In the Stephen Sondheim musical, “Anyone Can Whistle,” there is a song called “Everybody Says Don’t” – and it is a catchy number. The song is on my mind today. It is a somewhat philosophical number from Act II of that musical and I will reproduce the lyrics in full below for a sense of it all.
What I want to address regarding that song is what I think is an important issue both in the process of divorce and in marriage and relationships more generally. Learning to get past “don’t.” Recently, I began a series of posts on the actual universe of divorce law and its process that was stylistically and substantively quite different from my other posts. This was purposeful on my part for a few reasons. In being extremely frank and pulling no punches, numerous colleagues and friends have told me – “don’t say that,” “don’t go there,” “just don’t…” I hear all of those comments and I respect the informed ones that were delivered with style, grace and good will (Ed. – to a certain non-lawyer divorce professional who communicated with me this morning, this was you). The other genre of comment is simply not worth any mental effort. That said, my purpose now is not to plumb the depths of the inside professional baseball of bruised egos, internecine squabbles and petty grudges.
I want to talk about YOU and return to the personal perspective in this post. And that means addressing the damage that our “don’t’s” can do. In our marriages, many of us often lived with a lot of don’ts. Don’t go here, don’t do this, don’t be friends with them, don’t take that job, don’t buy that house, don’t have that second child. A lot of relationships were suffused with explicit and implicit don’ts. Don’t’s from our spouses, don’ts from our parents, don’t’s from our friends and don’t’s from ourselves.
In marriage, the don’t and its close cousin – the “should” easily became the key that kept us locked in prisons of our own making. And I refer here not to the marriage itself as a prison – but our insistence (via our don’ts and shoulds) upon a TYPE of marriage as a prison. And further, our insistence on doing things in a TYPE of way and taking a TYPE of approach or response within the marriage. We also do this in our jobs and in our lives more generally – but it is the marital “don’t” that’s relevant here.
On Saturday, I posted regarding the Royal Wedding and “The Matrix” of marriage. I think that this post is a logical sequel to that piece regarding what we think marriage/divorce is and should be. We all come to marriage (and divorce) as people with a back story. We had a childhood and an adolescence. We had a young adulthood. We had experiences and tragedies, we lived through traumas and triumphs. We then met someone and we joined in a partnership of sorts. We each came carrying the weight of our prior decades here. We each came composed of the genes with which we were bestowed at conception. We each came bearing the burden of what our lives were like before there was an “us.” Our parents, family, friends, enemies, former paramours, teachers, and coaches all came with us.
Other secondary things came with us too. All the books we read, the messages we got in church, synagogue, or mosque, the magazines we flipped through, the TV shows and movies we watched, the news we consumed and the music we listened to over all those years. That secondary cultural material all got eaten up by us over that time and it went somewhere. Like the proverbial doughnut that is a moment on the lips and a lifetime on the hips – all of this “stuff” got imported into our marriages.
And not only did the material of the past come tagging along into the present – the present continued to work on us and in us through these same primary and secondary mechanisms. Our family and friends didn’t go away. Neither did the movies and music. As we attempted to live our lives as a part of partnership, we were infused with all of these factors.
And so – we started up on the “don’t’s” and “shoulds.” Our pre-marriage relationship had some of this, but it was likely a looser and freer time. Before kids, before the house and the mortgage and the car note. Then – for whatever reason or reasons – a divorce happened or is on the horizon. Or maybe things just aren’t good right now. Our "dont's" and "shoulds" start making us resentful, angry, bitter, guilty or ashamed. And maybe we live with those and maybe we rebel against them. Either way, they are driving a lot of what is going on.
Many divorced people will recognize that in, during or after the divorce process – a lot of “don’t’s” and “should” became “maybes,” “dos” or “why nots.” As we came to grapple with the conclusion of our marriages, a space opened where we could see that what we were doing, the choices we were making and how we were living was really just one possible approach. It was not inevitable or necessary.
Many people post-divorce return to old hobbies or find new ones. They can experience a lot of bad things but sometimes a kind of freedom takes hold. A freedom from doing things a certain way and being a certain person. We leave our “role” as husband or wife and we explore what our new role(s) will be and how to inhabit them. Many divorce commentators valorize this freedom post-divorce in a somewhat short-sighted way. Like Baskin Robbins – there were dozens of flavors of freedom we could have ordered (or tried to) at the relationship ice cream shop. And while we see often, post-divorce, that what we thought we were doing because “married people don’t…” was often irrelevant -- we can also see that without divorce. Married people can be married in many different ways. There is no one-size-fits all marriage. Maybe you don’t have to have kids. Maybe you do. Maybe a lot of things…
If you deal with fear. The fears that we all have as people are with us whether single, married or divorced. But in marriage (or a marriage proxy) we have other fears. We fear hurting our partner. We fear disappointing our partner. We fear losing our partner. We fear losing our status. We fear losing income. We fear what friends and family will say and do. We fear for the kids, if we have them. We fear a lot things. But those fears – those don’ts and shoulds – become the very thing that prevents us from engaging. With our partner, with the world, and with ourselves.
Your fears and mine may not be the same – but I would hazard a guess you have them. Whether you are divorced now, planning to divorce or just reading this because you need to fall asleep – think about those fears. And consider your “donts” and “should.” I can never suggest that people should divorce or remain married. Only the people involved can know that for themselves. What I am suggesting, however, is that divorce is not the inevitable resolution of a relationship in trouble. And even if it is, what your divorce looks like does not have to be driven by "shoulds" and "dont's." What I am also suggesting is that your marriage need not always be played “according to Hoyle.”
I'm no expert on relationships, believe me. I am just an observer who reports from the relationship graveyard and sprinkles in my own sense of things as a divorced guy who coparents with another divorce lawyer. I guess my suggestion, for what it is worth, is that two people in a relationship should simply explore their own material and see if they can fashion something that works for them. Maybe it is a divorce, maybe it is an open marriage, maybe it is something that doesn’t have a name. Maybe nothing will be possible and you walk away hating each other.
But really think on it all for a bit. “Everybody say’s don’t.” Try asking whether that don’t (your or his/hers) has room for negotiation or reconfiguration – both for yourself and in your relationship. I'd like never to meet you in a professional capacity if we don't have to do so. And even if we do, then I hope you will think about what you really want in and after divorce. Your marriage legally ends. The rest is up to the two of you. Just like it always was and always will be. No one else can or should do it.
Lyrics to “Everybody Says Don’t” --
Everybody says don't Everybody says don't Everybody says don't it isn't right Don't is isn't nice
Everybody says don't Everybody says don't Everybody says don't walk on the grass Don't disturb the peace
Don't skate on the ice
Well I say do, I say, Walk on the grass it was meant to feel I say sail till to the windmill And if you fail you fail!
Everybody says don't Everybody says don't Everybody says don't get out of line When they say that then lady that's a sign
No times out of ten Lady you are doing just fine.
Make just a ripple come on be brave This time a ripple next time a wave Sometimes you have to start small,
Climbing the tiniest wall Maybe you're going to fall But it is better than not starting at all.
Everybody says no stop Musn't rock the boat musn't touch a thing
Everybody says don't Everybody says wait Everybody says can't fight city-hall Can't upset the court Can't laugh at the king!
Well I say try, I say, Laugh at the king or he'll make you cry Loose your poise Fall if you have to but lady make a noise... Yes!
Everybody says don't Everybody says can't Everybody says wait around for miracles That's the way the world is made I insist on miracles if you do them, Miracles might come true, Then I say don't... Don't be afraid!