I got divorced on a near-perfect spring day in Paris.
It was the kind of day where life everywhere seems abundant: red geraniums fell from terracotta pots, tourists bubbled along cobbled-stoned streets, bone-grey buildings appeared soft and pearly and sunshine scuttled across the River Seine. It would have made more sense to be divorced in winter, when the world slumbers and dies. But the French Court had summonsed my ex-partner and I to appear before it on May 5th , irrespective of climatic-emotional dissonance.
And so on a day that teemed with life I walked into the Palais de Justice and officialised my relationship’s death.
Our relationship was one of tender embraces, giddy passions, shared hopes and small cruelties; an entire universe created by two ill-matched souls. I defined who I was through this shared world with my partner. And this ‘me’ was affirmed through the friends we socialised with, the house we bought, the jobs I accepted, the thousand moments of everyday life - forms, bank accounts, greetings from neighbours - that cement your identity as a couple. The ‘I’ slid ineluctably into ‘we’.
But as I have written before, moving countries for love is not as easy as driving off on a scooter into a sepia-tinted sunset. Till death do us part transformed into ‘till cultural differences/ poor job prospects/linguistic difficulties/a desire for autonomy/home-sickness’ do us part. And part us they did. Two years ago I decided not to return to Paris and my partner decided not to join me here. We wept, we wrote, and eventually we let ‘us’ die. And with unfathomable sadness came relief.
At the time, I knew that we’d have to divorce, but I didn’t realise precisely what this would mean. With the abundant arrogance of an Anglo-Saxon, I just assumed that French divorce procedures would mirror my own: sign a form, send it to Paris and get a lawyer to file it at the court. It would be un divorce amicable – no disputes over property or children. Just a public end to our private hell.
But like marriage (which in France is a very legal affair involving the mayor of your quartier reading out sections of the Code Civil while you both murmur a series of ‘oui’s’) divorce is a matter of state. There is nothing comparable there to the Anglo-Saxon model of divorce. In France you have to appear before a Judge regardless of whether there is anything in dispute. Exacerbating the horreur of this situation is the fact that Judges are often young (mine was early-30s) which can cause emotional confusion on the day as young French people tend to be unnervingly attractive.
I railed about this system to my French friends who told me that it was to ensure fairness. The Anglo-Saxon system, they said, allows private tyranny to reign; the weaker party can be bullied into disadvantageous settlements. In France, the Judge steps in as an independent arbiter, even in instances where both parties agree.
In my own case, I wasn’t worried about financial settlements. What concerned me was a larger question: what is the best way to say goodbye? Does being forced to see your ex-partner again accord the relationship more respect than the comfortable invisibility of a form? Which country offers the most dignified exit?
Like many people, I experienced my divorce as a form of death – both of the relationship and a version of me that went with it. But it was a death that came without memorialisation. Death is usually faced together: friends and family gather around for emotional support, concessions are made for a period of bereavement and we perform rituals to publicly mark our private trauma.
Yet in the case of divorce we do none of this. Shared friends usually don’t want to get involved, family - who have often taken in your partner as one of their own - find it difficult to take sides and if there are no children it is possible for each party to vanish.
Forms usurp flesh, cities are remapped and old haunts and old selves are anxiously avoided. A sudden exit is not just possible, but preferred.
Isn’t this a strange way to say goodbye? Is a form, an email, even a teary conversation in the kitchen really the best way to honour the extraordinary world you created?
As I sat in the Palais de Justice I thought about how performance artist Marina Abramović dramatized her separation from her partner Ulay. Each of them walked the Great Wall of China, starting from the two opposite ends and meeting in the middle. ‘That walk became a complete personal drama’ she said. ‘Ulay started from the Gobi Desert and I from the Yellow Sea. After each of us walked 2500 km, we met in the middle and said good-bye…We needed a certain form of ending’.
Meeting my ex-partner in a court house opposite Notre Dame was not the form of ending I would have chosen. But there was something about the ritual, about being forced to confront the tragedy of this shared death that I appreciated. I would not have chosen for the state to memorialise my grief. But I was glad it didn’t let me just spirit away either. It made my partner and I sob, hug, laugh about how hopeless our lawyer was, and remind each other why we were together in the first place. There is no way I would wish to return to the relationship. But our love deserved more than a form.
Ultimately it reminded me that divorce is not just about death, but about life. Divorce comes from a belief in romantic love, from an awareness of the tragic discrepancy between art and life, between dreams of what could be and the reality of what is. You don’t divorce because love has died, but because you believe that somewhere, sometime and with someone else, it might live.