How much better could all marriages be if we look to divorce as a lesson rather than a source of shame?
Lately I have found myself troubled by the articles popping up everywhere insisting that divorce is not a failure. According to Merriam-Webster, failure is defined as “an omission of occurrence or performance; a cessation of normal functioning;… a lack of success. Marriage is intended to last until “death do us part.” If both of you are still breathing, the cold, hard truth is that by definition, divorce represents the failure of a marriage.
Why is that so awful?
The business world has buzzed about failure as a vital component of success for years now. As stated by Bill Gates, “It is fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” Educators and business professionals have learned to dissect the roots of failures to continue forward momentum. Marriage remains the one institution in which we remain paralyzed by our fear of failing.
Here’s why. Marriage and divorce are strange societal inventions that weave a complex web around individual emotions, family relations, and state and federal laws. We can accept a business failure as a step toward future fulfillment of bigger life goals. Accepting a divorce as a failure is much more problematic because marriage itself is supposed to be a life goal, not a stepping-stone to something better.
When we try to glide past the negative emotions of divorce by telling ourselves we did not fail, we end up confused. We aren’t dumb, and we know this doesn’t jive with the word’s definition. Too many of us become stuck in the modern American dilemma that failure is unacceptable and remain in desperately unhealthy marriages for far too long, often a life-time, because we feel huge pressure to stand by our commitments and make it work.
This is a noble effort, but ultimately debilitating to everyone involved. The true failure at risk is way you would actually have failed yourself if you look back at the end of your life and had never removed yourself and your children from a miserable life situation because the alternative was so scary.
What if we could shift focus and come to see divorce not as a failure, but as an “entrepreneurial endeavor”?
An entrepreneur is “one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise” — which seems to me the perfect way to define anyone who has ever entered a marriage or ever will.
I have the daily privilege of hearing unique stories of how marriages began and why they are ending. Each is rich with common lessons for those who haven’t yet been married or would like to remarry one day.
Above all, it is my observation that when a marriage fails, that marriage was entered into without either or both spouses spending significant enough time learning about themselves, each other, and the legal and financial realities that encompass married life in the first place. They haven’t explored why other marriages fail with an entrepreneurial eye towards increasing the likelihood their marriage will succeed.
Here are 6 major lessons we can learn about marriage from divorce:
- Love cannot fix everything, but you had better damn well be in love if you are getting married.
I know this sounds unromantic, but I may just give a door prize to the next person who tells me they knew their relationship had serious issues before they got engaged or married. They believed there was a strong enough basis of friendship, respect and other good stuff to make it work, but serious issues do not go away after the wedding. They simply become more serious and more complicated.
If someone was in love at the beginning, they may say “I still love him/her so much, but I can no longer live with such and such behavior,” but they don’t say “One day I just realized I wasn’t in love anymore” like they do in movies or on TV. If you hear someone say that and ask some good questions, you would most likely find out that what they loved at the time was actually an image the other person represented of a lifestyle they wanted — things like family, home, stability and companionship.
- Don’t assume that if you make most of the money, you are the only one contributing financial value, or if you do most of the caregiving, you are the only parent who knows how to do it.
It makes practical sense for a married couple to divide up household responsibilities. Like any other place busy metropolis, a family home with clearly delegated duties is more peaceful and less confusing for everyone. Some families delegate along traditional gender lines, some mix and match and switch by the month, some hire out for almost everything. The point is, things need to get done and someone needs to do them.
These roles exist because none could run smoothly without the others doing their part simultaneously. Divorcing couples often try to dig their heels into their former role in order to keep it, while also use their resentments over all of the hard work they had to do in order to condemn the other. This never gets anyone anywhere. What does move things forward is acknowledging what you each bring to the table, expressing how you each feel about your current roles, and adjusting to make sure everyone is comfortable with the arrangement.
- Telling yourself that sex isn’t a big deal is a HUGE lie.
A friend recently sent me an article claiming that it is the lack of intimacy, not the lack of sex, which kills marriages. Sorry, but no. Of course intimacy is crucial, but neither emotional intimacy nor an active sex life can be traded for the other.
There are people with whom you will still find emotionally intimate connections after you get married — your parents, your children, your best friends. If you expect your marriage to be monogamous, the only person you should expect to have sex with again is your spouse. Adult human beings need sex in order to thrive, so if you are not getting it from your spouse, or if the two of you aren’t both feeling sexually satisfied by each other, I don’t care how much you share your feelings, one of you is going to stray or move on at some point.
- The occasional date night will not suffice.
Married couples know the staid advice to plan regular date nights to “keep the love alive.” As we see from the ever-present Saturday night Facebook status updates, most of these date nights involve dinner and a movie and then back to bed fairly early so everyone can still enjoy Sunday with the kids. That isn’t a date. That is an outing.
Dating is a mating ritual involving a lengthy, complicated, and exciting chase. When you date, there is a process of pursuit and capture at play that is exciting, fun and playful. You each try to impress each other by bringing your A-game. No, this is not sustainable as a constant every day of every year, but couples with long-lasting marriages check back in with themselves to make sure they keep that process alive and on repeat over the course of decades.
- The family budget will not take care of itself.
Money ranks right up there with sex on the list of topics every married couple knows they should discuss regularly and yet rarely do. In most households a casual process takes place at the beginning of the marriage. There is an announcement that spouse X will be managing the family checkbook and investments. And there is a reason our government created a system of checks and balances.
Couples spend years feeling resentful over their perceptions of the other’s spending habits, while they are actually only guessing at what those habits are because they never actually discuss them with each other. If couples calendar a monthly 30-minute budget check-up, they could quickly catch any missteps or miscommunications, as well as have fun planning ways to spend their savings in the future.
- You simply cannot forget to have each other’s backs.
There will come a time when your BFF, parents and/or siblings question something your spouse has done/not done, said/not said, etc. You may even agree with this “outsider” on the issue. What you may not do is throw your spouse under the bus. Doing so is simply acting out a resentment on a passive aggressive level.
Trust is vital for a thriving marriage. If you want to be trusted, you must talk to the source of your frustrations as soon as possible after an issue arises. Take a breather to think through the issue and even write down the key points you need to express. It is so much harder to clean up the mess later. Above all else, showing respect, acknowledgment and empathy to each is everything.
Photo credit: Getty Images