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Shame On You for Getting a Divorce!

How to not buy into feeling like a failure when your marriage ends

Have you ever heard anyone utter these words regarding divorce?

“I have two failed marriages.”

“How can you be so selfish?”

“We’re staying together for the kids.”

“But, we love each other. Why can’t we make it work?”

“But, you’re the perfect couple. Why couldn’t you make it work?”

“People who get divorced are afraid of intimacy.”

“I would never get divorced.”

The list could go on.

In our culture, we have so many preconceived notions about marriage and divorce—many, if not most, are unconscious. These beliefs include a soul-mate mentality (having to marry “The One”), and the idea that there’s something wrong with someone who cannot find or keep “The One.”

That’s a lot of pressure! In a time when we have so much choice, are these beliefs still pertinent? Or has the time come to stop and take a good hard look at what we’re doing?

In 2014, my, The New I Do, co-author, Vicki Larson, and I started what we called, “The Occupy Marriage Movement.” This wasn’t a message about whether or not gays and lesbians should have the right to marry (of course they should!), rather it was a call to action to stop all the shaming and blaming we do to those who don’t fit into the “one-size-fits-all” mold we call matrimony.

Take my friend, Brett. He is well into his 60’s and he’s never been married. Onlookers are quite sure that there’s something terribly wrong with him because clearly, he can’t commit. But he not only can commit, he does every time he’s in relationship (a state he’s in often!). Brett told me quite matter-of-factly one day, “I just don’t see the point of marriage but when I’m in relationship, I’m monogamous and devoted to my partner.”

Why does society make him wrong? Why is there only one acceptable way to form partnerships?

In my work with divorcing people, I see the tremendous fallout from shame people are subjected to. One woman told me the reason she never dated after her divorce was that she felt like “damaged goods,” even though the divorce was not her fault (her ex was an alcoholic and a rage-aholic). In her case, it was a sign of good mental health and self-preservation that she got out of that relationship. Yet, she couldn’t view it in any way other than that she had “failed” to keep the marriage together.

Last year, I came across a book that spoke to me in a big way because it carried the same message I’d been trying to get out there about letting go of our righteous indignation when others don’t do what they’re “supposed to” in the mating arena.

It’s called, Sacred Cows: The Truth About Divorce and Marriage, by Danielle Teller, MD, and Astro Teller, PhD. Both authors had been married and divorced prior to meeting and marrying each other. They compared notes and found that they’d had similar shaming experiences following their dissolutions. They began to talk to others who’d also been given grief by well-meaning friends and relatives. As they say in the book, these [attitudes] of condemnation “add unnecessary pain to a situation that is already plenty painful.”

Sacred Cows pushes back and mocks the mockers! Each chapter outlines the behavior of a different attitude that they call “cows.” There are seven:

The Holy Cow: This person is especially righteous and unforgivingly rigid stating simply, marriage is always good and divorce is always bad. (Must be a Holstein – only seeing in black or white!)

The Expert Cow: Every problem a couple has can be fixed and therefore, if the couple divorces, it is undoubtedly because they didn’t try hard enough.

The Selfish Cow: Those who divorce are immature and selfish. Period. They will tell you that you have to compromise and lose yourself in service of the couple-ship. They will also say that you didn’t try hard enough to be in relationship if your marriage ends in divorce.

The Defective Cow: There’s something wrong with you because you couldn’t keep your mate. If I make you doubt yourself enough, maybe you’ll conform and be “normal.” (I didn’t marry for the first time until I was 43 and I can attest to the pressure I felt when people would say to me, “What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you married?”)

The Innocent Victim Cow: These folks will spout the endless studies that “prove” how divorce harms children. They will advocate for the poor kids who, they believe, should stay in the home where the parents tear each other down and continue to be subjected to unhealthy relationship patterns. One advantage of bringing up kids who see marriage as a battlefield is that they will develop a high tolerance for bad behavior from their mate and will stay and suffer just like their parents did. But at least they’ll be married!

The One True Cow: This is the most romantic of the models and it’s the attitude that has done the greatest disservice to young men and women everywhere (luckily, Millennials aren’t buying into this ideal so much these days). There’s such a tremendous buildup to finding this one true love that when the trivialities of life and the billions of dashed expectations emerge (as they invariably will), the self-doubt it propagates is astounding.

And, finally, The Other Cow: which states that no one should ever leave a marriage for another person. If you do, you are evil, weak, commit-a-phobic and a player.

So, what’s wrong with all these attitudes? In a word, presumption. They do not account for the many variables people encounter in their own unique relationship. We can never know what goes on behind closed doors. Like the neighbors I had years ago that clearly loved each other and used to delight in telling us how they met. They dressed alike and went everywhere together. They even looked and talked alike.

One day, they knocked on our door unexpectedly and asked if they could talk to us. They came in, sat down, and announced that they were splitting up. I literally got teary eyed—not because I thought they “shouldn’t” get divorced, but because it really threw me for a loop (Me! A therapist who specializes in divorce!). I thought they were so happy together.

It turns out the woman had been having an illicit affair for years and when confronted by her husband, she refused to give her paramour up. They just couldn’t come to an agreement about this so they parted ways. It happens.

This “perfect couple” that I made assumptions about was not so perfect after all.

One reason we shame people is because we are sad and don't want nice people to split up.

Another reason is because we want couples to obey “the status quo” so we know what to expect. If marriage is between a man and a woman and it lasts (happily) for a lifetime, then we feel safer. If marriage is open to gays and lesbians, if it only lasts five years, if it’s for any reason other than love, we stop being predictable and, therefore, we stop feeling safe. But sticking to an old, outdated script, and being safe are not the same thing and, in fact, they are much more likely to be opposing forces.

There’s no question that divorce can be hard on many people (not the least of whom are the kids), but the time has come to stop adding layers of shame to the pain.

I’ll leave you with a quote from an article the Sacred Cows authors wrote recently:

“When divorce represents a couple’s best chance at future love and happiness, let’s imagine a world where empathy and support trump our old-fashioned concepts.”

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