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.
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?