The Real Problem with Divorce
Last weekend there was a New York Times Modern Love essay in which a woman describes the impact of her decision to divorce, and her parents' multiple divorces, on her life. She talks about the divorces being transformational and even positive in certain regards. I thought her stance was a welcome relief from the gloom-and-doom articles not so subtly suggesting that divorcees lack moral fiber and that getting a divorce ensures you and your children are on the highway to Hell.
Judging by the reactions in my Twitter and Facebook feeds, most people had a different take on this piece. They thought it trivialized and legitimized divorce. They thought the writer was in denial. They cited studies that most marriages are low-conflict and could, and should, be saved. They said that kids are so damaged by divorce that they never recover.
Blogger Penelope Trunk argued this last point in an incendiary piece deriding divorcees (she has one divorce behind her) as being "immature and selfish." She even said that divorce "reflects mental illness" and that most people divorcing have Borderline Personality Disorder.
Trunk's reasoning has led her to remain in a second marriage in which she is physically abused. She believes that it's better to let her children grow up in a floridly abusive household than to go through another divorce. She defended this point in one infamous blog post she wrote in a hotel room that she and her children escaped to after her husband whacked her. She even posted a lurid photo of her bare, bruised nether regions -- as she simultaneously wrote about not wanting to be a "quitter."
I am tempted, at this juncture, to make a snarky correlation between Borderline Personality Disorder and certain married people, but I will refrain from doing so.
Here's what I think -- and I say this from the point-of-view of someone who had a financially and psychologically devastating divorce that did hurt my kids.
The real problem with divorce is not divorce. It's the meaning people make of it.
Why should those who say that life is better post-divorce be accused of being in "denial"? I've known many adult children of divorce who said they were relieved when their parents split up and have no desire for them to reconcile. Are these people in denial too? Is it not presumptuous of anti-divorce enthusiasts to superimpose their experience of divorce on that of others?
I'm going to switch gears and talk about adoption for a moment because its inherent loss and reconfiguration of family is similar to divorce. And adoption, like divorce now, used to carry stigma.
I was adopted in an era when adoption was shameful. Adoption was hush-hush back then. No one talked about it, but there were tacit assumptions in the zeitgeist. Adoptive parents were defective because they couldn't conceive. Birthparents were defective because they were irresponsible and probably crazy. Adoptees were defective because they were the product of parents who were irresponsible and probably crazy.
No one else in my family was adopted. Kids teased me about being adopted. When the subject of my adoption arose, my mother often cried. Guess how I grew up thinking about adoption? I thought it was the freakiest thing in the world. I was convinced I was fundamentally flawed and I made it my life's mission to look "perfect" so no one would see there was something inherently wrong with me -- although I couldn't pinpoint what that wrong thing was.
My adoptee neurosis led me to choose a husband, and a set of in-laws, with whom I could never be myself. After years of trying to be who they wanted me to be, and hiding who I was, I just couldn't do it anymore. Then I got divorced. I believe that I would probably have an in tact family today if I hadn't had such a negative experience of adoption. I believe that, had I grown up to feel I was okay who I was, I would have found the right person the first time around.
But this doesn't mean adoption is bad, or that adoption caused my divorce. It means that my interpretation of adoption was lousy and that, in large part, set me up to get divorced.
Until recently, I assumed that adoptees who said they felt like they fit in with their adoptive families, or that they didn't ruminate about being adopted, were in denial. There is all kind of adoption literature out there to substantiate that belief. But the literature is based on studies of adoptees who have had negative experiences of being adopted. Well-adjusted adoptees don't show up in clinical settings.
Adoption looks completely different now than when I was growing up. It is seen as just another way of having a family. Kids who aren't adopted don't make fun of kids who are adopted. Classroom discussions of how families are formed include adoption.
Adoptive parents are comfortable talking about adoption with their children. Adoptees often have contact with their birthparents. It is no longer freakish to see a white family with a child of a different ethnicity. And with all the celebrities adopting, adoption has become downright trendy.
Psychological health is closely related to cultural narratives. If you doubt that, think about what fat-shaming, gay-bashing and gender oppression do to people.
Removing the Scarlet D from the foreheads of divorced people is not going to make the happily-enough marrieds jettison their unions. The argument that liberalizing divorce laws threatens the institution of marriage makes about as much sense as insisting that legalizing gay marriage hurts straight marriage.
Yes, there needs to be divorce reform, but not to make it easier to get one. Family courts need to put mechanisms in place to sanction compulsively litigious exes and order them to pay the other party's legal fees. Child support shirkers should have their drivers' licenses revoked. Fifty-fifty splits on children's expenses should be adjusted to reflect the resources of both parties; someone who makes $50,000 should not be expected to pay the same as someone who makes $500,000.
If you must pass judgment, pass it to whom it belongs. Sadistically homophobic pastors and their brainwashed flock. Racists who murder innocent children who happen to have different skin color. Corporate honchos whose let-them-eat-cake attitude is decimating the futures of those who have no access to cake.
Divorce is going to happen. So let's take the stigma out of it. Let's do what we can to minimize the loss. Let's make it harder for high-conflict exes to wreak havoc. Let's set up intentional communities where single mothers can live together and support each other in raising children.
Let's consider the possibility that those who say life is better post-divorce aren't in denial. Maybe they're just speaking their truth.