Recently, several friends and acquaintances from various cultural backgrounds have separated from their long-term spouses or filed for divorce. Naturally, one wonders if society’s values are shifting. Is the institution of marriage in crisis or do modern times produce too many challenges to honour such life-long commitment, “till death will do you apart”?
A friend ponders if we have simply reached the stage in life when age peers are most likely to get divorced. Statistics confirm her theory. Apparently, in Australia, the number of divorces has declined over the last 20 years. People marry later in life but stay married for longer. Good news for those who take time to find the right partner. Statistically, Australians are most likely to get divorced in their early to mid-forties, when their children are teenagers.
How should society deal with divorce? Concerned? Ashamed? Accepting? What is your role when the marriage of a friend or loved one deteriorates? Different cultures, religions and genders offer different views. We may feel a duty to intervene. We may take sides, blame or shame, but is any of this helpful? Can outsiders grasp the many facets of a deteriorating marriage?
Most of us lean towards wanting couples to stay together, without a full understanding of hidden factors, secrets, emotional and sometimes even physical injuries a partner may have sustained. We may urge couples to try harder for the sake of their children.
As an educator, the privilege of watching youngsters learn, grow and find their way in a complicated world makes me cautious. Some have thrived in homes which society unwisely labelled “broken”, successfully raised by a divorced parent. Others are guided – or misguided – by parents at war with each other: cheating, arguing, taking advantage of each other’s vulnerabilities. Some parents demean each other in front of their children. The physical and emotional abuse some youngsters observe their parents inflict on each other is frequently more harmful than watching divorced parents slowly recover from damaging relationships – especially if at least one parent models respect.
Divorce is not ideal, but neither are hurtful, high conflict marriages. Instead of gossiping about relationships in trouble and people recently divorced, we should respond with the least amount of judgement possible and the most support we can muster.
Marriage breakdowns are more common than we like to admit. For centuries, where divorce was condemned by society, “informal divorce” took place. We all know of couples establishing separate bedrooms or even houses but keeping up appearances to avoid criticism and shame. What goes on behind their closed doors and “out-of-town” remains subject to speculation and is often more shameful and wounding than a respectful divorce would be.
With one partner, usually the woman, financially dependent on another, even abusive marriages simply had to be endured by many, often “for the sake of the children”. Sadly, even in the 21st century, some cultures still tolerate marriage as a kind of bondage based on an imbalance of power.
While the reasons for divorce are varied, pain is a guaranteed factor. Even “amicable” separations involve loss and grief. If the assets can allow both ex-partners to remain financially secure, it can be easier to separate “amicably”, assisted by well-paid lawyers, than if one ex-partner will face poverty or public humiliation. Divorcing couples need our support during their time of crisis, not blind judgement. We should help avoid separations deteriorating into all-out-battles. Ultimately, if a marriage is irreparable, we should help ex-spouses find civilised and tactful ways of parting while maintaining a maximum amount of respect and dignity.
If divorcing parents sustain enough goodwill to communicate and cooperate, mindful of their continuing responsibility as role models, perhaps their divorce need not be seen as a failure but as a chance for a new beginning, a less hurtful fife and a lesson in self-control for their children.