Divorce Is Not the Answer
The decision to divorce or remain together to work things out is one of the most important decisions you will ever make. It is crucial for those considering divorce to anticipate what lies ahead in order to make informed decisions. Too often the fallout from divorce is far more devastating than many people realize when contemplating the move. This chapter outlines some of the common pitfalls of divorce to aid readers in decisions about their marriages.
The following is a letter written by a woman who read an article about my views on divorce in the Los Angeles Times:
Dear Ms. Weiner-Davis:
My age is sixty-seven, and after nineteen years of a marriage that was impossible in my opinion, I did seek a divorce. I sincerely believed that my children and I would be better off if I got out of the marriage, and this was confirmed and encouraged by therapists. I should have tried harder to make our lives better. I should have changed myself more. I wish I knew then all the things I know now. It takes so long to attain wisdom, when it is needed when one is young.
I was forty and attractive and wanted to "grow," and did not like the way my children were, emotionally, living with the type of person their father was. I did what I thought was the best thing to do, at that time. And yes, I did think I would spend a year or so alone, remarry, and everything would be fine.
My children, who did not like their father, were nevertheless adversely affected over the years because of the divorce. They are now grown and have learned to accept him as he is. But damage was done. I "went out into the world" for the first time in my life and I did grow, learn, experience fantastic fun and loneliness as well. I eventually remarried and my marriage at this time is fine. But it took a lot of work to make it this way.
The article stirred up lots of feelings and doubts about what I thought for so long was "the right thing" to do -- divorce. Many years ago, a friend said to me that getting a divorce is like getting hit by a Mack truck. It is. For everyone involved.
My ex-husband has remarried and I believe his wife has difficulty coping with some of his idiosyncrasies but she accepts them and enjoys an otherwise good life with him. (I should have been wise enough to do the same.)
I am not thoroughly convinced that I did the wrong thing, but I am sorry that I did not get better counseling and give it more time before disrupting four lives (two children). Maybe the marriage could have been saved.
Mainly, I would like to applaud you and the other therapists on the new view of divorce. Divorce should only be done as a last resort, when all other efforts have been exhausted. For everyone's sake.
You should feel proud of the work you are doing. Congratulations.
I was very touched by this letter because it captured the feelings expressed by so many divorced people I've met over the years. In a desperate attempt to expand her own life and improve the quality of life for her children, she left her husband. Convinced this move would be best for all concerned, she made a decision that would change their lives. As she reflected on the outcome of her decision, she was not without regrets. Her second marriage taught her that all marriages require a commitment to work out differences since no partners are perfect; like any package deal, there are pluses and minuses. With painstaking honesty, she admitted the wisdom in accepting certain idiosyncrasies in one's spouse in order to enjoy "an otherwise good life with him" (as his new wife understands).
Her children taught her about the damaging effects of divorce despite her belief she was rescuing them from their unlikable father. Ironically, they eventually learned to "accept him as he is" anyway. Despite her personal gains from the divorce, she regretted not having given the marriage more time and gotten more support for staying married from the therapists she encountered along the way.
ARE WE FINALLY LEARNING?
Clearly, divorce supplied no magic solutions for Mary. It appears that more and more couples are beginning to take a skeptical view of divorce. In fact, something remarkable happened in 1982: For the first time in twenty-five years the divorce rate dropped, after having first leveled off for one year. The National Center for Health Statistics indicated that the 1989 rates were down 4 percent from 1988. This decline followed an unprecedented rise in the number of divorces in our country from 1960 through 1980.
Why the decrease; what's going on? There are many theories. Some say the growing threat of AIDS is keeping couples together or that more couples are separating but not divorcing to spare themselves legal costs. However, my explanation is different. I believe that people are beginning to realize how devastating divorce is -- emotionally, financially and spiritually -- for everyone involved. With enough time under our belts to have observed the results of rampant divorce, we are beginning to recognize the price we have paid for the freedom of disposable marriages.
My conclusion -- that divorce is not the answer -- is based on more than a decade of observation of clients, friends and family who have opted to divorce and on input from many of my colleagues who work with couples and families. In regard to divorce, this is what I have learned:
1. DIVORCE DOESN'T SOLVE THE PROBLEMS IT IS MEANT TO SOLVE
There are primarily two reasons people divorce. One is to escape a relationship that has been painful, loveless or destructive. The second is to seek a more satisfying life with a new partner or alone. As you will see in this chapter, these goals are not always accomplished through divorce. Some people do go on to enhance their lives, but the price they pay is often higher than anticipated.
Few adults anticipate accurately what lies ahead when they decide to divorce. Life is almost always more arduous and more complicated than they expect. It is often more depleting and more lonely for at least one member of the marriage. At the time of divorce, people are intent on getting rid of their unhappiness, and they find it difficult to conjure up understanding for something they have never experienced. It is hard for them to imagine the multiple changes that divorce will bring in its wake. Eventually they do learn, however, that the changes we make from divorce are hard-won. (Wallerstein and Blakeslee, 1989.)
"If It Weren't for You, I'd Be Happy"
Desperately unhappy people search for ways out of their unhappiness. They start by trying to determine the cause of their misery. As they look around, married people often see their spouse as the culprit. Blaming your spouse for your unhappiness is easy to do. Everyone does it, often supported in this kind of thinking by friends and relatives. "I would be happier if he were more attentive"; "If she didn't nag so much, I would enjoy my life"; "He's gone so much, of course I'm miserable" are some of the more common spousal complaints. Underlying each of these statements is the belief that the person's unhappiness is caused by his or her mate. Logic then dictates that divorce is the solution: "If I get rid of my spouse, I will get rid of this problem and then I will be happy."
Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. People are shocked to discover that their difficulties continue to hound them in spite of their single status or their choice of a new partner. Some disillusioned divorced people tell me, "My spouse's habits really irritated me, but now I can't cope with this loneliness. The silence in the evenings is killing me." Or "The new guy I married seemed so sensitive and open, the qualifies I missed in my first marriage, but as I've gotten to know him better he now seems more like a clone of my first husband." Or "I thought leaving my wife and all of her demands would make me happy, but oddly enough I am still unhappy."
As you will learn from this book, diagnosing your spouse as the problem means that your microscope lens may be too narrowly focused. You are failing to notice how the habits you both have developed and the roles you've both played have contributed to your unworkable marriage. Unfortunately, you take those habits with you when you go.
If getting rid of one's problematic spouse was a solution, why would 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce? If divorce were truly an answer, people would learn from the mistakes they made in their first marriage. Their second marriage would provide them with opportunities to apply what they learned. Sometimes this is the case, but more frequently, people are not prepared for the complexities of second marriages or blended families. Sometimes the trials and tribulations of the previous marriage with all its aggravation seem mild by comparison. But the results of this sort of comparison come too late. People discover that the grass isn't any greener on the other side after all. Then the decision to divorce a second time is often less agonizing since there's familiarity with the process.
"If It Weren't for You, There Would Be No More Arguments"
Many people leave their marriages expecting the arguments to stop. Divorce does offer a temporary reprieve from the tension and/or arguing, but when children are involved, marital debates frequently do not cease with the divorce decree. I have worked with divorced couples unable to resolve child-custody, visitation and child-rearing issues. They give new meaning to the words "hostile" and "angry." That these two human beings once shared a cordial or loving relationship is almost unthinkable because all that remains of their shared history is hatred.
What also continues to amaze me is how even many years of physical separation fail to free these couples from intense emotional bonds. Their inability to resolve certain child-rearing issues reflects their inability to let go of each other.
Debra and Thomas, a divorced couple, arrived in my office for divorce mediation since they were unable to resolve major disagreements over the visitation schedule. Like many couples needing mediation, Debra and Thomas's interactions were characterized by animosity and lack of respect. Even when addressing each other, they maintained eye contact with me. They frequently interrupted each other with accusations or alternative versions of the truth. When I requested that each person be allowed to speak uninterrupted, "loud" grimaces took the place of verbal attacks.
Although I kept them focused on the task at hand, finding solutions to the visitation problems, eventually the conversation turned to the disappointment they felt about unmet needs in the marriage. Debra wept as she told of her close relationship with her father and how Thomas failed to live up to the memories she had of her childhood with her dad. Thomas felt that Debra never really respected him due to their cultural and socioeconomic differences. He thought he was never good enough in the eyes of Debra's family. The sadness of their failed relationship was fresh for both of them though they had been divorced for five years.
What upset Debra the most was that, since the time of their divorce and Thomas's subsequent marriage to Sue, Thomas was taking a more active parenting role. Now each time Thomas sought more contact with the children, instead of feeling pleased for the children that they were important to their dad, she felt betrayed and manipulated. "Why, if the children are so important to you, didn't you make time for them when we were married?" she challenged him. His requests for increased visitation were often denied because of her resentment over thwarted dreams.
Thomas never took Debra's criticism about his priorities seriously when they were married because, according to him, Debra criticized him about everything. Debra's pleas for more involvement with the children were seen as just one more item on Debra's long laundry list of Thomas's inadequacies. So Thomas had resisted more involvement with the children, not because he didn't love them or want to be with them, but because of the tug-of-war with Debra. Once separated from her, he missed the children and saw that his relationship with them was important to him. This explained his recent desire to spend more time with them.
Although an agreement about visitation was reached during that session, Debra left crying. I believe she cried all the way home. Thomas also showed signs of feeling drained emotionally. They both had hoped that their divorce would free them from disappointment, arguments about the children and criticisms of each other, none of which happened. Clearly, their unresolved relationship issues kept them super-glued to each other, making it impossible for them to cooperate as parents.
If you have children and are considering divorce, you must remember that your spouse will always be your children's parent, no matter what you do. Unless he or she decides to sever ties entirely, you will continue to have contact with that person for the rest of your life! This contact serves as a constant reminder of the past. Children can also be ghosts of failed marriages when, because of their looks or personalities, they remind a parent of an estranged spouse. This can have deadly consequences for the parent-child relationship.
2. DIVORCE CREATES NEW PROBLEMS
When people divorce they have visions of better lives. Old problems will vanish, they hope, as new dreams take their place. These dreams usually include meeting candidates for more intimate relationships, more compatible sexual partners, improved financial status, more freedom to pursue personal goals and new opportunities to make independent choices. As explained above, these dreams frequently do not materialize, creating a whole new set of problems. Even when desired changes do occur, they are not without unintended or unexpected consequences. Let us take a look at some frequent but unexpected consequences of divorce.
If you are a woman, the statistics are bleak. Lenore Weitzman, a sociologist who conducted an extensive study of divorced families, wrote in her book The Divorce Revolution that one year after divorce, women's standard of living decreases by 73 percent while men's increases by 42 percent. Furthermore, alimony is a thing of the past. Women seldom are awarded it. Weitzman writes:
These apparently simple statistics have far-reaching social and economic consequences. For most women and children, divorce means precipitous downward mobility -- both economically and socially. The reduction in income brings residential moves and inferior housing, drastically diminished or nonexistent funds for recreation and leisure, and intense pressures due to inadequate time and money. (Quoted in Berman, 1991, p. 57.)
Unfortunately, all too often, effects of changing financial status are overlooked, minimized or denied.
Where Is Mr. Right?
There are other disadvantages to being a newly divorced woman. According to the Census Bureau, divorced women are far less likely to remarry than divorced men. Forty percent of the women who divorce after age thirty do not remarry. A portion of those who do not remarry may do so by choice, but many say that the pool of marriage-minded men available to these women has been shrinking. It seems that many men in similar age brackets are marrying younger women.
Imagine how shocking it is to the woman who leaves a marriage hoping to find intimacy and romance in the perfect new mate and finds herself alone instead. Loneliness is a frequent complaint in my therapy practice. "How do I meet someone if I can't stand the bar scene?" is the $64,000 question.
Being Single Again Isn't All That It's Cracked Up to Be
There is a line in a popular country and western song by K.T. Oslin that goes, "Don't kiss me like we're married, kiss me like we're lovers." The newly divorced often look forward to the excitement of playing the field. The routine and boredom of married life gives way to the titillation of being single again. What they do not anticipate and what many veterans of single life have discovered is that being single again isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Fear of rejection, fear of AIDS, learning about and adjusting to a new person's idiosyncrasies, struggling to trust again, all make single life a real challenge. Many people find themselves yearning for the very stability they left behind.
While most people do not naively assume that the adjustment period after divorce will be easy, they don't expect the intense loneliness and depression that often follows. Judith Wallerstein's long-term study of divorced couples revealed that even one decade after their divorce, many people still had not completely recovered:
With typical optimism, we wanted to believe that time would mute feelings of hurt and anger, that time itself heals all wounds, and that time automatically diminishes feelings or memories; that hurt and depression are overcome; or that jealousy, anger, and outrage will vanish. Some experiences are just as painful ten years later; some memories haunt us for a lifetime. People go on living, but just because they have lived ten more years does not mean they have recovered from the hurt. (Wallerstein and Blakeslee, 1989.)
No matter how badly a person wants a divorce, there are usually feelings of remorse about the failed relationship -- especially in cases where couples have been married for many years, Looking at photographs of memorable occasions and wonderful vacations together, rereading once-cherished love letters, glancing at sentimental memorabilia, all arouse feelings of sadness and loss.
Frequently, people in the throes of divorcing are too angry and antagonistic to acknowledge these emotions, which lay dormant until the divorce proceedings have ended and the dust has settled. Then even the most zealous divorce seekers often report a sense of failure and personal loss. Even when the decision to divorce is firm, there is no escaping the sadness.
3. DIVORCE HURTS CHILDREN OF ALL AGES
There is no optimum time to divorce when children are involved. People once comforted themselves by thinking only young children get hurt when parents split. Now we know better. We have learned that, regardless of children's ages at the time their parents divorce, children lose a great deal. I recently heard a story which vividly illustrates this point from a man I sat next to on a plane.
The man was in his late sixties and said he had been married for twenty-four years. "One day, my wife announced she needed to find herself and filed for divorce," he said. He went on to tell me, "My youngest son was thirteen at the time and was the only child of three still living at home. I must admit that although I was devastated by the divorce my career blossomed afterward. Although always financially comfortable, I had never been quite as successful professionally during my marriage as I was after my divorce.
"My wife also benefited from our divorce. She went to school and received two degrees and developed her own career. I am convinced she has made more of her life than would have been possible had she remained my wife. Still," he added, "the real losers in divorce are the children." He then told me about an incident involving his thirteen-year-old son in the period leading up to the divorce.
"I have had a lifelong habit of changing my clothes each night after work and placing the coins emptied from my pants pockets on my dresser. After several weeks, I noticed I was missing money. By the time I became aware of it, about eighty or ninety dollars had been taken. I confronted my son about the missing money and he admitted to taking it.
"Hurt, disappointed and puzzled, I asked him why he took the money. He lowered his head and replied, 'When you and Mom divorce, I will have to live with Mom and since she doesn't have a lot of money, we will need the money for food.'" These words were like daggers to his heart. Finishing his story he reiterated, "Children are the real losers in divorce," and quickly averted his eyes for fear I would see his tears.
Couples Don't Divorce, Families Divorce
There are many reasons that children lose out. What children lose when their parents split is their family. It is a fallacy to think of divorce as something that happens between a husband and wife. Couples don't divorce, families divorce. What was once the basis of security and protection for the children no longer exists. A child of divorce has his very foundation pulled from beneath him with no say in the matter. Parents move away, sometimes siblings get split up, intensely loyal family members take sides. The family structure disappears into thin air when a marriage dissolves. The unspoken rule -- mom and dad will be together forever -- has been broken.
Divorce Is Forever
In her book Adult Children of Divorce Speak Out Claire Berman recounts her extensive interviews with men and women ranging in age from twenty-four to sixty-seven who during their childhood experienced their parents' separation or divorce. The vast majority of these adults described their reactions to the divorce as a pain or emptiness that never goes away, a pain that continues to affect many aspects of their adult lives. "The divorce of my parents has left a hole in my heart. It is a hole that will never be filled," said one of the study's participants, and many others echoed this or a similar phrase. What is particularly striking is the freshness of the memories despite the distance time placed between those interviewed and their parents' divorce.
Berman tells her readers:
The most striking impression one comes away with is that for children, the divorce of the parents never goes away. It may be welcomed. It may be understood. But even when it is a positive solution to a destructive family situation, divorce is a critical experience for its children. Although there may be relief that a painful situation has been ended, there is also regret that a healthy family could not have been created. (Berman, 1991, p. 18.)
Some say that death is easier for children to accept than divorce because death is a single event which passes, and for which there is usually a clear-cut cause. People mourn, grieve and have memories, but death is final. Divorce, on the other hand, lasts forever.
For the Sake of the Kids
We are now beginning to see that it doesn't necessarily follow that what's best for parents is best for children. Frank Pittman, author of Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy, believes:
Our experiment with abolishing marriage has not worked very well for either the adults or the children, but it's the adults who don't seem to realize it. I don't know anyone with divorced parents who doesn't see the divorce as the most central experience of their lives. Children who grow up seeing their parents run away from home have a different relationship with marriage than those who saw parents hang in there. Brutal marriages may be bad for children, but I'm not sure boring marriages are. (Quoted in Nord, 1989, p. 26.)
This raises the popular question: "Should couples stay together for the sake of the kids?" Implicit in this question is the assumption that people stay together for any single reason. Even successful long-term marriages are rarely held together by one bond, including love. Couples stay together for a multitude of reasons: financial and emotional security, sex, dislike of the singles scene, stability, companionship, status, fear of loneliness, feelings of love and commitment, religious mores, the children. There is nothing unusual or unhealthy about kids being one of the many ties inextricably connecting couples.
Another assumption implicit in the question "Should couples stay together for the sake of the kids?" is that these couples will always be miserable, that they must live in conflict for the rest of their lives. Couples should not remain in unhappy or lifeless marriages for the rest of their lives just for the sake of the kids. Research shows that whether their parents are married or divorced children suffer when there is conflict. Couples should do everything within their power to make their marriages work again so that their children's lives will not be adversely affected by conflict or divorce. In other words, couples should stay happy for the sake of the kids.
IS DIVORCE ALL BAD?
Research on the potential effects of divorce on childhood development is about two decades old, and the lasting effects are only beginning to be documented. The actual percentage of children adversely affected is still largely an unanswered question.
We do know that children are not necessarily doomed to a life of depression or delinquency simply because their parents have decided to divorce. In fact, many children do quite well. Some researchers believe that the parental conflict that often follows divorce, rather than the divorce itself, is the major cause of childhood behavior problems associated with divorce. Children whose parents strive to cooperate or co-parent after divorce experience fewer post-divorce difficulties.
So whether you decide to learn how to cooperate with your spouse within the context of your marriage or in the post-divorce period, if you want you, your spouse and your children to have a stable environment you will need to develop and practice problem-solving skills. The message of this book is: "Why not begin right now?"
You are probably saying to yourself, "Yes, but how?" This book was written to provide you with answers to this question. Based on my work with hundreds of couples, it has been my observation that a vast number of marital problems are caused by misconceptions about love and marriage. Unrealistic expectations about relationships are the viruses in unhealthy marriages. Chapter 2, "Illusions Leading to Dis-solutions," outlines these misconceptions so that you can see how faulty thinking may be underlying some of your difficulties.
Copyright © 1992 by Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, CSW