HBO’s Divorce

There may be a spoiler or two below if you’re concerned at all with the narrative arc of HBO’s new show, Divorce. I’m in it more for the feel, the emotions, and the occasional right-on little detail that I see almost every day in my practice.

I started watching HBO’s Divorce a week or so ago and am three shows in now. Briefly, it’s the story of a successful businesswoman, Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Robert (Thomas Hayden Church) living in Hastings-on-Hudson NY, a pretty, upscale town on the Hudson River an hour or so north of New York City. The town, by the way, is pretty much another character.

Anyway, Frances and Robert are at the birthday party thrown by a wealthy couple who are, at best, pretty dysfunctional. People get drunk, nasty one-liners fill the air, there’s a major incident, the husband has a heart attack, the police come, Robert has a near-death experience.

As Robert is collecting his breath, Frances informs him that she wants a divorce. Boom. Out of nowhere. She’s surprised she said it aloud, he’s stunned. At this point, we know nothing about Robert and Frances beside the pretty obvious fact that Frances is smart and funny while Robert is more than a bit of a prig.

But it rings true. Frances clearly – though we don’t know why – has been miserable in the marriage for a while and has been thinking about divorce for just as long. Robert … well, Robert seems to be oblivious to anything that does not revolve around him and his business (he’s a contractor and struggling).

Robert is thunderstruck, begs, bargains, doesn’t accept it, is sure Frances is going through a phase.  It seems that they may, indeed, move on – except, of course, the title of the show is somewhat of a hint which way things are going to go.

We, the viewing audience, soon discover that Francis is carrying on an affair with a professor at Columbia University. That explains a few things. Soon, Robert finds out too. Within minutes of figuring it out, Robert decides that not only is a divorce a great idea but it’s Francis’ fault because she’s the “one who has done evil here.”

Robert embraces being the victim. Pretty much revels in it. Francis is put on the defensive, is locked (temporarily) out of the house, struggles to stay normal ‘for the kids’ (who, refreshingly and realistically have already figured the whole divorce thing out).

Again, this pretty much rings true based on my experience. It’s not like discussing divorce is ever easy, it’s not like there’s a particularly perfect time or place to even bring it up. In other words, it’s hard and the show really hits that and all the ‘cringing’ moments that go along with all that.

Through the first two episodes, it’s as clear as these things can ever be that it’s Francis’ fault because, well, gee, she’s having an affair. Robert, at this point, just appears to be a fairly bitter, fairly ineffectual, fairly irritating guy. We can wonder what Francis ever saw in him, but we can’t see any … reasons.

Then they agree to give counseling a shot. There, Robert hammers Francis over the affair. His ‘holier than thou, I’ve never fooled around in 20 years of marriage’ gets old fast as he repeats it over and over and over again. Until, with the fifteenth or so assertion, he adds, “But I could have.”

And there it is. Pressed, he admits has been in contact with his college girlfriend for, yup, 20 years. They talk every day, they go on group fishing trips with other alum, they text, they’re there for each other for ‘support,’ but, hey, even though they’ve been tempted, they’ve never consummated the relationship.

Francis is appalled, although now a lot of things make sense for her. She comments that Robert has been having an ’emotional affair’ for the entire length of their marriage. Robert doesn’t get it. He is utterly incapable of wrapping his head around the concept of an ’emotional affair.’ And, he’s not shy about saying it. Over and over, ‘but we didn’t have sex.’

He is without blame. Just friends. He adds that he was in fact, going to cut it off, end the friendship, in person when his women friend was in New York on a business trip. But horrible things got in the way.

“What,” Francis asks.

“Well, a horrible thing.”

“What,” she demands this time.

“Well,” he blabbers, “Nine-Eleven happened.”

Silence in the room, until Frances, “Oh, my god, you were going to meet her on 9-11.”

“Well, yeah, she was in a hotel near Ground Zero, but – ”

“You went down there to see her.”

“I wanted to make sure she was okay, but – ”

“You told everybody that you went down there to bring water to the first-responders.”

“Well, ah, that too … but everywhere was out of the water, so …”

With that, the therapist, who has never uttered a word through all the sessions, sighs, “Wow, dude …”

So, we get the other side. Now, the whole ‘let’s get divorced’ scenario makes sense. A lot of sense, really.

It also sums up a lot about what my office does on a daily basis – figure it all out before fixing anything.

Francis and Robert are on track to work it out through mediation, we’ll be checking back in a few episodes from now.