The Upside of Divorce

Marina Abramovic and Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) ‘Relation in Space (video still)’ 1976

HER: We’ve all heard the statistics that tell us half of marriages today end in divorce (the actual stats are 41% of first marriages, 60% of second, and 73% of third marriages end in divorce).  This is frightening if you are on the verge of marriage or reaching the age of 30: the average age Americans get divorced for the first time.  It’s also hard this time of year if you’ve been through a divorce and are facing the holidays alone.  I’ve been there.  But what people don’t often talk about is the upside of divorce.

HIM: It’s such a politically incorrect thing to say. People pay lip-service to the idea that all marriages should last ’until death do us part,’ but that belief clearly doesn’t connect with their actions, as your statistics prove. And the truth is actually worse than the numbers show. Beyond all those relationships that do collapse, many of the ones that don’t probably should. If you take all the marriages that fail, and add to them the miserable ones that somehow survive, you’re left with a small percentage that actually might be described as happy. We’ve all seen couples who have had whatever joy they once experienced in each other completely wrung out of them. They cling together desperately, even if all they have in common is their mutual contempt and fear of financial insecurity. Their long marriages represent a joyless victory, often solely for the presumed benefit of their children.

HER: That ‘staying together for the kids’ mentality makes me cringe. You are the model for your children’s future relationships. If you and your partner are miserable together, is that really what you want your kids to emulate?

Anyway, I was divorced with two kids by 35. I seem to be statistically average (UGH!).

HIM: I’ve had one divorce, after a 26-year marriage, but my kids were basically grown up so I didn’t face the same issues as you.

HER:  So, divorce and co-parenting is a fact of life for us, as it is for many people.  In our case, we were unaccountably lucky to have found each other after our ‘failures.’  When we were miserably mismatched in our previous marriages, we had vague notions about what our ideal relationship would look like, but I don’t think either of us would have dared hope to find something as perfect as this.  That miracle is obviously the biggest upside of our divorces: having the freedom to finally be happy with a partner so well-suited to us.

But the most unexpected bonus, in our experience, is that we get more “kid free” time than most married couples ever dream of. With our shared custody arrangements, we get every other week to spend quality time with our kids, and then quality time with each other on the alternate week. Yes, it was hard at the beginning to be away from them for a whole week, especially when they were little (I started spending full weeks apart when my kids were in kindergarten), but like anything, you get used to it. And, if you’re me, you look for the upside: more time for adult adventures!

HIM:  It makes a big difference to our life together. I love the fact that you’re a mom, but I never would have thought to look for a woman who gets to be a mom for just a week at a time. It seems unfair that couples who make a first marriage last have to constantly struggle to carve out some time for themselves during the 20 or more childrearing years.

And it’s not like your connections with your kids have suffered. Like most people, I grew up hearing about children of ‘broken homes’ and how they were more likely to drop out of school, get in trouble with the law, and struggle in their future relationships.  It was largely this fear for my own children’s stability that kept me in my marriage for so long. But your kids are smart, confident, interesting young people. They love you like crazy, and we enjoy the energy they bring to the house when they’re both here.

So it’s easy to see the advantage for us – every second week we get the opportunity to hang around the house naked, host sexy parties, stay out all night, etc. But it’s interesting to consider the possibility that there’s also an advantage for the kids. You have to wonder if, freed from the grind of 24/7 mutual responsibility, parents and children would have a better chance of getting along. Every parent knows the feeling of needing a break from their kids, but maybe kids need a regular break from their parents just as much. That’s certainly what your experience seems to suggest.

HER: I’ve often thought that. I have more energy and patience for the kids after a week without them, and we’re genuinely happy to see each other when we come back together. I get more hugs in the first day they’re back than any other time, and they always have lots to talk to me about. Yes, they actually want to share!

HIM: I have lived in a home where we were devoted to raising the children without a break. I remember years ago looking at my best friend, who had gotten divorced when his daughter was quite young. At first I saw him as a victim, but then I began to notice how easily he could pursue different interests when opportunities presented themselves. He had regular evenings and weekends free from parental responsibility. Suddenly, I felt like the victim. I thought ‘is this my reward for making my marriage work, that I get no free time for myself?’

HER: I think one of the keys to my kids’ success is that they get equal time with both parents.  I can imagine it being a strain on everyone if the kids only got to see their dad every other weekend.  It would be trying on my patience to have to be the sole parent for so much time, and they’d miss their dad and might come to resent me for separating them from him.  I love the equal split because it gives them the best balance.  And an interesting benefit to the kids is they get to see different dynamics in our home versus their dad’s. They have two sets of parents who love them and four people to learn from. It gives them a wider perspective on different ways of being, both as individuals and as couples. And all four of us adults get along fairly well, so that makes it easier for everyone.

HIM: When I read about the current generation having less children these days, it’s often portrayed as part of a doomsday scenario. I think, however, that commentators make light of the logic that is at work. Maybe young people are simply making a calm, rational calculation. In the old days, everyone unquestioningly assumed they would have children, if for no other reason than to provide free labor for the family farm. Expectations of happiness and fulfillment were considerably lower, or at least different. With more choice, perhaps young people are starting to ask why they should give up their freedom to travel, their freedom to explore multiple relationships – maybe simply their freedom to party – for 20 years of  unrelenting effort that may end in disappointment or even heartbreak.

With declining birth rates threatening a demographic crisis, is it crazy to suggest that young people might have more children if they NEVER considered living with the parent of their child? What if the decision to embark on life as a father or mother meant only a 50% commitment rather than a 100% commitment? That’s how it has worked out for you – and, by extension, me – without any grand design. Your kids get great parenting from us during the weeks they are in our home, and then the same in their fathers’ homes every other week.

HER: Of course, not all parents have this luxury. And not all parents would want it. But it reinforces for us how important it is to take the time away from responsibilities to focus on each other and the relationship, especially if you want to keep your sex life fresh. So, find a baby sitter, grandparent, or friend who owes you, and take some time away. After all, if you have to stifle your orgasm because you don’t want to wake up the kids, you’re soon going to stifle some of the fun as well.