Breaking up is hard to do
I walked in on my husband the other day who was busy applying our son’s children’s toothpaste to his penis.
This is an example of one of those precarious moments in a marriage where the future of the relationship hinges quite delicately on what goes down during the subsequent, oh, forty seconds.
Experience has taught me that it is human nature, when lying, to fabricate a story in which one is not cast in the role of a complete, drooling idiot. So when my husband started weaving a tale which involved his member caught in the zipper of a pair of Levi’s, a subsequent lesion, and the unfortunate coincidence of both the tubes of zinc oxide diaper rash cream and toothpaste being white with red screw caps, I knew it had to be the truth. He was lucky, really, because Tom’s of Maine Nature’s Toothpaste for Children is strawberry flavoured. I doubt there have ever been clinical trials done, but my gut feeling is that applying peppermint flavoured toothpaste to an raw genital sore produces a sensation that falls somewhat short of refreshing. Also, note to self: Men take penile injuries, even self-inflicted, very, very seriously. Laughing so hard that you both cry and pee your pants is guaranteed to produce a spouse who is sulky and peevish and makes a show of wincing visibly every time he sits for at least the next few days.
But the moral of the story is that my husband turned out not to be a pervert or closet fetishist. Basically normal, though admittedly tragically uncoordinated (I mean as normal as any straight man in his mid thirties can claim to be who lists as his favourite musician Freddy Mercury. I mean, I think his death was untimely and tragic and everything, but it’s not like I have a black satin Queen flag stashed away in the attic somewhere and tear up every time I hear “The Show Must Go On” like someone I could name.). So, we’re not divorcing over this. Though we may be when he finds out I’ve just posted about it on the internet.
And that’s what we’re talking about here, folks. Divorce.
Divorce has been legal in Italy since the early 1970’s, despite the vocal protests of the Catholic Church. Abortion is also legal in Italy. I have found that most Italians have a very pragmatic view of religion. They generally love and respect the Pope, but don’t pay any particular attention to what he says. He’s sort of like an old dottering uncle who gets the place of honour at the Christmas dinner table, but is greeted with lots of half-hearted “there, there”-ing and eye rolling when he starts going on about “the trouble with young whippersnappers today” again.
However, in Italy, divorce is certainly not a social phenomenon at the level of other western industrialized countries. At about 12% of marriages, the rate of divorce here is among the lowest in Europe and lags dramatically behind the US. Strangely, I don’t have any friends in the States who are divorced (though it’s bound to happen sooner or later - we’re all still pretty young in my set) but know quite a number of divorced couples here in Umbria. Just one of those statistical anomalies, I guess.
It seems to me that in the States many marriages end because couples have taken the plunge a bit too precipitously, without really getting to know one another. Here in rural Umbria, the norm is to date someone from about the age of 13 until your late twenties, and then marry him or her because, well, that’s what your mother and everyone else expect you to do. And then you realize, after all the dust has settled and the new china is put away, that those annoying habits your partner has had since the sixth grade (like, for example, sleeping around) don’t magically disappear once you’ve got a ring on his or her finger. Or you realize that twenty years was the half life of your relationship, and at 33 you’ve pretty much played it out. So now it’s time to say, “Arrivederci e grazie”. Or, more likely, “Ehi, corrrrrrnnnuuuto! Toh!”.
Making a clean break is not so easy here, however. First of all, you have a lot of family involvement in a couple in Umbria (which may be, now that I think about it, why we know so many divorced couples here). I have numerous friends in the States who don’t have much more than a passing acquaintance with their in-laws, whom they may see once or twice a year at holidays. Families tend to be spread out all over the country, and the chance of a couple actually settling down in the home town of one of their families is pretty slim.
In Italy, more than half of all newlyweds live within a kilometre of one of their parents, if they are not actually living in the same house, and the norm is to visit one set of in-laws at least once a week. And again, when a couple has been dating for the better part of two decades by the time they finally decide to make it official, it’s inevitable that a strong relationship (either positive or negative) has already been formed with their in-laws. All this makes for a much messier, more entangling web if the couple does decide to part ways.
There is a positive effect of all this family involvement, however. Recent studies have found that children of divorced parents in Italy have less negative repercussions emotionally and suffer less in their school performance than children of divorced parents elsewhere. I’m sure that the primary reason for this is the extensive family network that I have seen continue, essentially undisturbed, even after a couple divorces here. The two ex-spouses still tend to maintain contact with the other’s family, and facilitate these contacts between their children and their ex-in-laws. I suspect that one of the most disturbing aspects of divorce for children is the sudden disappearance of beloved family members from their lives (grandparents, for example) and luckily I don’t see very much of that happening here. The kids generally have the same amount of contact with their extended family on both sides that they did before things got messy.
Which brings us to the second reason why divorce can get stickier here. As an expat, it’s predictable that I would have numerous expat friends. Most of whom are married to Italians. So the situation is extra complicated when these couples split up, and there are kids involved. I think that when you’ve gone through something as traumatic as divorce can be, it is instinctive to retreat to familiar territory to lick your wounds. And to put as much distance as possible between you and that jerk you just left (or who just left you). The Atlantic Ocean, for example. So most newly divorced expat spouses whom I have met have ended up moving back to their home countries soon after the split. It is a move not so easily made when you have children with an Italian citizen, however.
Unless there is some specific reason for limiting access, non custodial parents in Italy are generally guaranteed unlimited access to their children. An overseas flight can certainly be considered a limiting factor, so it can happen that custodial parents are not allowed to move their children out of the country if the move has been contested by their ex-spouse. And even if they are able to move, it is certainly heartbreaking to see children and parents separated by so much distance that they end up seeing each other once a year. This whole situation led to a epidemic of “kidnappings”, where one parent took their children overseas, stealing off into the night. To guard against this eventuality, the process of applying for a passport for either parents or children has become a bit of an odyssey, with official declarations and stamped documents attesting that all parties are in the know about everyone else’s passport situation.
Not that it really makes much difference. When I traveled alone with my 15 month old son to the States almost two years ago, I was never stopped, neither in Italy nor the States, and asked to show any sort of documentation attesting that my husband knew I was bringing our son out of the country. Which doubly pissed me off, because I spent an entire morning in the police station before leaving on my trip to get the official 'nulla osta' form you’re supposed to travel with, a morning much better spent over a nice cappuccino and cornetto around the corner.
Another reason that divorce can be even more difficult here is that it is simply not that easy to be a single adult in Umbria. Divorce certainly doesn't carry the stigma that it did even ten years ago, but the simple fact is that there are not that many single people, divorced or otherwise, over their mid-thirties here. Umbria is still a very traditional, family-centred region where marriage in your late twenties or early thirties is by far the norm. So adults over forty who are suddenly without a partner find it difficult to establish and maintain a social life with other singles. Also, until very recently, most of the social activities geared towards singles were decisively for the younger set: the disco or pub.
Over the decade I have lived here I have noticed that there are more and more adult evening classes and cultural events offered, but even those tend to be populated by couples looking to enjoy an evening out together. In other words, the social isolation that many divorced people feel even in larger, more metropolitan areas is exacerbated by the simple lack of opportunity to socialize as a single person here in provincial Umbria.
All these factors together have convinced me that, despite
a propensity to open the fridge door, stare at the milk, and yell, “Hon,
are we out of milk?” or ask me where the scissors are kept when they
have been stored in the top left hand of the desk drawer since 15 September,
which is the day we moved in together, and other behaviours which threaten
to drive me around the bend, for now it may be worth my while to stick with
the husband I have. I’m changing our brand of children’s toothpaste,
* The above article was written by Rebecca Winke, an American living on a farm in Umbria, Italy (view the Brigolante holiday apartments here).
* Article copyright ©2004 Rebecca Winke.