Is divorce a sign of failure?

Family|December 5th 2017

In this post I’m going to step into waters that I don’t usually traverse. I know that some family lawyers regularly discuss the ‘non-legal’ aspects of divorce: the practical, emotional and psychological impact it has on those going through it. Marilyn Stowe was particularly good at it – her book Divorce & Splitting Up, for example, is full of excellent practical advice. I, however, have always steered clear of such things, believing that my expertise, such as it is, is limited to the legal aspects of divorce. However, I suppose that having dealt with thousands of divorces over the years, even I have gained a little knowledge of the non-legal aspects.

What prompts this change of heart? Of all things, an article that I stumbled across in my news feed, in the Australian newspaper The Age.

You probably haven’t heard about it, but apparently a British prince is to marry some American actress, who happens to be divorced. The article asks whether this happy event could “finally smash the divorce taboo”. The reasoning behind the question is that if this marriage can finally overcome the royal aversion to divorcees, then perhaps it can also overcome the commonly-held belief that a divorce is a sign of failure.

Obviously, as a divorce lawyer I have often come across this belief. Whilst I can understand it, I have never personally held by it. Why should a divorce be categorised as a failure? I know that we talk in terms of a ‘failed marriage’, but the word ‘failure’ suggests not just lack of success, but also actual fault on the part of one or both parties. In reality, many marriages, and perhaps most marriages, ‘fail’ simply because it turned out that the parties were not after all compatible. There is no fault to be attributed (and nor should there be any fault attributed when the legal process of divorce takes place).

Of course, whether a divorce is considered a failure is not just a matter of why the marriage broke down. As the article suggests, it is a matter of how the whole idea of a broken marriage is perceived, not just by those who go through it, but by those around them, and by society as a whole. If I have a criticism of the article, it is that it implies that everyone shares the belief that divorces represent failure. This is not the case – I’m sure increasing numbers of people do not take that view.

But the response to divorce depends not just upon the views of society as a whole. It also depends upon the individuals involved, their families, their cultural background and their social circles. If anyone within those groups feels that divorce, or a particular divorce, is a failure then it may not matter what the rest of society thinks. However, I suspect that if, as the writer of the article hopes, this royal marriage means that society can just see divorce as part of a person’s backstory rather than a reflection of their moral worth, then many of those groups who stubbornly hold to the old views are likely to catch up eventually.

The article also makes the excellent point that, rather than being a failure, divorce can actually be a success. As the article says:

“If your marriage is a misery and if your problems can’t be solved then divorce can be a relief, a celebration of a fresh start, and a declaration that you deserve better.”

And that fresh start may mean that you end up leading a much happier and fulfilling life than you did prior to the divorce. Divorce can even be a success for both parties: it can mean that two incompatible individuals need not be manacled together by marriage for the rest of their lives. How can that be deemed a ‘failure’?

I actually doubt that one royal marriage will make much difference, but I do hope that this negative view of divorce becomes a thing of the past. And if you are going through a divorce, or have recently been through one, then ignore those voices that suggest you are a failure – your divorce could turn out to be the biggest success of your life.

You can read the full article here.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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  1. Helen Dudden says:

    I agree to blame free divorce, bitterness gets in the way of moving on. I don’t like the arguments with access to children, who can hurt who.
    It’s a bit of a mixture, if you can no longer stand to be opposite at the breakfast table, or any other place, it’s one option. But on the other hand, the emotional toil can be great.
    I’ve nothing against anyway remarrying, but for the right reasons.

  2. John Brick says:

    I guess I’m ‘Old School’. My parents married, and observed the vow ”till death do we part”.

    That was the way it was ‘back-then’, when the man was the ‘bread-winner’ the woman the mother and home-maker.

    Society has changed radically over the last 50 years or so. For better or worse, is a personal interpretation.

    Whilst I could not condone a marriage that was a daily misery, I’m also not sure it should be an all too easy ‘quick-fix’, by which either party readily applies.

    The old ‘give and take’ adage, probably remains the best guide. In anything sustainable in life, there has to be balance. This means taking the rough with the smooth sometimes, ‘for better or worse’.

    Divorce, where merited, certainly can be a useful remedy, but toleration, communication, and negotiation should all be genuinely attempted first.

    Miscommunication is probably the main reason anybody ends up in litigation, never more so that in divorce cases.

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