This was originally published on Rachel Rabbit White’s blog. Republished here with permission.
Why isn’t divorce a good thing? When news of any divorce spreads, it is with a certain sadness (even in celebrity marriages, RIP Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon) or sometimes it is with a little smugness (haha, Kim Kardashian). But considering the high divorce rate; or even the fact that divorce was a hard-won feminist victory, shouldn’t the break-up be a celebrated, if not an accepted part of marriage?
The first “marriage counselors” in the United States opened their doors in the 1930s. A couple would come in separately—often it was just the wife who came in at all. Marriages needed to be saved, and apparently the key was in “fixing” the wife. If she was beaten by her husband, the question would be: “What did you do to cause his behavior?”
In her book, More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss, Rebecca Davis traces how this happened. This counseling spread rapidly after World War II, a time of upheaval for gender-roles. “Mass unemployment created a crisis in masculinity for men who could not find work. Then during World War II with men in the services, many women (even married women) got jobs,” says Davis. When the war ended in 1945, women were pushed out of the workforce and magazines and radio got busy telling women how their domestic roles were most important.
Davis says counselors focused a surprising amount on homosexuality, it was about women who were “too masculine” or men who were “too passive.” And at the time, marriage was actually seen as a way to “cure” homosexuality.
This is the landscape in which Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was born, a 1963 feminist text about the ennui of middle class wives. As feminism reached the mainstream, divorce rights were granted. Wives soon had a stake in their husband’s earnings with rights to divorce and marital rape was recognized. In turn, the rates of suicide in wives and homicide of husbands declined sharply.
There was almost a virtue to divorcing in the mini-skirted 1960s and ’70s; the woman who divorced was the stereotype of a woman getting what she wanted out of life. “It was about fulfilling your dreams and ‘personal growth,’” says Pamela Haag, author of the book Marriage Confidential.
The way we viewed infidelity also changed. “In the 1950s, we were somewhat tolerant of covert affairs, more for husbands than wives. It was a double standard, though Kinsey found that a fair percentage of wives had affairs as well,” says Haag. In part, feminism and divorce-forgoing-taboo changed the view. Why stay if he is cheating?
“Then the family values of the 1980s arose. This was about regulating behavior and being monogamous instead of having the illusion of monogamy,” says Haag.
Today, the altruistic divorce has become a thing of the past. The New York Times devoted two articles to the subject this year. In How Divorce Lost it’s Groove, Pamela Paul writes that divorce has become rare among the college educated, liberal set (those same women Friedan was once addressing). She says when these women do divorce, they face judgment and isolation from their communities. Perhaps it is the “family values” effect—those who came of age in the 1980s are vowing to not divorce like their parents did.
But also fewer people than ever in the Unites States are marrying (poorer people and people of color are especially marrying at lower rates). Yet marriage is everywhere in the news—with the fight for marriage equality for LGBTQ people. And despite the low rates, the United States remains one of the “most marrying” countries.
“Thanks in part to marriage counseling, Americans over the last 80 years have learned to prize marriage as the lynchpin of fulfillment and social cohesion. We end up with a contradiction, a society that both esteems marriage and has an unusually high divorce rate,” says Davis.
Perhaps, as we move forward with the institution of marriage, one of the things that might need to change is how we think about divorce. One solution would be to entertain different kinds of marriages—more options.
In the Netherlands, there are multiple types of domestic partnerships. According to Kevin Malliard, a professor of law at Syracruse University who specializes in marriage, those partners even have pet-names like “wife,” a Sardo is a partner you live apart from, a Sambo is a partner you live with. And in Alberta, there is the “Beyond Conjugality” registry in which any two people can apply for benefits—whether romantically involved or not. It is not hard to imagine a domestic registry in which multiple partners apply could be next.
Marriage researchers point out that Americans consider their partner their best friend. Davis traces this back to the 1920s when people began to describe marriage as a relationship that should meet all of a person’s needs: sexual, emotional, and so on. And the spousal best friend has been helped by feminism—if men and women have more of the same opportunities and experiences, they have more in common.
But the spousal best friend isn’t necessarily a good thing—expecting everything from one person can clearly lead to failure.
So what is the future of marriage, of divorce? Haag hypothesizes we will have more conversations around monogamy, rather than assuming life-long monogamy as the default. Others speculate there will be a return to more of the ‘wink-wink’ approach to cheating. Or maybe the future of marriage holds stronger ties to people outside the relationship in other ways, a return to a more communal style of living.
Perhaps there is room for the idea that marriage can be a limited partnership, rather than a permanent one; divorce then, would be viewed as simply an end to a relationship that has run its course, rather than a breaking of the vow to stay together forever. If we can entertain the idea that marriage has any “sanctity” is ludicrous, so should we entertain the idea that “til death do us part” may likely, not happen. And why should that be a bad thing?
Rachel Rabbit White is a Journalist and Blogger who writes about sex and gender. She has written for the New York Observer, The Atlantic, Alternet and lots more. She hates writing that stuff in bios but refuses to do the quirky thing where she tells you she loves avocado and sea salt on toast and lip-syncing while wearing headphones. Also, twitter.