Friday, February 09, 2007

divorce: the escape hatch of choice

"Divorce!" my students yelled during a recent exercise.

If you're an EFL teacher, you've doubtless done some form of this exercise before. Mine was tailored to meet the needs of a reading/writing class. The exercise in question involves taking questions and answers from an advice column (preferably brief questions and brief answers), separating the questions from the answers, then getting the students to match the "Q"s and "A"s. That in itself isn't hard for Korean students to do: they've spent most of their lives learning to read English, and can often pick up context and lexical clues quite quickly.

My variation on the exercise (a fairly standard one, I admit) was to get the students to discuss the questions before they ever saw the advice columnist's answers. As we had spent the week talking about issues related to homosexuality and marriage, I gave the ladies some questions from an online advice column. The questions were along these lines:

1. I'm marrying a man who has a 10-year-old daughter. Is it all right for her to be a junior bridesmaid?

2. My wife has been lashing out at both me and my daughter. While some of this anger is work-related, there's simply too much anger there, and I don't know what to do.

3. My husband, who's been going through AA and has managed to stop drinking, has become more insulting and judgmental around the house. Whenever I try to talk about some serious issue with him, he chuckles, shakes his head, and walks off. He also makes pronouncements about different aspects of our marriage. It's driving me nuts.

4. I've been married to my husband for barely a year, and I'm worried because he's an outdoorsman who likes extreme sports. He's planning on going on an expedition soon, and this one looks as though it'll tax him. He might not even make it back home. We've discussed kids, and he's promised to stop adventuring when we have kids, but I'm worried about this upcoming trip. What can I do to stop him?

5. I'm a writer and artist, and my husband is a computer software engineer. We're poles apart in how we approach the world, and now we're fighting all the time. What can we do?

I was surprised at the number of times my students suggested "Divorce!" as the immediate solution for some-- nay, most-- of the above scenarios. I wonder whether this indicates that social attitudes toward divorce are rapidly changing in Korea, or if it's simply a function of undergraduate immaturity. Even now, divorce is something of a stigma in Korea, especially for female divorcees, who do not feel free to talk too openly about their marital status. I feel that this shouldn't be the case, but like it or not, such is the reality on the peninsula.

I don't think divorce should be one's first choice when it comes to marital conflict, but I have no problem with keeping it in reserve if the situation should prove unsalvageable. American divorce statistics remain high compared to years past: somewhere around 50% (a freighterful of US divorce stats here and here). An interesting question to ask is whether the data should be interpreted positively or negatively. While some folks lament the increase in the US divorce rate (and I imagine the same lament occurs, at some level of public discourse, in Korea as well), others view the stats as a sign that spouses, women in particular, are standing up and saying "no" to rotten relationships.

As long as people are aware of the dangers of using divorce as a too-easy escape hatch, I would say that it remains a perfectly legitimate option for unhappy couples of any nationality. But in the meantime, my first instinct would be to ask a given couple to work through their problems before resorting to drastic measures. Divorce is a significant rupture in one's existence; no one enters the procedure lightly. It is especially problematic when children are involved, particularly when those children are minors who cannot fully understand the situation. Tread carefully, O Couples.

And to my students I say: don't reach so quickly for the escape hatch. You might be depressurizing a perfectly flyable plane.

POST SCRIPTUM: One student, one of the meekest and mildest in the class, said something that struck me regarding scenario #4 above, the scenario about the wife who wants to stop her daredevil husband from taking his next hazardous trip. When I asked my students what they, as the wife, would say, this girl declared to her imaginary husband, "If you love me, you won't go!"


I managed to stretch this out for comedy for about three or so minutes, because the other students were also wowed by this brazen pronouncement. Using emotion-based threats to cajole and manipulate people is always low, and I think this girl realized that as soon as she heard her classmates' gasps and my chortling. But we all had fun, and some of the other students' answers to different questions were, arguably, crazier.



Anonymous said...

With a class like that, I'd just give up and leave.

Anonymous said...

I would like to recommend an advice column to use for future exercises:

Savage Love

In other news, the word verification function has come up with my new nickname for you: Kevse. No idea what it means, but it's too close to be coincidence.

Kevin Kim said...


Savage Love rocks!


I see where you're coming from, but DAMN, that was a fun class. One thing about these girls... they're always ready to talk about relationships. What they rarely get, though, is a male perspective.