Has divorce become mainstream?

by Kristin on October 6, 2010

in Love, family & community

Photo by Kevin Dooley

Some ripples of intrigue and even snark passed through social media sites yesterday, when the Huffington Post announced its plans to launch a vertical about divorce.

Some, like  New York Magazine, complained, tongue-in-cheek:

Instead of, say, delightful tales of brutal marriage breakups, the site will offer “advice to divorcees about dating and raising children.” Because if there’s anything more fun than getting divorced, it’s getting advice from a blog about how to do it.

But others, like Delia Lloyd of Politics Daily, said this type of focus on divorce is important, calling it a “sign of the times.”

…it’s one thing to know that divorce is in the air and it’s another to say that out loud…. Which is to say that when a mainstream publication like The Huffington Post makes divorce a special focus—on par with, say, “religion” and “politics” and “education”—that’s really saying something. …we are witnessing a shift wherein divorce is now firmly a part of our cultural zeitgeist, rather than eternally outside it.

The reality of divorce can be consuming

I think about this a lot—the prevalence of divorce, the stigma, the various effects. It’s hard not to. The last decade of my life has been indelibly marked by my own divorce and the events leading up to and following it.

First, for years, I struggled with a difficult marriage and my unwillingness to even consider divorce as a possibility. Then I struggled to accept the reality and work through the whole process of actually getting a divorce—from meeting with lawyers and counselors to making decisions about our children and sorting through our possessions. After that, I spent years feeling self-conscious about my status as a divorcee; I worried, too, about the effects divorce might have on my daughters.

Those worries haven’t completely gone away, but for the past four years I’ve been focusing on a much happier challenge: Navigating blended families and building good relationships with exes and their new partners. While this struggle inherently represents how far we’ve come, it’s still a struggle—one I have to face almost every day.

Why the stigma?

I’ve made efforts to push beyond the stigma, via my blog, in real-life conversations, and in my essay in the book Ask Me About My Divorce. Along the way, I’ve also tried to pinpoint why, exactly, divorce has been such a highly avoided subject. Because in and of itself divorce is not always a terrible thing. Yes, it usually comes out of a sad and miserable situation, but divorce itself isn’t necessarily sad and miserable—at least not for everyone. So why the stigma?

Here’s what I think, in two parts. First of all, divorce represents failure—something that should be good and beautiful, but has instead failed. Because of that, divorce has the capacity to kill our hope and ideals. No one likes failure, or dashed hopes. Why wouldn’t we want to avoid being exposed to divorce?

Which brings me to my second theory: We’re afraid that as the prevalence of divorce spreads, we become more likely of contracting it. There’s a general fear that normalizing divorce and discussions about divorce—making it an official section in the Huffington Post, for instance—is the equivalent of saying it’s OK. And in some strange leap of logic, that puts us at risk of catching the dreaded divorce disease.

Talking about divorce doesn’t cause divorce

The idea might seem absurd, but look at safe sex education, and the many people who fear it encourages teens to want sex more than they already do. But talking about sex is just that: talk. Which can be very good—it helps people feel more comfortable with their sexuality, and gives them the information they need to make good choices.

Similarly, talking openly about divorce offers a way to share the kind of information and support that could make all the difference in the world to someone going through divorce. Or it could be just what someone needs to help them avoid getting into a bad marriage in the first place, or to help them work through a salvageable marriage with their eyes open.

Am I suggesting that normalizing conversations around divorce just might prevent more divorces than it causes? Yeah, maybe I am. It makes sense to me. And at the very least, divorces are happening in large numbers, whether we like it or not. Positive, helpful discourse around the topic is a form of compassion toward people who have been through something really difficult—an experience they probably never envisioned being a part of their story.

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  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    Well said. As the child of a very messy divorce with aftershocks that went on for years and years, I’m encouraged to hear you speak of your own situation and how you’ve been able to move on without too much conflict.

    From where I sit, I think the children of parents going through a divorce, whether they are young or old, need to read about the things their parents are going through. I think I just felt like, “This sucks and it hurts,” but had very little beyond a few years of counseling to help me process it. It never came up with friends, etc. Thanks for sharing so openly about your own story. It really does help.

  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    I completely agree with Ed – children do need to understand, as best they can, what’s going on. And, of course, I agree with your own call for openness as a way to help erase the stigma of divorce. I think there’s a lot of talk about the stigma as it’s attached to the adults (the divorcees) themselves, but I remember feeling quite a bit of it myself – as if I was supposed to be pitied because I didn’t have a “normal” home.

    I’d be interested to know if the Huff Post vertical will include any articles or information from the child’s perspective (obviously a little tricky if the childre are underage thing, but worth exploring). Almost universally, people think of divorce as horribly detrimental to the children caught in the middle and that certainly can be the case. But I think there’s also another reality that doesn’t get talked about enough – the reality where the children are okay or even better off. I’m not saying I would have chosen to have divorced parents (if it had been my choice), but I’m certainly not any worse off because of it. There are plenty of us divorced-parents kids out there who grow up into perfectly normal, happy, (mostly) well-adjusted adults.

  • http://comfortjoy.blogspot.com Sharon

    I cheer this post and the comments above!

    I bristle to hear people talk about people getting divorced as “the easy way out.” There’s not a thing that’s easy about it! I didn’t get married to get divorced, yet that was the path that I went down when no other seemed possible. As a pastor, I know that no couple gets married with an “out” clause in the vows, not even the couple who looked to me like they couldn’t last a day, and they made it six months before splitting.

    I would also like to write (and I may) about all the other important commitments that people break more easily than people get divorced — like baptism promises, like “I pledge allegiance to the flag …” and like the promises that pastor and church promise to each other at the installation service. That doesn’t even include tax fraud, “me first” in the business world (and elsewhere), and breaking marriage vows without getting divorced and even without “committing (sexual) adultery.”

    It’s good to talk about, and to embrace, reality so life can be kinder and more humane for everyone. Thank you for writing this.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    ed, thanks for saying that. I know my experience doesn’t change what you went through with your parents, but I do believe it’s still important to share our stories as a way of offering hope and moving forward. I love that you point out how important it is for the kids to be able to read/listen/share stories about their experiences with divorce. So true.

    Meredith, I have said it before and will say it again: I love hearing your perspective, as an adult child of a relatively healthy divorce. in regards to my girls, both Q and S have close friends whose parents are divorced. I don’t think they end up talking about it directly much, but it certainly comes up indirectly, and makes them feel less alone. Having someone like you share your perspective at the Huffington Post is a fabulous idea. You should pitch it! :)

    Sharon, yes, the whole “easy way out” comment makes me crazy. Of course marriage is hard work. For most of us who have been divorced, it was *extra* hard work, and we worked at it for a long time—maybe even harder than most. Then, after all of that, we’re faced with this sense of failure, defeat and criticism. There’s nothing easy about it. Thanks for reading, and sharing your story, and amen to this: “It’s good to talk about, and to embrace, reality so life can be kinder and more humane for everyone.”

  • http://www.mennoniteroad.com Chris

    Kristin-thank you so much for this post. As someone who also has gone through the painful process of divorce (& now remarried), I resonate with your thoughts here-especially your ideas regarding the stigma of divorce. The kind of compassionate conversation you’re talking about is exactly what I would love to see take shape in our churches-how helpful and healing this could be. Thanks for sharing your story with us. Peace to you.

  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Genevieve

    I’m not so sure that making divorce mainstream WON’T result in more divorces. I think it’s entirely possible. After all, it’s just a fact of life that as certain taboo things become more commonplace and less stigmatized, there will be that sector of people who become willing to do it, having finally found that social approval that they felt they needed. How those numbers even out in the end, I don’t think any of us really know.

    BUT, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Divorce, in and of itself, isn’t the bad thing. It’s the symptom of a bad thing, the symptom of a disease: a loveless marriage, or a partnership that lacks mutual respect, a cycle of hate, etc. Divorce is the thing that has to happen to get people out of that situation, and I don’t know that we can ever prevent those situations entirely.

    In fact, whether divorce, or sex, will happen more as a result of these conversations seems to be, to me, beside the point. Making divorce, or sex ed, more mainstream with the goal of preventing divorce, or sex, seems counter-intuitive to me. The point should just be to educate, inform, and present options. Whether the divorce, or the sex, actually end up happening seems beside the point. The real concern is just that the divorce, or the non-divorce, or the sex-or the non-sex, that follows, be healthy and occur because the individuals involved had access to knowledge and support.

    Kristin, I’d really like to sometime hear more about what came between step one and step two of your divorce process. That is to say, what came between the unwillingness to have a divorce and your trying to work through reality and get the divorce in as sane a way as possible. I love reading about those personal revelations, what exactly the dominoes were that began to fall, what those epiphanies were and what triggered them, the ways you knew the tide was turning. Of course, it’s extremely personal, but I find that hearing people talk about those moments helps to put other life changes/mind changes into perspective.

    Thanks for the post!

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    Count me in as a child of divorce. I’ve seen it from that side and 30 years later I still experience the occasional “Aha!” moment as I reflect on my past.

    As an adult I have seen the best and the worst of people who are in some stage of divorce–which really shouldn’t be surprising because that’s like saying life brings out the best and the worst in all of us. Life happens. Perhaps we have played a role in what happens; perhaps not. I have seen levels of grace and forgiveness exercised by divorced people that cause me to envy their maturity, but not envy the price they paid to achieve it. My teenage years, combined with my parental experiences in an intact marriage, have given me a respect and admiration for “single working mothers.”

    Not talk about it? It’s the stuff life is made of. Perhaps the married should just quiet down a while and make room for the stories of those who have weathered the unexpected storm.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Chris, addressing the stigma of divorce within churches is one of my favorite topics (and least favorite experiences). :) Sometimes we become stuck thinking compassion takes so much work and time, but the reality is that often it’s just a matter of saying a few words, showing a bit of respect and helping people feel less alone. That’s what I wanted most of all when I was hurting.

    Genevieve, yeah, you’re probably right that we can’t know how these broader conversations will affect divorce rates, and in the end it’s neither here nor there. I guess my point is that the arguments for why *not* to talk more openly about divorce seem rather lame. It would be nice if we could toss all of the speculation out and simply agree that talking about the big issues of life is better than not talking about them. Regarding your question about what happened between steps one and two of my divorce process, I need to spend some more time thinking about that. Clearly I reached a tipping point of sorts; once I did, the idea of divorce rapidly shifted from being impossible to being necessary. I know that tipping point had something to do with moving to this town, away from our close community. Could be a future post…

    Ray, I didn’t know until now you had any personal experience with divorce. Often I assume that people who read my blog relate to it on just one level, rather than multiple levels. Kind of a silly thing to assume, eh? Anyway, I love how you put this: “Perhaps the married should just quiet down a while and make room for the stories of those who have weathered the unexpected storm.” Have you had any luck nurturing that kind of storytelling and listening at your church? Seeking out the perspectives of the minorities rather than the hard-to-miss themes of the majorities?

  • http://www.orangeshirtguy.com Dave Thurston

    You know how there are in certain areas of the US, there are plants that have fire-activated seeds – they germinate after a forest fire and then prosper because the overhead shade-creating canopy is gone?

    Instead of the “divorce represents failure”, I’d like many to start thinking of divorce being the fire that in certain situations, permits lives (loves) to germinate and begin anew – part of a natural (sometimes necessary) process that permits one to move out of a shadow and back into brilliant light.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Dave, I really like that analogy. It’s very much in line with my own experience—thanks for articulating it! And I’m sure you know, but I want to make sure others do, that *I* don’t think “divorce represents failure.” Well, I know I did for a while, but I don’t think that any more. I just know that it’s a pervasive pattern of thought out there—one that keeps people from having the conversations we need to have.