The Top 12 Reasons Couples Get Divorced
By Amy Forstadt
12. Growing Apart
Tracy is in the therapist’s office when she figures it out. Her marriage is math. It’s not an essay question, open to interpretation. It’s not a science experiment that she can keep doing over and over. It’s a problem with only one answer.
“Greg, do you have anything you’d like to say to Tracy?” The therapist leans forward in her chair. Tracy wonders if she likes her job.
“Trace, I love you so much. Please let’s—” Greg’s voice cracks. At one point, Tracy would have cried right along with him. She doesn’t know when that changed. Was it the sex, the flirting, the fighting, the silence? Or before that, all the way back to the beginning? She looks down at his hand on hers, which feels warm and pleasant and not related to her at all.
Before this appointment Greg refused to go to therapy even though Tracy had been suggesting it for years. But suddenly he wanted to. Made the appointment and everything. He told her it was for all kinds of reasons: because Orla was older and could tell they’d been fighting, because he was more settled in his job, because he felt ready. Tracy knew he was scared. She was sure Greg could tell she was only half there. Of course he didn’t know how she had been daydreaming about cute dads at Orla’s school or young optometrists who lean in close. Those almost strangers who seemed like they could have given her everything she wanted. Even though she knew that was impossible. She’d probably end up in therapy with them too.
“Tracy, would you like to open up to Greg right now? Tell him what’s on your mind?” The therapist has a nice, gentle voice. It would be so easy to look at Greg, squeeze his hand a little bit. That’s all it would take for Tracy to make it okay again.
She thinks about Orla a few months ago when she finally got the kindergarten basics. How it happened all at once, her daughter’s face illuminated with the understanding that one plus one equals two. Just like Tracy understands now that she and Greg might not equal anything anymore.
After Orla was tucked in, after two books and the nightly countdown to the first day of kindergarten—only two weeks away then—Tracy switched gears. She took off her clothes and hung them neatly in the closet. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been naked for anything longer than a shower. Greg had been very patient. Probably more than she deserved.
When he came to bed she was wearing nothing but a pair of tiny panties that cost her eighty dollars. She could fit those panties into the back pocket of her jeans with room left over. She waited for Greg’s surprise, the sly smile, the grab, the grope. What she was used to. Or used to be used to.
“What are you doing?” Greg raised his eyebrows, interested for a millisecond before his expression went blank.
“I’m just…you know.” She couldn’t say it out loud.
“Oh, Trace, I had a really long day. Rain check?”
“Okay, sure.” Tracy covered her chest, humiliated. She saw a flash in Greg’s eyes. The one that happened when he felt guilty but didn’t want to deal with it. He handed her a blanket.
“Besides, you look cold. I don’t want you to be cold.”
“I’m fine.” Tracy put on her t-shirt and rolled over.
10. Lack of Commitment
She only tried to seduce Greg because she couldn’t stop flirting and it worried her. Eye contact, giggles, hair flipping, the whole deal. Orla’s pediatrician, waiters and bartenders, the UPS guy. She didn’t discriminate. She never knew she was so good at it.
That day it was the optometrist. She needed a stronger prescription, a reminder that she was getting older even though she was acting so much younger.
He was cute, the doctor. When he leaned down to look in her eyes she could see the whiskers on his cheeks. “Up a little,” he said, gently putting his fingers on her chin and guiding her head to the light.
“Wait,” she said, putting her hand on his arm, which made her feel brazen and tipsy like a ’50s housewife. His hard forearm underneath the starchy white jacket gave her a jolt. She saw it then, a flash photo of the future. There they were, she and the optometrist, surrounded by relatives on Thanksgiving. He was bouncing a baby on his knee while an aunt babbled at him and a cousin handed him a beer. The optometrist found her in the chaos and smiled. She raised her half-empty glass to him and smiled back. They were family.
“Can I help you with something?” The optometrist sounded more amused than impatient.
“Oh,” The picture dissolved and seemed like a silly dream she once had. “I was just going to warn you that my eyes are a little bloodshot. I was up late with a cranky four-year old.” She took her hand off his arm, sorry not to sense his skin under her fingers anymore.
“Are you kidding?” he asked “These are the prettiest eyes I’ve seen all day.” He leaned in closer. Her heart thumped against her ribs, wild like a bird.
Tracy chopped onions and scraped them into the pan. Greg leaned against the fridge, drinking a beer. Orla’s Halloween drawings hung behind him, dancing ghosts and pumpkins with big, empty grins. The night pressed cold and dark against the kitchen window.
“How was work?” asked Tracy.
“The same.” Greg finished the beer and threw the bottle into the recycling, too hard. It crashed, glass rattling on glass.
She turned to him to tell him to be quiet and not wake Orla, but stopped when she saw the scowl on his face. She went back to her pan, adjusting the heat.
“Hey, so…” Greg put his hands in his pockets, too casual. “I’m thinking about skipping Thanksgiving this year.”
“What?” Tracy put down her spoon. The onions sizzled in the pan.
“I might spend it with my folks.”
“But we always spend Thanksgiving with my family. That’s the deal.”
“I don’t remember making that deal.” Greg’s voice was quiet, but clear.
“But… but…” Tracy felt her voice go high and whiny. “But everyone’s expecting you!”
“It’ll be fine.”
Tracy opened her mouth then closed it again. Greg took her silence as an opportunity. “Besides, my parents should get Thanksgiving once in a while.”
Then Tracy’s words were there, rushing out all at once. “Your parents get Christmas! And…weekends, and dinners out, and they live so close they get to see you all the time. You only see this part of my family once a year. It’s my family… it’s ours! Why isn’t it ours?”
“I’m doing it for us.” He looked up, over, around, anywhere but at her.
Greg took a deep breath like he had anticipated this moment. “Travel’s expensive. You wanted to save money, remember?”
“But, this isn’t what I meant. You knew this wasn’t—”
“You can’t always have it exactly the way you want it. That’s what you told me.”
“That’s not what I said.”
Greg shrugged. “If we have to save money, then I have to stay at my job a while longer. And you may have to do without. It takes two.”
Tracy looked right at him, speechless with hurt. And then went back to stirring the onions, their sizzling and popping the only sounds in the quiet kitchen.
Then, finally, quiet, “You and Orla will have fun. It’ll be okay.”
Tracy slammed her spoon down on the stove, almost knocking the pan off the burner. “No we WON’T have fun and it WON’T be okay.”
“Careful,” said Greg, “of the onions.”
“Fuck the onions!” Tracy yelled.
They might have laughed about it later. Fuck the onions! A private joke. But when Tracy added “And fuck you, Greg!” and stormed out of the room, it wasn’t funny at all.
Tracy moved her chair a little farther from Greg so that she was out of the late-summer sun but could still keep an eye on Orla who, at three and a half, was just about too big for her plastic slide. We should get her a jungle gym, Tracy thought, a real one. Then she stopped herself. No, she thought. We don’t need to spend the money.
Next to her, Greg took a swig of his beer and inhaled deeply. “Hey, I’ve been thinking,” he said.
“Yeah?” Tracy asked. She wondered why he sounded so nervous.
“I’m thinking about making a change,” he said, “With my job. I mean, not working there anymore. Quitting.” As if he wanted to make it extra clear. Then, “You know that coffee shop in town? Kafein? It’s for sale.” A deep breath. “What if I bought it? And ran it?”
“You want to what?” Tracy felt the panic rising in her chest. It’s okay, she told herself. We’re just talking.
“Do you know why I majored in business?” Greg asked.
Because you’re practical and smart and levelheaded? Tracy bit her tongue. “No, why?”
“To run a business. It’s what I want to do. Not make spreadsheets in a cube all day. Not be an asshole in a shirt and tie with a bunch of other assholes in shirts and ties. I want to do something that I feel like matters. I want to interact with real people. Make them happy. Do something—” he looked out at Orla, happily climbing up her slide and jumping off the wrong end “—more connected to the world.”
If he wanted to go to run a coffee shop he should have started a long time ago. He’s never even worked in a restaurant, Tracy thought. She shifted in her seat. “How much is it?”
“We can pay for it.”
“How?” It was a bad sign that he wouldn’t even say a number.
“Take out a second mortgage on the house,” Greg went on, fast, before she had time to speak. “Listen, I’ve been researching this idea for months. It’ll be hard at first, but successful places, on average, take two years before they start turning a profit. And it’s a great opportunity. Lots of people walk by that corner. After a few years I might be making more than I am now.”
Tracy felt the anger expanding into her fingers and toes, inflating her until she was a balloon of mad. She had no idea how she even got into this conversation in the first place.
“You’ve been researching this for months? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I wanted to be prepared. I wanted to give you all the information. Besides, I wanted to be sure myself. And I am. Sure.”
“But you can’t just jump right in and put our whole life at risk. What if we lose the house?”
“We won’t. I’m ready to do the work. This is really important to—”
She barely listened to him. “I just don’t see how—”
“—me. This feels like my future. Ours. I have direction. I have passion. I know I can make this work.” He stared at her like a little boy, open and hopeful. Tracy wanted to be supportive. She really did. She reached over and squeezed his hand.
“Okay.” His whole face lit up. “But not now, Greg. We’re in too much debt already. We can’t take on any more. Plus we have to find a good school for Orla, we travel every year for Thanksgiving, we both need our cars, it’s just not realistic. Let’s sit down and make a plan, pay the debt down, really work together. And then maybe in a few years we can make it happen.”
Greg’s face fell, his excited expression a distant memory of a better time even though it was only a few seconds later.
Orla pushed her slide across the yard. “Just forget it.” Greg let go of Tracy’s hand and took a long drink of beer. “She’s getting too big for that thing,” He stood up and walked into the house, letting the screen door slam behind him.
It was usually in the shower that Tracy couldn’t hide from how much they owed. That number, that robust five-figure amount, all those big fat zeroes impossible to ignore. Fully clothed, distracted by the car, the phone, the small noisy bits of her days, she could whip out the credit card without a thought. The life they had cost money. Tracy and her friends laughed about their debts over expensive coffee or cheap wine, all of them chuckling like it was a terrible joke, holding their collective heads in their collective hands. The fact that they all had the same problem made it easier for Tracy, watering it down until it was weak enough to swallow.
But in the shower, with no screens, no steering wheel, no mommy, mommy, mommy, she couldn’t get away. The number was in there with her, big and healthy and licking its lips. She was naked with no pocket to put it in.
Tracy made the water a little hotter, leaned back into it and decided this was it. It’s enough, she told herself. Stop hiding from it. You’re a grownup, act like one.
She resolved to talk to Greg about it right away. They would work together to get the numbers under control. They were a good couple, a strong couple. They’d been getting along so well lately. This is what marriage is, she reminded herself, Working through hard times. Together.
She cranked off the shower. She would clear her afternoon, sit down with their credit card bill and make a plan. She would fix everything.
6. Too Few Positive Interactions
Tracy wasn’t quite asleep, but almost. With Orla finally put down in her crib and the house dim and still, she felt herself drifting off. Beside her, Greg read, his breathing soothing as crickets. “Trace?” he whispered. She didn’t answer, close enough to sleeping that she let him think she was already there.
Greg reached down and gently brushed a piece of hair from her face. Tracy froze, suddenly awake. She worked to keep her face relaxed. She couldn’t remember the last time he touched her so tenderly. Suddenly the fights they’d had, the boredom of her long days with Orla, the way Greg complained about his job, how they couldn’t seem to adjust to their lives together, felt blessedly normal. It was growing pains. They hadn’t even been married that long.
He tucked the piece of hair behind her ear, his fingertips brushing her neck. Gently so he didn’t wake her. “Goodnight, sweetie,” he whispered, so quietly she barely heard him.
He clicked off the light, stretched out next to her, rolled over, and sighed, content. Tracy opened her eyes and looked at the shadow of his body next to her in the dark. Its familiar mass under the covers in the dark room, the shadows that rose and fell with his soft snores. She still felt his hands in her hair, heard the tenderness in his voice. This was how he talked to her, how he touched her when everything was still. This was how quiet; this was how safe. She tucked it away like a tiny jewel.
5. Differences in Child Rearing
Greg seemed pretty relaxed, which Tracy didn’t understand at all. Between Orla’s diaper explosion, his last-minute work email, and her own need to answer the phone when her mother was calling, they were already an hour behind.
“Come on, come on!” Tracy told him, hurrying to stuff the diaper bag with extra clothes and toys.
Greg leaned against the doorway. “It’s not like we’re on a deadline here, you know. The museum’s open until six.”
“We have to be home in time for her nap.”
“She can sleep in the car. She’s a baby. It’s what they do.”
Tracy felt a little pop in her mind, an actual fuse blowing. “No she can’t sleep in the car! She has to sleep in her crib. Otherwise she’ll be cranky all afternoon, which means I’ll be cranky all afternoon because I’ll be the one taking care of her.”
“What’s going on with you right now? Why are you so uptight?” Greg picked up Orla, who snuggled into his shoulder.
“Because this is my job. This is what I do. I don’t want to be—” she started to cry “—uptight. I wanted today to be good. I wanted—”
“Hey, whoa,” Greg put his arm around her. “It’s just a day. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. ”
Tracy couldn’t stop crying. She tried not to cry harder. “It’s a big deal to me.”
Greg rubbed her back in small circles. “This is my fault. I like to be mellow on the weekends with you guys and not have to be so scheduled all the time like I am at work.”
“I’m not trying to be so scheduled. But she has to nap in her crib—”
“—and now it’s almost eleven and we can’t go to the museum and we’ve been planning it for weeks.”
“I know, Tracy.”
Why is he mad? Tracy thought. Then, I should be more flexible. She took a deep breath, “Then again, Orla’s 18 months old. We can give her a ladybug in a paper cup and tell her it’s the museum. She won’t know the difference.”
Greg grinned at her. “I’ll find the ladybug, you get the cup.” He pulled her to him and kissed the top of her head then whispered in her ear, “Thanks, Trace.”
Good job, she told herself. Now smile.
4. Lack of Communication
“How was the park?” Greg asked.
Tracy dropped the diaper bag, handed Orla to Greg and collapsed on a chair. “Hot,” she said. “Full of parents who looked like they make kale smoothies and go to baby yoga and never sweat. I think Orla ate some bark.”
Greg tickled Orla under the chin. “Mmmm, delicious bark.” She giggled.
“I had to get out of there. I’m so glad to be home.” Tracy dug through the diaper bag, first casual, then frantic “Shit! Shit, shit, shit!”
“What?” Greg said, though it sounded like, What now?
“I left Blue Frog at the park.”
“She’ll be okay.”
Orla reached for the bag. “Boo fog.”
“I have to go back,” Tracy caught her tone and stopped. She wondered if Greg could see that she was counting to ten, the numbers appearing over her head and bursting like little thought bubbles in a cartoon.
“Do you want me to do it? ” Greg blew gently on Orla’s forehead where her hair was matted down with sweat. “I was getting some work done. But I can do it. If you want.”
“It’s just that I’m hot and it’s been a long morning already.” Tracy thought about the car, the sun, the drive, the park, the dirt, the search. A trickle of sweat ran down her armpit to her waist. “It’s not a big deal. I’ll get it.” She got up, groaning, despite herself.
“I’ll get it.” Greg’s voice got small and tight. He sounds just like his mother when he’s like this, Tracy thought.
“You sure?” she asked. Orla laid her head on Greg’s chest and put two fingers in her mouth.
“It’s fine.” He peeled Orla off himself and handed her to Tracy.
“Okay,” said Tracy, avoiding his gaze. “Great. Thank you.”
Greg walked out, closing the door calmly and quietly behind him. Tracy watched him go. Everything felt wrong.
3. Different Value Systems
The restaurant was Robin and Leonard’s favorite. Upscale, but not too upscale, with a long list of appetizers, decent chardonnay, and dressing in a cruet. Tracy usually tolerated these jaunts with good humor, although at almost eight months pregnant, she’d much rather have been home with a carton of ice cream and her feet up.
“How are you feeling?” asked Robin. She took a few last sips of her wine, too dignified to drain her glass.
“Fine, though I kind of have heartburn,” answered Tracy, missing her own glass of wine. She still indulged once in a while, but never in front of her in-laws.
The people in Greg’s family were like aliens to her, visiting from planet Put Together. The women with their long necks and ashy blond hair, the men with their jolly laughs and scotch on the rocks. Tracy’s family mainly existed in three states: emergency, semi-emergency, and giant party.
“I had terrible heartburn through all my pregnancies.” Robin signaled the waiter and raised her glass.
“She couldn’t eat fried foods at all, so I ate everything. For a while we both looked pregnant.” Len chuckled. “But we made it through. Three great kids!” He raised his glass to Robin and she raised hers back with a small, tight smile. Tracy knew that there was no real we there. That Robin did most of it herself, the pregnancies, the births, the childhoods, all of it when Len was working, golfing, drinking, doing who knows what. She wanted them to know how different it was with Greg.
“Greg has been really great.” All eyes on her. “He rubs my feet, he does the dishes, he even helps me off the couch.” Then, because she wanted everyone to know: “Of course, I do my share too. I get stuff done. But Greg’s the best.”
“Isn’t that nice?” Robin smiled at her son.
“Honestly, there’s so much I need help with, I had no idea. Greg’s always there. Once he even helped me up off the toilet in the middle of the night when I couldn’t get up!” She grabbed Greg’s hand, laughing.
“I think we had a couple of those nights ourselves!” Len nudged Robin with an elbow. Robin smiled, pink-cheeked. Is she actually blushing? Tracy felt warm to everyone all of a sudden. This was her family, too.
She leaned forward, “Actually, if you want to know the whole story, when Greg helped me up…I thought I was done peeing, but I totally wasn’t. We both got soaked!” She smiled at Greg, remembering how hard they laughed.
Len guffawed, but he was the only one. The corners of Robin’s mouth fell. “That’s not table conversation, is it dear?”
Tracy felt the shame rising on her cheeks. She couldn’t imagine what it was like growing up under that raised eyebrow, that thin-lipped disapproval.
She dropped her napkin and bent half-heartedly over her huge stomach to get it, just so she could meet Greg there when he reached down to get it for her. She couldn’t wait to laugh about this when they get home. When their faces were close she whispered “Oh man, your mom…”
“Can we not do this right now?” Greg gave her the napkin back, not looking at her. Tracy flushed. Whose side was he on, anyway? She had a sudden urge to call her own mom. If Greg wouldn’t laugh with her, she’d find someone who would.
Greg touched her wrist, his voice gentler this time, “For me, okay?” Tracy felt terrible. This was her Greg. Her husband she loved more than anybody. She scolded herself for wanting to laugh. She finished her lunch. She behaved.
The trashcan wasn’t overflowing, exactly, but it was full. “Look at this!” Greg pointed to the can like she left a dead body on the floor.
“What about it?”
“I thought you were going to empty it.” Greg threw his hands into the air in a last straw kind of way.
“I’m doing it right now. Look,” Tracy grabbed the plastic bag, glimpsing the coffee grounds and crumpled paper towels, the smell of old tuna wafting up at her. It is kind of gross, she thought. She pulled on the blue handles, tying up the whole mess in a bow.
Greg wasn’t done. "We paid a lot for this house. It’s ours and we have to take care of it. Both of us.”
Tracy flinched. She thought of all the work he’d been doing. Mowing the lawn, fixing leaky faucets, changing light bulbs. All of it done so cheerfully, sometimes even with whistling. “Okay, okay. I get it.”
She coaxed the plastic bag out of the black tunnel of the canister and into the world like a garbagey birth. He’s right. I leave my clothes on the bed and my dishes in the sink. How can I be an adult if I can’t even empty the trash right? The bag released. “I’m going.” She carried it across the kitchen leaving Greg standing there beside the empty garbage bin.
She hauled the bag outside and had the thoughts she wouldn’t allow herself in the house. Like, What is his problem? And, Why is this my job? And finally, He’s the man. He should take out the trash. She stuffed the trash into the bin at the end of the driveway, then stopped before she went back into the house. Took a breath.
This is silly. We can work this out. She headed back up the driveway. We can make a schedule. For the chores! Then we won’t have to fight about this stupid stuff anymore.
Greg was on the front stairs when she got back. She opened her mouth to speak but he beat her to it. “Trace, I am so sorry. You didn’t deserve that. It’s just, my job isn’t what I thought it would be. But it’s not fair of me to take it out on you. I love you and I love our home together. Who cares about the garbage? I’m an idiot.”
All Tracy’s words disappeared. She was so lucky to have him, this, her life. She wrapped her arms around Greg and they hugged, tight, for a long time.
1. Unmet Expectations
Greg threw his leg over hers as they laid together in the big hotel bed. Tracy couldn’t believe he could sleep but she loved him for it. It’s one more thing she loved about him on this day dedicated to cataloging all the things they loved about each other. He never had problems falling asleep, while she tossed and turned. She knew that he loved that about her too. Her plans, her excitement, her enthusiasm. How they complemented each other! Tracy snuggled deeper into the covers, her new husband’s steady breathing beside her. This is what it’s all about, she thought.
Then again, Tracy was glad she was awake. She wanted to remember every minute of this day. Spread all the details on the ground before her—the pretty dresses, tinkling glasses, laughing uncles, kids chasing each other around the sunny garden—and roll around in them, rich in happiness.
Tracy wasn’t dumb. She knew weddings were frivolous and it was marriage that mattered. She saw the work that went into it from her parents, her friends, books and magazines. She knew how hard it could be.
But tonight, wasn’t she allowed? Here in this dark hotel room, the traffic whooshing below the window, wasn’t she allowed to let her dreams get the better of her? To picture the whole shebang, from her wedding dress to her honeymoon, to the two of them, old and sweet, holding hands on into the sunset. Tonight she gave herself permission to count her blessings before she had them. Look, there they were, the two of them, dangling keys to a house. And there, holding a tiny squalling package of a human, wrapped in a blanket. There were first steps and school plays, sprinklers and snowmen, everyone sleeping peacefully in a sweet little cottage under a starry sky. Tracy imagined a library of lives, every one a book. And there was her own: the volume of Tracy and Greg, sitting on a shelf, smart and proud, with both their names on every page. A story she couldn’t wait to read.