In a weekly column, Daily Maverick takes a look at some of the lesser reported news in South Africa and further afield. This week: spectacular splits.
Breaking up is hard to do, which may explain why, over 700 charges and innumerable scandals later, we still have the same President; why Pravin Gordhan was able to hang on by the fingernails for so long, or why Brexit has caused widespread hyperventilation. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” Theresa May warned in January, which in its recklessness is not unlike your average personal break-up speech.
But as bizarre as the political arena may get, it has yet to outdo the daily struggles of ordinary people. On a domestic scale, the most surreal wars are waged with great solemnity, which is why I have endless respect for divorce lawyers. It must be awfully difficult to keep a straight face when it’s not so much The War of the Roses as a particularly dark episode of The Simpsons or a battle of logic with South Park’s Towellie. It’s said that if you lose, don’t lose the lesson, but sometimes one has to search hard for that nugget of wisdom. Without further ado: the decade’s most dastardly divorces.
Lesson the First: Thou shalt not misbehave in front of a parrot
A woman in Kuwait frogmarched her husband to the police station, parrot in tow, to report his infidelity (adultery being illegal there). Birdie bigmouth had been spouting saucy lines the unfortunate wife knew her husband hadn’t been saying to her, so she took the parrot along as a witness. According to Al Shahed Daily, authorities did not pursue the suspected philanderer as they could not prove Polly hadn’t picked up the fruity language from the television.
A Chinese woman, meanwhile, was horrified when she returned from a month-long trip to hear her beloved Mynah bird repeating the words “divorce”, “I love you” and “Just be patient”. According to Xinmin Evening News, she promptly gave her husband his marching orders and filed for divorce, although the bird’s evidence was ruled as inadmissible in court. (Don’t scoff too hard: at least one bird has been put into a witness protection programme of sorts after “seeing something he wasn’t supposed to” and talking about it incessantly.)
Lesson the Second: Thou shalt not misbehave in front of a camel
A number of feuds in Saudi Arabia have been triggered by quarrels over camels, but perhaps the most intriguing involved a woman who told her husband she loved her father’s camel more than she loved him. Understandably, he divorced her in front of the camel.
Lesson the Third: Consider carefully the donation of body parts
It’s your standard love story. Boy meets girl, boy gives girl kidney, girl leaves boy, court battle begins over kidney. In the mid-2000s, a US surgeon from Long Island donated a kidney to his wife. She filed for divorce, and he wanted his kidney back. The case dragged on for years, but courts eventually ruled that the kidney was not a “marital asset”. More recently, a UK woman asked her ex-husband for her kidney back after he allegedly cheated on her. She’d rather give it to a worthier candidate, she said.
Lesson the Fourth: It’s just social media
Research released in the UK in 2015 claimed one in seven married people considered divorce over their spouse’s postings on social media, with a quarter saying the above sparked arguments at least once a week. It’s a global pattern, apparently: a woman in India filed for divorce when her husband failed to change his relationship status to “Married” on Facebook. A Saudi man, meanwhile, was annoyed after arguing with his wife’s brother on the family Whatsapp group. When his brother-in-law removed him from the group, he divorced his wife. Not to be outdone, two American brothers divorced their wives by simply sending them the word “Talaq” three times on Whatsapp, which their wives and at least one Imam argued made a mockery of both marriage and other ethical aspects of Sharia law.
But it’s not all unfriending and detagging. On the other end of the spectrum, Instagram and Twitter saw a stream of #divorceselfies, where happily split couples posted pictures of themselves getting along.
Lesson the Fifth: It’s never too late to start again
Breaking the record for the world’s oldest divorcees was an Italian man who, at 99, found letters his 96-year-old wife, Rosa, had written to a lover in the 1940s. Just days before Christmas, Antonio C filed for divorce after 77 years – and don’t let him hear you say a word about digging up old cows.
The previous record was held by Bertie and Jessie Wood, who divorced just two years ahead of their 100th birthdays. Their family refused to discuss the divorce, saying it was too painful.
But if it makes you feel any better, it really is never too late to start again. This American Life chronicled the story of 90-year-old Vicky DeVito, who after decades of resenting men following her husband’s infidelity, got engaged to 68-year-old Frank in the nursing home. Before meeting Frank, Vicky’s previous husband had lived on their living room floor for approximately 15 years, refusing to move out. Vicky, for her part, couldn’t afford to instigate divorce proceedings – so she simply ignored him for over a decade, taking care to passive-aggressively label her food jars: “Not for John.”
Lesson the Sixth: Splitting the assets isn’t a literal thing
A New York couple reached a similar stand-off when they divorced in the mid-2000s and both refused to move. The judge dismissed the case on grounds that “cruel and inhumane treatment” by the husband could not be established, Associated Press reported. The couple had been living for years around a large wall they built down the middle of their home, with doors barricaded on each side. The wife got the kitchen and the husband got the dining room, which makes one wonder if he ever got to eat in it.
Not to be outdone, a Cambodian man sawed his house in half and took his share to his parents’ place, despite the materials’ limited functionality after becoming, you know, no longer a house. More recently, a German man cut not only his house, but everything he and his wife owned, in half just to teach her a lesson. Because that’s a sure-fire way to make your spouse regret losing you.
Lesson the Seventh: Sometimes it makes no sense at all
Research published in Prevention magazine detailed some surprising statistical information. Sixty years of US census data reveals that divorce is more common among couples that have a first-born daughter; as well as among couples who split housework 50/50 (explanation: not forthcoming). Perhaps the strangest pattern: Couples who were at a healthy weight were more likely to divorce, with those weighing 250 pounds or more being the most likely to stay married. Or is it the other way around – that happy couples spend more time cooking together, eating out, or buying each other treats? Love, it turns out, might be fattening.
Lesson the Eighth: A technicality can make all the difference
A technically minded fellow named Joe threw his wife Karen a bit of a curve ball when she filed for divorce three years after he had a near-death experience. Giving new and literal meaning to the word “heartless”, he argued that divorce was impossible because the marriage had already been dissolved when his heart stopped beating. Unsurprisingly, an alert and chipper Joe was unable to provide satisfactory evidence to the courts that he was indeed dead. Which may just have worked in his favour – if, like many, he had left the majority of his estate to his wife, I’m not convinced he thought that one through.
What did Zsa Zsa Gabor say? “I’m an excellent housekeeper. I divorce a man, I keep his house.” She might just be getting a run for her money from this bunch. But hey, split happens. DM
Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.