Why Did You Get a Divorce? (A Question from the Future for Newlyweds)
That was a question I started asking people a few years before I myself separated from my husband. So many people I knew were breaking up after long marriages and I was genuinely curious as to how they finally made the decision to split.
Of course no one could really answer that question very easily and certainly not in a few words. The ending of a long term relationship doesn’t usually happen from one definitive event.
So now I sit here and ask myself the same question. Why did I get a divorce? And actually I haven’t gotten a divorce. I am not even legally separated although we have been living apart for almost two years. But why, how did I get here?
Some people do of course have a dramatic event that acts as a catalyst and suddenly ends the relationship. Like finding your partner in bed with someone else.
But even if it ends abruptly because of an affair or the discovery of an affair, you still have to go back in time and try to figure out why the affair started in the first place.
In my case, I felt like I was on a runaway train. I felt dizzy and out of control. So when the precipitating event came, I used it to jump off the train.
I had always carried the financial stress in the relationship. I paid the bills so I was always aware of cash in and cash out. In the beginning years when there was plenty of money, jobs, and no kids, it was fun paying the bills.
I liked it so much I became a bookkeeper. I liked how bookkeeping was black and white. You either have money to cover your expenses or you don’t.
At least that was how I looked at things. However my husband saw things differently. Some of his favorite lines were: “time is finite, money is not”; and “all millionaires have gone bankrupt at least twice”. He felt that if you didn’t have enough to pay for something you wanted, then you used the credit card.
The credit card. As I start to peel back the layers and try to understand why I moved out, I am seeing a pattern and a lot of it has to do with money. So many times I paid off the credit card. Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. If it wasn’t the credit card causing financial stress, it was the taxes. And once I even used the credit card to pay the taxes. So began the vicious cycle.
The fact that money is the root problem of my relationship should not be such a surprise to me. I knew it from day one. But I didn’t care. When I got engaged, I told my best friend, “Even if we end in divorce over money, I am going to marry him.”
What did I mean by that? I meant that even though I had noticed some things that made me concerned about his spending, I thought he was such a fun person to be with that it didn’t matter.
I grew up in a serious household so that falling in love with him was wonderful. He made me laugh. He could talk to anyone and as a result wherever we went he was the life of the party. He was exuberant and fun. He was like the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon. As his best man said at our wedding, you could be rafting down a remote river in an unheard-of place halfway around the world and someone would hear his laugh and call out his name.
I loved how suddenly social my life became after we became a couple. When we moved to Santa Cruz right after we got married, we instantly had a large social network. We had tons of friends as a couple and the women became my best friends. Those were good times.
If only my older, wiser self could go back and talk to my younger free-spirited in-love self. I would tell her that both she and her fiancée must take a basic household finance class together. They must learn to talk about finances and to make a plan for the future. They must talk about how they are essentially incompatible regarding attitudes on money. They must talk about how this could destroy their relationship in twenty years.
You can have different attitudes toward money. In fact, maybe that’s a healthy balance. But what can destroy the balance and the bank account is not being able to talk about it. Then the mistakes and the resentment start to build and slowly erode the foundation of the relationship.
One striking example of this in my story, is the International Banking Transaction. My second daughter had just been born. She was six weeks old and I was sheltered in the aura of motherhood bliss. Plus my sister was visiting. So when my even more so than ever exuberant husband was excited about his international business opportunity and was in his home office all weekend on phone calls, my crapshooter was on low. I wasn’t really paying much attention.
Long story short. My husband was pulled into an incredulous story about a person needing the last tranche of money to transport lots of bars of gold across European borders (year 2007) to their final destination. The endeavor had been going on for years and was at its very last hurdle. They needed one more investment of money at this crucial final stage. The person who came in now would be highly rewarded at a much higher rate of return and would basically become a millionaire in a week.
My husband had recently received a large inheritance from his mother. And he got introduced to this deal from a trusted friend who he met in his sustainability group. So after a day of international business calls, with no written agreements, he wired $122,500 to a bank account in Greece. A few days later, they told him that the Feds had stopped the wire transfer and in order for the deal to go through he had to wire the same amount again.
This is hard for me to write. I feel the blood rise in my face as I relive the shame. When he came to me and told me what was happening, I actually said, you are this far in, so I guess you have to wire the money again. And he did.
Then he told a friend about his amazing deal and how he was about to make a million dollars. His friend cut his exuberance off and said “you have just fallen into a Nigerian 419 scam”.
A Nigerian 419 scam defined by Investopedia.com, “is a scheme in which a sender requests help in facilitating the transfer of a sum of money, generally in the form of an email. In return, the sender offers a commission — a large amount, sometimes up to several million dollars depending on the perceived gullibility of the target. The scammers then request that money be sent to pay for some of the costs associated with the transfer. If money is sent to the scammers, they will either disappear immediately or try to get more money with claims of continued problems with the transfer.”
My husband went through his own stages of grief. Denial came first. Then came Sour Grapes. “Oh well, no big deal, I’ll just make it back again.” That was the part that killed me. The hubris. The inability to admit that it’s not that easy to just make back $225, 000 that someone gave you through their death. And there was my own culpability in telling him to keep going and send the second batch.
The money my husband received from his inheritance was not in our bank account for very long before it was almost all lost. So it didn’t affect our day to day living at the time. But it did affect us long term. The not talking about it. The carefree attitude. The resentment. The shame. The opportunity loss. It took a big toll.
The very same qualities that attracted me to my husband were the same things that later caused me to get dizzy. His excitement and his exuberance made me laugh and feel a sense of belonging to a large tribe of people everywhere we went. But the going out and spending money on restaurants and bars and live music shows was exhausting.
Even after the disastrous international banking transaction we still went off on an open-ended adventure to Costa Rica. He really wanted to live abroad so we decided to go through with our plans and not let that unfortunate scam deter us.
We lived in Costa Rica for a year and a half. We spent the rest of the money and then came back and tried to start over. That is when the hard times began. He got a good job opportunity back in the Bay Area so we were excited to be close to friends again. But it wasn’t close enough. We were in a nice town in the East Bay and they were still in Santa Cruz.
This was the first time we were not near the beach. I think what really did us in was not all the bad money investing and spending decisions, but the fact that for the first time we did not have that community of friends and joint social life.
Not being near the beach was a big deal for him. He did not feel cool being here. He did not participate in being part of the community with me. So we started to drift. He was working hard and had to work every weekend. I was also working and had sole responsibility for the kids and their social lives.
So when I ask myself “Why did you get a divorce” and my first response is because of money, I have to dig deeper and add to that. I think it is really about not being a couple in a community of friends. It’s not that we didn’t have friends here, but we didn’t have them together. I became friends with the parents of my children’s friends. He felt they were too “old” even though they were our same age. He became friends with people he met out.
He was still as exuberant as ever, it’s just that I wasn’t benefitting in the same way. He wanted to keep including me. He invited me to go out with him. To go to concerts and live music at bars. But I couldn’t stay up that late. So more and more I stayed home and he went out.
In the months before the separation, I tried to turn the ship. He appreciated my efforts and apologized for not being more eager to make it work. But we had been stuck in our destructive pattern now for two years and it wasn’t easy to turn the ship around.
I had done things like get us a sushi making class and massage and hot tubs. I also hugged him every time he came home and started making dinner again. I also insisted that he come with me to meet the tax meeting with our CPA. I couldn’t handle the burden of worrying alone about how to pay the taxes anymore.
That was the precipitating event. I couldn’t find him when it was time to leave for the tax appointment. I called him and he was at the bar. Since traffic was bad, there was no way he could get home in time to pick me up. I would have to meet him there.
When he showed up exuberant and buzzed, I made my decision. We didn’t go into the tax meeting together after all. He left and I went in alone and found out I could file head of household if I lived separately for at least the last six months of the year.
The next week I moved out. I have peeled the onion over and over to find out the answer to “why did you get a divorce?”. It goes around and around. But my advice to everyone starting out is get real on how you talk to each other about money, pay the bills together, and always have a shared community of friends.