I was recently asked to give a presentation in an advanced seminar on Mediating with Families in Transition. I thought at first of the many film scenes that I and others have used, from the opening of Wedding Crashers to the moment in The War of the Roses when Michael Douglas gloats that he has “won” the negotiation to divide the house where he and Kathleen Turner will remain living until the settlement: “I got more square footage.”
But then I realized that most of my artistic experience of lost love comes through music rather than film, and so I prepared a presentation based on a favorite songs about the effects of divorce: “You Can Have the TV,” by Craig Carnelia, as sung by Karen Akers on her album “In a Very Unusual Way.”
The song, a monologue (or rather the only side of a conversation we hear) by a woman discussing the division of property with her soon-to-be ex, covers a remarkable but realistic range of emotions. The singer begins in a generous, or perhaps just a resigned mood. “You can have the TV, I’ll take the radio.” She repeats her offer, with “no, just the radio.” She also cedes the stereo, “cause it’s your stereo,” and logically observes “I won’t need the records, without a stereo.” She asks if she can have a particular chair “if you don’t want it,” and offers a “thank you” for everything she is given. She offers him the couch, because “you’ll need a couch.” (Won’t she?)
But her self-denial begins to break down after offering him the bed, with the words “I’ll buy a bed,” and all the history behind that offer. When they come to items that can be divided, she goes through the books, pots and pans, pictures, cash in the bank, using the phrase “we can split in half,” then says “Our friends, we can split in half/And we can both have half the blame.” The one thing she firmly announces she will take is “my single name.” Akers’ rising bitterness is perfectly articulated in tone and volume, but then fades back to the sense of hopelessness while repeating the past lines about tvs, radios, and couches.
Finally, her voice drops as she says “the dog,” pauses for the longest time in the song, and ends on a dying note, “you keep the dog/I’ll come around and see him now and then.”
My goal in using this song is to open a discussion of the many losses involved in any divorce or breakup. People lose, of course, a relationship, perhaps the central relationship of their adult lives. But they lose so much else. Objects with a long history for them, some of them perhaps irreparably tarnished and so better jettisoned than shouldered. Friends, even relatives or inlaws who may take surprising sides or simply disappear from both their lives. As the singer’s tone suggests at times, some people lose, at least for a time, their sense of self, their right to claim any of the past.
They also lose, in a real sense, their own past. What divorced person is eager to revisit, in person, in photographs, or even in memory, places that once defined who they saw themselves to be, when being there meant being two? How many funny, touching, or meaningful stories won’t be told again, because they belong to a life they don’t want to recall? Compare the comforting memories of a life spent together when death divides a couple, with the silence that buries the years lost to divorce.
Finally, the dog, to me, stands for the last, meager effort to save something from the past, while simultaneously acknowledging that the effort is futile, and will inevitably fade. (I know some will say “It’s just a dog,” but may I remind them that, though The War of the Roses ends in terrible catastrophe, the one survivor is the dog.)
Quite a downer, I know, and I asked that the presentation be given at the beginning of the class, so the group’s mood might recover before dismissal. But I think everyone who wants to work with couples needs to understand the depth and range of losses that the parties experience. For all our focus on the future, we need to acknowledge, whether with words, gestures, or silence, that we stand with them in their pain even as we are helping them move beyond it.