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I was warned it would happen. It starts with a post or two on Facebook, and an influx of engagement photos, and lo and behold, it feels as if everyone in their early 20s got married while I was having trouble committing to a cell phone plan. “Whatever,” responded a friend to my lamentations, “they’ll all be divorced in five years anyway.” While I’m holding out hope for their happiness, it got me wondering, would a high rate of divorce in our generation be such a bad thing?
I’m a child of divorce from a relatively long line of divorcees. My parents split when I was 16, and my maternal grandparents divorced in 1982, which was significantly more of a scandal than it would have been today. I won’t lie, living through a divorce is not easy. My parents did an excellent job of supporting my brother and me through the process, but there is no quick or painless way to separate a family. However, much like any upheaval, we recovered. It is safe to say that in the long run we came out happier. The effect of divorce is different for every family, but mine is proof that it is not always a bad thing.
In fact, assuming that death — not lawyers — is what will end your marriage is more damaging than you might think. Happily being with one person for the rest of your life requires a near flawless relationship, which — much like the perfect cellphone plan — is something we can all aspire to, but may never find. The expectation that we are all supposed to remain with the one we married also means that we implicitly support the continuation of unhealthy relationships.
Seeing marriage as immutable makes leaving unhealthy situations that much more difficult by putting pressure on someone to stay with an abusive partner. Instead of viewing rising divorce rates as the failure of modern marriage (or the notorious feminist movement encouraging women to leave the kitchen) we ought to instead see it as a rise in individual agency. Maybe people are no less happy in marriages than they have been historically; instead, they now have the ability to leave when they need to.
At this point, I should probably digress to assure you that I do not think badly of marriage just because I am advocating for an open dialogue about divorce. I myself am excited to marry, and I am often reminded of how well the arrangement can work by the wonderfully happy couples in my life, young and old. However, when discussing matrimony we often lose sight of the fact that other people’s relationships have no impact on our own. Your neighbors getting a divorce does not mean that your marriage is any less of a success, or any less special. Opening up a dialogue on the topic won’t make happy relationships fail, instead it will help put an end to unhealthy ones.
Accepting this, what would a world with more divorce look like? Firstly, we would need to go into marriage with an open mind and a prenuptial agreement. Accepting that we may have many weddings — or none at all — might make them seem less momentous. (“Great ceremony Aunt Judy, see you at the next one!”) Prenups might alleviate some tension during the separation and mitigate some of the legal costs, making the process more affordable. Divorce becoming more commonplace would foster better solidarity networks and support. This could lessen the unnecessary guilt and shame that often makes an already difficult situation that much worse. Let’s treat divorce the way we do breakups from long-term relationships — devastating, but nothing uncommon or to be ashamed of.
To those who will be married, or who are married, I wish to tell you that I have nothing but high hopes for your future and wellbeing. I would not wish a bad relationship on anyone, nor do I think divorce is always the solution, or inevitable. Instead, my wedding vows to my future partner will look something like this: “you are perfect to me right now, and I can’t wait to spend the foreseeable future with you. Let’s build a life together, and not be afraid to dismantle it if it no longer works. To us, and the happiest we can possibly be.”