Is Divorce Really All That Bad?
Jennifer Garner says it’s not as bad as you might think at the same time more people are against it. What’s up?
For some, the big news this week was that President Obama was in Cuba or the latest mishegas from Donald Trump, but in certain circles, the big news was about divorce.
More men and women are against divorce, according to a new poll, which came out right around the time that actress Jennifer Garner said her divorce from Ben Affleck “hasn’t been nearly as bad as you might imagine.”
Wait, what? How can something that is seen so negatively by society at large be not so bad for an individual?
Divorce was not something I thought I’d experience or wanted to experience, and yet when I did experience it, like Garner, it wasn’t all that bad.
Well, let me reframe that. When I divorced in my 20s as a childfree woman, no one flipped out about it. Yes, his parents and mine expressed some concern — his more than mine because his mother went to church and my parents were not religious — and both of us felt pretty devastated for a period, but we had no children and therefore we were not seen as “ruining” other lives beside our own.
When I divorced the second time, mom to two boys, 9 and 12, it was a very different story. In some ways a similar story to Garner’s — she’s mom to three children, Violet, 10, Seraphina, 7, and Sam, 4 — but not quite. She has millions to help her provide for her children (although even nannies can be problematic) and I did not. That obviously makes a difference financially if not emotionally. And when if you’re divorcing with kids, it’s much, much harder. You’re not only worried about yourself but about them; how will divorce impact them, how will you be able to co-parent, are you going to be able to survive, etc. Because of all that, we went to marital counselors, I went to a therapist on my own, I read a bazillion surviving-the-affair books, and I did a lot of soul searching. By the time we split, I knew it was the right decision, and we split as amicably as we could.
Which is to say, after the initial pain and grief, divorce wasn’t all that bad.
Fast forward to today and we have conscious uncoupling and divorce selfies; divorce is becoming kinder. So I’m curious why so many suddenly disapprove of the idea of divorce, and whether it matters if the couples have children or not. To me, that’s a big difference — does society really worry about childfree couples? — one that sadly doesn’t get answered by the poll.
What’s the deal?
Why we dislike divorce
Two years ago, M. Christian Green, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and a former lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, wrote that divorce doesn’t just affect a couple and their immediate family — friends, neighbors and entire communities are impacted as well. A divorce among those close to us makes us feel vulnerable, and we question our own marriage — if a couple we thought were perfectly happy together splits, well, what about us?
According to my New I Do coauthor Susan Pease Gadoua, “we want couples to obey ‘the status quo’ so we know what to expect.” If a marriage lasts a lifetime, “we feel safer.”
Astro and Danielle Teller’s book Sacred Cows: The Truth About Divorce and Marriage also questions the status quo when it comes to marriage and divorce; as they told me, “society, rightly or wrongly, believes it will get what it wants if it gets people to get married and stay married.
America has taught us that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human right — yet because our society feels threatened by divorce, it does not particularly want to attach that concept to the dissolution of marriage. We want to talk about love and happiness on the way into marriage, but after the exchange of rings, we demand an old-fashioned narrative, one of self-sacrifice, loyalty and hard work.”
That’s true, and often it’s the women who are told, implicitly or not, that it’s their job to make their marriage work.
‘Not as bad as you might imagine’
But I want to get back to Garner’s statement that divorce is “not as bad as you might imagine.” Of course, that’s her experience — not necessarily yours, mine or anyone else’s. That said, she does qualify it with “as you might imagine,” which makes me think without a doubt that’s because of what we keep hearing about divorce. The societal narrative is that something must be wrong with you if you can’t make your marriage work — you’re not committed enough, you’re not willing to do the hard work, you’re deeply flawed or incredibly selfish, etc. — instead of acknowledging that, hey, sometimes people make mistakes. It also places longevity higher than marital quality; you can treat your spouse like crap for years and he or she may put up with it for whatever reason (fear, dysfunction, lethargy, etc.), and society will toast you for having a successful marriage because you made it until one of you dies.
What’s perhaps most disturbing about the survey is that we still seem to view divorce as a moral failing, that if you just tried harder you’d be able to do it! Rather than the therapist/societal mantra of “work harder, work harder, work harder,” I wish someone (besides The New I Do) would say, “try something different.” What I’ve discovered from my own experience with several marital counselors as well the ones Susan and I presented before, they are often not equipped to do that. They don’t know how to suggest, say, opening up a marriage that’s been sexless, or living apart together to maintain connection as well as freedom, or removing the sexual/romantic part of their relationships so they can co-parent their kids. We’re just not fully there yet. And that’s why society continues to shame and blame people, even though they often do whatever they can to keep it together — 58 percent of men and 37 percent of women wait five years or longer to divorce because of their children. But, let’s not forget that by the time those unhappy parents eventually divorce, they’ve subjected their kids “more problematic parenting practices as long as 8–12 years before the divorce than do parents who do not divorce.”
Who’s benefiting from that?
Still, I wonder what’s behind the bump in those who look down on divorce. Any ideas?
Want to learn how to try something different rather than “work harder” in your marriage? Order The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook. Originally published at omgchronicles.vickilarson.com.