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The Happy Divorce

Is it unrealistic to think we can divorce and co-parent happily?

When Fran Drescher's new sitcom, Happily Divorced, debuted earlier this summer, I started noticing snippets and diatribes tisk-tisking Hollywood for sugarcoating the end of traditional marriages.

In her New York Times Magazine article, "The Divorce Delusion," Heather Havrilesky argues that the new cheery outlook on separation does audiences a disservice. "Stories of divorced couples peacefully co-parenting and becoming wonderful lifelong friends contribute to this expectation that, if we're not emotionally overachieving with a person who usually feels more like a mortal enemy than a soulmate, that means we're petty, unenlightened thugs of the lowest order," she says.

I'm usually the first to complain about Hollywood's unrealistic depictions of family life, but in a world where I still hear feminists talking about "failed marriages" and "broken homes" versus "intact families"--as if there is something intrinsically wrong with non-nuclear set-ups, well, I think there's something refreshing about the new sugarcoat.

The happy divorce might not be everyone's experience, but it's no delusion.

Conventional wisdom tells us we'll only be happier after a divorce if the marriage itself was a war zone. So I was surprised the other day to hear a friend admit that she'd (happily) left a spouse of 20 years simply because "I don't want to be married."

Wow, I thought. You can still do that?

She described her husband as good and supportive, but "we lacked a certain emotional and sexual connection."

Researchers warn us against walking out on married life without a dang good reason. A recent German study found that the level of life satisfaction among divorced adults didn't recover to pre-divorce levels even six years after the divorce. (Although this could be a better argument for never getting married in the first place.)

And a 2003 American study found that unhappily married folks were no happier after their divorce.

But many women beg to differ. And happiness studies aren't about averages--they're about exceptions. How do some of us manage move on gracefully? What makes some of us resilient? And how can the rest of us cultivate that resilience?

The reasons for a divorce can certainly soften the emotional blow. If one partner is gay, for example, as is the premise of Happily Divorced, well, "that's a get out of jail free card," says Candace Walsh, editor of the anthology Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open up About Moving On.

But even when no one's coming out of the closet, she says, "the idea that you're unhappier after divorce is outdated, old-paradigm thinking. In my experience, staying in a marriage that my ex and I both agreed had all its best moments behind it was epically depressing. I and many of the women in my book talk about this immense sense of lightness and liberation which came with ending their marriages and starting fresh."

Contributor Samantha Waltz agrees. "I was much happier after my divorce," she says. "My husband had been very controlling and I literally felt like I'd been let out of prison. Colors were brighter, sounds sharper. My depression lifted. He was extremely critical of the children as well, and their self-confidence visibly grew when they no longer lived with him. My ex has worked hard to rebuild his relationship with them and be more accepting of them. That wouldn't have happened if I'd stayed in the marriage."

That's not to say the transition is easy.

"I was in a difficult marriage, full of counseling and struggle, so in a way, my divorce was a relief just by virtue of being something different," says blogger Kristin Tennant. "But that doesn't mean I was immediately happy. There's a lot of destruction that has to take place before any reconstruction can begin, and that takes time and work."

Happily Divorced, it turns out, is based on Fran Drescher's real-life relationship with her gay ex. So maybe in real life the couple didn't continue living together, and maybe they went through a long period of anger and estrangement before they started sharing advice about boyfriends. But Drescher insists the two really are soulmates again--just a new kind of soulmates.

As Candace's father told her when she was in the midst of her own divorce: "The year after my divorce from your mother was the unhappiest year of my life. But the years that came after that have been the happiest years of my life."

The key to bouncing back?

"Move on," Candace says. "If you stay in the energy of the marriage or the divorce, you'll be less happy than if you allow it to get on with the next chapter of your life in a conscious, optimistic way. How? Seek out new experiences that will lead to new adventures. And make sure to prioritize therapy, exercise, and lots of good venting sessions with safe people who have gone through the same thing."

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