A 40-year-old never-married woman shook the magazine in my face, shrieking, "I am so mad about this story!" A 60-something friend whose husband unexpectedly left one night kept muttering, "No. There's no such thing as a good divorce."
Constance Ahrons, who coined the phrase “good divorce,” thinks split families should be called “binuclear” and meld seamlessly, sans stigma, into our social fabric. The message seems simple: With the right attitude, divorce can relatively soon lead to a pleasant mélange of happily combined relatives. But that wasn’t what I saw in my years counseling divorcing couples, and after writing The Case Against Divorce.
Yet a year post-divorce, most claim they’re stronger, better, wiser, and smarter, spurred by the split to growth and new directions. So why not “good divorce”?
Heartache, pulling away, financial loss and time detangling inevitably bring irreparable setback. Lots of spouses simply get dumped, with no recourse; 80% of US divorces “are unilateral, rather than truly mutual decisions,” notes researcher Maggie Gallagher. Still, healthy people wade through the hurt and make the best of the situation.
That doesn’t ameliorate the damage done. Divorce necessitates selfishness, hardening one’s character. Children never have a say in their parents’ parting, becoming collateral damage dismissed with the dubious phrase, “kids are resilient.” Judith Wallerstein, whose landmark 25-year study of divorced families convinced her of its ongoing harm, found that “by necessity, many of these so-called resilient children forfeited their own childhoods as they took responsibility for themselves, their troubled, overworked parents; and their siblings.” Trauma peaks in adulthood, she cautions, retarding love, sexual intimacy and commitment. Though some kids see why their parents split, all of them wish Mom and Dad could once again love each other and stay together.
Divorce mars the lives of loving in-laws, and unsettles otherwise content bystanders; it unsteadies society, de-stabilizes neighborhoods, and brings awkwardness and discomfort in social encounters.
Sure, they’ll survive, but everyone affected would rather dodge the agony.
A “culture of divorce” grew as new technologies gave us feel-good instant gratification, demoting the virtues of duty and obligation. Americans’ attention span shrank from reading tomes to watching TV shows to three-minute YouTube videos—and now to 10 seconds of disappearing SnapChat.
Our notion of commitment became shorter, too. Marriage pledges are now really “hopes,” easily revised by a Facebook status change. The New York Times’ “Vows” page recently began a new column called “Unhitched,” each week highlighting one couple’s estrangement and divorce.
Stripped of connection to gender or paternity, marriage becomes optional. Latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control reveal that 48% of women cohabited with a partner as a first union; the overall out-of-wedlock birth rate topped 40% in 2011. With men’s age at first marriage up to 27, and divorce devoid of stigma, we now joke that the only people enthusiastic about legalizing their relationships are homosexuals and priests.
Years ago, tempted cartoon characters paused to consider the coaxing of an angel perched on their right shoulder and a devil on their left. The conscience angel urged "Do your duty! Do what is moral and right! Defer gratification; you know what you ought to do" and the self-centric devil whispered "Do what feels good! Follow your heart! Get what you want, right now!"
Granted, not all marriages can survive, like the hopeless cases where an abusive or addicted spouse won't get help, or when one partner decamps. Ongoing cruelty, anger or restriction can force their target out. To overcome problems, both partners must want to stay married, and see some potential for good; the hitch is that our non-judgmental culture greases their paths out the door.
I learned two lessons counseling countless divorcing couples. First, a rejected mate usually requires at least half as long as the marriage to recover. Second, recovery occurs not when a spouse “feels good" about the former mate, but when she’s indifferent—a difficult goal if you’re entwined with new partners, shared children and ongoing “good divorce” accoutrements.
Our accept-it-all milieu grants so much leeway for individual happiness that relationships have no backbone with which to stand. Friends think they’re helping by standing back when they fall. Religious and social communities refuse to shame jerks who behave badly. The little devil perched on society's slumping shoulder gloats, “You can have a good divorce! Do what you want, and do it now!” That angel guy’s so old-school he can’t even text his apologies to the kids.