(Adapted from Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage)
Nicole and Tim thought they had the strongest marriage ever. They’d been married five years, no kids yet, and everything seemed so solid. But when their closest friends Laura and Daniel—their matron of honor and best man—announced their split, everything felt called into question. How could Daniel just start up a months-long affair with someone he’d found on Bumble? Dana wondered if even Tim could betray her.
No marriage is safe from peril in our pro-divorce culture. Three big magnets constantly tug spouses apart, and in moments of ennui, frustration or anger can pull them toward a Divorce Industry of counselors, lawyers and financial advisors seeking customers.
Once conscious of these destructive forces, you can be on your guard against them.
Divorce Magnet Number 1: Sympathy and Support for Divorce
When wedding vows were iron-clad commitments, divorce was a failure that brought “shaming” followed by long-term stigma. Mention you’re “going through a divorce” now, and you’ll collect comforting embraces and caring reassurance, in a striking cultural flip that took just a single generation.
In fact, you’ll get a lot more sympathy by splitting than by announcing that you’re working on problems in your marriage. Friends assume a divorce leaves you shattered and bereft, requiring their compassion, while working on your marriage implies you’re facing your demons, and the issues could be temporary.
If it’s you in a marital crisis, wouldn’t you choose commiseration and a warm embrace, when the alternative is a difficult process with an angry or hurt spouse? Friends think they’re helping by being “non-judgmental” about whether you should stay married, but their unconditional support makes divorce look like an equally legitimate choice. They think they’re empowering you by saying you shouldn’t take whatever it is that’s causing the rift, or by offering you a place to stay. Instead they’re making it easy to bolt, and placing you on the conveyor belt to a decree.
At work and with other obligations, divorcing is a convenient excuse for slacking, fudging on promises, and behaving badly. If you miss a deadline or take a long lunch, the assumption is you’re emotionally strained. With so many accommodations, divorcing when your marriage feels bad becomes a more attractive option.
Divorce Magnet Number 2: Sex is Everywhere (Except in Marriage)
When Paul called off the European vacation Brittany had planned down to the minute because his ex was in a major car accident, she felt less than loving. Not only because Paul put his ex first, but because he threw away the carefully orchestrated trip that was supposed to be the honeymoon they never had.
When you don’t like your spouse; when you’re angry or betrayed or verbally abused, sex in marriage is either completely selfish or manipulative. And when a couple perches on the verge of divorce, usually there’s no sex.
But intimacy is available everywhere else. Just the existence of the phone app Tinder and its many variants keeps non-marital sex and physicality a constant possibility. Business Insider reports that 12 percent of those using the app are in a relationship.
While apps furnish contact with a live person, pornography offers thrills without the bother of a close encounter. Most younger men routinely access porn–despite evidence that private viewing hurts relationships. A 2014 study by the Barna Group found that “eight out of ten men [in the general U.S. population] between the ages of 18 and 30 view pornography at least monthly.”
And “three out of ten men view pornography daily,” the study found, even though many realize it’s a problem. Asked if they’re addicted to porn, a third of younger men say yes or that they’re “unsure.”
Pornography undermines commitment to an existing relationship in both the short and long term, according to a series of five studies by Brigham Young University researchers. And the more porn the subjects consumed, especially men, the greater the magnetic pull out of the relationship.
Divorce Magnet Number 3: Workplace Priority and Proximity
“In college and grad school, the whole push was to succeed in my career,” Leslie, an engineer for a cloud-based software firm told me. “I was urged to take science and math, and told how to compete for jobs. Being a wife or mom full-time was dismissed as wasting my potential.”
The implication of “leaning in” is that maintaining a harmonious marriage and raising sane kids are nice accessories to real achievement, even though Sheryl Sandberg herself admitted in a UC Berkeley commencement speech a year after her husband died that her family meant more than career. No collegiate institution teaches students that their most worthwhile accomplishments are at home, even though plenty of academic research shows this.
For example, a 2012 study of twenty-five thousand graduates of Harvard Business School—whose education puts them in immediate demand for top-notch positions—found that over time, definitions of success shifted. “For me, at age twenty-five, ‘success’ meant career,” responded a woman in her forties. “Now I think of success much differently: Raising happy, productive children, contributing to the world around me, and pursuing work that is meaningful to me.” The researchers noted, “When we asked respondents to rate the importance of nine career and life dimensions, nearly 100%, regardless of gender, said that ‘quality of personal and family relationships’ was ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ important.”
If that’s the case, why do we celebrate professional success over the value of marriage? That difference encourages neglect of relationships and ultimately foments divorce.
Workers who devote a huge proportion of their waking hours to their jobs steal that time, and with it communication and concern, away from their families. Next comes emotional distance between spouses, a gulf exacerbated by the temptations of physical proximity to colleagues of the opposite sex.
Combine these vulnerabilities with a little casual fraternization, and the result becomes marital infidelity. A survey of 31,000 persons on “office sex and romance” commissioned by Elle Magazine found plenty of threats to monogamy:
- 92 percent of respondents said a co-worker they found attractive had flirted with them;
- 62 percent admitted at least one office affair (while 14 percent said they would never date someone from work);
- 42 percent were married or in a relationship at the time of an office affair;
- 41 percent had sex on the job, and 16 percent used a boss’s office. Seven percent got caught in the act, but 87 percent got away with no consequence.
With divorce magnets from friends and a pro-divorce culture, easy sex and porn, career demands and workplace chemistry, how can a marriage survive and thrive?
The first defense is to be open about your experiences and reactions. Talking about potential hazards, and deciding the behavior boundaries you’re comfortable with can deflect perils before they intrude. Vice President Pence was chided for his rule to avoid after-hours dinners with women alone, but since the #MeToo revelations, eschewing impropriety suddenly seems prudent. By increasing communication with your mate, and honoring policies you jointly decide, you can create a barrier around your relationship that allows it to remain strong.