''We have to separate,'' my wife told me. It was a late-summer evening eleven and a half years after we had gotten married. We were on our deck, drinking gin-and-tonics and smoking cigarettes, an entitlement of marital stress. The setting sun cast rose-colored shadows across the mansard roof of the Victorian elementary school visible beyond the hickory tree in our next-door neighbor's backyard. A straggling bumblebee drowsed in the pots of geraniums that, together with the wooden boxes of clematis and petunias and ivy, lined the deck's warping plank floor. A light breeze out of the east enhanced the quiet by sweeping the noise of the city traffic seaward. The elementary school had an outdoor basketball court, where sometimes after work I would take my daughter to practice her pitching, and the noise from a game -- preadolescent shouts, the tripping thump of the dribbled ball and its rattled smack against the metal backboard -- drifted across the intervening gardens.
''We do?'' I asked. After all, our marriage wasn't hellish, it was simply dispiriting. My wife and I didn't hate each other, we simply got on each other's nerves. Over the years we each had accumulated a store of minor unresolved grievances. Our marriage was a mechanism so encrusted with small disappointments and pretty grudges that its parts no longer closed.
My wife exhaled impatiently -- she was English and had that hurried European way of smoking -- and tapped her cigarette into a flowerpot.
''What about the money?'' I asked.
In the three years in which we had struggled toward, floundered against, and pulled back from the idea of separating, I had played the accountant. I was bad at math -- I disliked even the minor computation involved in paying bills, usually postponing the chore for so long that late fees appeared on the following month's statements -- but I had sat down and figured out the cost of supporting two households, and tax disadvantages of filing separately, what I made, what I'd need, and what my wife and our daughter would need.
Twenty years after finishing college, I was finally earning a decent though hardly spectacular salary. If we separated, I'd again end up living like an undergraduate. I saw the life quite clearly: a shabby railroad apartment, bookcases made from milk crates, fried-egg sandwiches, a portable black-and-white TV with tinfoil wrapped around the antenna. My wife's situation would be just as grim, and probably, in the long run, even worse. She had no job. She had come down with Parkinson's disease shortly after our daughter was born, and her medical condition would make it difficult for her to find work now. What was she supposed to do? How would she support herself in the years ahead?
''We can't stay together just for the money,'' my wife said.
I thought about the phrase ''an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.'' There is something deceptive about it. The passive, impersonal structure, the dry legalities of the language, conceal a lie. It suggests that a marriage has an independent organic existence. It exonerates us by portraying us as merely the clinicians pronouncing the body dead.
But at what precise point does the breakdown of a marriage become irretrievable? The moment we declare it so, and no sooner. And the marriage doesn't just break down. We disconnect the life support. While it requires will to make a marriage work, it also requires a horrifying act of will to bring one to an end.
My wife put out her cigarette and looked at me. There was nothing insistent or demanding in her eyes, the pale gray-green eyes of her Russian grandparents. She was, I realized, making an appeal to me. We had to help each other bring it to an end. I felt, at that moment, an exalting pure sense of complicity and understanding. To summon the strength to proceed we would need to reassure each other, to depend on and trust each other. We would have to work together to dissolve the marriage in a way we had never been able to do to sustain it. I saw all this with a piercing clarity, and then I thought, But if we are capable of such a delicate and complicated collaboration, maybe we should stay together after all.
My wife and I were falling through the darkness. We had been for years. Our impending separation rushed toward us, but spinning in the black air, unable to see, we had no idea when the moment of impact would actually arrive.
During that time the national debate over divorce had grown louder and, I felt, increasingly fatuous. Getting divorced had come to be regarded as an act of cowardice, a failure of character, an abdication of responsibility. Even liberals, who in the seventies had been proponents of divorce reform, began to consider it a display of intellectual independence to attack the ''divorce epidemic,'' as it was invariably called. They connected the existence of the epidemic to the supposedly pernicious spread of ''moral relativism.'' Instead of faithfully adhering to codes -- of duty, honor, family -- they complained, people nowadays continually improvised their ethics to justify the indulgence of their desires.
At its worst, the charge reeked to me of self- righteousness, of false piety, and at times of religious intimidation. It was the rehearsed indignation of professional moralists who had discovered a market for sanctimonious rhetoric. But even at its most sincere, it simply seemed oblivious to lived experience. No one I knew who had decided to divorce undertook it lightly. It was a wrenching decision, fraught with remorse and heartache, imperiled by moments of genuine terror, and it had almost invariably been postponed for years. Who had the right, I wanted to know, to moralize about these choices, to add the weight of public censure to the private anguish they already entailed?
Most of the couples I knew who had gotten divorced, particularly those with children, seemed irreparably altered. Defeat haunted them. Their futures had been sapped of meaning. Other couples treated them gingerly, like convalescing soldiers, but also with caution, as if their misfortune might be contagious.
As the social debate intensified, and as my wife and I continued our discussions about separating, divorce had begun to ravage our neighborhood. It struck like some form of natural disaster, leveling one house while leaving the next intact. Our daughter's nursery school teacher, a vivacious woman with dark eyes and plump legs, was the first person my wife and I knew, the first of our age, to get divorced; she and her husband, she later explained to my wife, simply didn't get along. One day our daughter came home to tell us that the teacher, while leading the class in song, had burst into tears. I expected my daughter to ask us why, but children are much more comfortable with life's inexplicabilities; she said nothing.
An actor and a legal clerk, the parents of one of our daughter's schoolmates, split up next. So did an editor and a publicist known for their nightmarishly relentless quarreling. Then a neighbor, a software programmer and passionate libertarian, left his wife; their son's misbehavior became compulsive and he was thrown out of school. The architect and the former advertising agent we had become friends with, the accountant and the school psychologist whose son pestered our daughter in the preschool they both attended, the police detective and the physical therapist in the squat limestone at the end of the block -- they all separated.
As time passed, the breakups became increasingly spectacular and baroque. The longer the marriage, the more deranged the couple seemed to have become. One man, afraid to confront his domineering wife, moved out with no prior warning and lived in his office for the next four years. Another man, whom I had met when we brought our wives to the same Lamaze class years ago, moved into the basement of his house when his wife refused to go off Prozac. It cost them one thousand dollars in legal fees just to decide what type of door would separate the basement from the main house.
I ran into a man on the subway whose daughter played on my daughter's baseball team. I had seen him at games, a slight fellow with sad watery eyes and a gray mustache yellowing at the corners of his mouth. He was divorced, he said. His wife had become a lesbian. She used to beat him, he said, but she had acquired sole custody of their daughter by falsely claiming he had beaten her. Although she had moved in with another woman, and although the only time he could see his daughter was at the baseball games, the courts required him to pay both child support and maintenance. I looked at him speechlessly. He shrugged and, as the train pulled into his station, touched me on the shoulder and said, ''See you at the game.''
These stories belied the notion that, as social conservatives and their liberal allies liked to maintain, divorce had become a casual, guilt-free enterprise pursued by the irresponsible with the encouragement of a licentious society. They frightened me. But the stories also aroused a voyeuristic excitement. It was not simply the display of psychic wounds, the blood and pain of lives in collision, that attracted me. I wanted to know how they all knew when they had reached an irretrievable breakdown. How did they know they had arrived? I sought the points of demarcation.