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Your friend tells you he’s getting divorced. You’re shocked because he and his wife always seemed like the perfect couple. You’re worried for them and their young kids, and their divorce causes you to reflect about a lot of things you’ve observed about marriage.

You know enough from your own parents’ divorce how unhappy things can be for the kids, how emotionally and financially hard it can be for one spouse or the other, how even a “good” divorce can be fraught with complications once new loves arrive on the scene.  Divorce affects community

Beyond that, they’re the third couple in your circle of friends to divorce in the past year. You start to question your own marriage — are we next? Are we being blind to our own issues, not so different from those of our friends? Are we truly as happy and committed as we say we are, or others believe us to be?

You feel somewhat helpless but anxious: What do you do? What should you do? What can you do, if anything? Still, you know that some marriages can’t — and shouldn’t — be salvaged.

We wed in a great public display of love and commitment. Divorce, however, is a totally private and personal event. But, is it really?

Perhaps not, suggests M. Christian Green, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and a former lecturer at Harvard Divinity School. Divorce doesn’t just affect a couple and their immediate family; friends, neighbors and entire communities are impacted as well, she writes in “There But for the Grace: The Ethics of Bystanders to Divorce,” an article in the Institute for American Values’ newsletter, “Propositions.”

Green suggests it may be wrong to view divorce as merely a personal choice with limited impacts. In looking at “the public effects of the divorce revolution, its implications for both the moral formation of individuals and the well-being of society, and what, if anything, organizations of government and civil society should do,” divorce might be better seen as a decision that has far greater implications, she says. Like other so-called private actions, divorce may have “wider, sometimes unintended and unanticipated, effects on surrounding communities and the wider society,” she states.

Do others who witness a divorce experience a “there but for the grace of God go I” moment? Does this witness produce bystander anxiety? Does it produce something like survivor’s guilt? How does witnessing the divorce and family disruption of others affect the bystander’s own worldview when it comes to normative images of marriage, family, society and self? Extending the circle of bystanders even further, what effect does the witness of divorce have on society as a whole? Has the divorce culture produced a kind of cultural trauma? tweet

It’s clear the “divorce revolution” is impacting 20- and 30-somethings, especially men, many who are delaying or avoiding marriage altogether. According to a recent Pew study, although 69 percent of unmarried Millennials say they would like to marry one day, many struggle with having a solid economic foundation first, which they believe is essential.

Green cites studies that suggest divorce is somewhat contagious, not in a disease sort of way, but in its ripple effect — one couple’s divorce can influence divorce among siblings, friends, neighbors and even co-workers. In addition to “contagion” theories, there’s the “generational dimension” — adult children of divorce tend to divorce, too.

Finally, she says, the breakup of a family may be no different than other trauma, such as war, terrorism, genocide, natural disasters and unemployment, in a child’s eyes. Green suggests our current definition of cultural trauma — although “controversial and contested” — is broad enough to include divorce. A child of divorce may experience the same economic deprivation, relocation, shame, guilt and memories that “shape moral formation” as those who have experienced other traumas.

(Of course, relieving people from the shame and guilt associated with divorce is one of the reasons Susan Pease Gadoua and I are writing The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Romantics, Realists and Rebels. Why must there be shame if you’re in a bad marriage? Why must there be guilt if your marriage should not last lifelong for any number of reasons?)

But in Green’s eyes, all of us are impacted by divorce, even if it’s not our own.

“(W)hen we bring research on divorce into conversation with rich, emerging bodies of work on social contagion and cultural trauma, we see that bystander effects, while indirect and diffuse, may be no less real or consequential, and that they beckon us to individual and collective reflection on the broader effects of the ‘divorce revolution.'” tweet

Does that mean we, as bystanders, have a right to ask more of those who may be considering divorce? Should couples think beyond their own needs and desires when they weigh the pros and cons of dissolving their family? Should bystanders — you, me, bosses, friends, neighbors and family — have any say in a couple’s divorce?

It would seem somewhat crazy to tell a friend or even a sibling that his divorce is not only causing you distress, but that it also may put ideas into your spouse’s head, which may lead to your own divorce, thus impacting your kid’s “moral formation” — and could he please just give counseling one more try? After all, his divorce is none of our business.

But, perhaps it is.

What do you think?

Photo © tene/Fotolia.com

6 Responses to “Is divorce a social problem or a private decision?”

  1. Berick says:

    If it is reasonable to tell someone how you think their possible divorce will affect you, family, and friends, then it is also reasonable to tell them when their difficult marriage is affecting others, or their unhappiness with their work, or that third child they’re talking about starting (maybe you can’t have any, or enough, or you have too many for your situation), or their “perfect” marriage (is it making your life look bad?), and so forth.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Interesting point, Berick. And, if you work with people who are unhappy in their job, their constant grumbling brings morale down. So, we are all interconnected in our many roles. Divorce is no different.

  2. Lesli Doares
    Twitter: LesliDoares

    Thank you so much for writing this. It isn’t that divorce should never happen, but thinking that divorce is an easy answer is the problem. If you have children, you can legally divorce but you still have to be in a relationship with your ex. The pain of the marriage is rarely ended and it often ends up more complicated than trying to make the marriage better. Most couples who divorce never really do counseling with someone qualified (not all therapists are). It can be hard to step into someone else’s relationship, even when they have invited you in. (See the above comment.) I do think it can be worthwhile.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Thanks for commenting. Lesli. Honestly, I don’t know anyone who thought divorce was the “easy” choice!
      As a therapist, I imagine you see many more bad or troubled divorces than I have. Among my friends, we all divorced somewhat peacefully and most have friendly — or at least businesslike — relationships with their former spouse. For those of us who have been able to do that, the pain actually does end, and the kids, who are loved by both parents and spend time with both equally, have done well. Some marriages just can’t be made better.

  3. pjay says:

    It’s neither.
    It’s a business.

  4. Sherry says:

    I believe that divorce is a private decision but it has implications that may eventually spiral out of control to become a social problem because let’s face it- divorce affects not only the spouses but the children, family and friends. If we look at it in this light, then it is a public affair and since the divorce rates have been progressively on the increase, it has become a social problem.

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