Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review asked me to respond to some questions about my book Don’t Divorce, which they published as “Resisting the Divorce Momentum.” However, they trimmed the piece for space, and I thought I’d post the interview in its entirety, which includes some extra nuggets.
You wrote one book warning against divorce only to be excoriated. Wouldn’t you try something else this time? Raindrops on roses or puppies – or any kind of dog (people seem to love dog books!)?
Though I love dogs, I don’t really have much to offer about them, I’m afraid. I did write books on other topics since The Case Against Divorce which came out—I hesitate to reveal my age here—24 years ago. That title is still in print and selling, and over the years I continue to receive article requests and speaking invitations on the topic.
But just as marriage has changed drastically since that book, divorce has also transformed, and simply discussing the downside of divorce is no longer enough. At this point, we’re seeing the damage parental divorce has wreaked on now-adult children, who refrain from marriage (pushing the mean age at first marriage up to 29 for men) lest they endure or cause for their children the heart-wrenching divorce experience. I started to observe the underlying values changes that demolished divorce stigma and lets people put their desires and emotions ahead of their commitments, and that was the clincher—it was time to broaden the discussion and revisit the topic.
Why do you “confess” your own divorce early on?
I’m embarrassed and sad about my early marriage ending in divorce, so my strong initial inclination was just to leave it out. After all, I’ve been married to my husband Michael for 32 years. But the truth is that one can never live down nor forget a marriage, even if it’s without children (as mine was), a phenomenon so common it’s now blithely dismissed with the term “starter marriage.” The inescapable lifelong pain of divorce is one of my messages, and so rather than omit or hide a fact that would probably emerge anyway, I just laid it out there at the onset. Also, I think I gain a measure of credibility, having experienced both divorce and long-term marriage.
Telling people not to divorce and declaring that there is no good divorce can make people who have been divorced feel lousy and judged when there’s probably a lot of pain surrounding it already and there may have been good reasons. Why do you do it – knowing the pain yourself?
My book is aimed toward people suffering in a tough marriage who are not divorced, though they may be thinking about it (as well as for their therapists, pastors, friends and families). I discuss the fact that once someone’s divorced, he should and needs to feel that the divorce was necessary. The bromide “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade” applies here—though no divorce is fun, and every divorce brings pain, once it’s done, it’s healthy to move on and even to view that difficult chapter as part of the journey that brings someone to a better, more aware place.
That said, I was still surprised at the anger that arose when a friend of mine suggested that I come speak to her Divorce Recovery Group. Understandably, they were still suffering and struggling to extricate themselves emotionally from their marriages. The group facilitator even wrote me an email with quotes expressing group members’ ire. I should mention that my book includes a whole chapter on justifiable, unavoidable divorce, even suggesting how to leave, in cases of abandonment or where an offending spouse won’t admit or address physical abuse, addiction or personality disorders like full-blown narcissism.
Why is it so important to stop “The Divorce Momentum”?
Once couples start using “the D-word,” escalating emotions kick in, and often they’re sucked into a Divorce Industry (well-meaning therapists, financial and law professionals, coaches, etc.) primed to spiral them down the funnel to a decree. Few couples even realize they’re in that well-worn groove. That’s why it’s useful to name and describe the process and suggest a step backward in order to realign to long-term goals and understand the consequences of immediately responding to rising emotions.
How is everyone who is married at war with the menace of divorce?
Unfortunately, we find ourselves now in a culture with ubiquitous hazards to marriage and few countervailing safeguards for it. We’re offered constant gratification and no incentive to ride out dissatisfaction. I discuss three “divorce magnets” pulling couples apart: 1) The Divorce Industry and “non-judgmental” friends and family who offer sympathy and accommodation to divorcing people, 2) convenient technology that facilitates hook-ups and porn, fomenting “the grass is greener” syndrome, and 3) a competitive, egalitarian workplace that pulls attention to career and away from marriage and offers proximity for fraternization.
Are people not getting married somehow out of the fight? Part of the problem?
“People not getting married” is a strange way to recognize a generation of victims of no-stigma, prolific divorce. I mentioned before the huge numbers of adult children of divorce, who became skittish about commitment, afraid to repeat what they saw their parents endure. They also fear inflicting their own children with the rootless dual identity fostered by shared custody that they suffered. Still, 96% of the population is either presently married or would like to be. It’s nearly everyone’s desire to form a permanent, loving bond with another. Therefore, nobody’s “out of the fight.”
What is it about divorce and the opportunity for men to “have it all” that should get feminists banding together with those talking about its dangers?
A feminist view is that men and women both juggle work and family to “have it all,” and that neither gender can attain it. Because “it all” is a high bar of success in three spheres: career, raising children, and constructive personal and family time.
True, gender roles seem to have stayed largely the same—men in general want to achieve in careers and prefer to entrust their wives with child-related responsibilities. And in general, women want to compete in the work-world and at the same time want and choose close involvement with their children. So, we still see women arranging their lives to address two careers, mother and paying job, and if the husband decides to decamp the marriage, she’s left with the bigger load (plus having to compensate for any slowdown in career momentum because of her child-rearing choices).
So in that sense, it’s more fair, more pro-woman, if spouses honor their marital commitments with the seriousness with which they’d honor a business contract.
I should add, however, that men who are closely involved with their children—like the women who do so—report that the rewards of parenthood exceed the work-related accolades they might have received. So the juggle is worth it.
“Everyone has the potential for joy.” Why did you feel the need to write such a sentence?
Astute you picked up on that. As I wrote Don’t Divorce, I was often saddened thinking back to my clients in unhappy marriages. Sometimes I’d find myself in therapy sessions with sobbing spouses, trying to disguise my own tears of sympathy for what these people were going through—such as years of verbal lashing, lack of affection, or of unheeded pleading to address hurtful habits. Some, women in particular had been completely devastated by a betraying spouse. They couldn’t see their way to ever regaining joy, especially with the person they’d come in some measure to hate. Perhaps people in the depths of marital turmoil and depression should have those words on paper. There’s always hope.
How should married couples and the marriage minded think about happiness and joy?
Very simply: in the long term. My friend Dennis Prager distinguishes between happiness and fun. They’re both wonderful, but you earn happiness through investing time and by exercising your virtues. Happiness comes with setting a goal and accomplishing it, and a fundamental life goal is to pair with another in mutual support and love to create a shared history, especially with the legacy of children. In the last chapter of Don’t Divorce, I describe “The Five Unique Rewards of Marriage.” The final point is that “marriage makes soul mates.” Though many couples claim to be soul mates at their weddings, I hold that only by jointly facing challenges and triumphs over a span of many years can you develop an understanding of the other person on its deepest level, the type of closeness where you can anticipate the other’s reactions and accept that person even when circumstances (or behaviors) might be far from ideal.
“Your marriage is more significant than you realize,” you write. Why is this so important to convey? could it even have an effect on politics?
It’s important to emphasize the significance of marriage because at a vulnerable moment, it’s easier to succumb to the popular “wisdom” of “you deserve to be happy.” Especially in a painful situation, the urgency is to assuage negative emotions, without considering the impact of a split on any future for the marriage, and on children, parents, friends and culture.
As an aside, in Jewish tradition, a newly-married couple doesn’t go off on a honeymoon, but instead spends seven days in their community, each night being feted by a different group of friends and neighbors. The idea is to cement in the couple’s mind that their joy is shared by a large group of people who will be there to support and care for them, in good times like a wedding celebration, and in tough times as well. In other words, it’s to make sure they know that their marriage is significant in building the community and its long-term continuity.
When divorce becomes a trend, it becomes normalized, which encourages others to follow. Though the divorce rate has never topped 30% according to the Census Bureau, the myth of the 50% divorce rate, which you see without attribution everywhere, serves to offer permission for marital break-up. After all, says the departing spouse, we’re just in the wrong half. With divorce accepted, single parenthood became common, and then no big deal, creating a large number of children raised with no husband-and-father role model.
There are policy ramifications to the weakening of marriage. When President Obama wanted to tout his all-encompassing social programs, he invented a character, Julia, who was cared for by government programs, cradle to unwed parenthood to grave. On the conservative side, pro-marriage “family values” continues as an approved buzz-word. Policies will be different if the goal is supporting married families versus supporting individuals. The expectation is that families pull together and rely on each other (often with differentiated roles), so government should enable them to be self-sufficient; unmarried individuals tend to rely more upon the government, and therefore benefit from expansive programs.
Does same-sex marriage complicate things?
I don’t think so. Marriage is a stabilizing force for both individuals and society, and that’s a good thing. I assume partners in same-sex marriages enter them with the same hopes and aspirations, and suffer from the same heartaches and problems as anyone else who bothers to get a wedding license, hold a ceremony and take vows. Among all types of couples, you’ll find a long continuum of attitudes toward and behaviors within marriage. I hope that I can spare spouses and especially children from the disruption and pain of divorce, and thereby inspire them toward honoring commitments and caring for others rather than simply responding to selfish emotions and desires. The more honorable and responsible people in America, the better.
How can a couple struggling make use of this book? If a husband or wife is reading this interview right now, how might they go about approaching their spouse to consider something of your suggestions. Besides buying your book obviously, what’s the first step you’d recommend?
Don’t knock buying the book—sometimes just one partner leaving it on a nightstand inspires communication that’s been long avoided. Keeping hurt and suspicion bottled inside can feed misconceptions and fuel an outburst, so I’d probably say the first step is to approach the other and admit to problems and aspirations. Expressing thoughts in a letter is often the most constructive way to do this, and if the situation is delicate or explosive, the letters might best be exchanged in the presence of a counselor.
Usually at least one person wants to revive the marriage, even if one wants out. The tendency is to accept that if one partner is no longer in love, it’s over—but a partner who wants to save the marriage can’t just nod and accept rejection; she needs to seek out support and push back, even if uncharacteristic or difficult for her.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about marriage in all your experience personally and professionally?
Tough to pick just one idea! First off, the notion of “winning by letting go.” Too many marriages get caught in stubbornness. You can stop an escalating argument by saying outright: “Normally I’d respond, but right now I’m going to let go. We can do it your way.” Usually the other person is flummoxed into backing down, too.
Then there’s the idea of “the power of the preface.” If we just preface tough conversations with our internal thought processes, we’re much more likely to get a good reception. For example, “I’ve been thinking about how to tell you this. It’s really difficult for me to say anything that might hurt your feelings because despite it all, I do love you, but…”
I also like the idea of “behaving as if you’re happily married.” That’s a version of the cliché “fake it till you make it,” because if you (even insincerely) behave lovingly, eventually your feelings will fall in line with your actions. This is a Jewish principle, by the way. Anticipate what would please your partner and do it. Maybe you won’t get much reaction until the third, fourth or fifth effort, but pick a time frame (like a week) and don’t let up.
And as far as the tired maxim “don’t go to bed angry,” NO. Go to bed angry; the problem won’t seem nearly as bad in the morning. One of the pieces of advice from The Legacy Project at Cornell University—1,500 stories from long-married elderly—is when you’re having a fight, make a sandwich. It could be that you’re hungry, and even if that’s not the problem, taking a break to break bread stops the conflagration. It’s like taking ten deep breaths but better.
There are plenty more suggestions where those came from. (Buy Don’t Divorce.)
How might we all start thinking differently about marriage and family, in the midst of all the political and cultural and personal challenges?
The reason divorce rates ascended was because of a sea-change in national attitude fomented by spoiled baby-boomers. The Greatest Generation’s motto was “do your duty,” pulling and sacrificing together for the sake of the nation. This morphed into the Disney mantra of “follow your heart,” meaning if today you’re bored or “missing something” or feeling disrespected, you’re entitled to leave. We need to start discussing honoring commitment and ideals broader than those in our personal microcosms.
We should start looking at our marriages not as two people in love, because when that love falters for one person, as surely it will, then the basis of the relationship crumbles. Instead, we should take a long-term view of marriage, understanding it as a “Family Project” in which each person—husband, wife, each child and the extended family and community—plays a valuable role. If we see things in the long-term rather than the feelings-oriented “right now,” we become empowered to weather difficulties, knowing that the larger goal and ultimate outcome is worthwhile.
Probably the most important and inspiring research in Don’t Divorce offers hope for everyone in a troubled marriage, and even for anyone observing our bizarre political scene. Two major studies assessed hundreds of thousands of married couples, asking their levels of marital happiness. Of the spouses who said they were unhappily married, five years later two-thirds in one study, and three-quarters in the other reported being happily wed. And the couples who were most unhappy at first measurement became the most happy five years later. In other words, “this, too shall pass,” and with trust in God and our Constitution—and in the importance and worth of wedding vows—we can surmount and get past our problems and regain equilibrium and confidence in the future.