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The Divorce Encyclopedia
Saving Marriage

Term Definition Saving Marriage - unwriting the handwriting on the wall.
Application in Divorce One of the most profound changes in America after World War II is a change in the way society perceives marriage. "Till death do us part," once an axiom of middle-class marriage, gave way to what seemed to be a more realistic view: that some marriages die; that people make "bad" marriages and should not pay for it for the rest of their lives; that the pursuit of happiness should include a second chance at marital happiness. Beginning in the 1960s, state legislatures began consideration of what was described as "divorce reform." This bore fruit in 1970, when California became the first state to enact no-fault divorce. No-fault seemed an idea whose time had come, for within the decade, almost every state had some form of no-fault. In a phase, as writer Ellen Goodman put it, no-fault made divorce "socially acceptable" -- and it should not surprise anyone, she said, that "society has more divorces to accept."

And accept divorce society does. What changed with the liberalization of divorce is that two individuals, a husband and wife, now make the decision of end a marriage without the social norm that says marriages should, all other things being equal, not end without a good reason (and a good reason did not mean the spouses do not want to be married anymore). Whereas once society reinforced the norms with stigmas, today offers the freedom to divorce as an individual option, for either partner can end a marriage against the wishes of the other. The underlying argument here is that is if person is unhappy in a bad or troubled marriage, ending the marriage at least means he or she can start again, anew and renewed. The argument finds cultural reinforcement in what Michele Weiner Davis, a Chicago-based marriage therapist, calls the "divorce trap," the culture that makes divorce as an option plan B. She likens the trap to carbon monoxide, "the odorless killer, invading your thoughts without your knowing it."

The trap works with the machinations of well-meaning -- family and friends in the role of volunteer therapists, who make the situation worse by listening to one side of the story (and reinforcing the predispositions of the loved one); therapists who focus upon individual happiness and self-actualization; conscientious lawyers who are hired advocates, schooled in adversarial procedure, who have neither the wit nor the will toward reconciliation; and media myth makers who saturate the culture with unrealistic images of marriage that raise expectations beyond reality.

"Marriage in our culture is risky business, and the costs of marital failure are staggering," write Howard J. Markham, Scott M. Stanley and Susan L. Blumberg, the authors of Fighting for Your Marriage. Yet most people marry and those who do desire a happy marriage that lasts a lifetime, and few who do divorce do so impulsively.

"...[W]ith fewer economic, legal and moral barriers to divorce, more people choose this option -- even when faced with difficulties that many couples could overcome with the right kind of effort," write Markham, Stanley and Blumberg. In short, the carbon monoxide of the divorce trap infiltrates the way people think, and the way people think reinforces the trap.

Sometimes a married couple come to see the end of their marriage as written on the wall. Yet the truth is, if two people want to save the marriage, it can probably be saved. In the end, the end of a marriage is their decision. With liberalization of divorce, society, such as it is, stepped aside, and in its silence made the continuation of a marriage the decision of the individuals.

This route has not be cost-free.

After more than a generation of what has been termed "easy" divorce, many observers now realize that divorce as a solution to a problem marriage is a solution that creates as many problems as it solves. Which is another way of saying that people who end problem marriages very often jump from the frying pan of a troubled marriage to the fires of divorce. The plunge is not the flight of the Phoenix, the mythological bird who crashes in flames and emerges from the ashes borne again, whole and anew. The formerly married rarely emerge from the experience undamaged and seldom move on without battle damage. Moreover, hope may spring eternal, but 60 percent of all second marriages crash on the reefs of divorce.

Very often in a troubled marriage one partner blames his or her personal unhappiness on the other without realizing that source of the unhappiness is outside the marriage. In this situation, one partner blames the other for the failure of the marriage without seeing, knowing and realizing how his or her behavior contributed to it. After all, all successful marriages take two and in a reciprocating relationship that includes friendship, loyalty and generosity.

And even without existential considerations of happiness, very practical considerations argue against divorce if at all possible. Children are better off when their parents stay married and more likely to avoid problems such as teen pregnancy, drug abuse and delinquent behavior. Most adults thrive in marriage; they are healthier. Moreover, divorces plays havoc with finances, and the solo parent, particularly the divorced single mother whose finances are a pillar-to-post ritual of fear and desperation, is a sad fixture on the American landscape.

In her book, Crazy Time: Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life, Abigail Trafford describes divorce as a "savage emotional journey," where a person ricochets between the failure of the past and the uncertainty of the future. Far more is involved that the legal end of a marriage because divorce upends the established order of family, friends, finances, work, and in some cases health and well being. Divorce sends shrapnel is every direction. In truth, divorce is a death, and neither spouse who made a good faith effort to make the marriage work buries it without pain and suffering.

Many divorce books portray life after divorce as the occasion of self- discovery and re-creation. This may be true. For many, however, particularly women with children, life after a divorce takes on the characteristics of forced march across very barren terrain.

While people do go on and rebuild their lives in rewarding ways after a divorce, divorce makes no one a winner. For sure, some marriages must and should end. Domestic violence and extreme conflict are reasons to end a marriage. But the truth is most marriages do not fall in this category. People contemplating divorce should make certain that it is a course of last resort. They may find happiness and a new beginning after the divorce; divorce itself make no one happy. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, in a divorce, the winner takes nothing.

Some years ago, according to a story in a national magazine, a bride-to-be shocked her traditional mother by telling her that her future son-in-law would make "a wonderful first husband." That young woman’s glibness reveals how little she knows about the pain and suffering associated with a marriage begun in good faith.

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