When my husband and I announced our decision to split, citing “working-on-our-marriage fatigue” and an increasing suspicion that marriage shouldn’t take so much work, I lost more than a man around the house.
I also lost “The Package.”
The Package, among the high-functioning subset of the super-competitive east coast of the US I call home, requires a spouse to get it started. Then you have the one or two kids, and you rent or buy a brownstone in Brooklyn or a rambling pre-war in Manhattan, and somehow spawn a country house. You craft a career that’s remunerative enough for said real estate holdings plus a nanny, yet supports your need for creative expression. It all goes together as part of the package of a socially deemed successful life.
Without the spouse, the whole thing unravels. I, for one, refuse to swat spiders in some waterlogged Catskills house as a solo mom. And while each of our incomes rose within months of our split, my ex and I now have two homes to pay for right here in the city, one around the corner from the other. In reality, what we mainly lost was the persistent, dragged-down weight of incompatibility that dogged both of us. We freed ourselves up to live our lives in accordance with our own personalities and ideals. But I could feel that to those around us, we’d given up far more.
In fact, divorce is changing in the US for the better. While my friends feared for my finances, my romantic chances, and the emotional stability of my son, divorce today doesn’t need to look anything like it did when our parents split.
No-fault divorce, now available in every state, lets spouses uncouple without accusing the other of felony, adultery or moral turpitude in court, before witnesses. Skipping this step reduces fighting and decreases anger—and depression-inducing negative rumination. The growing use of mediators rather than adversarial representation further lessens conflict and helps couples craft divorce settlements that last. Agreements made through mediation stick with far more frequency than those negotiated under the stress-accelerator machine of two high-priced, pugnacious lawyers. Four decades of research on children of divorce is leading to more cooperative co-parenting and at least an understanding, if not always adherence to, the reality that conflict between the parents and losing contact with one parent is what can damage kids, not whether the parents live together in the same house. In fact, 80% of kids of divorce do well, according to extensive research, including a 20-year study done by leading divorce researcher and psychologist Constance Ahrons, author of The Good Divorce.
The spread of positive psychology, as well as ever-proliferating research on resilience, compassion, self-compassion and empathy are helping people learn how to navigate the truly tough years between a bad marriage and a new, happier life unwed. A recent study by psychologist George Bonanno at Columbia University showed that most people retain their subjective well-being before and after divorce–with a slight dip during the actual process. Some people feel worse after divorcing, certainly, but nearly 10% reported increased happiness with divorce, and a continued emotional uplift over the next two years. A bad marriage can compromise your health, immunity and mental health, according to a slew of recent studies.
While bad divorces dominate the news and the cocktail party conversation, if you talk about divorce all the time, as I do, you hear about a surprising number of amicable, post-marriage relationships. At a mommy-baby class in Lower Manhattan, I met a woman who was planning a summer trip to France with her ex and their daughter. A friend-of-a-Facebook friend in Boulder emailed to say that she lives across the street from her ex, who co-parents their two kids, and comes over to hang out when the kids aren’t around. On a flight to Atlanta last spring, I sat next to a salesman who’d been living in the same house with his ex-wife and three kids for years, and was in the process of buying a new house with her. At a beauty parlor in New Jersey, a hairdresser told me she did some internet research, established a fair child-support and custody arrangement with her ex, and completed the entire amicable split for less than $400.
As my future-ex-husband and I continue to work out the details of our split, I can’t help noticing that something else is also fueling this: Being single has improved as a lifestyle choice. The support and social life available to the once- and never-wed far surpass what most could have dreamed of in the 1970s. Parenting list serves increasingly have solo-parent sub committees. You can join a Meetup of others also obsessed with salsa, or Jane Austen, or eating like prehistoric man—an easy way to find new friends to fill your now-free nights. You can meet other single people everywhere. Only about half of American adults are married today, compared to about 95 percent in the 1950s. The divorce rate, which spiked in the 1970s, remains at just under 50-percent. If you get divorced, you don’t have to worry about being lonely. Or rather, you may feel lonely, but you could easily fill a dance hall with other adults feeling lonely too.
Still, as I experienced, divorce has been re-stigmatized in certain circles, despite the very real legal and cultural improvements. Marriage, meanwhile, has become more of a status symbol than a necessity for many. Tying the knot stopped being the gateway act to adulthood years ago. Women in particular no longer need a husband to buy a house, have a child, or pay the bills, which helps explain a surprising fact in a Pew Research Center report released Wednesday: Single mothers have tripled in number over the last 50 years.
We still love marriage. In polls in the US, most people say they want to wed. But marriage is an increasingly divergent experience, depending on economics and education. Well-to-do couples are marrying later and staying wed, while the poor often find themselves waiting for economic stability before walking down the aisle, even if they’ve already started a family. The divorce rate in the US is higher among the less affluent and more socially conservative. In the 2004 and 2008 elections, the “red” states had the highest divorce rates. Researchers point to the religious proscription against sex before marriage as the cause. Divorce rates correlate with age of marriage, and in places where people marry young, they divorce in higher numbers.
Further, the economic and ideological forces that contributed to the breakdown of the extended and the nuclear family model are spreading around the world. In Brazil, the divorce rate nearly doubled between 2010 and 2011, after laws changed to make it much easier to divorce. In China, parental control is weakening, arranged child marriages are ending, couples are clamoring for marriages based on romantic love—and the divorce rate is rising. The divorce rate in China doubled between 1990 and 2010; in Beijing, the Chinese divorce capital, it’s nearly 40%. (Caveat: These stats may reflect economic incentives unintentionally encouraging divorce, but still, more Chinese are leaving marriages or staying out of them.) In Japan, people are living together, marrying later and divorcing more often. While the divorce rate is still low compared to the US, it has nearly doubled since 1990.
Globalization is a double-edge cake knife when it comes to marriage. The spread of ideas can also strengthen marriage. As Islamic law has weakened in Egypt, the divorce rate dropped from 25% in 1963 to 14% in the late 1990s.
We in the West continue to export both a dreamy vision of the romantic, soul-mates-for-life union and a marriage-threatening emphasis on gender equality, individualism, self-actualization and personal growth. Add growing wealth to this conflicting set of desires, and divorce rates around the world will likely catch up with those in the US.
What remains to be seen is if we’ll export our knowledge of how to divorce well, too.