I knew I was entering a different stage of my life when my 40s-ish friends started getting divorced, and a lot of couples that were still married wished they weren't together.
When my life-long best friend, Ann*, sat me down on my front porch and told me she and her husband were splitting up, I took her news the hardest. The first thing that went through my mind was, “What do they have to get divorced about?”
There was no abuse. No one had been caught in flagrante delicto. Their kids weren’t acting out. They didn’t even argue. Her marriage to Lee* had simply run its course, Ann told me. He was on board with her decision.
WHAT? They’d been married for 25 years! They were halfway to the gold.
The first thing out of my mouth was, “Are you sure this is what you want?” I’m pretty certain I used my condescending “warning” voice, like Ann was my teenaged daughter trying to talk me into her first tattoo. She was going through the peri-menopausal crazies, I decided. It would pass.
Ann had married young. She was 18, and Lee 22, but they were more mature and realistic than other couples their age. I just knew they would go the distance. Couples around me splintered and remarried, but they kept plodding along. I dreamed of going to their 50th wedding anniversary—my one pair of non-divorced friends.
While Ann was crunching numbers, figuring out how to make it as a single mom, I was like Mephistopheles tempting Faustus. She and the kids wouldn’t have to worry about the money if she and Lee stuck together, I reminded her. Was she really sure?
It clicked after everything was finalized, and I saw that Ann, Lee and their children were positively thriving: I’d divorced-shamed my best friend.
Funny, but Ann’s reasons were the same I used when people asked why me and my husband of eight years got divorced. This meant that not only was I a hypocrite, I was the one with issues.
Turns out there’s a book called Sacred Cows: The Truth About Divorce and Marriage, and it seemed to be written for myopic jerks who say insensitive things to their friends. Authors Drs. Danielle and Astro Teller bust the myth that marriage is always good, and divorce is always bad.
They explain that we cling to outdated narratives to keep unhappily coupled couples together for the purported betterment of society. These narratives are deeply engrained in us at such a young age, and we don’t even question them. They’re all rather Heritage Foundation sans Biblical bolstering, as you can see in the Tellers’ TEDx Talk.
The Tellers use symbolic representations to illustrate the sacred cows of marriage and divorce. The Selfish Cow chides people who want to get divorced for pursuing personal happiness, even though staying in a subpar marriage selfishly precludes couples from leading authentic lives. The Defective Cow argues that loss of physical and emotional intimacy is to be expected, although these are the ties that so lovingly bind.
I quickly identified as the One True Cow, the cynical romantic who had cheered Ann all the way to the altar only to tell her that the joke was on her. Lee was a decent guy, even if they weren’t in love with each other. The subtext of what I had been telling her was, “Settle, Ann. Settle for what you don’t want.”
Fifty percent of first marriages head south. Of those marriages that survive, at least one divorce author guesstimates that a third are happy, a third are “meh”, and a third are pretty unhappy campers.
Laws were relaxed to include no-fault divorce for this very reason: it’s against public policy to force us to stay in an unenforceable contract governing interpersonal relationships. That fifty-percent figure doesn’t necessarily correlate to emotional dilettantism; it just means fifty percent of divorced folks didn’t know that their feelings for their spouse would change.
Barring obvious marriage-breakers like undetected abusiveness, sometimes we hitch up prematurely, mistaking the novelty of a new relationship as “love” without really knowing if our partner will meet our most important needs.
Then sometimes life events, particularly trauma, change us on a fundamental level. The life partner that was on the same page as us at 20 may be on another book at 40.
Sacred cows were still alive and kicking in June 2015, when the New York Times published an essay called “The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give.” Author Ada Calhoun describes how her husband planned to join her out of state but missed his flight, and, oh, woe is the worthwhile marriage!
As the essay progresses, Calhoun’s first world couple problems devolve into a litany of intimacy-eroding circumstances:
I love this person, and yet she’s such a mess. And yet when I’m sick, he’s not very nurturing. And yet we don’t want the same number of children ...The longer you are with someone, the more big and little “and yets” rack up.
The essay went viral. I found it momentarily poignant in the quiet, nonthreatening style NYT essays typically are written. The comments section, however, was disturbingly duration focused: “I want to kill him a lot the time, but we’ve made it 20-35-50 years, ha-ha!”
Is quantity of time a measure of its quality? Exactly how many “and yets” does a person have to take?
If law offers an out to marriage, society continues to act as its enforcer. We continue to promote marriage longevity like it’s an endurance event. We reward and acknowledge it by milestone with anniversary parties and bragging rights, because if you’ve made it to X-many years, you must be happy. At least, that’s the default we’ve been sold.
Divorce shouldn’t be downplayed; it really is a big deal. Much bigger than breaking up a long-term relationship. Some may argue, but statutes beg to differ. That “piece of paper” is a contract that ascribes specific legal rights and responsibilities to those who agree to sign.
The same arguments we make for marriage can be used for divorce. By law, the person that has stopped having sex with you, stopped sharing their secrets with you, and stopped taking your problems seriously is likely the same person who picks out your long-term care facility, executes your DNR and settles your estate. Because by law, you are each other’s closest family members.
Couples who aren’t one hundred percent into each other better hope they have abundant fucks to give when the rubber meets that particular road.
Ann’s loneliness was so quiet and unobtrusive, it’s no wonder I missed it. Sure, I’d noticed small signs. She and Lee didn’t travel together. They didn’t do much together at all, unless the kids were along. They didn’t really communicate; they just hashed out practical stuff, like household expenses and grocery shopping.
Her moment of decision was right out of a schmaltzy Nick Sparks novel. She told me about attending a hospice remembrance, where an elderly man waxed poetic about his late wife, with whom he’d been very much in love.
Whatever that rare, special magic that old man had with his wife, it hadn’t been obligatory; it had been reciprocated. And it had been absent in her marriage to Lee. She’d spent 25 years chasing it. She wanted it—or at least a stab at it—before she left this mortal coil.
It was the first time I’d seen Ann cry since her father died.
I wish every married couple could be assured of ringing in their 50th with bells still on. There’s something unarguably special about making a half-century of memories with the same person. However, as much as I would have enjoyed perusing the Hallmark card aisle, I’m grateful my divorced friends didn’t settle for all those “and yets.”
Marriage is still sacred. Sometimes it even lasts a lifetime. When it doesn’t, we must ask ourselves why this is a tragedy. Can’t it be good enough that two people took this leap of faith in the first place?
If Ann told me she was getting divorced today, my response would be different. It would be, “I support you.” Full stop. I want my best friend to be happy, now and in the long run.
Society doesn’t celebrate friendship anniversaries. If we did, Ann and I would raise a toast our 35th.
* Names have been changed.