When Marriage Doesn’t Work Out the Way We Imagined — Part 3 of 3


In my last post I wrote about the importance of a married couple sharing the same values. Two people who believe strongly in the same things are obviously more likely to do the necessary work to make a marriage last. But, marriage is a complicated business — so of course it’s not that simple. The truth is that it’s extremely difficult to stay married in a culture that isn’t supportive of the institution and that, indeed, celebrates the notion of “checking out” once marriage becomes unsatisfying or difficult.

Divorce is one of those words that’s become so commonplace we rarely think about it anymore. When I came of age in the early seventies, divorce was in the process of losing its stigma. Eventually, divorce graduated to a mere “unfortunate” situation. Such is the reality of social change — people throw their hands up in the air and succumb to a new way of life. Divorce is just  inevitable we say.

Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean we need to be defeatist about it. We can’t afford to be. Conscientious Americans know the facts about divorce. They know its effect on children and society is bad — but as a culture we insist on pretending the effects can be eradicated if people are just mature about the whole thing and shelter their children from emotional harm.

This is wishful thinking. Screenwriter Nora Ephron (of all people) wrote a great piece on divorce recently. She boldly (I say boldly because we’re talking about the HuffPo here) declared the following:

I can’t think of anything good about divorce as far as the children are concerned. You can’t kid yourself about that, although many people do. They say things like, “It’s better for children not to grow up with their parents in an unhappy marriage.” But unless the par­ents are beating each other up, or abusing the children, kids are better off if their parents are together.

Indeed, divorce may indeed be less harmful if the alternative means children are raised in an abusive household, or one in which a parent has an addiction of some sort. But barring these circumstances, children are not better off with divorced parents. If married people simply held on until their kids flew the coop society would be better off. And by then, sometimes the problems have worked themselves out — particularly if the couple’s problems were the children.

This is an inconvenient truth Americans aren’t yet willing to concede. We want desperately to believe that unhappily married people should get divorced, regardless of the cost to children and society — just like we want to believe children are fine when left all day in daycare.

Celebrity divorces are particularly harmful because divorce becomes normalized. It becomes the “thing to do,” and that’s where the real harm lies — because when something becomes normalized, our attitude toward it changes. In almost every instance of celebrity divorce, the reason cited is “irreconcilable differences.” This is an umbrella so large that virtually every situation fits beneath it — a spouse who burps too much could be handed divorce papers.

Even when “regular” people get divorced it’s harmful to society. While the only people who know about it are friends and family (as opposed to the entire country) a study by social science researcher James H. Fowler found that if a sibling divorces, we are 22 percent more likely to divorce ourselves. And when our friends get divorced, it’s even more influential: People who had a divorced friend were 147 percent more likely to get divorced than people whose friends’ marriages were intact.

That’s some serious perspective.

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