I caught up with a girlfriend in New York recently. She gave me a rundown on the lives of those with whom we’d gone to school. “She’s divorced”, was a description attached to many, though I was struck by the implicit judgment that came with my friend’s sad face and sigh. As if divorce was evidence of a failure of character and proof of a life lived less well.
Tell that to my two friends – both mothers of daughters – who left their emotionally abusive husbands the minute these men began belittling the girls. As one of friends put it: “How could I tell my daughter she deserved better than that when I stayed and let him do it to me?”
The reasons we look down on divorce are not just historically outdated, they call on moral values that are behind the times too.
Jesus' prohibition on divorce is a touchpoint for those who live in Christian cultures, but the historical context for these views gives them an entirely different flavour.
Two thousand years ago in Israel, men could set their wives aside unilaterally and with ease (women had no right to divorce). Without a man’s name or protection, the divorced woman and her children were unseen by God and so shunned by men, unable to make their way economically and at risk of being cast out beyond the city walls. Jesus' attempt to limit men’s freedom to leave their wives – radically feminist for the time – offered women an unprecedented degree of marital and social security.
But with the historical justification of the prohibition lost in time and women’s relatively newfound social and economic independence meaning they no longer have to rely on marriage for their social and economic survival, why does the stigma surrounding divorce persist?
Think of a person you consider morally virtuous. Would you describe them as brave? Honest? As good as their word? What about someone who practises self-denial not necessarily to benefit others but because she believes it makes her more godly?
Few Australians would include asceticism in their list of moral virtues, yet this seems to be the source of the admiration expressed for those who persist in loveless marriages, even after the kids are gone. “They stuck it out”, I’ve heard it said, as if the endurance of suffering and the sacrifice of one’s potential for happiness is – in and of itself – a righteous act.
Such self-flagellatory morality becomes even more bizarre when we consider how long we are condemning ourselves, and others, to suffer.
Just over 100 years ago, most of us died in our 50s. Access to contraception was limited, as was the effectiveness of available methods. This meant that by the time a woman was through bearing and raising the last of her kids, she had a few years at most with her husband before both of them passed on.
Now, most of us can expect to live well into our 80s, giving us about 30 years of life beyond the structure provided by education, partnering and parenting.
Instead of additional time in marital purgatory, these extra 30 years should be seen as a chance to turn the “you only live once” adage on its head – at least when it comes to romantic partnerships.
What may be required during our nearly 90 years on earth is not one romantic partnership, but three. This is to match the three distinct stages of contemporary life.
In the first stage, spanning the late teens and 20s, we need a partner who helps us discover who we are and will nourish us as we get an education and begin the task of earning a living.
The second stage requires a person with whom we want to have and raise children.
The third stage provides the miraculous opportunity for us to pull together all we know – who we are and what we want – and, with a bit more money and wisdom behind us, to search for a partner who truly touches our soul.
Far from being a disaster, the possibility of late-life divorce makes me dizzy with possibility and crazy with gratitude. If I’d been born in nearly any other time but now – or in another part of the world at any time — I would have had to settle for what I chose the first time around. Because I didn’t know enough to choose wisely, I would have gone to my grave never having had the chance to find a man who could receive the love I was now capable of giving and who could love me the way I now understand I need to be loved back.
The take-home is simple. Marriage can be heaven or hell, and if yours is making you miserable, get out. You’re not too old and you’re not too fat. What you are is blessed to live in a place and at a time when you get a second chance. And as the American baseballer Pete Rose once said: “If somebody is gracious enough to give me a second chance, I won’t need a third.”
Wedded bliss, until the next stage do us part The Age