“I’ll get you a beer on the way back to celebrate…” my friend offered as we were leaving the courthouse last Friday where, just fifteen minutes earlier, the judge “granted” me a divorce. I put “granted” in quotes because the notion that one must grovel before a judge to officially declare the dissolution of a marriage seems entirely (and I don’t mean that as hyperbole) ridiculous to me. True, I had gone, metaphorical hat-in-hand years before, in front of a different judge and paid a fee for the license to make it official that my girlfriend and I be married. License…like a permission slip to jump the broom, granted by the master to recognize the most natural of personal arrangements. It aroused my indignation then that we had to pay for the privilege to declare ourselves a couple. Here I was again, indignant that I had to stand before utter and complete strangers to ask for permission to officially end a personal relationship.
So, going into it I was already irritable and particularly stressed, if not for the fact that it was the symbolic declaration to the end of something I held dear, but for the imposition which the whole process put upon me. My friend noted as much, “I have never seen you this stressed out and tense.” Despite how much I feel I wear my heart on my sleeve and how often and regularly I express my dissatisfaction with the encroachment of government into the domain of all our personal lives, he was genuinely concerned and aware that the combination of these two usually non-overlapping aspects had caused me to be, in a word, prickly. I was, in fact, not my usual self. I do not handle some things terribly well and at those times try to avoid human interaction or sublimate my emotions with terse, matter of fact conversation, and only when conversation is necessary. Isolation and reclusivity, the go-to treatment for the introvert who feels stressed with human interaction, was not an option.
You may be wondering why my friend was there with me at this hoop-jumping exercise in permission-begging. Long story short; the state of South Carolina required that I have a witness who could verify that I and my wife had been apart for at least one year. No, a notarized affidavit would not suffice. Neither would the 3 different notarized forms which my wife signed agreeing to the divorce suffice. They required a live body. So not only did I feel imposed upon, I was not happy that I had to ask my friend to spend his precious time doing something which in my view was superfluous and an unnecessary burden on him. He has my gratitude for suffering me this. I should add, without divulging too much, that, because of his occupation and training, he has extensive experience in criminal courts but had never been to a civil court hearing. His presumption, as mine was, was that this was a formality of paperwork and to be done quickly and without much ado since both my wife and I had mutually consented to a “no fault” divorce.
So, at the appointed time we walked into the courtroom and sat before a judge who proceeded to administer the oath “…do you swear or affirm to tell the truth, etc…” and I responded with, “I do affirm.” The judge shifted a little in her seat at my answer, a movement I took no note of at the time. Apparently, my tone was not to her liking.
I was then asked a series of questions beginning with, “Is it true that you and your wife have been apart since [date withheld]?”
I replied, “To the best of my recollection, yes. I don’t have the copy of the paperwork in front of me but if that is what it says when I filled it out then that is true.”
A slight glance up at me over the filed paperwork she held in her hands. Maybe she was looking for a simple “yes” or “no”?
Nevertheless, I thought I answered honestly and according to the best of my ability to recall.
Then questions about property, do we have children, etc. but not very far into the process she stopped and said, “I’m going to ask you to spit out that chewing gum and speak up.
I had gum in my mouth because it was dry, but I complied, taking one of the plastic cups from the table in front of me and placing the gum in there, then taking another cup and filling it with water from the pitcher that was also provided on the table. As I said, my mouth was dry. Then I pulled the microphone closer to my face. My voice, as everyone who knows me, is soft and low. I do not project very loudly and in formal situations I have a tendency to unconsciously lower it even more. So I assumed that moving the microphone would help to remedy that.
At this point the court reporter was looking very intently at me. Again, I took no note of it then, reckoning that since it was her job to record the proceedings then maybe watching me speak helped her to take the dictation.
My responses to the judges questions were “yes,” “no,” or terse and to the point. When asked direct questions, I answered directly with only the facts. To my mind, I was continuing along just fine and this ordeal would be over soon. After all, it was just a matter of jumping through hoops to get some paperwork signed. Right?
The judge then turned to my friend, asking his name, how he knew me, if he knew my wife, etc. When he responded, it was with “Yes, your Honor,” or “No, your Honor.” After each answer he gave, it was ended with that courtesy. I figured this was just his standard response since he often deals with judges and to respond with “Your Honor” had become habitual. I thought nothing of it.
The judge then returned her attention to me and I responded with my short, one word answers as necessary and with as much brevity as possible when “yes” or “no” would not suffice. The bailiff and court reporter were looking at me as though I had descended from a spaceship by now and I was still clueless as to why.
Finally, the judge declared “I am granting your divorce on the grounds of one years separation…” and some other legal nonsense which I honestly do not recall. The bailiff handed me the paperwork which the judge had signed and I was soon back on the muggy streets of Charleston, South Carolina, walking to my car.
My friend turned to me and said, “I thought we were going to spend the weekend in jail for contempt.”
“Huh?” I replied.
“Oh, yeah. The judge was getting pissed at you.”
The quizzical look on my face prompted him to continue, “For starters, she didn’t like the way you said, ‘I do affirm…’ Yes, I know that was technically correct but all you needed to say was ‘I do,’ so that didn’t go over well. Then the matter-of-fact way you spoke looked like it gave her the impression that you were being nonchalant and didn’t care. And she really didn’t like the fact that you didn’t address her as ‘Judge’ or ‘Your Honor’ or something else more appropriate.”
“But her questions were Yes/No questions.” I protested.
“Yeah…but if you don’t address a judge with some sort of recognition of their position they don’t care for that too much. I thought that was going to get you a contempt charge. The court reporter and bailiff were looking at you like you were crazy.”
“I didn’t really pick up on that,” I responded, their stares only stood out to me after the fact. “And I didn’t really pick up on the judge getting upset. There was nothing in the directions on the paperwork or in the courtroom that said I was required to stroke their ego with pleasantries.”
“Trust me, bro. She was getting pissed. Anytime you would answer she would shift in her seat or make a look at you and the whole time I’m over there thinking, ‘we are going to jail…’ and you seemed like you were just there to fill out some paperwork and go home and it showed.”
“But I WAS only there to fill out some paperwork. This whole thing has been nothing but paperwork and notarizations and hoop-jumping bullshit to get the government to ‘officially’ declare that my wife and I are no longer in a relationship. Why would I treat it any different?”
By now my friend had realized how much my inexperience, naivete ́, stubbornness and/ or indignation had affected my behavior in the courtroom. And I can be clueless when it comes to some things, like the displeasure of government officials when their vaunted position is not being duly recognized.
“She was very displeased with you. Very. Everyone wants to feel important, and if you don’t give them their little acknowledgment they get upset.”
Our conversation continued for a short time after, as I tried to grasp the nuances of how to grovel before the court without letting my indignation and lack of respect for the process not show. I thought that I had behaved courteously and with restraint, keeping my answers short and to the point. Perfunctory but sufficient. Apparently my frustration and dislike for the whole system showed through in spite of my (now apparent) failed attempts to hide them.
But really, why do I need to beg for permission from strangers (who have no interest in my or my wife’s well-being) to no longer be in a relationship? What business is it of the courts, the government or any other third party to “grant” a divorce? Or to issue “license” in the first place? If the parties involved are consenting adults and they wish to dissolve their union with no contention between them, as we were, then to what end all of this bowing and scraping before judges to obtain that dissolution? A simple, “The court acknowledges your mutual dissolution of your marriage contract” would suffice without all of the wasteful, costly, dehumanizing procedures and impositions. And certainly without the petulance and self-important harumphing of “the courts.”
Because a marriage license is, like all government documents, a magic piece of paper created by fiat, and consequently so is a divorce decree. The only time the government was involved in my marriage was when it required us to beg permission to both consent to the marriage contract and to dissolve that contract, and in the intervening times to receive the rights and privileges that other such couples had been “granted” by virtue of their tax filing status. I can honestly say that the worst thing about my time with my wife was the imposition that the government forced upon us both to make the living of our lives, together and apart, economically easier. Without the magic piece of paper from the government neither of us would have been allowed those “freedoms.” But the government did not build nor maintain our relationship, and government does not now continue to maintain the amicable nature of our relationship today.
So all I really needed from the courts on that day was for them to sign off on their magic piece of paper. If my expression of contempt and disdain for the government’s meddling in my personal affairs was transparent to the supposedly objective “court,” then I do not apologize and I do not care. They offered nothing for me in my marriage except bondage and servility to their system, a forced hand of “pay to play.”
As we neared Mount Pleasant, SC, my friend, who, as you know by now, is a very astute reader of people’s dispositions, suggested we just drive on to the house. He realized I had no inclination to “celebrate” my divorce decree. There was nothing to celebrate. The process was an ordeal, an imposition, and an affront to myself and my now ex-wife since we both mutually agreed to it. The government’s involvement only made the pain of the situation worse for me by adding mindless, meaningless stress. So I did not have a raucous celebration. No divorce party. In fact, by the time the weekend had arrived I was sleeping alone in the middle of the Francis Marion Forest, what seems an empty and desolate place to some, but is home to wild boar, mosquitoes, snakes, alligators and black bear. A quiet, primeval, wordless place where deer move through the tall pines as silently and deftly as ghosts in a cathedral. Exactly the place I needed to be.
There may be people who have celebrations of their divorces due to the unbearable nature of their marriages or relationship with their spouse. I allow them that indulgence. But as for myself, the dissolution of our relationship and the subsequent humiliating, impersonal, government imposition of it’s will into our personal affairs is no cause for joy or to celebrate. I find absolutely no pleasure or sense of accomplishment or finality in the process nor in the situation. The obtainment of a court decree only served to aggravate the wound unnecessarily.
The end of a war, the remission of some disease, the termination of some abuse or addiction, these are endings to be celebrated and marked with joy and gratefulness. But the ending of my marriage is no such thing and to celebrate it’s end would debase and insult the relationship we had. So no, a celebration is not appropriate. A wake, perhaps, because mourning is appropriate for the death of a beloved thing.
That Sunday, as I walked to the center of the Ravenel Bridge and unceremoniously dropped my wedding band into the Cooper River there was no laughing or joy, no smiles. No tears either, for that time had passed. Only the acceptance of reality.
Author: Tim Propst is a man with too many hobbies including chasing solitude and gathering morels. He avoids small talk and pop culture inanities and would prefer watching grass grow over any conversation about popular culture or other peoples personal lives. If he isn’t getting stung by honeybees, making videos with his creative friends, practicing bushcraft, making mead, or throwing heavy things in a kilt you might be able to find him writing about whatever strikes a nerve… if he hasn’t gone fishing.