IAN COSS: I think part of what's so challenging about all of these decisions; marriage, divorce, child bearing, not child bearing, is that it's so difficult to disentangle the expectations from what you want.
This is Death, Sex, & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
…and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
This week, we’re doing something a little different, with the help of Ian Coss, and the podcast he made about divorce and his family. The series is called Forever is a Long Time.
Here’s a little bit of the first episode. Ian is talking with his father, Tom.
IC: Do you remember, do you remember how Sebastian and I responded to you guys getting divorced? 'Cause I have no memory of this.
TOM: Well, that's interesting you should mention that. 'Cause that's one of the few scenes that I really can picture. There was a therapist there at the Worthington Health Center. Can, can you picture that?
TOM: Up on the hill in Worthington.
TOM: We brought you guys there to tell you that we were getting divorced. I remember that these tears just sort of spontaneously popped out of your eyes and you're just like, I dunno. I just, it was unlike you because you're, you're quite, you're quite stoic and in a lot of ways, but you just like cried instantly and I, I can still see that now.
Ian grew up in Massachusetts, and is 33. He’s married now. As he was making that decision, he started thinking about the many marriages in his family that ended in divorce. Not just his parents' marriage, but also his grandparents', and aunts' and uncles' marriages. And he interviewed his family about this over the podcast’s five episodes.
I wanted to talk to Ian because I have some divorce stories myself. I got divorced when I was 30, and my dad was divorced with two kids before he married my mom, so I have two siblings who are the children of divorce. I’m really interested in the many perspectives and stories that can come from the end of one marriage.
Ian ended up seeing his parents’ split as a good thing. They’ve both since remarried, but that is not how he remembers feeling as a kid.
IC: I think the loss was the family unit, the fact that we live together and did stuff together, uh, and all slept under the same roof, you know, and I do see those photos of us. There's like this wonderful photo of the, so I was born in this cottage on Cape Cod, um, that was in the backyard of my mom's, my, my aunt Mia, uh, the house that they lived in. And, uh, it was just, we had beds right next to each other where my brother and I slept in the set of bunk beds, and my parents' bed was just like right up next to it. And there's these photos of us just like all as a family kinda splayed out on this side-by-side beds in this little cottage. And, uh, yeah, I think that's the loss.
ANNA SALE: Mhm. Yeah. You're making me, like, whether it's good or bad, divorce is always a rupture.
AS: And for an adult to go through a rupture is one thing, um, to be a child without choice or agency going through a rupture is a whole other thing.
IC: You know, my parents really only got together because they accidentally had a child together. Um, my older brother and then subsequently me. Um, and I think one of the feelings I carried around for a long time around their relationship, their marriage, in our family, such as it was, was like a weird kind of guilt, like we had ruined their lives. Um, and I don't know if that's a common feeling among accidental children, because we did change the course of their lives. Uh, and I sort of wondered what, you know, what they could have been if we didn't exist.
AS: You said “accidental children” there. Um, I was an unplanned pregnancy also. I always, I always prefer the term surprise. [Laughter]
IC: I like that as well. The part I had never understood was how I was a surprise. Cause I mean, I was number two, so.
AS: Well, you know, it's interesting learning about your family. You know, that your, your parents got together, they had a pregnancy, they weren't planning together, they had a child together, and then they had a second child together that was unplanned, that was you. Uh, but that wasn't when they got married, they didn't get married when there was a pregnancy.
AS: There was an intentional choice after they had two kids together to get married. Um, what do you understand was the, why did they get married?
IC: So I think there was a practical element that it just felt like we're doing this thing. We might as well make it a little easier on ourselves. And, um, my sense in talking to my mother was that there was, you know, some... that she did invest a certain amount of emotional value in, uh, in making that commitment to raise the children together as husband and wife. Um, she grew up in a Catholic household. Um, I don't think that idea of marriage was without any romance or significance to her. Um, so I think there was some of that there too. Um, though, obviously, that, that feeling did not last very long. They were only married for... a few years.
AS: Mhm. I wonder, and obviously this is something you cannot know, but have you thought about if they, if they hadn't married and they split up in the same way they split up later, um, do you think you would have experienced it differently if it wasn't called divorce?
IC: That's a really interesting question. I mean, I don't remember the legal proceedings, obviously. I didn't experience those, but there was, you know, as married people, there was this added layer, this added complexity of untangling themselves from each other, that I would imagine added a certain degree of kind of acrimony to the whole thing. And that maybe if they hadn't been married in the first place, it would have been easier to kind of ease out of each other's lives, and continue co-parenting.
Ian’s mother Ellen initiated the divorce. His father, Tom, initially resisted it. And both his parents attribute their opposite reactions to trying to shield their children from how things played out in the families they grew up in.
Tom’s parents had a bitter, traumatic divorce. And Ellen’s parents didn’t divorce, they stayed together, for her sake. But Ellen believed her mother wanted to leave the marriage.
Here in this excerpt, Ian’s parents tell him what happened after Ellen asked for a divorce:
ELLEN: I mean, I never understood why Tom stayed with me. I really didn't. I mean, it was always a mystery to me because I don't think he ever loved me. He never said so.
TOM: I think that she would tell you that I didn't love her and that I was just sticking around to, to, to be with you guys. And there’s probably some truth to that.
ELLEN: And I, and there were times I wondered was, you know, like late at night, whether he was coming home. And I'm sure that there were times when he was thinking some stuff should, if I keep driving, it would be easier that way, you know.
TOM: But I never would have ended it because I didn't want to put you in Sebastian through what, what I went through. You know, even if the marriage was not ideal.
ELLEN: But I just knew that I was hurting him and he was hurting me. And that despite the fact that we had two beautiful children together, we would be better apart. And I was really sure of it.
TOM: When your mother told me she wanted to end the marriage, I was not expecting that.
ELLEN: He went completely bonkers.
TOM: I mean now we’re getting into, like, stuff that’s a little uncomfortable.
ELLEN: We agreed we would not get lawyers.
TOM: You know it’s like he said, she said, and...
ELLEN: You know he wanted a lot of stuff.
TOM: You know, divorce is never a pretty thing.
ELLEN: Like, this is a little weird.
TOM: You know, we had that bump in the road when, when she took out a restraining order.
ELLEN: We got into a pretty serious physical altercation.
TOM: Your mom and I had a fight about something.
ELLEN: And I called the police.
TOM: And I, in the heat of the moment, and not being very smart, I put my finger on the button and said “no, don’t call the cops.”
ELLEN: That was bad.
TOM: And I got in my truck and I remember stopping. There was a pay phone and calling her and saying, "I hope everything’s cool and every–" but apparently the cops showed up.
ELLEN: And that’s how we ended up with a restraining order.
TOM: A restraining order against me.
ELLEN: Which, of course, didn’t make me any friends.
TOM: That was probably the low point.
AS: I have to say when I was listening to your parents separately tell you about the divorce, and your mother says, I don't think he ever loved me. And then your father says, your mother will say I never loved her, and maybe I never loved her. Like to hear that, and then moments later to hear him describe the fury that she wanted to leave.
AS: I was furious as a woman listening to that.
IC: Mmm. Yeah... this is something I thought a lot about in, uh, you know, in making this show about, about how my parents come across. Because divorce has, does not bring out the best in people.
AS: No! [chuckles] I thought, oh my gosh, these poor people! [laughs] Why are they having to talk about their worst moments of their, you know, like, oh, divorce is the worst.
IC: Yeah. And so, um, yeah, I think your reaction makes a lot of sense. Um, and obviously I don't, you know, my interest is not in justifying anyone's actions. Um, but I think, yeah, I think what both of them said is, is true. And I think it's revealing about both of them, um, that, uh, that in that moment, my father felt so strongly about staying with someone he didn't love just to, uh, to protect us from, uh, from the D word, you know, from going through that, that experience that he had had.
AS: Well, and I also felt like to protect him from those feelings coming back for him. It wasn't just protecting his children. It was protecting him.
IC: Right. Yeah, and ultimately, I mean, the, the separation that ensued was, I feel comfortable saying, not traumatizing in the way that his own childhood experience was. And he knows that. And I think he understands that now.
Coming up, how Ian’s childhood made him think about marriage as an adult.
IC: She definitely put a lot more value into that idea of marriage than I did. Not terribly surprising, given our family histories.
Ian and the stories of his family got us curious about divorce trends in the US.
American divorce rates peaked in the late 70s and early 80s, with more than half of marriages ending in divorce. But since then, it’s been steadily declining. By 2019, the divorce rate had been cut in half, to just 27 percent.
Marriage rates have been decreasing as well. But it’s not just marriage rates that are falling, it's people who are partnered at all. Last year, more than 30 percent of American adults said they don’t have a steady partner. That’s the highest percentage since the data started being collected in 1986.
Speaking of the 1980s, I want to let you know about a series I’ve been listening to from The Experiment, a podcast produced by our colleagues at WNYC Studios. They’ve made a 3-part series all about work and family, and it centers on SPAM, that processed meat in the blue and yellow can.
There’s a lot more history in that can than I ever knew, and this series unpacks some of it. From why it’s a staple food for Filipinos, to a pivotal strike at the SPAM factory in the 80s. This strike changed the town forever, and the families in it, as you’ll hear from people like Rayce Hardy. His dad worked at the plant.
Rayce Hardy: Work isn’t family. Work is for family, that's what these workers it was about. And that's why there was such a disconnect. I mean, who choses to snatch guts to pass time? You got to be kidding me! I mean, seriously, whose hobby have you ever heard, well what do you do for a hobby? I snatch guts. I mean that, that, that's absurd, to me that’s an absurd statement. Work is not about family, work is for family. If you’re going to work in a packing house, you’re working for your family.
You can find a link to The Experiment's SPAM series in our show notes. I hope you'll give it a listen.
This is Death, Sex, & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
IAN COSS: Could you hold on one second?
ANNA SALE: Yeah, yeah.
IC: My wife is poking her head in the door.
KELSEY: Oh, are you in an interview?
IC: Yeah, I'm doing an interview.
KELSEY: Oh, sorry. I'm gonna eat lunch.
AS: That was your wife?
IC: That was Kelsey.
AS: We’ll talk about her more in a minute.
IC: Okay, well she’s going downstairs now, so we can talk about her, without her listening on the other side of the door.
AS: Okay. [laughs]
Ian got married to his wife Kelsey six years ago.
IC: I think it probably took a couple years from the point when we had been together long enough that we inevitably started thinking about marriage, to the point that, um, we did ultimately get married.
Ian and Kelsey started dating in college. And unlike Ian’s family, Kelsey’s parents and extended family are mostly still married. So the risks of a lifelong commitment didn’t hit her in the same way they did Ian.
IC: At any time, you know, we could, either one of us could just walk away and that would be it. Um, and so, I mean, in some ways that's what marriage is, right. It's just, like, putting an artificial obstacle to ending the relationship, so that it takes a lot of work to end it, and maybe that makes you think a little differently about it. Um, and, uh, and... I say that a little like dismissively, that that's not all that marriage meant to myself or to Kelsey. Um, but I do think on some level... we were ready to, you know, we were at an age in our lives where we were starting to look ahead, and to make decisions and plans, and, uh, and it felt, and at that moment, it felt really nice to just decide, okay, whatever those plans are, we'll just, we'll do those together. And, and just to have one known, um, in all this, you know, this sea of unknowns, um, and to have that known, be a person who I had at that point been with for a number of years, and been through a lot with, and felt like I understood and who understood me. At some point, that began to feel like a really, really nice thing, and not something that was scary, but something that was, that gave a real comfort and, and additional meaning to our relationship.
AS: As you were making the decision to get married, did you have fears that you would get divorced?
IC: Yes, and I still have fears that we’ll get divorced. Um, at some point, you know, when we were contemplating getting married, or after we got married, I did have a certain anxiety that it would just, you know, kind of sneak up on me and it would just suddenly I would, the marriage would have, would, and the relationship would have fallen apart. And the longer I spend in it, the more I feel like... not, not, I don't want to say like security that it could never happen, but a certain comfort in that if that ever happens, it'll be a choice we make, and not just something that happens without us choosing it.
AS: That's the thing we don't know. Our spouses can always decide to divorce us, you know, like, or that's what I, it, it is, there's this element of commitment to a marriage and a partner. And then there's also this, uh, leap of faith.
IC: Right. I remember that was something my mother told me. It was like... it was funny in interviewing my family members. You know, it was mostly like the stories, but then they would like sprinkle it with bits of advice. Um, and, uh, I remember my mother being like, you know, by the time she brings up divorce, it's already over like, you know. So it's, these things, you know, you got, they will be percolating beneath the surface long before they are necessarily known to you, which is not terribly comforting to hear.
AS: I don't know, do you believe that? I think, I, I just want to, like, to me, the idea that divorce exists and having that awareness inside a marriage, um, can also be this fuel that makes you continually making the choice to be together. Do you know what I mean?
IC: Like, the knowledge... yeah, go ahead.
AS: Like, we have this issue. We need to deal with this because if we don't deal with this issue, in 10 years, I'm going to hate that you're still doing this thing and it's going to corrode us.
AS: Um, and so there's this idea that marriages are not a given, they can be fragile.
AS: And so they take care.
IC: Right. Yeah. And I think that's, I think that was always part of Kelsey's thinking, um, yeah, things, things that are acceptable in the short term, and you can just sort of live with or say, you know, sweep under the rug, maybe... require a different kind of attention when the time scale is your life and yeah, and they, it, it forces a kind of care and attention.
AS: I wonder after talking to so many family members about divorce, and what it was like for them to go through divorce, what it created the opportunity for in their lives, when they were no longer in marriages that they felt like weren't working. Um, how, do you have a feeling about... like when you think about divorce as a good or bad thing, as a tool of liberation, or a tool of breaking up something that is sacred, you know, sort of, how do you, where do you fall when you think about that spectrum?
IC: Yeah, I would say that is something that changed for me in the course of making this series, you know, and doing these interviews with my family. Um, partly because sort of on the liberatory fronts, on that side of it, I don't think I understood, you know, just how much divorce, the, the option to end a marriage and get divorced meant for many of the people who I love most in this world. Um, all of whom are women, not coincidentally, right? Um, and so the fact that my grandmother and my grandparents were able to get divorced, the fact that my Aunt Rari in the eighties was able to get divorced. Um, the fact that my parents were able to get divorced. I think each of these, um... each of those decisions, you know, in, in kind of hearing the full story, to the extent that I could, uh, understand it, um, just felt like a really brave and, um, and positive decision for each and every one of those people. Um, and that's not the case in every marriage, you know, I understand... and even some of the marriages within my family, the divorces felt more ambiguous than others, um, in terms of what the, what the result was for the people involved. Um, but I think overall, I'm a, it was something my Aunt Rari said to me in the interview, which is in the podcast and something I think about a lot is just like, you know, to like, to look at any situation and kind of see the gifts in it. Um, and, uh, and that's something that she does with her own parents and her own family. And I think, you know, for me, when I look at the legacy of failed marriages, quote, in my family, there's also a legacy of yeah, of people really taking their lives into their own hands. And, and that's something I'm really proud of.
In the final episode of Forever is a Long Time, Ian talks to his mom’s sister, his Aunt Rari. She was divorced the same year Ian was born, 1988, and she never remarried.
RARI: I didn't want someone enough to deal with most of the stuff that I was already finding out about on a first date. And then I just didn't care anymore! You know, I just, it just was a complete non-issue for me.
RARI: Um, where I just, I was fine and happy and can't even imagine wanting to get into a relationship with someone, and doing everything you need to do to, you know, involve yourself with someone's life that way. In fact, sometimes I feel sad that I don't, I'm so allergic to cats, 'cause I'd be perfectly happy to be that woman at the end of the street with 15 cats. I wouldn't have any issues with that at all, so.
IC: I just want to say that, you know, I realized there are, there are negative stereotypes around the idea of being a single adult woman, and I don't mean to harp on that at all. In fact, I mean, when I look at your life, you know, and the fact that you've lived all over this country, you've traveled all over the world. You've had this remarkable career in medicine, you have hobbies, crafts, you have a wonderful home now with your sister, which is sort of like the hub of our whole family. I mean, and you've been able to do all of that, partly because you, you sort of have this autonomy of self, you know, that you're not attached to another person. So I guess I'm kind of in awe of that, in a way.
RARI: Hm, thanks!
AS: I think in some ways thinking about your family’s story across generations, I was really thinking about like how much that was a plot point, of how much agency members of your family had. And I also myself am divorced, and got divorced in 2011, when it was a very different experience than what my dad went through in 1976. Some lessons have been learned about how not to divorce.
IC: Mmm. I mean, I do think I began from a place of a feeling like, they had failed at something that I wanted to succeed at. Um, and now I can see it as like, they succeeded at something really difficult. Um, and that's not to say that I want to follow that example and necessarily get divorced myself, but I do want to follow that example and, you know, have the awareness of self that they had, um, to be able to live the life that I want, that, that feels most meaningful to me, and not feel bound simply by tradition, or shame, or pride, or any of those things that I think can keep people in places that are not good for them for a long time. I know, I, I'm curious. I mean, you you've been divorced. Do you look at marriage differently now? Would you marry again? Um, does it, that institution sort of hold meaning for you like it once did?
AS: Yeah, it's interesting. I am, I am married again.
IC: Oh, you are, okay.
AS: Um, uh, I've been married. I now call my second husband, my longest husband, as a joke and we laugh because I've been married to him now longer than I was in my first marriage. Um, uh, and for me, my, um, my experience of divorce was it was like a crippling shame. When it, when it, when I faced the reality that that's not only what was happening, but also what I wanted. That took a long time. But for me, it was interesting. I didn't waiver from this longing for still this, uh, traditional unit. I was very up for, um, getting married again, and wanted to get married again. And I think probably because I wasn't yet a parent and I was very clear that I wanted to be a parent. And for me what that, what I wanted was to do that with a partner if I could, if I could find him. And so I think what's confusing about divorce is we have one word for the experience of a marriage ending when there are no children. And when there, when there are children, and I think it's a much more complicated experience when, when the two married people have kids, and the kids are trying to make sense of what's happening.
IC: Right. Yeah, and I think that's... yeah. And I think as you hear, heard in my parents' story, that's all it was about. You know, like there was no money at stake, you know. The relationship itself was not terribly meaningful to either of them. It was really entirely about, you know, what do we do with the fact that we have two children, and what do we owe to them, and what is the best we can give to them and ourselves, and how do we do that? You know, that's, that's all it was about, but it, you're absolutely right. Um, divorce, yeah, it's one word for a lot of things.
That’s Ian Coss, the creator of the podcast series Forever is a Long Time. It made a lot of year-end podcast lists, including in The New York Times, which called the series one of the ten best podcasts of 2021. There's a link to it in our show notes. Listen, and you can get to know about Aunt Rari, and hear from Ian's wife Kelsey.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Caitlin Pierce and Katie Bishop. The rest of our team includes Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Gabriela Santana.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I'm on Instagram @annasalepics, that’s P-I-C-S, and the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Thank you to Palmer Curdts in Brooklyn, who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Palmer and support what we do here, by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
Ian does not have any children. That is another big life decision that he and Kelsey are weighing right now.
IC: There are many things that I find very appealing about the idea of being a parent. But I also am that person who really likes to be able to just, uh, drop what I'm doing and bike out to a lake, and just like swim out to the middle of it, so that I feel small and alone in the middle of the lake, and nobody can call me or find me. So it's just one of those processes of just choosing among the many paths of life.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.