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I was married for 14 years. The marriage produced two amazing young men. Nine years ago, it ended in divorce, and their dad and I have co-parented well.

Please don’t call my marriage a failed marriage.

A friend recently called me to task on why I am so resistant to calling a marriage that ends before death a failure. What’s wrong with the word “fail,” she asked.

OK, I get it — don’t we all fail in many ways and on many levels? What’s the big deal with failing? After all, we learn a lot from failure. Not to get all Oprah on you but Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much author Anne Wilson Schaef writes in Oprah, “What we perceive as a failure may simply be our inner being’s way of telling us that we are ready to move to a new level of growth.”

But it isn’t always that simple. As Success magazine writes:

Society doesn’t reward defeat, and you won’t find many failures documented in history books. The exceptions are those failures that become steppingstones to later success. Such is the case with Thomas Edison, whose most memorable invention was the light bulb, which purportedly took him 1,000 tries before he developed a successful prototype. “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” a reporter asked. “I didn’t fail 1,000 times,” Edison responded. “The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

Unlike Edison, many of us avoid the prospect of failure. In fact, we’re so focused on not failing that we don’t aim for success, settling instead for a life of mediocrity.

What Should I Do With My Life and NurtureShock author Po Bronson is a big fan of failure. “Failure’s hard, but success is far more dangerous. If you’re successful at the wrong thing, the mix of praise and money and opportunity can lock you in forever,” he says Failure, he believes, is how we rid ourselves of the wrong turns on the way to the right one.

Honestly, I am a fan of failure, too. Certain kinds of failure. For a while I bailed out my kids when they were young, running to school to bring them the homework or lunches they forgot. Then I stopped — experience is a much better teacher than having mom or dad save you. I wanted to hold them accountable for their own actions. In other words, I was willing to let them fail. Forgotten homework = failing grade.

So, then, why do I cringe when anyone calls a marriage that ends in divorce a failure? After all, divorce often leads to a “new level of growth” and can lead to “steppingstones to later success.” What’s wrong with that? Nothing, except people don’t see divorce that way. Although people talk about a “failed marriage,” what they really mean is the people are failures, and I am not a failure. Society sees people who divorce as quitters. People who didn’t try hard enough. People who don’t understand what commitment and “for better or worse, in sickness and in health” means. People who put their own happiness and needs above those of their children (although not everyone who divorces has kids!). People who, well, fail.

But, I did work hard. I was committed. I didn’t “quit.” But when the crap hit the fan, I realized things beyond my control — bad things — were happening, and I could only do so much. And what I couldn’t and wouldn’t do was stay in a marriage that was dysfunctional. I’m not the only one who feels that way.

That doesn’t mean my marriage failed. 

My marriage ended in divorce. That’s the stripped-down, non-judgmental truth.

Back when divorce was relatively unheard of, there was a lot of shame and mystery around it. But many things in society have changed, all of which has made divorce more acceptable and available.

As William Pinsof, clinical psychologist and president of the Family Institute at Northwestern University, writes:

it is clear that the change in divorce laws in the last half of the 20th century reflected a change in social values — a change that simultaneously attempted to: 1) make divorces easier to obtain; 2) reduce the social and legal stigma associated with divorce; and 3) reduce the psychosocial trauma (blame and character assassination) associated with divorce.

For the first time in human history, divorce has replaced death as the most common endpoint of marriage. This unprecedented shift in patterns of human coupling and uncoupling requires a new paradigm, that is, a more humane approach for social policy, family law, and marital therapy.

I think it’s a good idea.

As Dr. Joyce Brothers says, “For some reason, we see divorce as a signal of failure, despite the fact that each of us has a right, and an obligation, to rectify any other mistake we make in life.”

So, I, too, will view a divorce as a “failed marriage” if we all agree that divorce — like failure in general — leads to “new level of growth,” can lead us to “steppingstones to later success”and “rid(s) ourselves of the wrong turns on the way to the right one.”

Are you game?

  • Do you believe divorce is a “failed marriage”?
  • Are some reasons — infidelity, addiction, abuse — more acceptable reasons to divorce than others?
  • Should a couple always try to salvage a marriage before divorcing?








10 Responses to “Why do we see divorce as a ‘failed’ marriage?”

  1. susan says:

    four and a half years later, i still consider myself part of the product of a ”failed marriage”. does that mean i think i failed as a person? yes, a little. that i think my exhusband failed? yes, a little.
    I am happily repartnered but there will always be that little bit of me that beleives it was failure. And no amount of counselling – or even a paradigm shift in thinking will change that.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Susan, thanks for writing. I’m sorry you feel your marriage “failed” and I can’t help wondering if some of that sense of failure is because others react to divorce and if events in your past led you to believe that the only “successful” marriage is one that stayed intact no matter what — abuse, infidelity, cruelty.

      Still, if you feel that something failed, it’s probably healthy to explore your role in the “failure” so you don’t repeat patterns. Wishing you luck.

  2. Brian d. says:

    What if one spouse was just done with you? My ex wouldn’t go to counseling, or really tell me what was wrong. We had a child and then everything went to pot. So I feel like a failure because I couldn’t “fix it”.

  3. OMGchronicles
    Twitter: OMGchronicles

    Brian, why is fixing something you have no control over your problem? I know men like to “fix” things (I mean that in a nice way, not a putdown) but we just can’t control another person. If your former wife was willing to work with you, perhaps the two of you could have fixed the marriage together. Anyway, hopefully you are in a better place now

  4. Jill says:

    My husband and I recently separated after 24 years of marriage, at my request. Sometimes the cliches are just true: you change, you grow apart, once the kids are grown there’s nothing keeping you together, and despite 5 years of pleas he wasn’t willing to change anything. As I try to explain, just because the marriage doesn’t include yelling and fighting doesn’t mean it was a great marriage. Family and friends are having a hard time believing that, and since I am the one who “left” I am the quitter. Because I asked for the separation as he qualifies for a military retirement, I am also being accused of “mooching” off of him even though I am the one who single parented our kids while he was gone and moved all over the country so that he could further his career. I’m struggling more with those labels than I am the actual separation.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Sorry to hear that Jill. Don’t let the judgments get you down — you know the truth and no one else does, so you will have to ignore those voices, now and perhaps for a long time. If you have tried to salvage the marriage and it wasn’t going to work, do what you have to do, stay strong and keep a kind heart. And, good luck!

  5. I couldn’t agree more with your article! It appears we share the same mindset regarding moving past divorce and developing healthy relationships – minus the guilt and shame that often stigmatizes divorced people. I hope you visit our website – we’re a mother/daughter team who write about divorce and restoring faith in love! Terry – You can follow us on twitter and facebook too!

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Thanks, Terry. I will certainly look into what you two are about (love that you’re a mom and daughter working together on a project).

  6. Lisa Cook says:

    Thank you for your words of wisdom. Conventional marriage for the majority means “till death do us part”, so anything less than “till death” seems to equal “failed marriage.” Society as a whole continues to embrace success principles and the “happily ever after”. Because of this, when marriage goes south, it’s viewed as a “failure”. Why with all the counselors and all the therapy are we still faced with a 50% divorce rate and the stigma of “divorce”? Why do single moms continually feel like unwanted social outcasts and “divorcees” questionable suitors? Fear of failure is one of life’s greatest fears. I agree with you and Dr. Pinsof that “divorce” should not be counted as a “failure”, but as a learning opportunity to figure out who and what we really need in our lives. Happy marriages take a lot of work and a committed understanding to keep the relationship a priority. Your heartfelt perspective on this view of divorce is truly appreciated. Even after being happily married to my amazing new spouse for five glorious years, I still look back on my broken marriage to a cheating spouse as a “failure” in my past…We don’t want to give marriage an easy way out, but surely this can be the foundational philosophy for hurting people who are undergoing this painful OMG chapter in their lives.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Thanks for writing, Lisa, and for your kind words. If more of us starting thinking and acting that way, perhaps we can change the world!

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