January Thoughts

A good friend told me as, yet again, a new year loomed: ‘By June I promise you I will be divorced’.

Quite a dramatic statement, except for the fact that, every year for the past five years, I’ve heard the exact same resolution, tinged by the ongoing despair that always accompanies an unhappy marriage. And in the case of my friend – a successful Washington, DC lawyer, hugely well-educated and cultivated and a truly decent man (which makes him a rarity among Washington lawyers!) – the divorce really is long-overdue. His wife – an investment banker in her late forties – has always struck me as an icicle: tall, thin, elegant, profoundly judgmental and cold. My friend – I’ll call him Charlie – is, on the other hand, something of a physical mess. He’s short, around thirty pounds overweight, and radiates bad diet and no interest whatsoever in physical fitness. But he is absolutely brilliant at his given profession. He possesses, without question, one of the more intellectually agile brains I’ve encountered. And he can be wildly funny.

All these attributes attracted Sarah (the name I’m giving his wife), along with the fact that he was already, by his mid-thirties (when they first met), rather wealthy. But there definitely was a Beauty and the Beast aspect to their image as a couple (“I can never really imagine them having sex” my girlfriend of the era informed me when we once all had dinner together in New York). And though they had two daughters – to whom Charlie was wildly devoted – it was clear very early on that the marriage was one of those vessels that continually navigates high seas, hurricanes, and other versions of ‘force majure’.

Having myself been in a marriage that was frequently troubled – and eventually became so toxic that I jumped ship – I could sympathize with Charlie’s ongoing sense of emotional exhaustion when it came to ‘la vie conjugale’. And in 2006 – when his relationship to Sarah had passed the twenty year mark – he informed me, over two bottles of wine, that they hadn’t made love in two years, that there was nothing ‘sympatico’ about their relationship, that it was dead, kaput. Citing the children, citing his considerable wealth (and his belief that Sarah would take him to the proverbial cleaners if he initiated a divorce), citing the belief that ‘things have to get better, right?’, he stayed put. And nothing changed – except that Sarah’s iciness only grew more arctic, and the gulf between them more pronounced. He suggested couples therapy. She laughed. He suggested a trial separation. She laughed even louder. She seemed deeply resigned to the unhappiness in which they lived. And though, as the years went by, he complained bitterly about feeling unwanted and unloved, he doggedly stayed put.

But every December, my phone would ring wherever I happened to be in the world at a given moment, and Charlie would be on the line. We’d exchange banter, gossip, jokes. We’d talk about the state of our respective children, the state of the world. And during my own divorce, we talked long and hard about its immense messiness (and the mixture of relief and emotional tumult that accompanied its aftermath). And then he’d make the inevitable announcement: “Next year I’m leaving her”.

Just a few weeks ago, right before Christmas, the phone rang in Maine. Charlie was on the other end. And again he said: “I know I tell you the same thing every year, but 2012 is the Year of the Definitive Exit Strategy”.

Of course he knows – and I know – that nothing of the sort will happen. But what interests me here is two things. The first is the fact that we so often choose unhappiness because we have come to accept it as our lot in life; the status quo from which we are incapable of fleeing. And the second is the fact that the start of a new year is always freighted with such hope, with manifold resolutions, with the earnest desire to change our circumstances, our physical shape, and alter the emotional temperature of our lives. But so often the resolution – whether it be throwing away the cigarettes or losing ten kilos or making that drive across the United States that you have always dreamed of making – vanishes into the mire of the quotidian. And, yet again, we wrestle with our shortcomings, our alleged lack of discipline, our inability to renew and remake certain aspects of our lives.

To be alive is to exist in a world riddled with imperfections. As I told my fifteen year old daughter recently, no matter how successful and/or contented one might be (and there are a few successful and/or contented people out there), there will always be an aspect of life that will not be working, that will be vexing you. It’s inescapable. Just as the resolutions we make are so often expressed longings for a change in circumstances that we privately don’t want change. For this reason, if you live (as we do) in the northern hemisphere, January is both visually and personally a dark month, as it makes you confront winter’s inherent greyness and the need to wrestle yet again with that infinite task: yourself.

  • brad weintraub

    Just read Tempation, incredible, especially the insights at the end. Big Picture remains one of my all time favorites. This post also strikes a chord. Thank you.