Should you feel ashamed of your divorce?
It’s a loaded question, I know, but very often a sense of shame and failure accompanies the myriad other difficulties experienced by couples going through a divorce. The increased prevalence of divorce and separation witnessed in the past 50 years has done little to eradicate the deeply held cultural view that intact families are vastly superior to separated ones. As a family mediator, my view is that this cultural bias is not only oftentimes false, but is adding unnecessary emotional weight to the burden faced by those trying to accept and move forward after divorce.
Some pain is inevitable
There are some practical and logistical realities of separation which can rarely be mitigated. For example, the need to set up two homes and loss of the economies of scale accompanying that mean that both parties are generally worse off financially after a separation than before. Similarly, regardless of the particular parenting arrangements in place, both parents will inevitably spend less time with their children post-separation, as opportunities for both parents to spend time with the children together are drastically reduced. Further, there is invariably emotional turmoil and a sense of loss which must be acknowledged and worked through regardless of the circumstances surrounding the separation. These are examples of experiences that must simply be endured and overcome, and occur as a result of the practical realities of separation.
Some pain is optional
However, often I see my clients struggling with a phenomena which is not a result of the practical realities of divorce, but rather the result of a cultural construct and cultural bias that surrounds the break up of a marriage or de facto relationship. The widespread view continues to be that any committed partnership that does not last a lifetime is considered to be a failure, a disappointment and a pity. This continues to be the dominant view, despite the increasing frequency with which long-term partnerships end prior to the death of one half of the couple. Pejorative terms such as “broken home” reinforce this bias, though thankfully we have seen a shift away from such language in recent times.
In times past, families stayed intact not necessarily because parents were in love and felt fulfilled by the union, but because from a practical perspective divorce was rarely an option, other than in the direst of circumstances. Hard economic times meant survival was the prime concern, and women’s lack of economic power meant it was almost impossible to voluntarily leave a decent home and set up another. Divorcees, particularly female ones, were a social pariah, and suddenly found invitations to social events drying up and generally being regarded with mistrust and suspicion.
But how far has society really moved on from these preconceptions?
Now women are in a position where they are not as economically dependent on men, and the general increase in affluence within our society has meant that personal happiness and fulfillment has eclipsed survival as the dominant driver in human relationships. Is it realistic to expect that a union should last a lifetime? Or should it be looked on as a contract to have children together, and to give it your best, until it’s not working for one of you anymore?
The decision as to with whom you will have children is made by most people in their mid-20s to mid-30s. This is a vital decision indeed, but unfortunately we are not always making this decision from a place of wholeness and maturity, or an awareness of what qualities are really important in a partner and parent.
Additionally, we have limited foresight to know what the future will bring and how circumstances will change us personally, change the relationship and change what we seek out of life. Difficult circumstances can also magnify what were previously considered unimportant differences in values, but which can later become “deal breakers”.
Given theses seismic shifts in the way society operates, are half of us setting ourselves up for failure when we take vows “til death do us part”?
The future of family structures
Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin were universally ridiculed for using the term “conscious uncoupling” to describe their separation, many seeing this as a mere middle-class euphemism or plain old Hollywood B-S. However, I think it is high time we more openly acknowledged that the end of a marriage does not need to be viewed as a disaster for all involved. It can be done in a sensitive, thought out and amicable way. If we had a more open cultural story about how families are supposed to look, we could ease a good chunk of the emotional burden of those living through divorce. A sense of shame and failure around divorce is most definitely optional.
The natural response to this “rebranding” of course is to question whether a more socially acceptable stance on divorce would adversely impact on the children involved. I do not believe that more actively removing the stigma of divorce would actually increase the likelihood of couples making this decision, but would merely make it a less emotionally charged decision and an easier one to move forward from. Anything which eases the emotional burden on parents will naturally have a positive flow on effect to their children.
It’s time to more openly acknowledge that it is not the structure of the family which determines positive outcomes for children, but rather the extent to which parents are able to be present and engaged with their children, and be able to meet the emotional needs of their children, regardless of whether they live in the same household or not.
Alarna Carlsson is a family dispute resolution practitioner, and founder of Carlsson & Co, a specialist family mediation practice based in Sydney. Her mediation model promotes open and constructive communication, with the aim of calming tension between parties and creating long-lasting agreements. It is her mission to help clients transition through separation as smoothly as possible, and restore hope for the future. For more information visit: www.carlssonmediation.com.au