In Praise of Marriage and Divorce

05 Oct


We tend to think of marriage and divorce as being each other’s opposites. At first glance it would appear that this is purely a logical and neutral observation. Logical perhaps, but not neutral. The opposition holds a raft of qualifiers that look something like this:

marriage good, divorce bad

marriage success, divorce failure

marriage love, divorce lack of love


The list could go on.


(It is like a score card so I suggest reading it to yourself in the intonation used by the guy who reads out the league table results on a sunday afternoon)


It seems to me that the relationships of the 21st century call for a different way of thinking of marriage and divorce. We’ve outgrown the fairy tale of ‘happily ever after’. The thing is that the fairy tale always relied on a cunning sleight of hand: notice how the ‘happily ever after’ was always pronounced at the moment of wedding (preferably after the hero has saved the damsel in distress). This ruse effectively freeze frames the rest of the couple’s lives in the moment of their wedding – a continuous present moment that forbids the story from moving on. The curtain comes down and as children we were neatly fooled. But fairy tales are not just children’s stories. They plant, replant and nurture collective seeds of expectation of reality. Somewhere, long after we’ve stopped reading the Brothers Grimm, ‘happily ever after’ calls to us. 


I definitely think we need new fairy tales (I’m working on it) but for now I’ll spin a different sort of yarn.


Part of the problem of operating as we do under a tyranny of coupledom is that a marriage or marriage-style partnership is held up as the ultimate success. If you are single, you must be waiting to get into a relationship. Once you start a relationship there is the idea that it progresses in a linear way – getting more serious over time. The ultimate goal is to enter a marriage or marriage style partnership – characterised by certain features such as living together, sharing life goals, etc. This type of partnership is the real life representation of the fairy tale’s ‘happily ever after’. If the marriage or partnership ends before one of the partners dies the relationship falls short of ‘happily ever after’ and stumbles ignominiously into the ‘bad/ failure/ lack of love’ category. I remember when I got my divorce someone saying sympathetically, ‘Well at least you’re young.’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – the subtext was ‘you’ve got plenty of time to find another husband’. What?? I was flabbergasted. Does that mean that people over a certain age – whatever that might be – ought not to get divorced because they have less chance of finding another partner? The assumptions that underpinned that remark are shocking but are pretty firmly embedded in our collective psyche along with the fairy tale. They are assumptions about love, sex and romance being the terrain of youth. They are assumptions about the extent to which ‘older people’ have a full right to happy, fulfilling lives. They are assumptions about the claim that ‘young people’ have on freedom and rebellion – because divorce is still a rebellion. All of this in the frieze framed moment of ‘happily ever after.’ Fortunately is seems that current trends are defying the agism of these assumptions, with divorces among people of post retirement age on the increase. 


Ironically, the happily ever after approach does not mitigate against divorce and it sabotages marriage. It sabotages marriage in the sense that it only offers one option for success: till death do you part. And its an option that people increasingly opt out of – or want to opt out of, but fail to – for fear of failure. I consider my five year marriage to be a great success –  partly because I allowed myself to get a divorce. As adults, if we really have outgrown fairy tales, surely we can consciously choose other options for successful relating. And people are increasingly doing just that – many couples do not live together full time, for example.  


If we reframe divorce and marriage as different possible stages that a partnership might go through, something very different occurs in the field of possibility. Of course they retain a logical relationship with each other given that divorce is the dissolving of the marital state. However, taking the failure out of divorce means that romantic partnership is no longer a competitive match wherein there is one winning option and one losing one. It means that a love match is about the happiness and lives of people, and that each one will be unique – with its own needs and its own path. It also means that we can celebrate marriages irrespective of their longevity and the manner of their completion. And so, a toast to divorce and to marriage. Long may they be happy bedfellows!



Posted by on 05/10/2009 in Breakups and Divorce


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6 responses to “In Praise of Marriage and Divorce

  1. Gill

    08/10/2009 at 10:50 pm

    Agree with your sentiments. I was married for 14 years and felt that my Husband and I completed all we came to do together in the 19 years we knew each other. We parted amicably 6 years ago and I believe more whole and complete human beings as a result of both our union and the divorce. I love him as much now as I ever did but know the ending was correct and brought us full circle!

  2. Vena

    09/10/2009 at 8:26 am

    Gill thank you so much for sharing your story – its inspiring. We need to hear more of these inspiring divorce stories – there are so many around, but they don’t make it into the public awareness as much as the stories of bitterness.
    One of my dreams is that as a society we shift into a creating loving divorce, in a broader context of healthy relating.

  3. Julia

    12/10/2009 at 9:43 pm

    Love your article Vena and agree that marriage and divorce are both part of changing a form in relationship – and that divorce does not signify lack of love. In fact it often demonstrates true love as both people speak and honour their truth and understand the purpose of the reationship. I have been married and divorced 4 times and all of the relationships were growthful for me and my husbands, both in the marrying and the divorcing and we wanted to marry! – and the marriage part was what we did and believed in and did our best in and so was the divorcing, but neither were mistakes or failureS. I just shared part of my journey very deeply with these 4 men and we all did our best and learnt and took another step together to the next boulder across the river of life

  4. venaramphal

    12/10/2009 at 9:54 pm

    thank you for sharing your journey Julia. Divorce absolutely can be an act of love – as with al things, its not so much the action as the intention, feeling and spirit in which it is done that counts. In divorce, the intention, feeling and spirit will determine how the divorce occurs – whether with acrimony or with harmony. Contrary to popular belief, it is more than possible to have harmonious divorce. Its something that we would do well to create as a society – I’m committed to bringing that into being. Here’s to the river of Life in all its variety!

  5. Mary Slawson

    26/10/2009 at 9:23 pm

    I do believe that if your marriage is a success and your spouse is a great friend and playmate you have been very lucky and achieved an incredible life together. We have been together for 46 years and he asked me to marry him the second time we met and he was the first one I wanted to say yes to….and here we are. However I do believe if it is not a relationship that inspires both of you than it is much better to separate and find the real path in life that you would like to follow and achieve.

  6. Diane

    26/07/2011 at 3:17 pm

    It would be wonderful if there was no bitterness in divorce. I have been divorced a year now and I admit I stayed too long. I gave him numerous chances to make a change that spanned 6 years! I admit I was afraid. I wanted what was best for my children, and he was very intimidating. I am still in a transition stage and I am looking for my grounding. In the mean time he is taking me to court to have a temper tantrum and further intimidate me. I will be happy when he comes to that place of acceptance and leaves me in peace. I wonder how a person one shares so much with can be so hateful and angry because the relationship had to change. I know in my heart if I stayed with him my soul would have died and I would be nothing more than a walking corpse. One must never sacrifice oneself for another.


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