Cutting Loose

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 1997-01-01
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications
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One out of every two modern marriages ends in divorce, and 75 percent of those divorces are initiated by wives. Author Ashton Applewhite is one of these women, having sued for divorce after enduring an unfulfilling ten-year marriage. Cutting Loose is a wonderfully appealing book for women who want to leave their marriage but fear the consequences. Shattering the media-generated image of the lonely, deprived and financially strapped divorcee, Applewhite provides a much needed reality check. Cutting Loose introduces 50 women, varying in age, race, class and predicament, who have thrived after initiating their own divorces. Their fears of financial, emotional and romantic ruin were never realized; on the contrary, their lives improved immeasurably, and their self-esteem soared. Cutting Loose also answers the crucial questions: How do you finally decide to make the big break? What is getting divorced really like? What are the shortcomings of the legal process? What about custody and child support? financial and emotional survival? and how does a woman's self-image change during and after divorce?

Table of Contents

Shattering the Illusionp. 1
Hard Choicesp. 23
Laws and Lawyersp. 53
Money and Workp. 97
Spirit and Sense of Selfp. 131
Kids and Momsp. 169
Sex and Body Imagep. 215
New Relationshipsp. 241
Index of Women Interviewedp. 275
Source Notesp. 277
Indexp. 295
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.


Cutting Loose
Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well

Chapter One

Shattering the Illusion

. . . if I continue to endure you a little longer, I may by degrees dwindle into a wife [italics added].

—Millamant, in The Way of the World by William Congreve

What happens when women turn into wives? Too often they dwindle, which is why Congreve's phrase, written in 1700, reverberates so clearly today. A snippet from the opposite end of the literary spectrum, the gossip column of the New York Post, observed that the two wives of New York financier Sid Bass had apparently traded identities. "Mercedes, the current Mrs. Sid Bass, has metamorphosed from uninhibited and fun-loving to tense and chilly. Whereas Anne, the former Mrs. Sid Bass and the original ice princess, is now the outgoing one, the one you want to sit next to." The same topic came up when Tory, a human resources coordinator, was talking about wives with her best friend one day, "about how there's something that bleeps off their radar screen when they get married. They started out being bright people, and some element of their view of the world kind of drops off."

Dwindling into Wives

Marriage reduces many women, who willingly, often unthinkingly, embrace a peculiarly circumscribed identity and set of priorities when they give up being single. Looking back, they are often frustrated and puzzled by their own collaboration in the process. Susannah, at forty-nine a respected film archivist and the kind of person you can't imagine taking no for an answer, married a much older artist who shaped much of her taste and opinions. She describes her married self as "kind of paralyzed. I couldn't make decisions." Jodie, a widely respected software industry spokesperson, admits, "I had so surrendered to him and to his way that I didn't know who I was anymore."

For my part, I worried constantly about incurring my husband's displeasure, an unnamed fear way out of proportion to any possible consequences. No brute, he was handsome and funny, and we had a lot of fun. We were true to each other. We seldom fought. He said no to many of the things I wanted to do, which angered me, but instead of acknowledging it I colluded vigorously, even frantically, in the illusion that I was getting as much out of the marriage as he was. It held up for a long time, especially during the years when I was busy with babies, just as it did for Karen, a sculptor, who says that her divorce was made far harder because "it took me so long to realize my own investment in this fantasy."

Now I wonder how on earth I reconciled my strong, articulate self with that anxious, muted creature. What I didn't understand was how the illusion that he and I were equal is built into our culture. The truth is that the only time when a woman's social worth equals a man's is during courtship, when the man must work to win her. Small wonder that little girls dream of being brides, the pinnacle of desirability, the ultimate female leading role. But Bridal Barbie offers nothing but a short-term sugar rush. Once married, no longer an object of competition among the men, a woman finds that her value plummets. "It's like a new car," one woman commented. "The minute you take it out of the showroom, it loses 25 percent of its value."

Consciously or not, many new husbands feel justified in treating their new wives less well, or at least reminding them of their diminished status. Many brides noticed that romantic behavior abruptly stopped after the wedding. One husband declared dancing no longer necessary; another pulled the plug on kissing and oral sex. Anneke, a romance writer from Tucson, doesn't think the change in men's attitudes is conscious, but rather that "for the most part once they're settled and secure in a situation, they just don't try hard." When she and George were dating he indulged her fondness for picnics and movies, but six months or so after the wedding, the balance shifted, permanently. "I really think that as soon as he was sure of me, he just put down the mask," declares Anneke. "I've seen it in so many marriages, where the first year or two he does everything, takes out the garbage, God knows what all, and then after a while he just comes home and plops in front of the TV set and says, 'Bring me a beer.'"

Promising to have and to hold no matter what, a bride willingly hands over a chunk of her adult identity in return for what is supposed to be an enduring romantic partnership. It's a time-honored exchange: social and legal autonomy for the promise of intimacy, the bulwark against solitude, and the thrilling challenge of making love last. Security, status, and silverware will plaster over the rift between what's fair and what she ends up with, and compensate if romance ebbs away.

Although one out of every two marriages ends in divorce, women still aspire to wed, and despite the feminist gains of the 1970s, they still line up to buy the bill of goods that comes with "I do." They buy into the idea that marriage and motherhood are the main routes to fulfillment, that having a career and a community of friends is not enough, that a woman alone is somehow deficient. (The bachelor, on the other hand, is an object of envy—go figure.) They discount as absurd the possibility that a woman might actually choose to be single. They accept the definition of "women's work" as tasks that women are naturally suited for, rather than as what it really is: drudgery that men don't want to get stuck with. They believe that women are selfish if they go after what gives them value: the same control over their physical and intellectual lives that men have. Women marry because wives are supposed to have cornered the market on womanly happiness. In fact, wives constitute the most depressed segment of the population (and women who describe themselves as happily married suffer nearly four times as much severe depression as happily married men).

Some people believe that the cure for the troubles of the American family is to go back to the good old days of Leave It to Beaver. In the traditional arrangement embodied by June and Ward, the wife tends to heirs and housework, leaving her husband free to pursue his own career and hobbies, or to be a domestic hero and change some diapers. She lets him "wear the pants," and never checks the closet for a second pair.

One of the problems with this traditional arrangement is economic. In the downsized nineties few couples, let alone families, can get by on one paycheck. If the husband makes enough to support the family single-handedly, the economics of the traditional marriage work: he has his job and she has hers. In theory, the contributions are equally valued and the arrangement satisfies both partners. In reality, paid labor gets more respect than the volunteer variety, and living through children or husbands erodes the sense of self. Amnesia abounds; Betty Friedan figured all this out forty years ago in The Feminine Mystique, her study of the suburbanization and isolation of the American wife. Returning to the Father Knows Best era won't solve anything.

The illusion is that women need marriage, when in fact it's the other way around. The women in this book came to realize that they had given up something ineffably precious and received little of equal value in return. Strong women, all had nevertheless abdicated a certain central responsibility for themselves, and this bad bargain ate away at them.

"I was supposed to be there to bring him his slippers and pipe."

Married in 1955, Olivia very much wanted to be a loyal and loving wife. When times changed and her husband didn't, she learned how hard it was to break free of that traditional and ultimately demeaning role. Now almost seventy, she is a 1960s spirit—peace marcher, inner city volunteer, women's rights advocate—whose wedding turned her Ivy League education into an irrelevance and her ambition into a handicap. Olivia shakes her cap of thick gray hair and puts her sandaled feet up on a footstool as she describes her mother making clear to her daughters what their destiny was to be. When Olivia's sister announced that she wanted to go to medical school, her mother responded, "Oh no, dear, you want to marry a doctor." Olivia distinctly remembers her state of mind on the eve of her wedding to Duncan, a solid, conservative businessman. "I sort of had the world by the tail: I had a good job, I had a great man to marry, everyone was healthy, and I was really feeling great, like I was standing on tippytoes. And I remember saying to myself, 'Hang on to this, if you possibly can, in a marriage.'"

The feeling was fleeting indeed. After Olivia and Duncan's small family wedding, friends came up to their room in Chicago's Palmer House to celebrate. When one of them started horsing around with a bowl of popcorn to loosen things up, Duncan picked up a pear from a bowl of fruit and smashed it on the offending guest's head. "Whereupon, of course, everyone got up and said, 'I think it's time for us to go,'" recalls Olivia, "and there I was feeling properly subdued, properly scared." That's when the feeling of having the world by the tail evaporated, "right then and there," she admits, a rueful grin spreading across her calm, uncomplicated face.

Cutting Loose
Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well
. Copyright © by Ashton Applewhite. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well by Ashton Applewhite
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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