Vicki Larson Journalist, mother, thinker

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Vicki Larson Journalist, mother, thinker

Why We Shouldn’t See Divorce As a ‘Failed’ Marriage…

I’m as big a fan of failure as anyone. After all, we often learn our most important lessons from making mistakes and trying again. We rarely get things perfect on the first try. Even Thomas Edison supposedly made 1,000 attempts at crafting a light bulb until he got it right. So when a reporter asked him, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison was quick to respond, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

Although as a whole, society doesn’t necessarily applaud failure, we at least accept it for certain things — careers, schooling, scientific research and medicine — having faith that something better will result from the next try, or maybe even the next one after that.

“What we perceive as a failure may simply be our inner being’s way of telling us that we are ready to move to a new level of growth,” writes Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much author Anne Wilson Schaef.

But not when it comes to the end of a marriage. No, instead of seeing a marriage that ends before death as something that didn’t work out as planned and now offers us a chance to “move to a new level of growth,” we see divorce as a “failed” marriage.

My marriage ended after 14 years, but no one better tell me that my marriage “failed.” No, it ended in divorce. And, yes, I did start over.

Although people use the phrase “failed marriage,” what they really mean is that the former spouses are failures. Society sees people who divorce as quitters. People who didn’t try or work hard enough. People who don’t understand what commitment and “for better or worse, in sickness and in health” means. People who put their own happiness and needs above those of their children (although not everyone who divorces has kids!).

But I struggle to wrap my head around that. Does it mean that a woman who leaves her hubby because he beats the crap out of her physically and emotionally has a failed marriage? Does it mean that a man whose wife up and leaves him for her lover, a choice he doesn’t even get to have a say in, has a failed marriage? Does that mean a wife or husband whose spouse refuses to go to counseling together — or do anything — to better their relationship has a failed marriage if it ends?

If every divorce is a “failed” marriage then by that same reasoning, a loveless, sexless, contemptuous and alcoholic marriage that lasts until one spouse kicks over would be a “successful” marriage (we won’t even mention how that would most likely screw up their kids for a long, long time). In actuality, it is only a successful commitment, and why would we place commitment above loving, honoring and cherishing?

Being able to stick it out forever at great cost to one’s emotional and physical well-being is hardly “success.”

Perhaps no one believes that more than William Pinsof, clinical psychologist and president of the Family Institute at Northwestern University who writes in “The Death of ‘Till Death Do Us Part: The Transformation of Pair-Bonding in the 20th Century“:

For the first time in human history, divorce has replaced death as the most common endpoint of marriage. This unprecedented shift in patterns of human coupling and uncoupling requires a new paradigm, that is, a more humane approach for social policy, family law, and marital therapy. Some form of divorce or marital dissolution has always been with us, so it’s hardly a new concept. But the shift to ending more marriages by divorce than by death in the 20th century, he says, resulted from three major factors:

  • We’re living a lot longer
  • Women are better educated, earn more money and have readily available contraception, all of which gave them choice and made them less dependent on men (and that also benefited men, allowing for the rise in stay-at-home dads and more egalitarian partnerships, which we all say we want)
  • Changes in social values and the law, such as no-fault divorce (which, according to the studies Pinsof cites, don’t “cause” anyone to divorce who didn’t want to do it anyway; the laws just helped remove some of the stigma of divorce)

The fact that half of all married couples end up divorced by their 20th anniversary raises some serious questions on whether we are able to be “permanent, monogamous pair-bonders.” Kudos to those who can — happily, that is — but it’s obvious not everyone can; in fact, about half of us can’t, maybe even more given how many couples remain married in name only because of financial or health-care benefits.

We are sort of OK with allowing divorce in some cases, like addiction, infidelity and abuse, but that’s about it. But who decides what’s the “right” or “wrong” reason to divorce? Why should a spouse be labeled a “quitter” or “selfish” if he or she decides the marriage isn’t working? As Pinsof says:

Any marital therapist who has treated a wide variety of couples over a number of years knows that in certain circumstances, getting a divorce is a courageous and positive act. In such circumstances, staying married may reflect an inability to pursue what may be in the best interests of oneself, one’s partner, and even one’s children.

Speaking of children, Pinsof notes that, yes, children in the divorce boom of the 1960s and ’70s felt shame, isolation — even though there were millions of them — and a lack of social and emotional support. They were told their families were “broken.” Society didn’t have many — or any — supports in place for them or for their now-split families; divorce wasn’t even subject to serious scientific studies until the last quarter of the 20th century, he states. We didn’t know how to help kids of divorce.

Now we do, thanks to numerous studies that indicate the importance of good co-parenting relationships and keeping both parents involved in meaningful ways in their kids’ lives. That’s why Pinsof believes researchers shouldn’t compare kids of divorce to kids of happy marriages; if they must be compared to anyone, it should be with children in families with “unhappy and deeply troubled marriages,” which studies indicate are damaging.

Like it or not, divorce is here to stay. So now what do we do? Pinsof proposes that social policies, laws, research and therapists must recognize that and start to incorporate what’s already been happening for the past few decades — “a new pair-bonding paradigm that integrates the implications of the death-to-divorce transition.”

We marry for all sorts of reasons, including some less-than-honorable ones — our biological clock is ticking, we don’t want to be alone anymore, we want someone to support us. Still, most of us marry with the best of intentions. Sometimes that just doesn’t work out. We shouldn’t slap a failure label on people who divorce. Let’s have faith that they’ll do things better the next time — or maybe the time after that.