By Elisheva Liss
I’m writing this letter because I’m beside myself about my daughter, though she’s an adult already, in her thirties. She and her husband have been together for over 10 years and have three beautiful kids, but they recently informed us that they’re probably getting divorced. This came completely out of left field for my wife and me. They had seemed happy; there were no signs of any serious problems and they had never discussed anything about their marriage with us before, even though we see them pretty often. Naturally, when they told us, we were shocked and worried. We asked if they’re OK, and they said yes, this just seems to be what they need to do now. We asked if they tried marriage counseling, and they said they did. We asked more questions, but they made it clear that they don’t want to share more information about it. I realize we should probably stop prying, but I can’t help but feel pained—for my daughter, my grandchildren, my son-in-law, and, if I’m being honest, for myself. I worry that I did something wrong—maybe we didn’t prepare her well enough for marriage or offer them enough support. I feel hurt that they didn’t feel they could approach us in their troubles and don’t want to tell us more.
I’m also worried that maybe they’re giving up too quickly. It seems like there are so many more divorces these days, and I wonder if many of the couples really could have worked it out but gave up too fast. I’ve offered a few times to talk to my daughter and son-in-law, to try to help them with money, or to find them a great marriage therapist, but they seem to be mostly decided and not interested in our advice or help.
Why are there so many divorces these days? Is there anything else I can do to try to save their marriage?
Dear Stressed Dad/Grandpa,
I’m sorry to hear of your distress over your daughter’s probable upcoming divorce. As parents, we want to know that our children are happy and settled, and hearing that one is divorcing can give the sense that this isn’t the case. It sounds like your sadness and concern are compounded by hurt over feeling excluded from this critical part of her life. While she and her husband are entitled to their privacy, it’s understandable that as her parent, you wish you could help or do more. But as you’ve seen, it’s very difficult, often impossible, and even inadvisable to help someone who doesn’t want the help.
Let’s start with your first question: Why are there so many divorces now? The perfectly honest answer is: No one can really say for sure. Books, studies, surveys, sermons, and opinions abound. But there are so many variables, and the world has changed so dramatically in so many ways in the past century that it’s impossible and even irresponsible to point to a single definitive cause. And yet, we wonder.
What follows is simply one generalized observation.
Around a hundred years ago, about a century following the Industrial Revolution (and a century’s worth of other assorted revolutions), the entire western world went to war. Twice. During that upheaval, men were out fighting, and so women stepped up to fill the work force, en masse, kind of for the first time. Until that point, in most societies, there was a traditional gender script: Girls and boys grew up and got married fairly young. Premarital sex was discouraged, and procreation was a value, so they were in a bit of a rush to get married. Men grew up and became providers and protectors, and women grew up and became child-bearers and homemakers. Men were there to provide and protect, and women were there to nurture and nourish. Spouses needed one another, because it was shameful to be single and men couldn’t gestate, while women didn’t usually or easily earn money. Family building was a two-person, full-time job. So marriage had evolved into something of a universal social contract, a symbiotic arrangement for the purpose of concerted family production. Some were probably fulfilled and some were presumably less so, but roles were clear, and, overall, it got the job done.
Until that point in history, the focus was on collective, societal function, rather than individual self-determination. Most societies subscribed to religious systems as well, which also promoted traditional family life. Presumably, not all marriages were happy ones, and not everyone necessarily appreciated or enjoyed their culturally assigned roles, but there was clarity, uniformity, and predictability.
Once women became more financially self-sufficient, and much of the tedious housework and manual labor was replaced by time-saving devices and gadgets, women and, to a lesser degree, men began examining their life possibilities from a more open perspective. Women were seeking and demanding rights, education, representation, self-expression, and personal fulfillment in areas well beyond the domestic. The men’s world was changing rapidly as well, but not as dramatically as women’s. Women literally and figuratively were trying on the pants, and they liked them. In the 1960s, the free love movement gave the masses license to explore their feelings and sexuality. John Lennon asked us to imagine a world without religion, social order, or values. That generation began to dispense with the inconvenience of dusty institutions like marriage and family.
By the time the 1980s and 90s rolled in, secularism and materialism were prevailing social forces. For the first time in recorded history, a predominantly G-dless society had been born. Instead of asking what G-d wants from us, we were now asking: What do we want for ourselves? We had shifted from theocentric, collectivist values to anthropocentric, individual goals. With these mores, having children, certainly more than 1.5, went from expected to optional to quaint to passé. Women no longer needed men to support and protect them, had easier and safer access to birth control, and both men and women were enjoying their publicly sanctioned polyamorous freedom.
When marriage goes from expected, mandatory, and mutually beneficial to unnecessary, optional, and potentially complicating, it’s going to take a lot more glue to keep it together when the going gets rough. In traditional cultures, stigma around divorce and logistical interdependency kept even mediocre and unhappy unions in place, and continue to do so. In modern, contemporary communities, we’re no longer looking for or satisfied with only a pragmatic partnership. Besides for love, we now seek even more sophisticated and lofty marital criteria—deep connection, emotional and sexual chemistry, intellectual and spiritual compatibility, companionship, bonding, humor, recreation, and moral support—lots of abstract new requirements. We’re living longer and wanting more. And on top of all this, we need to fall and stay “in love”—without actually being able to really define it. The old-fangled version of marriage almost didn’t stand a chance in the face of all this new pressure. So it’s easier, more feasible, and more common than ever before to part ways rather than stay unhappy. The Orthodox world is navigating this transition, too, and encountering a fair amount of resistance.
While discussing this phenomenon with my son once, he paused and replied, “That makes historical sense. But is it a good thing or a bad thing?” he queried. (He likes to query.)
“Both, or neither, I think,” I suggested.
I think it’s good that we are demanding more of ourselves and requesting more of our spouses. It’s good that standards for marriage are being raised and refined, that people don’t want or need to stay in abusive, dysfunctional, miserable, or depressing marriages. If the realistic threat of divorce is forcing us to become better spouses and parents, that’s a good thing. When divorce ends a painful saga and gives someone a new lease on life and love, that’s a salvation.
On the other hand, nobody gets married with the hope to divorce. Divorce is often painful and traumatic, particularly when there are children involved. So while it’s up to each couple to determine the best course of action for its family, accessible divorce can be a double-edged sword and a temptation to leave more quickly and easily. It’s my belief that when there are children in the picture and there is no abuse or egregious behavior, it’s worthwhile to try sincerely to salvage the marriage before opting for divorce. But once salvaging the marriage has been attempted, it’s often more damaging for both parents and for the kids to be raised by unhappily or contentiously married parents than by amicably, or at least maturely, divorced ones.
We work hard to save marriages when that is what both spouses want. We also work hard to end marriages with as much grace as possible when that’s necessary. I find it painful to hear armchair anthropologists criticizing couples who split up, with flippant, judgmental, throwaway lines like:
“People just don’t know what commitment means anymore.”
“Folks aren’t willing to work at relationships; they treat them as disposable.”
“It’s because this generation is selfish and lazy.”
No, please, no. As someone who sees the exhausting, expensive, and often desperate measures couples take to do this work, I can honestly say that the couples I know who’ve chosen to divorce almost always first tried hard to save it. And even if they didn’t—well, it really isn’t our business. Sometimes it’s too late for even that. What they need is our support, empathy, and respect. Each family has its own unique story and path. Our job is not to solve the mystery; it’s to be kind. That’s probably a lot harder for the parents, but it sounds like you made it very clear that you care and you’re willing to help. If they want it, they know where to find you.
So why are so many more people getting divorced now? In short, because they can, and because even though it’s sad or hard, often it’s right for them.
Elisheva Liss, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. She not only treats a variety of mental-health concerns but also shares psychoeducation via her blog, her book—“Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking”—digital courses, and a new virtual wellness program. All can be accessed at ElishevaLiss.com.