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How to Understand Divorce

I am not the right person to write this article. I have never gotten divorced, nor, for that matter, have I ever been married.

Wendy Paris, however, has been both, and has drawn on those personal experiences, as well as the anecdotes of many others, to pen Splitopia: The Good Divorce and How to Part Well, a look at the way in which this significant but still stigmatized part of American life is changing, and how those going through it can change it for the better.

It turns out that, per Paris, even if it’s still seen by society as a unique failing, divorcing well is not entirely unlike going through other difficult experiences well. Paris’s principles of parting, which she laid out at a recent event at New America moderated by NBC’s Perry Bacon, include self-compassion (that is, being mindful; forgiving yourself as you would a friend; and realizing that there is a universality to your experience and emotion); refusing to compare yourself to others; and letting go of what you can’t control while taking responsibility for what you can—that is, your own behavior. (It should be noted that Paris is explicitly not talking about divorce related to abuse or severe mental illness.) Surely, anyone who’s ever experienced loss of any kind, be it a banal breakup or a job change or a particularly painful move can understand all of that, and why it is worth cultivating and encouraging.

Indeed, Naomi R. Cahn, a professor at The George Washington University’s Law School and Paris’s fellow panelist, confessed that she read portions of the book aloud to her spouse, so entangled is the conversation about divorce with that about long-term relationships (one could even say that it is difficult to divorce the two). Cahn also noted that the purpose behind California’s No-Fault Divorce, signed into law by then-Governor Ronald Reagan in 1969, was to recognize that the experience of divorce didn’t have to be that of a knock down, drag out fight, and that it could instead be a sort of therapy. (This is hardly the memory of Reagan evoked at recent Republican debates, but, then, politicians, like divorce, are multi-faceted.) Turning trauma into therapy—half of the people who have been to yoga class in D.C. have paid money to breathe and stretch in pursuit of that very concept (disclaimer: this is not a real statistic).

It is a concept that remains elusive in the best of times, and certainly in periods of stress. Linda A. Delaney, a partner at Delaney McKinney LLP, confessed that she doesn’t “have the confidence that people are as self-aware to know what they want out of their divorce.” Common to most divorces she has seen, she said, is a pain that harkens to the core of individual identity, one that makes it difficult to be “reasonable people.” But since people are shaped by the information they receive about divorce, Delaney and Paris agreed that they might as well be receiving information that tells them they can go through this process with grace—and the thoughtfulness to unpack what this experience was, “when was there dignity,” and how it went wrong. “People still think they marry for love,” Delaney half-shouted, noting that, in reality, marriage is all sorts of things to all sorts of people. Divorce is, too.

It should here be noted that certain conditions—namely, socioeconomic status—may make some people more likely to be able to divorce well and less likely to divorce at all. Bacon, at one point, half jokingly asked Paris if hers was a book for “rich white people.” It’s a charge Paris denied, but the question was not without merit: While the grace Paris proscribes cannot be bought, things like therapy and counseling and thoughtful lawyers are not without their price tag. Further, if there is a stronger stigma attached to divorce in educated, higher class communities, it is because divorce is less prevalent within them, perhaps in part because late (or later) marriage is a luxury available to people like white women who go to graduate school and end up at think tanks writing about experiences they’ve never actually had (hi), and who do not enter into such a compact out of cultural pressure or economic necessity. What’s more, while the discussion of the behavioral and psychological aspects of divorce is well and good and important, the reality remains that the laws around the dissolution of the institution of marriage disproportionately affect the economically disadvantaged. Walter Scott missed a child support payment, and so was sent to jail, and so was fired from his job, and so missed child support. He had a warrant for his arrest and $18,000 in payments due when he ran (black and unarmed) from a (white) police officer, who shot him in the back. One could argue that the criminalization of nonpayment by the poor is not helping impoverished men or women divorce well.

Perhaps this is why, listening to Paris, I was reminded of Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, in which Traister examines how trends to marry or marry later or not marry at all affect different women differently. In this way, choosing not to be married yet is not so dissimilar from choosing not to be married anymore.

And ultimately, divorcing, and divorcing well, is not unlike staying single, in that it is about making a choice in a society that may or may not understand it but that will—or should—come to support it equitably and empathetically for all people, all (or at least many) of whom are looking for love or partnerships or independence for themselves in their own ways.

So, how to understand divorce? As much a part of American life as marriage. As an experience at once universal and unique. As something that affects high and low income people differently, because ours is a society in which high and low income are treated differently, and in which all will have a fairer chance of divorcing well when society as a whole is fairer. As something painful through which people live. And for which we should give them empathy, not pity, when they do.

That is, at least, my current and unqualified understanding of divorce.


Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Previously, she was the associate editor at New America. Her writing has appeared in The Economist and Slate, among other publications. She received her bachelor's in Russian Literature from Columbia and her master's in Russian and East European Studies from Oxford. She has conducted independent research on the topic of Soviet dissidence in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, as a Fulbright grantee, in Bremen, Germany.