Divorce, Neurology & The Left Brain

Divorce, Neurology & The Left Brain. By Rod Dreher.

A reader writes to Mr. Dreher:

Mr. Dreher, …The news of your divorce coming around the same time as the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial has me thinking thoughts that had never occurred to me.

First of all, I can’t believe I’m riveted by a dang celebrity trial. It’s typically not something I spend any kind of time on. But riveted I am. Despite the fact that we are practicing conservative Christians, our own marriage is headed for a hard crash, because I’m confident that my wife is mentally ill. Watching the Depp/Heard trial, I learned about the existence of a condition called Borderline Personality Disorder, and poked around a bit. Wow. I don’t know if you have been paying attention to the trial, but Ms. Heard is said to have the condition. Here is a link

When I read that, everything became SO CLEAR to me about why my marriage is in so much trouble, and why therapy has not worked for us. I found in my online research that when you are in a relationship with someone with BPD, they can treat you cruelly, but then hold you responsible for not being close to them. It shocked me to find this out, because this is how my wife has been dealing with me for years. It’s the same dang dynamic. She complains all the time that I won’t show her affection, and I’ve said to her that it’s hard to feel affection for somebody who spends so much time telling me how much I’m failing her. I quit doing that because that would just make her blow up at me.

I feel so alone facing this. To be honest, the kids are the only thing holding us together now, and I worry all the time about how much damage we are doing to them by our fighting. I try not to engage her, because there’s no such thing as winning these fights, but that doesn’t stop her from ripping me up in front of the kids. I have been stuck inside this crazy house for so long that I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing by being a doormat, but minimizing the fighting, or if I should just end this hopeless situation. When you said about your own divorce that people should be careful not to judge, because nobody knows what really goes on inside a marriage, that really resonated with me. Most people who see us probably think my wife and I are a respectable middle-class Christian couple. They have no idea how bad it is behind the walls of our nice middle-class house. I can only imagine that our kids are going to spend years in therapy because of what they saw growing up.

At this point, I have no idea what to do. My pastor advised me privately to “carry your cross,” and I get that we are supposed to do that as Christians, but this is destroying me on the inside, and God knows what it is doing to our children, and how it is making them think of marriage. Will they ever be able to form real attachments?

The reason I’m writing you is that I have found out in recent weeks that a lot of men I know are going through the same thing with their wives right now. Is it a Covid thing, do you think? The problems my wife and I have been having started a long time before Covid, but with all the discussion about general mental health issues that have gotten worse since Covid, I am curious to know what other people are going through. I would be interested to know what your readers say.

Turns out there are many such inquiries, recently. Could it be that social media use is enlarging the left hemispheric control of our brains, changing the way we are and the way we relate to each other? More detailed computers, less big picture and humanistic?

Mr Dreher replies:

This is really something, because I have been getting a surprising number of e-mails from readers saying pretty much the same thing. A lawyer told me that the divorce filings he’s been dealing with are way up in the post-Covid era, but what I’ve been hearing in particular from readers (all male readers, I hasten to add) is that they are enduring marriages in which their wives have intense emotional disorders that they (the wives) either refuse to get help for, or that conventional marital therapy doesn’t correct. …

Interestingly enough, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist points out in his 2009 book The Master And His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World that in modern times, we see a sharp increase in schizophrenia, anorexia, autism, borderline personality disorder, and other diseases associated with under-function of the brain’s right hemisphere, and over-function of the left hemisphere.

The book goes on to talk about how we have created a culture that conditions us to accept alienation, decontextualization, disembodiment, and fragmentation, because that is how the left hemisphere construes the world. Look at this mentally ill young woman on Tiktok, the social media platform that has sparked an upsurge in young people claiming to have multiple personality disorder:

It seems to me that this would be an example of the kind of thing one would expect in a culture that rewards this kind of insanity. Similarly with the transgender fad, it is impossible to believe that gender dysphoria, a real psychological condition that was observed in a vanishingly small number of people until a short time ago, is in the current moment not a symptom of advanced cultural breakdown along the lines Dr. McGilchrist discusses in The Master and His Emissary. …

So what this reader’s letter today has me wondering is whether or not the loss of social stability in the modern era has made it more likely that these psychological maladies will emerge, and that they will destroy marriages. Yesterday I quoted this from McGilchrist’s more recent book The Matter With Things:

Indeed, if you had set out to destroy the happiness and stability of a people, it would have been hard to improve on our current formula: remove yourself as far as possible from the natural world; repudiate the continuity of your culture; believe you are wise enough to do whatever you happen to want and not only get away with it, but have a right to it — and a right to silence those who disagree; minimise the role played by a common body of belief; actively attack and dismantle every social structure as a potential source of oppression; and reject the idea of a transcendent set of values.

Let me put the point more directly: is it the case that this man’s failing marriage is not merely a sad story about a psychologically unwell wife and her long-suffering husband, but also has a broader cultural and social dimension linked to this time and this place?

hat-tip Stephen Neil