Dumbo Divorce: An Elephant in Our Living Room?

Why is divorce so accepted when it so often perpetuates suffering?

Posted Jan 10, 2011

There's an elephant in the room. It is large and squatting, so it is hard to get around it. Yet we squeeze by with, "How are you?" and "I'm fine," and a thousand other forms of trivial chatter. We talk about the weather. We talk about work. We talk about everything else, except the elephant in the room.

There's an elephant in the room.We all know it's there. We are thinking about the elephant as we talk together. It is constantly on our minds. For, you see, it is a very large elephant. It has hurt us all. But we don't talk about the elephant in the room.
Excerpted from "The Elephant in the Room" by Terry Kettering

Divorcing and remarrying each other knocked my husband and me up against an elephant. And it's made a talker out of me.

Back when we divorced, we couldn't see the elephant, and we truly believed a divorce was the right option (others have called this phenomenon the "divorce trap"). But it almost wreaked the kind of havoc in my own, and my children's lives that no parent wants to consider or understand. Had I remained divorced, it would have been excruciating to learn about the nauseating realities of my kids' upheaved world. I probably couldn't have done it.

But I would have survived. They would have survived. My ex-husband would have survived. We would have moved on. I would have found the elephantine literature out there on "how to overcome or get past divorce" and how to "live with divorce so the children can ‘thrive'..." In a year, or ten, my life and theirs might have settled down again, and maybe, maybe life would have resumed the kind of serene, secure center--the safe harbor--that would allow me, and them, to venture forth; charting new territory, navigating forward into life from an essential secure base.

Or, maybe not. Maybe we would still be lost; oblivious to being adrift or hungry for that safe harbor.

An unheeded elephant in the room can do that to a culture. Cause severe disorientation.

But, thank god, instead my ex-husband and I remarried each other. And a world careening into chaos began to right itself.

That's when we finally saw the gargantuan elephant sitting there grinning at us, an eyebrow raised quizzically. It seemed to be saying, "Can you see me now? Are you ready to ask questions? To find answers, even if they are hard to bear? Are you ready to admit I'm here?"

Yes, a thousand times, yes.

Filled with the relief, and immense learning of our experience, I knew it was time to start asking, and talking.

  • Did we really need to divorce in the first place? Do other people? How many of us divorce without a frank understanding of the consequences of our choice?
  • What are the real, scientifically verified risks or consequences of divorce to adults and their children? Just how bad are they? Do we even know?
  • How many and in what ways are children affected, how are communities impacted, and how is society at large marked by divorce? Do we, as a culture, really understand these questions and their answers?
  • Would we (or others) have chosen divorce if we'd known the emerging help, support, and the "science of love" available for struggling couples?
  • What if we had been educated to understand that because of the innate biology of our attachment bonds, marriage fosters one of the most basic drivers of humanity--embedded attachment to another? What if we had learned that for the same reason, divorce is likely to promote suffering?

But the biggest school-of-hard-knocks-from-the-elephant question of all may well be, Why is divorce so culturally accepted when we continue to learn that it so often perpetuates suffering?

Remember the Disney movie Dumbo? There's a scene where Dumbo's mother fights to protect her little son from the taunting of a mean-spirited kid. She spanks the kid, and for that she ends up jailed as the "mad elephant." From there she can no longer protect her little Dumbo. She's reduced to crooning him a love song while he sits sadly swinging in her trunk. Her ability to maintain a safe harbor for Dumbo is pulverized. He survives, he even flies, but from what miseries?

Like Mrs. Jumbo, I thought I'd done the right thing when I got my divorce; that in an important way I was protecting my children from an unhappy marriage. Yet afterwards, I was shocked by an experience of being trapped in that jail, unable to protect my kids (or myself) from its aftermath.

I bow down every single day with overwhelming gratitude that my family got the Disney version, too.



People divorce for various, always important, serious reasons...I understand these firsthand and I'll never undermine or trivialize them. Given what we have known so far, the choice to divorce can never be criticized or condemned, nor can those who are already divorced ever be asked to reconsider their choice. People always take divorce very seriously. We did, others do.

But what I'm asking is whether our culture has dealt us all the cards.

Is it possible that, like my husband and me, people divorce without fully understanding the consequences for themselves and their children until it is much too late? Or, and more important, are they informed of the powerful new positive research and support emerging that can help almost any marriage deepen to allow the joy and fulfillment and meaning so many of us dream of when we choose to wed in the first place?

Does our high and internationally contagious divorce rate suggest that we live in a culture that's still ignoring the elephant in the room? Are we losing our marriages and families, in part, because of that elephant?

If we are, isn't it time to start talking?


Further reading:

For more on the science of love and attachement see, "My How Couples Therapy Has Changed! Attachment, Love, and Science" by Sue Johnson. And, What Attachment Theory Can Teach About Love and Relationships (Scientific American Mind, Jan. 2011).

American Academy of Pediatrics: Helping Children and Families Deal with Divorce and Separation by George J. Cohen, MD and Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health.

Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce by Elizabeth Marquardt. A book reviewing a scientific study of over one-thousand adult children of divorce, and its impact on their lives.

Judith Wallerstein's blog at Huffington Post (biography and list of book contributions, including An Unexpected Legacy of Divorce and an interview with Katie Hafner at Huffington Post).

Michele Weiner Davis: