating idea within our society that showing weakness is inherently antagonistic to masculinity. When combined with certain familial circumstances, this breeds a predisposition for shutting off, keeping others at a distance. I’ve never consciously been driven to appear masculine. I’ve gotten several comments on my phone case since starting medical school (it’s teal). I can rationalize that it’s my mom’s old case and I’m too cheap to buy a new one (which is incidentally true), but honestly? It’s a great color, and I don’t really care that people think it’s feminine. Still, at some point in my life, I inappropriately conflated my self worth with my ability to display strength and resolve—heteronormative traits of “masculinity.” How has this altered my relationships?

I have been blessed with phenomenal friends. I truly love my friends and family more than anything else in this world. Ironically, many of my friends don’t really know me. Over time, you pick up on what your friends like, what they don’t like, who they are. You get to know them intimately through experiences if not through conversation. There is much that can be gleaned from observation; even the best poker players have tells. Indeed, with observation you might pick up on their subconscious motives in a way that they did not understand about themselves. But do you really know them? Understand who they are? Know their inner dialogue?

At first, with a new friend, your conversations are focused on the superficial. “Did you see LeBron last night? Him and Lonzo Ball each had a triple double, in the same game!” The persistence of these conversations has utility; they provide shared meaning, something that two parties have in common. However, they also act as a defense mechanism—we talk about others, but not ourselves. I see this as unfortunate, but normal. It’s off-putting to talk about intimate, personal aspects of our lives with total strangers. Nevertheless, there is something refreshing about delving deeper than the superficial. Human interaction ought to have more depth than mere formalities. Still, at a time when antiquated formalities are less expected, the age of technology has driven us into a new realm of normal that is seemingly more superficial—it’s the age of showing one’s best self, not one’s true self.

Some friendships may progress to discussing more thought-provoking, even existential topics. For instance, does free will exist? What is the meaning or purpose that we ought to derive from our lives? But even in the midst of these discussions, many academically inclined individuals rarely seem to be truly attempting to understand each other, but rather express—in a robotic, superficial manner—their astute intelligence. I do not claim to be above this behavior.

Eventually, I expect that most intimate friendships either wither or progress to being sustained by discourse regarding deep, personal aspects of the friends’ own lives. Mine have not done either; somehow I maintain my closest friendships in a state of superficiality akin to how one would treat a budding friendship. This is where I’ve failed my closest friends—this outrageous viewpoint that to discuss the deeply personal aspects of my life makes me human in a way that one ought not be human. Simultaneously, I take these exact conversations, when they happen, to be to be the most beautiful, meaningful aspects of being alive. The cognitive dissonance is palpable, like a loud murmur, suggesting underlying structural defects. Not everyone reacts to divorce in this manner. But it’s how I’ve reacted, and I’m certain that I’m not alone in this regard. (Even if it’s not as frequent as I perceive, we live in a world with billions of people—statistically there ought to be at least a few people who share my viewpoint.)

This isn’t the way it has to be. Since moving to Nashville, I’ve been struck by my conversations with one of my friends. While I don’t agree with his choices—in fact I strongly dissent from many of them—his willingness to be fragile is unparalleled to what I’ve previously observed. I’m always stunned by his ability to show what I perceive to be his true self with seemingly little worry for how I will view him. Either that, or he is really good at bluffing. Still, I find that doubtful—few bluff about their shortcomings; if anything, they sell them short.

So, what, you ask, is the way forward? I do not presume to have the answers. Do I believe in the institution of marriage? I see the reassurance that it may provide—the binding of two individuals together. Yet I wonder, does the act of marriage not lead to complacency, or is that a result of time—the variables are innumerable. I like the celebration of love and family; weddings certainly bring people together. On a more practical (but less romantic) note, the financial benefits of marriage are undeniable. Still, I find the idea itself to be inherently flawed. Many will disagree with me.

Foremost, the splitting of two parties does not signal failure. There is beauty in time spent together, and that time can be finite. Still, divorce is seen as a failure. In high school I felt as though my parents’ divorce was taboo—something that made my family imperfect in a way that a family is not supposed to be imperfect. I hope that my sisters and I are proof that, although my parents’ marriage ended, it was not an abject failure. Furthermore, the idea that a vow is what binds you—for as long as you live, no less—seems, to me, foolish. How can I make a vow regarding a future version of myself that I do not yet know? How am I to know that this current version of myself is more knowledgeable of what my future self ought to want and believe in?

These existential questions and doubts do not preclude me from (hopefully) being married in the future. Whether it’s the influence of societal norms and values—which are still largely dominated, for better or for worse, by heteronormativity—or some ray of optimism shining through my otherwise pessimistic outlook, I still hope for some “ideal” future where I’m the dad in the family sitting at a tall airport table, eating overpriced food with my wife and kids. (Hopefully without our iPhones at the table…and hopefully we’ll be wearing sweat pants and hoodies, traveling comfortably, playing card games…) Still, I believe other events to provide meaning to a shared existence, and thus to be more binding (e.g., the birth of a child). But ultimately, I don’t think that we should quit living our lives out of the fear of vulnerability; I find it a more attractive future to have married and divorced than to have lived reclusively out of fear.

While I do not purport to be a marriage counselor or have the answers to healing our divorce epidemic (which is apparently healing itself, a topic for another time), I will suggest that the “failure” that is divorce is not without its beauty, its silver linings. I think I was always predetermined to find joy in music. (Though supposedly not genetic, it’s a trait inherited from my dad.) However, my parents’ split pushed me to derive meaning from music; I reflect existentially through music on my place in the world. If not for their divorce, I’m not sure that I would have developed the same musical preferences—sad dad music, as indicated in About Us.

On a much grander scale, there are many positives. I’m a more thoughtful, contemplative person than I otherwise would have been, and my parents’ divorce has given me a drive that I’m not sure I otherwise would have had. We can wish away the pain, recognizing that what happened will never simply “be okay,” but also celebrate how our anguish has changed us for the better.

My family in Salem, Oregon in Fall 1999.

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