When Marriage Disintegrates Into Divorce
March 15, 2022


The year I turned 40, two important relationships in my life ended. My mother died. And I filed for divorce. My mother’s death was sudden and unexpected. But my marriage had been a disaster in the making for almost two decades.

Loss, whether to cruel death or to the vagaries of life, is not easy to bear, and even more difficult to fathom. Death is final and non-negotiable by its very nature. Divorce is a different kind of ending.

While the bereaved are given sympathy and space to deal with their loss, the mere mention of divorce attracts a whole other kind of attention from society.

The recent discussion over the introduction of the “divorce by mutual consent” amendment in the Women’s Charter which allows couples to divorce without citing faults, made me revisit my opinion about marriage, divorce and life in general.

In his 2016 New York Times essay, Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person, philosopher Alain de Botton says: “Marriage ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating.”

In de Botton’s assessment, arranged marriage or a “marriage of reason” is grounded in logic and social fit and deprioritises the chemistry between a couple, while the contemporary “marriage of feeling” is driven by an overwhelming instinct that disregards the compatibility and quirks of the individuals involved.

In either case, every relationship is unique and every couple must find their way to a joint life that is mutually respectful, supportive and rewarding. In its best avatar, the union enables each member to grow, flourish and bring forth their highest qualities.

Yet, most couples would settle for a peaceful coexistence that does not threaten their physical safety and mental health. For an outsider looking in, it is impossible to gauge what goes on in a marriage.

Should I stay or go?
Despite our fervent hopes on our wedding day that we will step into a rose-tinted sunset for an eternity of happily-ever-after, marriage is a joint project, a team sport that requires each player to fulfil certain expectations, many of which remain unspoken.

A happy marriage requires a flexibility in approach, a willingness to adjust, and an acceptance of traits and behaviours that we may consider unacceptable. Given the nature of the relationship and its impact, not just on the couple but also on society, it seems inconceivable that we demand proof of competence before issuing a driving licence, yet have no such requirement for a marriage licence.

For most couples, the decision to wed is usually taken when you realise that you are willing to take the risk of committing to spending your life with this person, knowing fully well that the first flush of attraction will fade, that the world will interfere, and that age and responsibilities will wear you down.

Applying Freud’s pain pleasure principle, which suggests that people make choices to avoid pain or increase pleasure, it is logical to conclude that married couples would choose divorce only when the net effect of leaving exceeds the benefit of staying together.

For women, the financial fallout of divorce is often more significant than men, even if they hold jobs, due to the undeniable impact of gender pay gap. In many countries, religion or custom gains precedence in the interpretation of family laws covering marriage, divorce, property rights, inheritance, custody and guardianship, many of which favour men.

Unless there is egregious abuse and uncontestable reasons of physical safety, the decision to divorce is not purely a personal choice. Marriage, after all, is not just a union of two individuals, but also a social construct that forms the building blocks of society as we know it. When this basic construct is threatened, it is natural for society to weigh in on its implications.

It is all grief
Dissolving a marriage is complicated, particularly when children are involved. While the legal process is tiring and tedious, its tribulations are well defined. It is the emotional process that is often ignored. Like the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship is also a loss. Yet, loss, like failure, is sometimes a better teacher than success because it calls forth our true essence, the part we hide while we proudly display our accomplishments.

Based on her research, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross defined the five stages that follow loss – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Although not everyone goes through every stage or in this order, and others may visit certain stages more than once, these stages are most commonly observed in those grieving a loss.

During the months I waited for my divorce to be finalised, I noticed the sympathy offered to my widowed father, while the topic of my loss – the breakdown of my marriage – was largely overlooked by the same folks. Divorce is a topic best left unacknowledged, particularly in cultures where it is viewed as a social failure.

For couples with kids, the pain and practical issues of separation is compounded by their concern for the impact of their decision on the children. Generalised statements about the poor outcomes for children of divorce who spend time between two homes or are exclusively brought up by one parent do not take into account those children who are raised by grandparents because the parents are unable or unwilling to care for them.

Parents who stay together in a toxic marriage may give the outward impression of a cohesive family, but chronic exposure to a dysfunctional home environment can cause damage that manifests in the next generation of adults who are unable to form loving bonds.

Whether or not the law allows for “divorce by mutual consent”, it is never easy to walk away from an intimate relationship. Every couple can sense when they have entered the “irretrievable breakdown” phase of their marriage where it is unlikely that there will be restoration of a functional relationship. At this point, it behoves society to grant agency to the adults involved in moving towards an amicable end to a failing relationship.

There was much to celebrate when the world marked International Women’s Day last week. Since the day was first celebrated more than 100 years ago, women have made great strides in several arenas. However, there is still much to be done to ensure the rights of girls and women in all spaces and relationships, public or private, married or not.

An important step in this direction would be a change in social attitudes towards divorce. Instead of seeing it as a failure of individuals and a scar on society, it should be understood as a first step in the process of healing a fractured family.

By giving couples another chance at happiness by creating a new way of living and joint parenting without the stress of having to cohabit under the same roof, society can move towards a cohesive and cooperative model that will endure for the next hundred years.

Photo by Christopher Alvarenga on Unsplash

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