“Why Did You Get Divorced?” The Dreaded Question

Recently a fellow tweeter had lamented about  having been asked the question, “Why did you get divorced?”  It truly annoyed  her, being asked such a personal question.  I came up with some snappy comebacks but admitted that I am rarely asked.   I’m not sure why this is so, but I live in a small suburb and it was big gossip for a while, and I think most people my ex-husband and I know already have heard some version of why so there is no need to ask.

Just the other day, though, while I was getting some cold cuts at the grocery store that I stop by two or four  or five times a week,  the counter person, a woman maybe in her 60’s started chatting away.   By the way, I hate guessing ages, so much depends on factors other than the number– hard living, for example, can make a person appear older, she very well could have been younger.   I see this woman regularly, she knows my kids and she’s commented on the twin thing and always has a kind comment or pleasantry.

On this store visit, I only had one kid with me.   In our house we call that — pretending to be an only child — but I digress . . .    The Deli Lady, whom I’ll call Marla, saw us and immediately gave a loud and sweet hello, like we were old friends.  Nice lady.   Then she remarked that she saw my “hubby” with the kids a few days ago, that he must have been giving me a break.  I may have shuddered a bit, feeling the ick.

This remark was icky and  irksome to me for many reasons.  First, he’s not my husband,  no, he most definitely is not my husband.  I have papers and forcibly  spent $35,000 and counting in the process of making him  not my husband.  Second, the cutesy term of endearment “hubby” is antithetical to this man to whom I am decidedly not endeared and I no longer see as “cute.”  Third,  my “hubby’  wasn’t giving me a break, he was seeing his children pursuant to a court custody order and  he was shopping at “my” store — most likely  picking up food to take home to his new wife  for her to prepare and serve to my kids.  So, no, my hubby didn’t have the kids to give me a break.  See Weekends Off.

Understanding that these are my issues and not hers, I was going to just let it slide, as I often do with people I don’t see often, but she continued to talk, asking where I was when he had the children.  Considering that I see this woman a few times of week, that she knew me by name and was trying to learn the kids names, I might as well stop the happy marriage train.

“Well, he’s actually my Ex-Husband,”  I offered.

“What?  He’s your Ex? You’re Divorced? ”  She said, shocked, truly shocked.   Leaving me to wonder, had he allowed her to think we were still together?

At this moment, I wished I’d said nothing.  The one kid I had with me was the one who had the most lingering hostile reaction to the divorce, and didn’t like to hear about it or talk about it.  I sometimes refer to this kid as The Angry Child, i.e. She Wants To Break Me, but she’s been so much better these days.  She really has.  As luck would have it, as I turned to see if she was listening, she’d flitted off,  probably to find her favorite snack to throw into the cart.

Good, I thought, I can get this conversation over with.

Marla, was shocked, still,  by my revelation.

“Divorced? . . . . Why?”

And there is was.  The question I am rarely asked.   I thought of my Twitter friend, and wished I could channel her support in my head.  But, I was In Real Life (IRL if you only have 140 Twitter characters) and I didn’t even have my phone out. Plus, Marla was waiting for an answer.  She wasn’t even slicing my meat.  She was waiting.

The Million Dollar Question

I think I kind of stammered and shrugged my shoulders, rolled my eyes,  and said, “Well, you know.”   I understand that this is not a definitive answer.  But I thought my body language and facial expression would have been enough to change the subject.

But Marla apparently needed a real answer, in real life, right then and there.

She asked again.

“Why did you get divorced?”

Now all the snappy comebacks I’d joked about had left the building like Elvis.  I had nothing.  Actually, my snappy comebacks were mostly to put the other person on the defensive.  I figured it they can ask me something personal I should come back with something just as personal, like,

“Well it’s a long painful story.  How much did you make last year? And are you having regular sex?”

But I didn’t want to be rude to Marla.  And I couldn’t even come up with, “I don’t want to talk about it.”    It was a deer in headlights situation, for sure.

Marla is good people.   I like the banter I have with her and many of the people I see in stores while carrying out mundane tasks.   Marla is funny, friendly and compliments my kids.  This makes her royalty in my book.  I didn’t want to insult her or put her on the defensive.   And, unlike my snobby ex- neighbor, see  Holiday Party post, she wasn’t judging me because I am divorced.  Marla was  genuinely surprised, really surprised.

So, I finally answered, leaning close to the counter, “Well, he was a bit of a player.”

This isn’t exactly true.  There weren’t a lot of other women, to my knowledge, but you know, there were more than there are supposed to be, you know  . . . when you’re MARRIED!    Still,  I figured this shorthand answer would do the trick  and end the topic of conversation before my kid got back.

But it didn’t.

It actually opened an opportunity for her to share  her own personal life which included two husbands and four children and the proclamation that she will never marry again, which, had we been in a coffee shop or at a bar would have been good girl talk.  But we were on opposite sides of a deli counter in a grocery store in my hometown, and where, apparently, my Ex-Husband still shops — while on his visits with the children.

I added with another shrug while I perused the meats that, “Yeah, well, he’s remarried now, so . . .”   I don’t know why, but I thought that information would help end the conversation.

But it didn’t.

Marla shared more about her life.  I found out about her ex-husband’s new ex-wives, and how one of them told her what he’d said about her,  and how his other children are no good, etc.   Then, the conversation turned back to me, as I hoped it wouldn’t, but feared it would.

“Divorced? Really?  And you’re so pretty . . .  and smart . . .”   Now, I’m not trying to blow my own horn here or provide self-gratuitous comments, but Marla went on to compliment me very highly, noting that I am slim (not the healthiest comment for me to hear, see  Confessions of a Skinny Mom  and Angela Jolie  posts) and she thinks I’m  brilliant, which, considering our only interaction is at the meat counter — I find to be very astute — heh heh heh.   I took her compliments in kind, though a little embarrassed, being at the deli counter and all.  But, hell, it’s nice to be appreciated.

While finally cutting my meat,  Marla added, “Leaving a girl like you. . . . I don’t understand it.”    And she just shook her head.  “I just don’t get that.  You are something.  I think you’re great.”  And she smiled, looked me up and down,  and shook her head again.

Now this tugs at my insecurities.

In my tortured mind Marla is thinking,  “There must be something wrong with her that I can’t see.”

My damaged self asks: Is Marla  trying to figure out what dark secret or hidden insufficiency I must have which  caused my husband and father of my beautiful children  to leave me?  Is that what everybody thinks —  that  there must be something wrong with  me that they can’t see?

I wanted to scream, “I’M GOOD IN BED — HONEST!!!”   But that didn’t seem appropriate.

So there it is, my problem.  And it truly is my problem.  Not Marla’s and not my Ex-Husband’s —- and I’m working on it.  I need to slow down and control those ill-informed, overly chatty  people  — not the ones in the grocery store —  the ones in my head.

It’s simple, really.  I don’t like being asked why I divorced  because it’s personal and I don’t like to talk about it unless I bring it up.  But more than that, I don’t like being asked because of all the time I spent crying on the kitchen floor Amy Winehouse style wondering why I wasn’t enough for him.  

Truth is.,  he was done.  It really doesn’t matter why now, and it shouldn’t matter to my lunch meat friend.  After a excruciatingly painful period in my life, I’m done analyzing why and I’m done, too.  Unless I have brought it up and I am in a place mentally and physically where it is appropriate to talk about it, my final answer actually is, “Well, you know, whatever.”

(In my head I’ll say it’s because he’s an asshole.   I’m not a saint.)

My daughter eventually flitted back with her cheese sticks and Marla had the good sense to change the topic, asking my daughter if she helps me out at home, which,  I pointed out,  she does not do nearly enough, prompting a devilish smile from my girl.  A smile, not a denial, mind you.  That kid is lucky she’s cute . . .  but I digress.

Just Me With . . .  American Cheese,  ham off the bone, Southern fried chicken breast and some discomfort and insecurity . . .  sliced thin.

Special thanks to  @CRobbieLV for inspiring this and sharing her experiences with  — The Dreaded “Why?”

Postscript:  See Good Fortune and the Dreaded Question,  Part II

For the best responses to finding out about my break up see, “When I Needed A Helping Hand”   and “Riding With My Boss” and “Six Days of Separation

19 responses

  1. People I rarely see who were friends before my divorce have the gall to ask me while in public, like the grocery store or church what the evil ex is doing now? Where is he? He is 1000 miles from here and I have not spoken to him since our last child moved from his home! We have been divorced for 31 years! I did try to be responsive, but I have a planned, pat answer, said in the most friendly tones, “Call me sometime and we can catch up.” No one has, yet.

    For this woman, I would have the same answer, but different. “We will have to discuss this when the deli counter does not separate us. Besides, people will overhear a personal part of my life, something I just don’t want to share with anyone listening.” I doubt she will want to meet for coffee.

    1. You know, you’re right. Having a canned response is very important and yours is great, especially when people ask about the Ex. And at the deli, “Maybe we can talk about it later” might work, that’s a good one. I am just notoriously bad at remembering my pat responses when I need them. I should carry flashcards or something. I really like the idea of asking people to call me to talk. They won’t. Thanks.

  2. I had pre-written responses for a while for my most common questions since I knew I couldn’t think in the moment. It is so hard when someone’s question worries at our own insecurities. My husband simply disappeared with a text message and people often wonder what I did to drive him away like that (never mind the fact the fact he was living a double life). That is the same question that kept me up for countless nights. I think people ask out of a combination of curiosity and a desire to convince themselves that they are “safe” from whatever the tragedy if they can simply avoid our mistakes.

  3. It’s the same reason why complete strangers put their hand on a preggo’s tummy. They have NO filters. I have a demeanor that basically says; “Don’t go there.” So, I’m often dealing with the opposite; no one asks, and it kind of feels like no one cares either. Which can be sad!

    I loved this post, cuz even if it’s been years since your divorce – you still wonder – what did I do wrong?

    Ugh. Love you, girl!
    – Dishy Divorcee

    1. I understand about the no one cares issue, too. Like I said, I’m rarely asked about the divorce so maybe that’s why I was taken so off guard. Other than people already knowing, perhaps because I’m a woman of color I’m not afforded the presumption of having ever been married. From strangers I’ve gotten questions like — What about “the” father? So all the kids have the same father? and Do you know where the father is? — very little about a husband or ex-husband. This is particularly annoying since my children are so close in age and look so much alike. Even when people have no reason to know I’m divorced (unless they’ve noticed a lack of ring), they don’t assume that I’m married or coupled. It’s like I’m supposed to have all these kids by myself. That was never my plan. Anyway, topic for another post someday. The other question I am rarely asked is whether I’m seeing someone, it’s like the whole world has decided that that part of my life is over, again, maybe a topic to explore at another time, a depressing topic.

      As to wondering what I did wrong — I think I figured that one out. A topic for another time, but it wasn’t me as a person, rather it was what I could give him, or in his mind, no longer give him. But it’s not the kind of thing to talk about at the deli counter, that’s for sure.

  4. You don’t have to have a “response”. This Marla, or whomever she is, is rude. I don’t care how nice and upbeat and chatty she seems. She’s nosy and doesn’t know that she just asked you about one of the most traumatic times in your life that you’re just supposed to answer in a pat answer.

    Sorry, but I don’t like people that put other people on the spot, while appearing to be kind.

    1. Yes, she did put me on the spot. There are people who do that with ill intent and there are some people who are clueless and still others who don’t care either way. The result is the same, however. It is just crazy for her to think that I should have a pat answer that is adequate. People should know that. Funny, it never occurred to me to ask her why she got divorced. I wonder if she could answer. But I wouldn’t ask. Home training I guess. Thanks for the comment.

  5. When people don’t ask about your life, they may know it is your business and that if you wanted to talk about it, you would. I am appalled that my very white daughter is maligned by people who tell her very white mother after the very white mother remarks that her daughter is a struggling single mother, “Oh, she just never married?”

    “No, you dolt, she is divorced.”

    That presumption of others is because that is the way they and their family and this community do it…just have children.

    You really don’t want to ask the deli woman why she divorced. People like that will have you standing at the deli for 15 minutes. And, she will regale with with the rest of the story every time you come there!

    People actually said to me, “Well, if you cannot stayed married to a preacher, I wonder what your problems are.” !!! People made statements about what I must have done to run him off. Others, asked me why he could not take it anymore, since he was a minister, as though he would have been ideal and stayed with an imperfect woman, unless she were so horrid. (I filed for the divorce.)

    Now, when it is not church or the grocery store or a community activity and people ask what he is doing, I say, “Still lying from the pulpit.”

    1. Well, thank goodness for the people who have enough sense and home training not to ask, I’d rather them choose silence.

  6. Yeah, the Deli Lady definitely doesn’t need to know all of your life story. I hate it when people just don’t know when to stop.

  7. Sounds like Marla needed to share her story and used yours to do that. Sometimes we just have to say “There is a reason why some people are ex’s” and leave it at that.

  8. One good way to shut people up is to give a short answer and repeat their question to them. That makes people so nervous. They realize they are out of bounds at least by your repetition of their third question. AND, often they are plain uncomfortable answering questions they are so comfortable asking.

    One woman asked me where I was “staying” now. We had not seen each other for twenty years. “Same place,” I told her and then asked, “Where are you staying now?” It seems she had moved several times into rentals and I had paid off my home. She told me in a fumbling manner about having house troubles. I told her I was happy to finally have paid off mine. She then said, “I figured you had left town since I never see you.” I looked a her with my lower eyelids raised just a bit and said, “I figured you had left town since I never see you.” Of course, the smile on my lips was so incongruent with my eyes that she just got all confused. Idiot!

    She was beside herself when I said the same thing to her and asked her the same questions. Some days I just love the power to innocently antagonize people with their own words.

    1. Yes, that is a great way to deal with questions. Brilliant, really.

  9. There probably are signals given off through body language to where a person feels comfortable asking the “why” question.

    After many months of being separated from my (now ex)-wife, we had started talking again. By then she had received a promotion at work and was now living on the opposite coast so I was curious — all these new people in her life, does she talk about us or about being separated, and how does she respond? She said that it hardly ever would come up and the few times it did with new friends that after saying the word separated there would be a bit of sympathy (or empathy? condolences? whatever … ) offered and mostly that was that.

    I was shocked. If I bumped into someone I knew I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there before there was a chance for the “so what happened, and why?” questions to come out.

    When we were still together but with it being apparent the marriage was deteriorating she rejected my suggestion to seek marriage counseling, and communication between us broke down further.

    When people ask why a divorce is looming for what started out as being a great marriage, they want to hear something more substantive than “we stopped communicating”.

    So that’s what makes answering the “why” question so hard for me to answer …, because it just isn’t a very good answer.

    1. It is what it is. I blame TV. I think people want to hear something concrete and scandalous — something that can be stated as a sound bite — like he/she is gay or had a gender change or ran off with the tennis pro or something. An answer like “we stopped communicating” might hit too close to home for people. It may be completely different for your ex-wife since she’s in a new place. She can re-define herself differently than you can, and you risk seeing people who knew you too together. Either way, the “why” question is a tough question to hear, tougher to answer. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. [...] I’ve written previously about an encounter with  Marla, the deli clerk, who had asked me point-blank why I got divorced.   “Why Did You Get Divorced? The Dreaded Question.  [...]

  11. […] funny and like-minded man. But things get complicated when Eva discovers that Albert is in fact the dreaded exhusband of […]

  12. […] Related:  Why Did You Get Divorced?  — The Dreaded Question […]

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