The Photo Finish That Accompanies Divorce

Written by Jennifer Graham

The family dog licks Tiger Woods’ face, as Elin Nordegren cuddles the couple’s daughter and newborn son. It’s their last family photograph – at least the last one the public saw. It was taken nine months before Woods famously crashed his car in 2009, shattering not only his windshield, but this 4×6 vision of familial bliss.

All broken families have them, the last picture of a doomed civilization still precariously intact. Mine was taken five years ago on a trip to Portland to celebrate a trio of family birthdays. In the picture, the six of us sit smiling on a boulder: Mommy and Daddy surrounded by happy, unsuspecting children, too young to notice that their parents’ knees point tellingly apart.

Last year, I found this photo under my daughter’s pillow, bent and sticky from the clutch of small hands. When she saw me notice, she looked embarrassed and pushed it deep under the sheets, presenting a dilemma everyone fouled by divorce must face: What to do with the family photographs?

For intact families, photographs are cherished treasures, the things you run for first if there’s a fire. But divorce destroys these heirlooms just like it does a couple’s bank balance or their children’s sense of security. The pictures are forever tainted, painful and awkward reminders of a period of life from which people have to recover.

Divorcees who remarry often purge these photographs quickly for the sake of the new spouse. It’s trickier for the spouse who does not remarry, particularly if he or she has custody of the kids. A parent who prominently displayed photographs of a broken family would be considered delusional, in need of sustained therapy.

But for a child, it’s a simpler thing. Her mother and father will always be her parents, her family, whether they live together or not. A last family photograph simply shows the people she loves the most, in one place together. For children whose parents divorce while they are young, it may be the only image they remember of their parents together.

I pulled the photograph out from under the covers, and my daughter and I looked at it while I smoothed the wrinkled edges.

“It’s okay,” I reassured her. “I like it, too. Why don’t you leave it out?”

The next time I looked, it was taped to the wall above her bed, somewhat askew, like our new lives. There it remained, despite several room reorganizations.

Before my divorce, I considered the separation of two feuding spouses a necessary evil. Now, three years later, I’ve come to consider it reverse utilitarianism: the greatest amount of misery for the greatest number of people.

Like paint, pain splatters. It dirties not only the children, but the divorcing couple’s parents, their siblings, their friends, all of whom face the agonizing reality that someone must now be cut, literally and figuratively, from the pictures that fill the albums and hang in the hallways. Divorcing people tend to think of their own problems, and not the ones they cause for others, like the invalidation of a decade’s worth of expensive portraiture.

Recently I tried to purchase the rights to publish Tiger Woods’ last family photograph for a website where I hoped to compile a collection. But a representative of Getty Images, which held the rights, told me the image had been withdrawn at the golfer’s request.

While it can still be seen on the Internet, the official photo is no more, just like the family. This is, in itself, a pity, because last family photographs, as painful as they may be, are powerful arguments against divorce. Even when knees point apart, publicly revealing private discord between spouses, there is value in these images. The last family photograph is a testament to what once was, and what still could be, if the couple refuses to give up on the marriage.

A marriage doesn’t break down overnight; plates rumble and shift long before fissures appear, before the husband and wife smile tightly one last time for the camera. Like any photograph, it’s not quite the truth, but not fully a lie. It’s a fiction in sepia tint.

But, unlike a fable or fairy tale, it’s an attainable fiction, if spouses refuse to quit when things get hard, if they truly embrace “for better or for worse”, if they refuse to entertain divorce as an option. Or, if already divorced, if they refrain from rushing to remarry.

In August, Lena Henderson and Roland Davis were married in New York, a half-century after their divorce. Their daughter, who is now a grandmother, told reporters, “It’s every child’s dream, every child who has ever been in a family where divorce has occurred, that your parents would come back together.” Fifty years later, the children of Lena and Roland had never stopped hoping. People who are contemplating divorce need to be reminded of that.

Meanwhile, my last family photograph has a new home. It’s still in my daughter’s room, though no longer taped to the wall. She put it in a photo frame that her father and his wife brought home from a trip to France. My daughter is 10; the irony escapes her. But grown-ups know. Whether it’s stuck to the bottom of a trash bin, or held aloft by a plastic Eiffel Tower, the last family photograph will exist forever in the wistful memories of the children of divorce. They are remmants of love, washed away, in a family’s tiny tsunami.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Twyla Teitzel says:

    Thank you for this touching and heart felt article.

    • Thank you, Twyla. I feel very strongly that those who have observed first-hand the devastation of divorce on children have an obligation to speak honestly about it — not sugar-coat it — in hopes of detering others from venturing blithely down the same thorny path. Jennifer

  2. This was one of the most honest and loving pieces I have ever read about divorce. Deeply appreciated — prayers to lift up you and your family.

  3. This captures well the emotions of a child of divorce. I inherited my parents’ wedding album and have very few precious photos of my intact family. These are important to me, because I have no memories of our young family together.
    Your perception is interesting that you have discovered divorce not to be a route to freedom but rather “the greatest amount of misery for the greatest number of people.”
    I wish you healing and a bright future. I’m hopeful that my children will always have an intact family, along with treasured photos that can be left on the walls.

  4. Your article reenforces the exact reason I won’t divorce, even though every fiber in my being screams to get out of my marriage. In my mind, I’m already divorced- emotionally, spiritually, physically, just not legally. I know the pain it would cause my 4 children.

    • Dear Nancy,

      You are a hero.. Even though I still loved my husband, he was having an affair and things were very difficult; my mind screamed, too. Intuitively, I also knew that divorce would not be good for my children. Unless you’re in a dangerous or other high conflict situation (in which divorce might be a better option and you should investigate that), remember that no matter how you’re feeling now, things change. In fact, change is the only constant in life. You were once in love and inseparable from the man you now seem to have no connection with. Research and plenty of personal stories show that things can and do turn around if couples are willing to put in the effort — and be patient. Divorcebusting is a great resource; check out the list of marriage educators on SmartMarriages. There are lots of good blogs here on our website, too. Four kids is a lot of kids to juggle. Tomorrow won’t always be the same as today. It may sound trite, but it is oh so true and your children are very lucky. Your efforts will pay off in their lives.

  5. Please don’t give up, not if you are safe and the children are thriving. If you stay married, in another 30 years, a few bad years will seem like just a weird blip on the screen. The idea that we have to be happy in a marriage all the time is a lie…. marriages are cyclical, like the seasons. That said, no one wants to sentence you to misery, so you can’t give up on the relationship, either. Spend lots of time with people invested in you and your family (married friends, supportive extended family); keep clear of singles, however well meaning, who may want you to be like them… find a vibrantly pro-family counselor whose stated goal is to keep the family together, not for each of you to find your bliss. and get tons of sleep and rest. Everything looks worse when you’re tired, and with four kids and a difficult marriage, I bet you are exhausted all the time. My heart goes out to you, and we are all pulling for you and your family to make it through this horrible time. Jennifer

    • elizabeth says:

      I have to agree do all you can to save a marriage. I would have done almost anything to save mine. However, it does take two people to want to save the marriage. You can fight for
      Jennifer this is so beautifully written and so heart wrenching. I wish it had been around when I was trying to convince my husband not to get divorced.
      I would have done almost anything to save my marriage and spare my children the pain they had to endure, but if the other person has already left the marriage emotionally and physically, then sometimes you just have to move on.
      I do agree with your quote “the greatest amount of misery for the greatest number of people.” That said it so well – it so fully explains what it is to go through divorce.
      I still have the family photos around the house – for my kids. They are precious to them and though they hurt my heart to see – the loss of the love I still felt and believed in – I am trying to instead embrace the memories I felt at the time they were taken, which was great and undying love.
      Thank you Jennifer for your story. If it saves even one marriage – what a blessing that will be.

  6. Jennifer, thank you for writing such a well-written article showing what divorce looks like from a child’s perspective. I’ve shared this article with my own students so they can see this often overlooked perspective from a child’s mind.

  7. From someone very seriously contemplating divorce, thank you so much for this article. My son is 1, and I’ve been telling myself that it’s better to divorce when he’ll have no memory of the family that was, so he won’t have anything to miss. But I see, by the story you shared about your daughter, and the children of the Davises, that my theory is a very weak one. And, thank you for your hindsight thoughts. Once upon a time, I thought it was true that people have to learn from their own mistakes, but now that I’ve painfully suffered through so many of my own, I’m thankful when others share experiences that I can learn from. I may still make mistakes, but at least I’ve got a better perspective now. 🙂

    God bless you and your family!

    • Hi Shannon, thank you for sharing your perspective. Like Jerry Maguire, I have become comfortable with my life as a cautionary tale. My own parents split when I was an infant, and while this may be easier than enduring a divorce at, say, age 10, the hole is still the same. I’ve heard people dismiss “staying together for the sake of the children” as a ridiculous, antique notion, but in fact, I there’s no better reason to remain in a marriage. It’s the greatest gift you can give your child, to grow up in the presence of both people who love them the most.

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