(Still) Living With Your Ex-To-Be: Author Kimberly Harrington Takes On Divorce In "But You Seemed So Happy"
Almost half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce or separation. So why do we have such a hard time talking about it? Author Kimberly Harrington deals with this issue head-on, and right in the title, with a new collection of essays titled But You Seemed So Happy: A Marriage, in Pieces and Bits.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb discussed the new book with author Kimberly Harrington, who's work has appeared in McSweeny’s, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, and in her previous book, Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: So, divorce in the U.S., not really all that rare. But what may be less common is two people deciding that, mutually, it's time to go their separate ways. And then having those plans complicated by something far less commonplace. This is covered in the epilogue of your book, which you could actually start reading from the beginning. What happened when you when your husband's best laid plans at divorce were then complicated by … something?
Kimberley Harrington: You wouldn't be referring to the pandemic, would you?
I might be.
(Laughs) Sorry, never heard of it.
I think that when we started out, our arrangement was always pretty open-ended. We had decided to stay living together, in the same house, with our kids. And we didn't really have a plan as to when that might end.
Originally, when this book was pitched, it was pitched as a divorce book. And it's a little bit of a “spoiler alert” that we are still not divorced, and this book is coming out. So, now I talk about it as a book about marriage. Because, that’s, so far, what it officially is.
"It became less about [our divorce], and more about how we had actually gotten to marriage in the first place, which I think isn't so much what people talk about when they talk about divorce. They talk about the end, and they talk about whose fault it is, [but] we don't necessarily examine [the question] 'Why marriage?' in the first place."
Why did you decide to write about such a personal decision, and then to challenge so many of the misnomers about divorce in the process?
About six weeks after we announced our divorce, I asked my husband if it was OK if I wrote a book about divorce. And he, sort of hesitantly, said “Oh … kay.”
In my mind, at the time, it was going to be more like dark humor, because divorce humor isn't really a thing, as far as I can tell. It may still not be a thing, I'm going to find out firsthand.
But it became less about the moment that we were in, and more about how we had actually gotten to marriage in the first place, which I think isn't so much what people talk about when they talk about divorce. They talk about the end, and they talk about whose fault it is, [but] we don't necessarily examine [the question] “Why marriage?” in the first place, which is really surprising, and only becomes more surprising the more I think about it, and write about it, and talk about it.
I may be pulling this one out of the ether, [but] I think it was Katharine Hepburn who was once quoted as saying that “... men and women should not live together, they should live next door to each other.”
I hope that's a true quote, because it seems to be part of what you're saying in this book, that you can respect and love someone in many ways, but they can drive you crazy if you're living with them, 24/7, over a number of years.
"This is not been a typical evolution of a marriage. And it certainly has not been the typical process of writing a book about divorce, while you're still living with the person that you're getting a divorce from, and then asking him to read the manuscript — multiple times — and give you feedback on it, which also involves giving feedback on your relationship."
Living side by side, or living next door, would be the ultimate answer, because I think it's asking so much, this intimacy, this connection, but piled on that — especially with kids in the house — is this very mundane “to-do list” sort of existence, and it just can bleed all of the romantic energy out of a relationship.
And I think that there [are] a lot of really interesting evolutions that are happening with marriage, with people really exploring living separately, but dating, just looking at whatever the arrangements are that work best for them. And it's hard, when you do something that not everyone else is doing.
It's really interesting how much respect you really do have for your husband, John, I mean, you actually showed him the manuscript to this book, he looked it over, right?
Absolutely. You know, this is not been a typical evolution of a marriage. And it certainly has not been the typical process of writing a book about divorce, while you're still living with the person that you're getting a divorce from, and then asking him to read the manuscript — multiple times — and give you feedback on it, which also involves giving feedback on your relationship.
I think it really speaks to the friendship that we have created. And what I find really interesting is how much we don't really respect friendship in our culture. There's nothing worse than being “just friends.”
You know, when you really are into someone, and they “just want to be friends,” it's always this lower-tier relationship. And I would argue it's as intimate, as important, in our lives than any romantic relationship we've ever had. I think that his trust in me, and his support through the process, really speaks to the fact that we're really good friends, [and] we've really evolved what our marriage was, into something that is really respectful and has manners.
We say, you know, “please,” and “thank you,” much more than we used to when it was kind of the grunting and barking of everyday life.
Yeah, I mean, this book is kind of, in some ways, the antidote to reality TV, or the typical memoir tell-all kind of book. We want to see the overturned table in the restaurant … where are the overturned tables in this book, Kimberly?
(Laughs) I know, it's really disappointing, isn’t it? We've kind of been trained with divorce, the way we're trained with news — no offense — but we want to hear about the really knockdown, drag-out scandalous divorces, the lawsuits … I mean, we want to feel better about our own lives. So those sorts of stories gain traction because it makes us feel like, “Well, you know, things aren't going that great for me, but at least they're not that much of a disaster.”
It's sort of like if you tuned into the news, and [the news] was “... and nothing really terrible happened today.” What are you going to do with that? I mean, we're very much trained to be attracted to the car crash. And it really does a disservice to the marriages that I know, that have resolved in a really amicable and supportive way, and have gone on to become a completely different relationship, and a relationship that has as much, if not more, value than the original marriage.
"We don't really respect friendship in our culture. There's nothing worse than being 'Just friends.'"
Because your husband comes off, I think, very well on this book, you've had people say to you, well, wait a second, what's the problem here? Why can't you make this work? And you really address that question, why can't you make this work, rather head on.
The narrative around divorce is, men can leave any woman they want.
Paul Simon wrote a song about it. Yeah.
(Laughs) Yeah. You know, it's not really questioned when a man leaves a marriage. Or is the person who instigates the separation, let me put it that way, because I think leaving is also not a word I love, either. But women are trained, are raised and trained, to look for a good man, to marry a good man, and there will never be a reason good enough to not stay with a good man.
That is extremely powerful messaging that I think a lot of women internalize. I certainly did, and have, and still do. It makes talking about the book challenging, because it just feels like you have to have so many reasons. And that, traditionally, the work in a marriage — if you look at the history of marriage, and certainly modern marriage — the “work” in marriage is often put on women. Women are the ones who should make it work, they're expected to be the emotional midwives of relationships. And, needless to say, it's a pretty unfair expectation, but it is certainly common.
Was telling your kids the hardest part?
By far. Yeah.
I think it certainly kept us married for many years, because just imagining that moment broke me. It broke me constantly. And I can certainly cry, thinking about it now, even though it, ultimately, was a really poignant moment, and one I will certainly remember forever.
It's so scary, and you just cannot wrap your head around it, and it will keep you in place. And I think that there are a lot of things about divorce or separation that keep you “in place,” and it's fear. It's fear. It's just easier to keep keeping on, than to take that step, because it's unknown.
They're doing really well, I think, mostly because so little has changed in their lives. We all live together, we have our own spaces within the house. I never want to portray this as something that's super easy, and will work for everyone. It won't, it just won't. But for us, it's been a really powerful and surprising solution. And it's a learning experience at every step, because this is just not what most people do. So there's a lot of learning in that, too.
Who knows, though, they’ll be the ultimate judges of whether this was all a great idea, once they're grown.
"Women are trained, are raised and trained, to look for a good man, to marry a good man, and there will never be a reason good enough to not stay with a good man. That is extremely powerful messaging that I think a lot of women internalize. I certainly did."
You also wrote a pretty big email that you sent out to all your friends. What was that like, letting your friends know about this?
Pretty interesting, because John and I came at it from somewhat different angles.
My feeling was, I know how gossip works, I've been on both sides of it, so I don't want to pretend like I have not, and it trickles out, and it just goes on forever. Living in a small town, in a small community here, but also, just in general, the internet of it all. I just felt like, let's get this out, let's just tell everyone, and in some ways be ahead of what, at least, I don't want to hear.
He's a really easygoing guy. But [for me], it's like, I do not want to deal with this in person. I don't want to be told I'm so sorry … even though I have said it to other people. Like, the rules change, all of a sudden, when it's you, you know? And I have to say that — as weird as it may have seemed to other people, certainly not the first or last weird thing that I've ever done — it really worked. It really worked, and it continues to work.
You know, a lot of the humor in the book isn't really based on things that have happened to me, it's just based on things that have happened to other people, and what I see about divorce and separation, things I've also said myself, before I found myself in those shoes. So, I think that ultimately, it was the right choice. It got ahead of the slow drip of the torment, of gossip, around what we were doing,
I think I’ve used the word “raw” and “honest” [to describe the book], I would also add “courageous,” because this is not an easy undertaking.
I'm wondering though, if you feel now — I know you have to promote the book, and do all of that, which is another challenge in itself — but do you feel now that the worst of this is behind you? In that, you've gotten all this on the page, you've expressed exactly what you wanted to, and do you feel like you've gotten through the most difficult parts of this?
(Laughs) I so wish that were true.
I was just thinking about this — and I think a lot of people who work in memoir will agree with this — I think the process of working on memoir is so, it can feel …
I mean, it's not always easy, but it can feel like that sweet, sweet, creative flow — where things start to come together, and you start to make sense of your life, and you start to put it in perspective, and you have these great little creative sparks, and you've resolved so much — it’s internal, and it's a pure creative process. And this part is nauseating, if I had to choose one word.
And the fact that this is the second time I've done this to myself really proves that human beings do not learn from their mistakes. I felt exactly the same way when I was promoting my last book. And it's tough, because any writer, author who has anything out there or on the internet knows that you can't control something once it's out of your hands. You can't control how people feel about it. And it's not even whether they like or hate it. It's just the perception of your life is gone. Your control over it is gone once you're done writing it.
And so, that is the part that is tough, but let me tell you, for the record, I could not be happier to be promoting this locally, virtually, and not in person. So, there's your silver lining of the pandemic, for me personally.