Divorce me

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Love, Sex, Marriage and Divorce by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy
    Cape, 384 pp, £8.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 224 01602 4

Twelve years ago Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy got divorced after ten years of marriage. In the unhappiness that followed he thought about himself and about society: would it break down too? In 1969, the year Mr Gathorne-Hardy got his decree nisi, there were 60,000 divorces in Britain: in 1980 there were 150,000. ‘During the last century of the Roman Empire, as a great civilisation collapsed, a raging epidemic of divorces roared unchecked.’ A terrifying parallel? Seemingly not. ‘Even quite general knowledge about the past can have a calming effect,’ Gathorne-Hardy says and he should know because his knowledge is very general. ‘Roman culture’ was ‘too superficial to withstand the temptations that beset it’, and ‘the result was a moral collapse which we do not only not approach but can barely envisage.’ (The source for Gathorne-Hardy’s remarks about the Roman Empire is Jerome Carcopino’s Daily Life in Ancient Rome, published in translation by Routledge in 1941, when Carcopino was Minister of National Education in the Vichy Government.) What’s happening to us is much grander: a ‘vast reorganisation of the modern psyche’, a ‘profound change in human consciousness’.

‘I see you have written a book about yourself and called it The World Crisis,’ Arthur Balfour once said to Churchill. Mr Gathorne-Hardy is the author of two well-known books, The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny and The Public School Phenomenon: records not of his life but of his kind – tribal history. Love, Sex, Marriage and Divorce translates into world history the three-year analysis he underwent in the wake of his divorce. Now he is the doctor and we (his readers) the patient. ‘We must begin,’ he says, ‘like any sensible analyst does ... by looking into the past.’ And what we see when we look into it is that it was never all that stable or all that virtuous. (‘Until the late Middle Ages frequent changes of partner were quite usual.’) It follows that there is nothing peculiarly bad or difficult about the present: ‘This is an age, uniquely, of anxiety and stress. You find this obvious – a cliché even? A cliché it certainly is. I don’t for one moment think it is true.’ Analysts are always inclined to make light of their patients’ troubles. Least said (by the analyst), soonest mended.

Psychoanalysis, as its critics have never been slow to point out, is a form of treatment resorted to by those who, in a sociological sense, have nothing to worry about. The troubles that preoccupy Mr Gathorne-Hardy can similarly be construed as the product of unusual good fortune. His title is deceptive. Love, sex and marriage are contingent: what interests him is the divorce they lead to. The first cause of divorce is sex – not its failure but its staggering availability. This is the work – in Gathorne-Hardy’s telling, the single-handed achievement – of Kinsey, who ‘turned sexual freedom, from being a trend among the élite and literate, into a mass movement, possibly for the first time in history’. That Kinsey – Alfred C. Kinsey, Professor of Zoology, as he liked to be known – was a thoughtful man is indicated by the first paper he wrote: ‘What do birds do when it rains’. He was by nature a collector, and in his early years was devoted to the wasp: so devoted that he was eventually in a position to give the Natural History Museum a collection of four million different wasps. Although he disclaimed any interest in altering behaviour (Gathorne-Hardy: ‘This is rubbish’), he was always eager to point out that it was the most respectable people who had the busiest sex lives – ‘time and again a lawyer who has masturbated 40 times a week,’ Gathorne-Hardy notes, ‘will be “distinguished in his profession” ’ – and, conversely, that adolescents who came to sex early were, in Kinsey’s words, more ‘alert, energetic, vivacious, spontaneous, socially extrovert and/or aggressive individuals in the population’ than those who got to it late.

After the annals of sexual prowess, the annals of sexual infirmity. After Kinsey, Masters and Johnson – ‘it was around the clitoris that they made major discoveries.’ Sex is a problem because it is no longer supposed to be a problem. ‘Throughout history men have boasted of their conquests, and in liberated ages, women too,’ writes Gathorne-Hardy: ‘this is the first time conquerors and conquests have worried about how and how often they both come.’ (In this context it seems we must praise Kingsley Amis, who has given us, in Jake’s Thing, our only song of impotence and experience.) Gathorne-Hardy isn’t sure whether sex is a symptom or a cause of domestic unrest: ‘sex is central but also extremely elusive.’ At the end of his book, however, under the heading ‘Some Solutions to the Problems of Marriage, Sex and Divorce’, he painstakingly describes the complicated procedures devised by Masters and Johnson for the treatment of sexual ‘dysfunction’ (‘the sensate focus sessions inch towards the genitals’) and gives them credit for considerable feats of marital retrieval: ‘if their technique were applied generally’, premature ejaculation, ‘like some sexual smallpox’, could be ‘completely eliminated in ten years’.

The second cause of divorce is women. ‘There is a Japanese TV programme which specialises in getting back missing people. Twenty years ago, it was 70 per cent men running away; now it has reversed – 70 per cent women clear off.’ In Gathorne-Hardy’s view, so many women clearing off isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not only because it’s reasonable that women should want to get away from the dusting and the cooking (‘the main, indeed only, point about housework is that for large numbers of people it is awful’), but because it gives men the chance to replace them – not with the duster (this isn’t mentioned) but with the children. ‘As the ideology of the 1950s was dismantled and a new one erected to allow women to work, someone had to take the mother’s place in the family. Father.’ The ideology of the Fifties was the ideology of Winnicott and Bowlby: ‘Winnicott, a brilliant child psychologist, raised the mother’s role, especially the role of her breast, to lyrical heights ... It seems possible that Winnicott wanted to be a nursing mother.’ It seems even more possible that Gathorne-Hardy wants to be a mother tout court. Certainly the passion that animates his book is that of a father whom divorce has separated from his children. In Denmark, he says, there are fathers who kidnap their children ‘just to force Bowlby-stuck judges to realise that fathers can look after their children’.

Self-obsession, what Christopher Lasch calls ‘pathological narcissism’, is the third cause of our advanced divorce rate. Gathorne-Hardy doesn’t mention Lasch, but in a chapter entitled ‘The Privilege Bulge’ he writes about the same ‘rage to grow’ – through yoga or through remarriage – which Lasch in his book finds so enraging. It all began, according to Gathorne-Hardy, who has a notable dislike of multiple causes, with the ‘Privilege Bulge Generation’, born in the Thirties and Forties (his generation), and brought up under the influence of psychoanalytic ideas to expect the happiness that a childhood without repression was bound to bring. Forty years later they’re still expecting it; and as evidence Gathorne-Hardy cites the fact that ‘a major proportion’ of contemporary love-stories have middle-aged heroes and heroines, which ‘as far as love goes is historically new’. Therapies designed to soothe and to enlarge proliferate; and ‘if marriage doesn’t lead to “growth” ’, which after ten or fifteen years it may well not, the solution is simple: ‘dump it.’

Love is the last reason – ‘the entrancing delight of romantic love’. ‘Even the practical users of a marriage bureau aim to and “generally do fall in love”,’ says Gathorne-Hardy before asking the deep question: ‘What is this love they fall into?’ An English disease, said Cobbett: ‘it produces self-destruction in England more frequently than in all other countries put together.’ A romantic death wish, said Denis de Rougemont, whose book Passion and Society (1956) is the model for Gathorne-Hardy’s discourse on love from the Crusaders (‘a gang of vicious and often drunken thugs, murderers and fornicators’) to the novels of John Updike. In the old days – stretching from the 12th century to the Second World War – there was marriage and there was adultery (or thoughts of adultery): on the one hand, stability, a house and a dowry; on the other, longing, desire and despair. This distinction held society together, according to de Rougemont, who feared what would happen when it disappeared. What has happened is that a large number of people get married more than once. ‘I don’t want you as a mistress; our lives just aren’t built for it,’ says the hero of Updike’s Marry me to the woman who isn’t his wife. ‘Here there’s no institution except marriage. Marriage and the Friday-night basketball game.’

Monogamy, not marriage, is under threat: ‘no matter how you phrase the statistics, one thing is clear – the institution of marriage itself still rests on a bedrock of statistical stability.’ Between the end of the 16th century and the start of the 19th, the average length of a marriage was twenty years (the figures are Peter Laslett’s). Today, couples who don’t divorce can expect to be together for forty or fifty years – ‘for a good number of people it is a great deal too long.’ In this context Gathorne-Hardy’s seemingly daft proposition, ‘divorce – the modern death’, can be seen to make sense. ‘Divorce him quick,’ I heard an American child say to his mother when he thought his father was about to drown. Marghanita Laski, discussing Colin Murray Parkes’s Bereavement in this paper, commented on ‘his perverse avoidance of marital desertion as the obvious analogue to bereavement by death’, and added that in the first case the pain is ‘made worse by the knowledge that all the misery has been caused, not by chance, but by human choice’. On the other hand, pain caused by ‘human choice’ is easier to resist; there is even pleasure in doing so.

Gathorne-Hardy has no inclination to play down the many kinds of unhappiness that divorce can bring: here, at least, he is on home ground. He may not be sorry that ‘the grim, granite monogamy until death’ is on its way out – but the way looks pretty bumpy. He speaks of the ‘terrible fires of divorce’, of ‘the terrible cries of pain which rip through our late 20th-century prose’, of the ‘acute, almost physical pain the ripping apart can cause’, and quotes some of the ‘victims’, among them a crane-driver. ‘I’d be sitting up there in the crane,’ he says, ‘and suddenly I would burst into tears.’ It’s the only eloquent sentence in the whole book.

All the difficulties divorce entails are attended to, however cursorily, from the shame and embarrassment (especially for women, who, when they lose their husbands, are assumed to be longing for any creep’s attentions) to the unhappiness of children, many of whom – ‘rich and poor alike’ – never give up the idea that their parents will get together again: ‘The Times obituary of Alexander Onassis said that he and his sister had “always entertained hopes for a reunion between their parents”.’ Some of what Gathorne-Hardy says is idiosyncratic. He claims, for instance, that the misery is equal for the leaver (who is usually, though he doesn’t say so, the husband) and the left (i.e. the wife) – which seems unlikely and possibly self-aggrandising. Of the financial difficulties he remarks, ‘the most general, most concrete and one of the most painful results of divorce is an immediate crash in the standard of living,’ and then goes on to say that the middle classes suffer most in this respect. The ‘lowest-paid simply exchange one form of poverty for another’. As always, he is full of optimism. He discusses the loneliness, but also the useful things people can do to find new partners and new ways of life. Clubs for the divorced ‘sound fairly grim’, and also ‘petit-bourgeois’, but ‘on the whole they work’; communes have their silly side but can ‘help one-parent families through the most difficult years with their children’; even marriage bureaux aren’t to be scoffed at. Heather Jenner’s agency ‘has arranged 15,000 marriages’ – and several of her former clients have said they would ‘send’ their children to find partners in the same way. Taken together, these ‘developments’ are a good thing, some of them, he says, more often seen on television than subscribed to in real life, but nonetheless ‘a sign that we are at the start of something.’ One more thing: the bad years can be creative. ‘Bertrand Russell produced during the harrowing period after his first marriage broke up the work for which he will always be remembered: the Principia Mathematica.’

One difficulty means more to Gathorne-Hardy than any of the others. In the old days before divorce really got going, couples whose marriages were slipping sometimes decided to have a child in order to acquire a common interest. It’s not like that any more. The majority of divorces occur within three years of marriage, or, to put it differently, no sooner is the child born than its parents decide to part. ‘Children tend to detract from rather than contribute to marital happiness,’ say the sociologists. Children interfere with their parents’ ‘growth’, says Gathorne-Hardy. So one child in three now lives with only one of his parents, usually his mother – and mothers can be mean. ‘The central injustice in divorce today is that of depriving fathers and their children of each other.’ It’s all right for the mothers: they have the child and ‘centuries of gossip-and-support traditions to call on’ – fathers ‘are often completely alone’. Some might say fathers in the main have jobs – but no matter. They also have their ‘growth’ to think about. Still, it’s true that in the vast majority of cases mothers are given custody of the children and that some exercise their bitterness by making it difficult for their former husband to see them: ‘The playwright Terence Frisby went to the High Court to ask that his access – one afternoon a fortnight – should be extended to one a week. The judge turned the application down flat on the grounds, some mad fragment of jargon floating into his head, that he was “in grave danger of becoming too possessive”.’ The law, says Gathorne-Hardy, should be changed, and ‘the principle underlying the change should be that a child has an inalienable right to two parents, and that each parent has an equal right to see and have its child.’ It sounds all right but how could it be done? Partition? In the meantime, even without changing the law, ‘the situation would be immediately and immeasurably transformed for the better if a few mothers were sent to prison for denying children and fathers access to each other.’ A feminist, I suppose, would have to agree.

After the ‘terrible fires of divorce’, the ‘high blue sky of the future’ – i.e. remarriage. The psychoanalytic view is that second marriages are even less likely to succeed than the marriage(s) that preceded them. According to Dr Edmund Bergler, for instance, ‘the chances of finding conscious happiness in the next marriage are exactly zero.’ (What about unconscious happiness – could one settle for that?) Statistics bear him out. Never mind, says Gathorne-Hardy: ‘Being a couple is naturally nicer.’ And if there has to be another divorce, there’s always the chance of yet another marriage. Besides, the pain is easier to bear the second time round. What’s nice about Gathorne-Hardy is that he seldom says a discouraging word. Whatever’s happening it’s for the best. ‘A profound and exhilarating sense of power, of lifting vision, of release’ is within reach. ‘Seventy-three per cent of strongly religious women are now orgasmic all the time.’