In the new novel Bliss by the Israeli writer Ronit Matalon (Metropolitan Books, trans. Jessica Cohen), there’s a passage that stayed with me like a pesky tune.
Sarah is a young woman with a small child who wants to divorce her husband; Inès is an older friend from a different generation:
“Life’s not good,” Sarah says.
“When is it, tell me? When was it ever good?” Inès loses her temper. “What’s the problem — does he drink?”
Sarah shakes her head.
“Does he go with other women?”
“No,” Sarah says.
“Does he bring home money?”
“That’s not the problem, Inès.”
“Then what is the problem? Tell me, I want to understand.”
“I don’t love him, I think,” Sarah says finally. “Ultimately, I
suppose I don’t love him.”
… “You love him, you don’t love him — who loves anyone anyway? Children, you love. That’s love.”
Divorced myself and in the “dating” scene for eight years, I’ve met many Sarahs (the one in the novel indeed divorces her husband, though with other complications). They typically have husbands who are decent sorts, who love their kids and are loved by them, but whom the “Sarahs” eventually find deficient in some way — unable to communicate feelings, lacking in understanding, no longer meeting expectations of “love.” Apart from personal impressions, studies find that at least two-thirds of divorces in both Israel and the U.S. are now initiated by women, and a quick cruise of the Internet reveals that this is now the reality throughout the Western world.
It’s a disconcerting reality, one that, I think, is not addressed much because of fear of offending women as a group. We may have come a long way since women were associated too narrowly with nurture; but we seem to have reached the opposite pole. Women now take the lead, by far, in dissolving families for reasons that usually are less than clear-cut.
We can speculate why this is so. Feminist assertiveness may have pushed women so far in that direction that it starts to verge on heedlessness. Media sentimentality about “love,” to which women may be more sensitive, may indeed have created expectations that few real-life marriages can meet. Or it may be that our era has stumbled upon a discovery: now that the playing field is level, with little or no religious or societal sanction against divorce, and with most women able to survive financially without their husbands, could it be we’re finding out that — contrary to the lore and assumptions of the ages — women just don’t like men that much?
Indeed, the ex-husbands who are described by many of the divorcées I meet don’t sound like such appealing creatures. They keep their feelings to themselves, come home after a long day of work and just expect physical needs to be met, don’t bother to find out who their mate really is and what her inner terrain looks like. Since I’m often in a situation where I’m hoping to be liked myself, I don’t say what’s on my mind at such moments: “Yes, I understand, but maybe these are just limitations that are common among the male species? Maybe, since he was decent and responsible, you could have sought the things you lacked elsewhere — among friends and relatives — and accepted that this person was never going to live up to your dreams and answer all your needs?” But I’m starting to sound like Inès in the novel …
With both my old country and my adopted country engaged in a deadly war against terror (some would say it’s the same war, some insist it’s two different ones), one might ask if there aren’t more urgent things going on than speculations about male-female relations. Except that I think it’s connected; in both Israel and the U.S., the part of the society in which the divorce culture is strongest is also the part that most tends to deny that there’s a need to fight, and to blame the country itself for the war instead of the cold-blooded killers who are attacking it. And in Western Europe, where the family is dying out, they refuse to fight altogether. That’s another question we should probably be asking, and might be worth a study or two: Is the divorce culture compatible with patriotism? If people, in childhood, experience having a decent father move to a different apartment, are they as likely to identify with the larger society when they grow up?
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