How to Divorce Better in 2024

Boston Globe

In the West African country Mauritania, one of the more festive kinds of parties is given for a surprising reason: divorce. A decoupling is celebrated as a wedding might be. Women decorate their hands and arms with henna tattoos, and communities gather with music and dancing to revel in the newly divorced person’s liberation. In China, too, divorced women get together over karaoke, confetti cakes, and flower bouquets to celebrate their rebirth and the start of their life’s next chapter.

Here in America, some people are there, but most of us are not. Instead of celebrating divorce, we typically exhibit some combination of embarrassment, shame, anger, and grief. American culture paints divorce as a stress-inducing visceral life event that demands tough litigation and, if we’re on the outside looking in on another couple’s split, choosing sides.

This is a shame, especially because divorce is so prevalent. Forty to 50 percent of first marriages in this country end in divorce. The rate climbs to 60 to 67 percent for second marriages.

Given this reality, isn’t it about time we shift the norms around separation and divorce? Can we as a culture reexamine the ways we react when couples split?

There have been some course corrections. Witness “mommunes,” communities of divorced mothers who come together to offer mutual support; and divorce registries, shopping lists for all the things you didn’t get in the split. Some early adopters have even embraced the divorce party. These are exactly the kinds of communities and rituals we need more of to help us learn to view the decoupling process through a different lens.

Some celebrities are on the case, promoting the idea that divorces needn’t be bitter and that two people can realize that their emotional, psychological, or physical paths may be diverging. They can even take post-divorce vacations together as a family! There have been several public divorce announcements grounded not in blame-casting and mud-slinging but in mutual respect. Meryl Streep and Jada Pinkett have spoken with affection about their longtime partners, even though they split with them.

So how do we shift from the idea that divorce is a fundamental failure and embrace the notion that it is, instead, an opportunity for healing, reclaiming power, and regaining freedom?

First, let’s stop making assumptions about couples. We can’t know what precipitated a split. It’s not our place to judge. Let’s cut it out. You never know when the divorce in question will be your own.

Second, we’d do well to stop treating divorce as though each one is the same. Just as there are many ways to be married, there are many ways for a partnership to break and for post-divorce life to carry on. No prescribed series of healing steps can apply to all. Families coping with the aftermath of domestic abuse, substance abuse, or other forms of trauma, for example, navigate a different set of experiences than do others. There can be no generalizing about divorce.

Similarly, we might reframe how we think about couples that stuck it out but remained miserable for decades on end. Is that a better outcome than claiming one’s liberation from an unfortunate match?

If we’re serious about rewriting the divorce narrative, we’d also be wise to take a look at the vows we make at the altar.

Imagine weaving these less romantic but more grounded-in-reality alternative vows into your own:

I, ____ (husband/wife) will not be the same person that I am today five years from now. I also will be a different person five months from now. You, ____ (husband/wife) accept that I am going to change, and if you do not like how I’ve changed, you will nevertheless treat me with respect and common decency.

Our marriage has about a 50 percent chance of ending in divorce, and we both accept that. We will nevertheless treat each other with care if this marriage ends.

It’s time to abandon the cultural stigma around divorce. From there, it’s only a matter of time before we foster civility in our own unions and empathy for those of others, even the ones that fall apart.

"How to Divorce Better in 2024," by Alan Feigenbaum and Ariella Steinhorn* was published in the Boston Globe on December 27, 2023.

*Ariella Steinhorn is a writer in New York who focuses on relationship dynamics in the workplace.