Many life passages involve preparations and decisions that help participants invest themselves emotionally and creatively in the culminating event. Writing the vows or the toast or the speech, shopping for the dress, the suit, or the jewelry, selecting a menu, hiring a DJ, choosing centerpieces or flowers, planning the seating. Will there be a cash bar? What is the plan for those with dietary restrictions? Do we need an extra event for out-of-town guests? These efforts and decisions contribute to a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when the rite of passage is finally complete.
I don’t know whether any grains of sand got into my toes, but a new idea entered my head. It was time to leave the marriage behind.
A divorce is different. You don’t dare begin to draft your good-bye note, reduce your financial footprint, pack up your clothes, or check with friends who may be able to offer you a place to stay during a transition. These would be logical steps on the road to the divorce, but you can’t take them. You have to keep trying to fully participate in the marriage (if you sincerely believe there is still hope), or at least pretend to be investing emotionally in the marriage, if you find you are losing all hope. No scheduling the new haircut in preparation for the big day. No packing up your favorite snacks for the journey. No choosing the song to play in the car on the way there–wherever “there” might be. What you have to do is keep on taking steps in the opposite direction from this potentially looming rite of passage.
In the case of my ex-wife whom I’ll call Pamela and me, I was sincerely trying to make it work—until I wasn’t. Those ‘opposite steps” I took during the waning months included a waterbed and a cat.
The queen-sized waterbed from Jordan’s furniture on the South Shore of Boston was delivered and installed about five months before I pulled the plug–on the relationship, not the bed. The bed had a seven-year money-back guarantee against leaks, If only someone had been able to offer something that solid for our relationship.
Even closer to the end, we adopted a long-haired handsome grey Maine Coon cat from an animal shelter in Jamaica Plain. The people who had dropped off the unwanted cat had named him Sam. We thought he looked way too regal for that name, but we did not want him to be ashamed of his origins. So we christened him Enrique Miguel el Gato Samuel—the last three words meaning “Sam the cat” but the first two being the ones we actually called him. Naming the cat was probably our last mutually satisfying joint decision.
Therapy is one of those logical steps people take to help iron out difficulties and make a marital bond stronger, but can also be a logical step on the pathway to a divorce. Pamela dropped out of couples therapy because she believed our therapist, a woman named Carol, wasn’t being fair or understanding of her. Among other guidance she resisted was one from Carol to stop threatening to divorce me. Pamela had made this threat for the first time right after out honeymoon four years earlier. By the time Carol made this request, the pattern of threats was so well woven into Pamela’s day-to-day responses to me that it apparently was not one she could unlearn. Unlike Pamela, I did not make such threats. I was the one, however, who would finally walk out and initiate the rite of passage we call divorce.
Without Pamela’s commitment to couples therapy, I decided to go solo, and I asked a therapist from an earlier time named Howie for a referral to a hypno-therapist. Howie asked why I wanted to be hypnotized, I said I felt like a baseball player who’s been hit in the head by a fastball, and who’s now finding it hard to step into the batter’s box and take his cuts and put good wood on the ball. “I need to be able to focus in the present during any interaction with my wife, and not be influenced by my fears. I need to not think about what she said or did during the preceding interactions.Just like a hitter can’t be remembering that one that hit him.”
Howie thought that sounded reasonable and he referred me to a psychiatrist, Dr. Phil Hill, who had a small office in his own well landscaped home in a suburb of Boston. The house was not large, but it was up a long driveway and separated by a good distance from the neighboring homes. The sign on the door said “Problem Solving Center.” I soon learned that Dr. Hill didn’t believe in the kind of therapy where you talk for years—or even a few months—about the personal and emotional issues in your life. He believed in the kind of therapy where someone comes in once a week for about four to six sessions, makes a decision about how to address an issue, and then follows up with some action..
After Dr. Hill explained his therapeutic approach to me, I offered him my explanation for why I was there, replete with the analogy of the baseball hitter. He took a minute for quiet contemplation, leaning back on his high-backed chair, staring at me for a good 40 to 50 seconds through his wire-rimmed glasses. “Dale, “ he addressed me softly, “have you thought about the fact that even the most accomplished hitters take batting practice?” He let that sink in for another 30 seconds. “Batting coaches pitch balls to them that are easy for them to hit. They do this before every single game. Only after that routine do they expect to be ready to—as you say—take a good cut.”
This thought provoking comment foreshadowed many more to come. In our handful of sessions, I never went deeper than a light trance. I seemed always to be aware of my surroundings, sitting on a chair in his office, with a view of some tree branches outside a small high window. Part of his technique for getting me into a trance was to have me imagine some large onions with their golden skins, sitting in an attractive wicker basket across the room. He asked me to keep my gaze on the basket of onions as he talked. Yes—he talked. It is commonplace among people I know to distinguish between two therapeutic approaches: the type that is mostly about giving patients medication (and monitoring the effects) and the type that is called “talking therapy.” But we usually think of “talking therapy” as an approach where the clinician gets the client to open up and articulate about their issues. Therapists nod their heads, ask probing questions, and provide encouragement for thinking as well as expression of emotions. I found out quickly that hypnotherapy was very different–at least, Dr. Phil Hill’s version of hypnotherapy. I never did more than 10% of the speaking in any session. He could go on for 25 or 30 minutes without my saying a word. I listened to his stories, while I stared at those onions.
Surprisingly to me, the stories he told were mostly about other clients who had come to him with their issues. He left out their names, but revealed their intimate secrets. Sometimes I was tempted to interrupt one of these long soliloquies to say, “You told me this same story last week! You’re using up 10 minutes out of a 50-minute session that is costing me more than I can afford—and you’re repeating yourself!” I never allowed myself such an outburst, and it’s a good thing. Because he would get to the end of the story—to where the story had ended the previous time he told it—and it would turn out there was more to it. For instance, there was the story about the man who came to him with the desire to stop smoking. It had some twists and turns, but in the end, the hypnotherapy was successful: the man ceased to smoke cigarettes. That was the ending–the first time around. But the next week when he seemed to be repeating the same story, eating up all those expensive minutes, it didn’t end there. The man returned to Dr. Hill a few weeks later. “What brings you to see me? Did you start smoking again?” “No, I have kicked that habit. Now I need to talk to you about my wife.” There was more. Much more.
In my rare moments of speaking to Dr. Hill, I once explained that I had felt rushed on some level to commit to marry Pamela. I had also told him about skipping first grade and being emotionally and socially behind my peers during my childhood and adolescence, although I had no trouble keeping up academically. He told me, as I stared off into the basket of onions, that “there are many babies who could use more time in the womb…and so many young children who have to attend school just a bit before they have had enough time at home with their parents. And wouldn’t it be nice to give them more time? And what young man or woman feels truly ready to enter the adult world, or even the world of higher education, when they finish high school? How many really understand what they are doing in its full complexity when they make a commitment to a partner for life? You might very well wish for more time to make a decision as to whether staying in this marriage is right for you, or whether to leave it behind. It is very understandable that you might want more time to think. Or you might go for a walk on a beach. And if you go barefoot, or even if you keep your shoes on, you might find that some little grains of sand work their way into your toes…”
He repeated several times this mantra about how many of us at each stage of life could benefit from more time. With each iteration, he ran through a litany of slightly changing examples. Then he counterposed to it the alternative of going for a walk on a beach, and getting sand in one’s toes.
The next Monday was Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts and I didn’t have to work. I drove from Boston to Cape Cod, listening to coverage of the Boston Marathon on the car radio, hearing the voice of Dr. Phil Hill in my head, and tuning into my own ambivalent thoughts. I didn’t know the Cape very well, and had never driven there without friends. I got off at Yarmouthport and found a beach. There aren’t a lot of beach-goers in April, so there was no traffic and no difficulty finding a place to park.
I no longer remember whether I left my shoes on or took them off. As I began to walk on the sand, I felt strongly that I was going to recommit myself to my marriage. Yes! This could be a wonderful day of symbolically reaffirming my solemn marital vow. But precipitously, some seagulls interrupted my reverie. They commanded my attention. They looked so free. I found myself envying them.
I don’t know whether any grains of sand got into my toes, but a new idea entered my head. It was time to leave the marriage behind. It became a clear, strong, and forceful idea. I had made my decision.
As I drove home,. I half-listened to the commentary about the Marathon. A Brit named Geoff Smith had won the Men’s division. I had to force myself to turn off the radio and confront the new reality associated with my new rite of passage.
I knew there would be no opportunity for any interim logical steps. No time to write a script or buy the snacks or pick out an outfit. My presence in our home would not be welcome, even for one night or a few hours, once I let Pamela know that I was ending my commitment. I would have to act fast.
In the days to come, I would make contact with a friend named Don, who would graciously offer me his spare bedroom at no rental charge for whatever time I might need. But that first night, I found the least expensive hotel room available.
I was free.
Dale Borman Fink retired in 2020 from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, MA, where he taught courses related to research methods, early childhood education, special education, and children’s literature. Prior to that he was involved in childcare, after-school care, and support for the families of children with disabilities. Among his books are Making a Place for Kids with Disabilities (2000) Control the Climate, Not the Children: Discipline in School Age Care (1995), and a children’s book, Mr. Silver and Mrs. Gold (1980). In 2018, he edited a volume of his father's recollections, called SHOPKEEPER'S SON.