Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

Divorce Makes You a Bad Person... Again

Divorce is again a sign of failure.

When I was seven, my parents divorced. It was ugly, really ugly, and they more or less never spoke again. Not even when my mother was dying. No good bye, nothing. Four kids and seventeen years together and then BOOM! Nothing. Since then divorce has changed quite a bit. Plenty of couples with children decide to stop being couples without ending their family.

My own "co-parent" and I stopped being a couple ten years ago; we are certainly still family. We eat family dinners together at least twice a week, celebrate all holidays and birthdays together, go to family weddings and reunions together, and more or less act like any two people raising children together except we're not together. We are hardly the only ones. A lot of "divorced" couples have managed to put their children and families front and center while also creating lives that are their own. 

Despite this trend toward a more familiial and friendly divorce, divorce is increasingly seen as a sign of bad parenting and psychological failure among many Americans, especially educated and upper-middle class Americans. According to a recent article in the New York Times, for educated Americans the divorce rate is steadily declining and coming with more and more social stigma attached. 

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The experience of being a divorced woman has changed, along with the statistics. "The No. 1 reaction I get from people when I tell them I'm getting divorced is, ‘You're so brave,' " said Stephanie Dolgoff, a 44-year-old mother of two elementary-school daughters who was separated last year. "In the 1970s, when a woman got divorced, she was seen as taking back her life in that Me Decade way. Nowadays, it's not seen as liberating to divorce. It's scary."

The article links this increased social conservatism toward marriage to three things: one, a reaction among parents of young children today against their own parents' divorces in the 1970s, two, a sense that among upper-class couples, men are really peers who do their share of the parenting and domestic chores, and three, a sense that making a marriage work is part of being a good person, akin to doing yoga or eating local foods.

Priscilla Gilman, author of one of the many divorce memoirs that have come out in the past few years, says

I've definitely experienced judgment. Everyone said: ‘Isn't there anything more you can do? Your kids need you to be together. They're so little.' "

And so somehow, at least among the educated and affluent, divorce has become a source of shame, a mark of failure, a sign that you just aren't working hard enough, or worse, are so incredibly selfish as to not consider the children's needs. It is interesting that among highly educated Americans, about half of them think that divorce should be made more difficult. And only 17% of educated Americans agreed with the statement "Marriage has not worked out for most people I know" compared to 58% of less educated Americans.

So it is that divorce, like marriage, is a sign of social class and status. Marriage itself is not randomly distributed throughout the population, but more likely to happen if you're white and better educated. Now divorce, not surprisingly, is once again a form of social dirt. Divorce marks an educated and affluent American as a potential form of class pollution and so the people around the divorced person exhibit social distancing so as not to become divorced themselves (and of course there is some sense in this since survey data shows that when a couple in a tightly knit friendship network divorces, the other couples are more likely to divorce themselves). 

Somehow 2011 now feels a bit like 1971, at least among the elites. Which may explain why, when my co-parent and I were in the process of moving into two separate homes, friends called to say things like "how can you do this to us." One of the most confusing things was that even friends who were divorced and remarried offered judgment. But the point was they were remarried, they were still trying to make it work, they were still good people. Unlike us. 

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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