Just because something is common does not mean it is devoid of stigma. Divorce exemplifies this phenomenon, a practice that is quite prevalent in society yet often still invokes feelings of shame.
Perhaps the problem with society’s view on divorce is that it is often looked at as a failure of sorts. If a couple decides to end a marriage, it is often interpreted as a resignation that they made the wrong choice of getting married in the first place. Both the parties involved, as well as outside observers, might question how the couple got into this situation when the intent was to stay together forever. Did they ignore any ominous signs that their relationship might not succeed? Were they in some ways oblivious to their incompatibility when they decided to take on the commitment of marriage together?
And what about the “repeat offender” divorcee? How could someone get divorced once, only to make the same mistake again!! Perhaps one divorce is understandable – a mistake borne of inexperience and some bad luck. But to get divorced twice or three times, is that not a reflection of an individual’s poor decision making? Doesn’t it prove that the repeat divorcee must have been the primary problem party in each of the marriages?
Of course this perspective is harsh and judgmental and fails to appreciate the complexities of people, relationships, and perhaps most importantly, the inherent change that dominates all of our lives.
Dr. Elizabeth Cohen, a psychologist also known as “The Divorce Doctor”, joined Preconceived to debunk some of the misconceptions and stigmas regarding divorce. Her comments on change resonated with me most.
If we are lucky, we all change throughout our lives. For if we change, it means we are open to life’s lessons and learn from our experiences. While change is uncomfortable, it is something that should be embraced and valued. Do you really want to be the exact same person in twenty years from now that you are today? I am not suggesting we should each yearn for a complete overhaul of our personalities and drastic changes in interests and core beliefs. I am merely acknowledging that change can be a form of growth, a sign that one has indulged in life’s journeys and challenges.
It is easy to follow the logic that if individuals change over time, then the dynamics of a couple will surely change as well. When a couple decides to get married at age thirty, perhaps that is the right choice at that moment in time. And fifteen years later, maybe it is still the right choice to stay in the marriage; often the two individuals change together and grow in corresponding directions. But sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the world alters the two partners in different ways and diverges their interests, outlooks on life and goals for the future.
Does that mean the marriage was a mistake in the first place? Of course not. It just means that a union that once served two people well no longer does. And it is not a failure that they were unable to keep their marriage alive; perhaps the kinder, and more honest truth, is that they refused to become lost inside the marriage. Perhaps they insisted on maintaining their individuality and unique sense of self over conforming to a relationship in which they no longer fit.
Finding a lifelong partner can be one of humankind’s most beautiful joys. To grow with someone through the ups and downs of life can nurture love, companionship and trust that few other connections offer. But we must not judge those who decide their marriage no longer offers them these benefits. We should applaud them for the braveness it takes to recognize when something is no longer working and thus decide to pivot accordingly.
One might argue that a key element in choosing the right partner is predicting how that partner will react to the twists and turns of life. But predicting your own future, let alone predicting the course of someone else’s trajectory, is impossible. The changes we incur over our lifetime are complicated because they are unanticipated. The experiences that move the needle in a different direction than expected are challenging because we never saw them coming.
The institution of marriage has changed over time. As Esther Perel chronicles in her book, Mating in Captivity, marriage was once a means of joining finances, sharing property and raising children. The concept of love as the pinnacle of a solid marriage is a relatively new marital framework in the context of history.
Property, inheritance and the pillars upon which marriage were built centuries ago, are in many ways more static and predictable than the feelings of love on which marriages are predicated today. We also live in an era in which change occurs at a much more rapid pace. So while the values of marriage have evolved with time, one could argue that the institution of marriage to which many of us still subscribe has not adapted accordingly. But if modern marriage is outdated by its initial intent, why do people still get married?
Perhaps when entering into a marriage, a couple’s perspective needs to change compared to what it was in the past. The vow of staying together “until death do us part” presumes that we have more certainty about the future than we really do. A promise of certainty and lifelong commitment can provide a feeling of security. But baked into that security is a sense of false knowing, a mirage that we have full control over the paths our lives will take. So maybe when a couple embarks on marriage, the best thing to do is acknowledge that the future is unknown. Two people can be in love and decide to fully devote themselves to one another. But as opposed to fixating on an impossible to predict future, simply embracing in the present and nurturing your current love may be the best course.