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Divorce, Neurology & The Left Brain

Is there a connection between social fragmentation -- especially failing marriages -- and cultural conditions that produce madness?
Divorce, Neurology & The Left Brain

A reader e-mails:

Mr. Dreher, I wanted to say that I am very sorry about your divorce, and I appreciate you for respecting the privacy of your family and not talking about the details. Of course curiosities abound, but it sounds like you and your wife are doing the right thing for your kids by seeking an amicable parting. 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 to some information about it: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/borderline-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20370237

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.

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. I think I mentioned here the other day that a female friend of mine is going through a separation from her husband right now, because he has long shown signs of BPD, and refuses therapy.

The reader’s email this morning, one of a string of similar emails — all from men, note well — has me thinking. For one, these e-mails (and thank you, readers, for confiding in me) really underscore the point that nobody knows what really goes on inside a particular marriage. I found out recently details about the divorce some friends of mine had a few years ago. I had formed a judgment about who was probably at fault — and it turns out that I was 100 percent wrong! Like I’ve said, I never imagined that one day I would know what divorce is like from the inside, but now I do, and my God, are my eyes ever opening. And I’m going through a relatively amicable divorce, where there are no gross factors like infidelity, substance abuse, porn, or anything like that!

Anyway, back to the letter. 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. He writes about how in these suffering moderns, we observe














(Sorry for the formatting issues; you can’t cut-and-paste from a Kindle manuscript the way you can from a Word document or HTML story.)

McGilchrist’s book — this is the 2009 predecessor to 2021’s The Matter With Things, which I’ve been writing about here lately — discusses in fascinating depth the interaction between the brain and cultural forms. From philosopher Mary Midgeley’s 2010 review of the book in The Guardian:

This is a very remarkable book. It is not (as some reviewers seem to think) just one more glorification of feeling at the expense of thought. Rather, it points out the complexity, the divided nature of thought itself and asks about its connection with the structure of the brain.

McGilchrist, who is both an experienced psychiatrist and a shrewd philo–sopher, looks at the relation between our two brain-hemispheres in a new light, not just as an interesting neurological problem but as a crucial shaping factor in our culture. He questions the accepted doctrine that the left hemisphere (Left henceforward) is necessarily dominant, the practical partner, while the right more or less sits around writing poetry. He points out that this “left-hemisphere chauvinism” cannot be correct because it is always Right’s business to envisage what is going on as a whole, while Left provides precision on particular issues. Moreover, it is Right that is responsible for surveying the whole scene and channelling incoming data, so it is more directly in touch with the world. This means that Right usually knows what Left is doing, but Left may know nothing about concerns outside its own enclave and may even refuse to admit their existence.

Thus patients with right-brain strokes – but not with left-brain ones – tend to deny flatly that there is anything wrong with them. And even over language, which is Left’s speciality, Right is not helpless. It usually has quite adequate understanding of what is said, but Left (on its own) misses many crucial aspects of linguistic meaning. It cannot, for instance, grasp metaphors, jokes or unspoken implications, all of which are Right’s business. In fact, in today’s parlance, Left is decidedly autistic. And, since Left’s characteristics are increasingly encouraged in our culture, this (he suggests) is something that really calls for our attention.


McGilchrist’s suggestion is that the encouragement of precise, categorical thinking at the expense of background vision and experience – an encouragement which, from Plato’s time on, has flourished to such impressive effect in European thought – has now reached a point where it is seriously distorting both our lives and our thought. Our whole idea of what counts as scientific or professional has shifted towards literal precision – towards elevating quantity over quality and theory over experience – in a way that would have astonished even the 17th-century founders of modern science, though they were already far advanced on that path. (Thus, as a shocked nurse lately told me, it is proposed that all nurses must have university degrees. Who, she asked, will actually do the nursing?) And the ideal of objectivity has developed in a way that would have surprised those sages still more.

This notion, which now involves seeing everything natural as an object, inert, senseless and detached from us, arose as part of the dualist vision of a split between body and soul. It was designed to glorify God by removing all competing spiritual forces from the realm of nature. It therefore showed matter itself as dead, a mere set of billiard-ball particles bouncing mechanically off each other, always best represented by the imagery of machines. For that age, life and all the ideals relevant to humanity lay elsewhere, in our real home – in the zone of spirit. (That, of course, was why Newton, to the disgust of later scholars, was far more interested in theology than he was in physics.) But the survival of this approach today, when physicists have told us that matter does not actually consist of billiard balls, when we all supposedly believe that we are parts of the natural biosphere, not colonists from spiritual realms – when indeed many of us deny that such realms even exist – seems rather surprising.

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. (By the way, if you want to watch a clever and informative animated explanation of McGilchrist’s thesis, click here.)

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?

Very curious to know what you think. What are you seeing in your own marriage? The marriages of your friends? Please be anonymous if you have to. It’s just really strange to me that the announcement of my own divorce has brought in a number of letters like the one above, though none so precise. Then again, maybe my having been reading McGilchrist on the flight over this weekend made me especially alert to the reader’s concern.



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