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Relationships • Breaking Up & Heartbreak

When Does a Divorce Begin?

Once a divorce has occurred, we often ask at what point it ‘began’. What we can bet is that there is almost always a large gap between the moment when divorce is spoken about and when the fuel for it started to accumulate. Its origins may lie with certain initially minute fissures that will have lain ignored, possibly for decades.

Eduard Manet, On the Beach, 1873

Historians know all about the challenges of chronological pinpointing. It is common to ask when a cataclysmic event like, for example, the French Revolution began. A traditional response is to point to the spring of 1789, when one of the orders of the Estates General took an oath to remain in session until a constitution had been agreed on, or a few weeks later when a group of Parisians stormed the Bastille prison. But a more sophisticated and instructive approach locates the beginning significantly earlier: with the bad harvests of the previous ten years, with the loss of royal prestige following military defeats in North America in the 1760s or with the rise of a new philosophy in the middle of the century that stressed the idea of citizens’ rights. At the time, these incidents didn’t seem particularly decisive; they didn’t immediately lead to major social change or reveal their solemn nature, but they slowly yet powerfully put the country on course for the upheavals of 1789: they moved the country into a revolution-ready state.

Likewise, divorces tend to begin long before the moment when one party sits the other down at the kitchen table and declares that they have had enough. They begin after certain conversations that didn’t go well in a bathroom three summers previously or after a sulk in a taxi home five years before.

A timeline of the true causes of divorce might look like this:

Unending busyness: It was a Sunday morning, our beloved had been occupied for months with a big project and we’d been very understanding. Now it was over and we were looking forward to some closeness and a trip to a café. But there was suddenly something new that they needed to look at on their phone. We glanced over at their face lit up by the glow of the screen; their eyes looked cold, determined and resolutely elsewhere. Or else they hatched a sudden, firm plan to reorganise the kitchen cupboards just when at last we might have had some quiet time together in the park.

Neglect: We were away on an exhausting trip and, in a break between meetings, we leapt at the chance to call them. They picked up, but the television continued on in the background. They had even forgotten we’d had to give a speech and it felt a little humiliating having to remind them and hearing their lacklustre ‘great’ in response.

Shaming: We were with some new friends – people we didn’t know too well and wanted to make a good impression on. Our partner was looking to amuse them and, having cast around for options, opted to tell everyone a story about how we once showed the wrong slides in a presentation at work. They know how to tell a good story and there was a lot of laughter.

Entitlement: Without discussing it, they arranged that we’d both go and have lunch with their parents. It wasn’t so much that we minded going, it was the fact that they didn’t feel the need to ask us if we minded and if the timing was convenient. On another occasion, without even mentioning it, they bought a new kettle and got rid of the old one; it was as if we had no say at all. Sometimes they’d just tell us what to do – ‘take the bins out’, ‘pick up some mineral water at the shop’, ‘put on different shoes’ – without adding ‘please’ or ‘would you mind’ or ‘it would be lovely if …’ Just a few words would have made a very significant difference.

Flirting: We were at a party with them and we saw them across the room: they were bending towards this person, saying something; they were laughing charmingly; they put their hand on the back of the other person’s chair. Later they said it had been a very boring conversation.

One too many arguments: It wasn’t the basic fact of having disagreements, it was the sheer number of them – and their unending, repetitive nature. One that sticks in the memory was when we were at the seaside and things should have been happy for once – and yet they chose once again to ramp up the tension about a Thai takeaway that had been ordered. We remember arguing and, at the same time, one part of our mind disassociating, looking down upon the two of us standing on the pier with cross faces and wondering ‘Why?’

Lack of tenderness: We were walking in the street together near the antiques market and we reached out to hold their hand, but they failed to notice; another time, they were doing something at the kitchen table and we put an arm round their shoulders and they said sharply, ‘not now’. In bed, we’re always the one to turn towards them and kiss them goodnight; they respond, but they never, ever initiate. This rankles more than it seems normal or possible to say.

Erotic disengagement: There was a sexual idea we’d been getting interested in but we felt awkward about mentioning it to them. We tried to give a few hints, but they didn’t give us the impression they were curious or encourage us to expand. Instead, they gave us the sense that it would be a lot more convenient if we just kept whatever it was that tickled us to ourselves.

Individually, none of these things may be very dramatic. Some little version of one or another of them may be happening pretty much every day for every couple. And it’s not all one-way: both parties are probably doing some of these things quite regularly, without particularly noticing or meaning to.

Yet a careful historian of divorce might point to any one of these as the moment at which – in a true sense – a split began: a feeling was implanted deep in someone’s mind (perhaps beyond the range of their conscious awareness) that there was something utterly critical missing in their relationship and that they could not endure its lack forever.

It is common, when a divorce is called for, to become an inquisitorial prosecutor: to seize a phone and ask the ‘cheat’ or the ‘deserter’ in detail where they have been; to read through their emails and parse every receipt. But such assiduousness is a little late, a little misdirected and rather too self-serving. The divorce didn’t begin with any dirty texts or lunch appointments; it began on a sunny, innocent afternoon many years before, when there was still a lot of goodwill, when a hand was proffered and the partner was perhaps fatefully careless about how they received it. That might be a rather more painful account of our relationship and its troubles than we are ready to contemplate for now, but it may also be a more accurate and, ultimately, more useful one.

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