I've Been Listening To My Neighbors' Marriage Crumble And It's Taking Me Back To My Parents' Divorce

I'm 12 years old again, reacting to my own parents' messy split.
Publish date:
October 9, 2014
marriage, divorce, childhood memories

Outside my window there is a marriage crumbling.

It happens on Saturdays, likely after a week of working too hard and juggling children. They have two. One of them is a newborn that cries. The older kid is probably three, and throws affected fits on the patio where they keep the bar-b-que and colorful plastic toys.

My neighborhood is generally peaceful -- a place so quiet I knew when they started a new bus route down the adjacent main drag just from detecting the unfamiliar whine every 30 minutes. Their arguments echo through the space between buildings, like the wail of an air raid siren screaming the inevitable end.

My parents divorced when I was 12. I remember sitting in my mom’s Toyota ‘82 Land Cruiser starring out the window without protest when she told me that she and my dad were splitting up. It didn’t, after all, seem like something you could argue for, throw a big enough fit that your parents would start loving each other again.

I hadn't seen it coming. Even though my dad had been sleeping in the RV we kept in the front yard for nearly as long as I could remember, an exile blamed on his window-rattling snores. Which made sense. His snoring was the worst.

Even though I didn’t fight it, kick and scream and ask questions, it was still surprising. I don’t remember my parents ever fighting while they were together. Instead, there were dense swaths of disappointment that I didn’t really have the capacity to understand. Like when my dad borrowed my mom's Land Cruiser for hunting trips with her express request that he keep the windows up, returning it filled with a silt-like dust that never went away. There was the irritation when my dad would come home at dinnertime and either eat standing up in the kitchen or pass altogether, saying he had eaten a big lunch. In my experience, it's the little things that crush a marriage. They chip away at you until, bit by bit, you’re sleeping next to someone who doesn’t try for you anymore.

My neighbors' yelled arguments sound equally fixable. It’s never “Why are you cheating on me?” or “Who’s that person you’ve been talking to?” Those are the big things, the massive mess-ups. Instead, it’s usually “I work hard all week and you do nothing” or “I can’t do this all by myself.” There’s a failure in partnership, in maintaining the sense of teamwork that I think you need once you’ve decided to build yourself a brood.

A woman I met recently said that all failed relationships -- roommates, marriages, people living in close quarters -- are about milk. It’s about always keeping milk in the fridge before someone asks that it be there; it’s about replacing that milk when you finish it without being told. “It’s just about milk,” she said.

Ironically, my parent’s civility towards one another diminished greatly once the divorce went through. While I remember maybe one argument between the two of them when they were actually married, I hardly remember a moment when they weren’t yelling at each other in the years that followed their separation. They yelled into phones, yelled across parking lots, yelled out of car windows.

They argued about child support, about things they felt entitled to, about my dad smoking cigarettes with us in the car. And after they had done yelling, they would steep in the heated aftermath for a while, mumbling grisly things about each other that my brother and I would have to then listen to.

And it got even worse when my mom briefly remarried a guy who lived in a nice, two-story house with palm trees at the front door and a heated pool on the side. I think about the sting of routinely seeing my ex-boyfriend on Instagram with his new girlfriend and then try to imagine what it would be like having to pick up children from the front of the house they lived in together.

Bad marriages might be bad, but bad divorces with kids are even worse. At least in a bad marriage, there are moments you think you can might be able to turn things around. A bad divorce is a case of terminal dissatisfaction that no legal documents can remedy. The kids are just along for the ride, getting checked in and out like library books.

After nearly 20 years, my parents are friends. The agonizing need to be entwined financially ended and alleviated the tension, leaving less cause for argument and reasons to hate one another. And anyway, even if they were still fighting, my brother and I wouldn’t be home to serve as an audience for the dismal parade.

The two get along well enough now, both helping each other when they can, both currently unmarried. When my dad got sick recently, my mom made him food. When my mom needs help with trees in the yard, my dad comes over with a chainsaw. Together, they remind me more of two vaguely functional siblings, loosely indebted to the other. But it always makes me sad when my dad comes home from these days and tells me, “Your mother is still the most beautiful woman I ever met.”

The couple next door continues to fight.