Dear Divorce…

by Safa Samiezade'-Yazd, a writer, a performer, an American-Iranian, a nude art model and a soon-to-be-bride who is currently the author of the blog Naked Lady in a White (Silk) Dress, which looks at the engagement process and wedding culture from the point of view of a burgeoning feminist.

My parents are divorced. They separated when I was twenty-one, and the divorce was finalized about five years later. Worse than that, they had a very unhappy marriage. I remember growing up, knowing as a child that they were completely wrong for each other. I remember the day I realized their marriage was going to end. I was eleven at the time.

It took them ten years to finally end the misery, and by that time, it was old news to me because I had already seen it coming. Yet the fighting is still going on. And the mind games. Even though they live in separate homes and my mom now lives with her boyfriend. Still, sometimes it feels as if my parents are still unhappily married to each other. They keep on fighting over my younger siblings, as if these kids are live collateral for all the broken promises and hurt feelings that still rage between the two.

Their twisted marriage wasn't the only bad one I was raised by. In fact, when you look at all the marriages I grew up around, only one didn't end in divorce. My grandparents, on my mother's side. Theirs was an unconventional one. My grandma lived and raised the kids in St. Louis while my grandpa bounced back and forth every week between home and his job at the Pentagon.

My aunt on my mom's side is divorced. My uncle on my father's side is divorced. Even my father's parents are divorced, which was extremely rare during the Shah's reign in Iran, but the domestic abuse was severe enough that the divorce wasn't actually initiated by my grandmother, but by the state itself.

Most of my parents' friends in St. Louis were very much like them—American wife, Iranian husband. In each marriage, the husband was extremely religious (I did grow up thinking Khomeini was a superhero—that childhood myth has since been debunked), and the wives all converted from their Western upbringing, veiled themselves more severely than most women in Iran do, and some even gave up their birth names. Life would get so confusing, because in the women's sphere, they would be called their American names, and in the men's sphere, they would be called their Arabic names. Even the kids sometimes would go by different names, depending on the context.

I kept the same name, but my behavior was constantly changing in check with wherever I was. In my elementary school, which was about fifty-percent international, I could blend in as one of the other kids, and in my grandparent's house I could act like some vestige of an American kid, but in Iranian circles, I tended to either stick out or keep to myself, mostly because I couldn't keep all the behavioral changes straight. Kids would play tag around the mosque, but because boys and girls weren't allowed to touch each other, we would throw sticks or pebbles to "tag." It was absurd to me.

I remember practicing my violin in private, because playing music was okay with one parent, but to another, it was a ticket straight down the highway to hell.

My father even had a plan for me: Study engineering in college, get married to an Iranian boy of his choosing somewhere between 18 and 22, go to medical school, and then become a three-quarter Iranian baby-pumping housewife. When I was born, my father and his sister actually started orchestrating an arranged marriage between my cousin and myself. My actual engagement isn't acknowledged on that side of my family. Not only is Rene an artist, he's also not Muslim. When we start having children, I'll be pumping out three-quarter Catholic babies.

Slowly the couples began breaking up, and my mom was the last woman in our community to leave her husband. Of course, in each divorce, what everyone fought over were the kids. For the women, it was their maternal birthright to keep them. For the men, it was their paternal entitlement. In some ways, I lucked out, because I was already an adult by the time the custody mess happened, but sometimes, I wonder, because now I have to watch it all as I get ready for my own first marriage.

David Popenoe, a sociology professor at Rutgers University and co-director of the National Marriage Project, wrote:
Marriages of the children of divorce actually have a much higher rate of divorce than the marriages of children from intact families. A major reason for this, according to a recent study, is that children learn about marital commitment or permanence by observing their parents. In the children of divorce, the sense of commitment to a lifelong marriage has been undermined.
In Iran, there is such a thing as a temporary or pleasure marriage. For some women, it's a way to legally work as a prostitute; for some men, it's a way to have premarital sex and feel religiously okay. For some couples, it's the only way they can date and get to know each other before making a lifetime commitment without getting arrested for adultery.

This was how my parents began their relationship. They met in the mosque, went out on a date to see Gandhi, and then started a temporary marriage, I think so that my father could feel okay losing his virginity to an American woman. That night, I was conceived, and my mom was pregnant with me when they finally decided to make their marriage legal or permanent. The reasoning wasn't so much for love, but for obligation and to make my birth legitimate in their eyes.

What followed, of course, was the saga that I call their marriage, with many of its problems blamed on me by my father, because, of course, they wouldn't be in that situation if I weren't born. More kids kept coming, and of course they stayed together, even though they started sleeping in separate bedrooms when I turned fifteen, because good religious Iranian children don't have divorced parents.

The whole dynamic really did a number on me in terms of relationships, and even though I started sneaking around and dating boys when I turned eighteen, I didn't really let myself really feel love for one until my senior year of college. Even then, as wonderful as he was, and as good friends as we still are, the timing was completely wrong, and it wasn't until I met Rene that I realized I had been attracted to guys who were as unavailable as my father was in his marriage. And I dealt with it by making myself just as unavailable.

I was happier in long-distance relationships than I was in local ones. I remember one long-distance relationship where I thought I was falling for the guy, but as soon as I saw him in person, I suddenly was over it and ready to ship him back to New York. Rene was the first guy I dated who actively and assertively pursued me, and I have to admit that every time he wanted me to take our relationship to the next level of commitment, I freaked.

It took a proposal for me to realize that he wanted to share his home with me, even though I was already living with him. Rene gave a great deal of thought into our relationship. At 45, he had other chances to propose or marry other women, but he waited, held out to the point where people were wondering if he would become a lifelong bachelor, because he wanted to make sure that his first marriage would be the right decision.

Why did I freak, and why was I so resistant? I think it's because, with the exception of my grandparents, I grew up around marriage after marriage where commitments fell through, and I began to see promises and vows as temporary fixes to legitimize whatever's going on in your life at that point. I was never really taught what it means to have a relationship where the people want to be committed to each other, not have to be.

I don't talk to my father anymore, but I am still close with my mom, and it's always been a mission of mine not to repeat the mistakes they made. Part of that means I have to visit their unhappy marriage and the disturbing memories that have partially shaped who I am today.

I keep telling myself that my marriage will be different, but let's face it, it's not like my family history really has the greatest track record. It's my greatest fear, to wonder if divorce is somehow genetic in my family, and if I'm going to wind up no different from my parents. I don't know how my father is, but I sometimes see my mom having to justify herself through her relationships now, and I want so badly not to feel like I need to do that in mine. I remember watching how easily she lost her self-identity in my father, and the idea terrifies me, which is probably why I'm so insistent on Rene and I complementing each other, not completing each other.

And yet I wonder—would I be this aware of the implications of commitment and marriage if I weren't raised by those consequences themselves? It's a toss-up sometimes to think if my generation of brides, who grew up around divorce in some matter or another might unconsciously use the immediacy of broken-up marriages as models for their own commitments or consciously as tools of how heavy of a decision their wedding really is.


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