The Role of Narratives in Divorce

This started out as a quiet expression of frustration about the Alabama Supreme Court’s opinion in a recent case, Ex parte Clark. It has become instead an exploration of the role narratives play in divorce.

One of the things I have learned in working with cooperative couples going through divorce is that each spouse develops his or her “narrative” about the marriage and the events that led to its failure. Each spouse’s narrative calls forth different facts and emphasizes different events or issues. If you listen to only one spouse’s narrative, you conclude that the spouse with whom you are talking is coping the best way he or she can with a failure caused mostly by the other spouse. And of course, listening to the other spouse gives you a completely different impression.

As an example, let’s say that Ralph and Rhonda are divorcing. When Ralph tells his friends about the divorce, he says something like, “yeah, I really wanted it to work, but she left me for her tennis coach. I’ve asked her to go to counseling, but she’s not interested.”

When Rhonda tells her friends about the situation, her narrative is longer and provides more detail about history. “Ralph is so angry at the world. He never trusted me, he never trusted his boss; he would just sit at night and brood. He snapped at me all the time, but I put up with that. But when he called my mother a stupid bitch and later that same day put his fist through the door of our bathroom, I knew I had to get out.” Rhonda probably won’t bring up the tennis coach at all, but if you ask her about it, she will describe the relationship as one that began only after her relationship with Ralph was doomed, and she will say that her relationship with the tennis coach had nothing to do with the failure of her marriage.

Both narratives are accurate; both narratives provide information useful in understanding the marriage and the separation. Both narratives are useful in framing the issues and in shaping further conversation about each spouse’s circumstances. Each spouse’s narrative serves to justify that spouse’s behavior so the person listening can offer sympathy, caring, and support. And narratives morph over time. As spouses go through their grieving process and move on with their lives, their narratives usually focus less on the bad behavior of the other spouse and more on fundamental incompatibility. But even the later narrative will focus on justifying the behavior of the spouse doing the narrating.

A few years after the divorce, Ralph may say something like “We both had so much growing up to do; we probably shouldn’t have married so young.” He WON’T say, “I probably shouldn’t have called her Mom a stupid bitch or knocked a hole in our bathroom door.”

And Rhonda may say “We probably didn’t know enough about how to support each other. We just grew apart.” And you’ll have to work really hard to find out she left the apartment she shared with Ralph and moved right in with the tennis coach.

My point in all of this is that narratives, although useful, are incomplete. And this is not so much instructive for spouses going through divorce. They will continue building and sharing their narratives without regard to anything I might say or not say. Instead, it’s instructive for the rest of us when we listen to those narratives. We need to let them serve their primary purpose, to inspire and motivate us to provide sympathy, caring, and support, while resisting the urge to condemn the other spouse. The fact is that until and unless we talk at length to both spouses going through a separation or divorce (and maybe even after we have done so), we really don’t know who’s at fault, and we need to remain attentive to that. That doesn’t mean we need to talk to both spouses; sometimes that’s neither helpful nor appropriate; it does mean we remind ourselves frequently that our knowledge is incomplete.

So now about that Alabama Supreme Court opinion. Ex parte Clark, Case No. 1071628 (Ala. March 27, 2009). The trial court in Baldwin County awarded Mom sole physical custody after declining to hear the testimony of an expert, an expert who had already testified about the Mom, the Dad, and the child. The appeals court affirmed without opinion. The Supreme Court reversed, telling the appeals court to remand the case to the trial court to hear again from ALL the witnesses and make a new judgment about custody. The Supreme Court may well have ruled wisely; the trial court and the appeals court may have ruled erroneously. But in her opinion, Chief Justice Cobb tells us only the facts that mitigate in favor of the father; it’s as if she rode in the car from Montgomery to Panama City with Dad hearing only his side, and then formed her conclusion without considering any of the facts that mitigated in Mom’s favor.

And yet there must be facts in Mom’s favor; if there were none, the trial court would have had to be corrupt to rule in Mom’s favor, and there’s certainly no hint of that. So why do we hear none of those facts?

I don’t know Chief Justice Cobb well, but what I do know is positive; I think she rules with integrity and competence. By presenting such a one-sided opinion, though, she makes herself more vulnerable to those who would criticize her.

Ralph and Rhonda are supposed to tell us only one side of the story; that’s sort of their job. Chief Justices of the Alabama Supreme Court are supposed to do it differently.

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