By Joseph Berger, (original article)
THE suburbs were built for happy families, for husbands and wives who faithfully show up for their children’s soccer games and invite the neighbors over for barbecues. Unhappy families, ”each unhappy in its own way,” as Tolstoy put it, are the ones that make the suburbs slightly uncomfortable.
When a family breaks apart, ”the actual event of it is more visible in the suburbs,” says MaryEllen Linnehan, a lawyer with family practices in Mount Kisco, N.Y. and Manhattan. ”The guy moves out and there’s a big moving truck in front of the house, and all the wife’s neighbors are watching.”
When the wife finds a new boyfriend, his Humvee or Corvette is parked in the driveway. When the ex-husband arrives to pick up the children, everyone knows. Not only is New York City more accustomed to such goings-on — it has a higher proportion of divorced people — but apartment buildings honeycombed with single people mask a marriage’s breakup and the follow-up dating better than a cul-de-sac with sedate colonials framed by hushed lawns.
”I felt very watched, much more than I would have had I been living in an apartment,” said Laura, who lives in southern Westchester and like other divorced women interviewed asked that her last name be omitted for privacy’s sake.
The attitude was brought home when a neighbor’s husband left and a second neighbor, clearly agitated, told her: ”Now they’re going to start dating different people. They should all just move so we don’t have to watch this.”
As a fetching suddenly single woman, Laura was perceived as a threat. She remembers playfully putting her hand on one husband’s shoulder and the wife playfully admonishing her, ”Don’t put your hand on my husband!” The sarcasm, Laura felt, came packed with a stiletto of warning.
Divorced men suffer in their own ways. Try arranging a sleepover for a 12-year-old daughter’s friends without a wife around and measure the volts of parental nervousness.
These thoughts on the suburban ”Ice Storm” were prompted by the happenstance of a recent conversation with Ms. Linnehan, who is part of a new approach to crumbling marriages called collaborative divorce. Rather than head right into a courtroom, the parties sit down with lawyers, accountants and therapists to work out financial and custody arrangements everyone can live with. What was provocative was her remark that in the suburbs the collaborative approach was ”catching on more quickly than in the city, and it may have to do with feeling more alone out here.”
Feeling more alone in Familyland? On reflection it seemed so obvious.
”People socialize in couples in the suburbs, so when there’s a breakup, it ripples down through the friends and families who live close by,” said Nancy Segore-Freshman, a divorce lawyer in Westport who also uses the collaborative approach. ”In the city, people do a lot more things independently.”
Dinner parties don’t always include a divorced man or woman; they don’t quite fit the family picture. And a two-level house, after all, can be an awfully big place to putter in alone after the children are off to college.
”You come home every night and there’s just you and the dog when you’re used to having the husband and kids around, ” said Elizabeth of Pelham, N.Y. ”And the stuff you did when they were in school, you don’t have that anymore. Soccer, hockey, that was a full-time job in the suburbs.”
There are also more suburban trappings — mortgages, alarm systems, garage door openers — that maybe the husband had always handled. The suburban divorced woman has to pick up the slack, and she can’t just call the super.
Then imagine the forced reunions. Graduation day on a high school field with neighbors who have been there for every concert and play since kindergarten. The ex-husband and ex-wife sit next to each other to make the graduate feel good, but what is everyone thinking?
Suburban divorced people do not have the same opportunities to meet new partners. There are few singles’ night at churches. Why bother? Single people, ex-husbands included, often live in apartment buildings clustered near the train stations and are not part of the community of families.
Of course, there may be some upsides to a divorce in the suburbs. Abby Tolchinsky, a lawyer who mediates broken marriages, said cul-de-sac friendships often mean that when divorce hits there is more help.
”I’m thinking of a girlfriend,” she said. ”She had a tremendous amount of emotional support — friends picking up kids, offering to car-pool, friends offering to analyze her finances.”
And Laura pointed out that even in the suburbs, divorce, tough as it will be to weather, may be the better option. She told of a friend whose husband walked out right after their daughter left for college.
”It became apparent,” she said, ”that maybe they’d been playing a charade all the time.”