Has divorce become the feminist litmus test?

When my own marriage started to unravel and it was clear that we were starting down the path of divorce, my stomach would seize up when I thought about sharing the news with my longest-standing girlfriends. I wasn’t afraid of their judgment, exactly; at least I didn’t think that I was. But breaking this news felt somehow like disappointing them.

They’d all been there since the inception of this fifteen year relationship. They’d put up with my sneaking off at girls’ weekends to text him in those early days when the thought of hours without contact felt like torture. They’d made the trek across the country and bought over-priced satin dresses to be part of our wedding day. And as the years wore on, they’d lovingly listened in the rare moments when I’d spill out how lonely and disillusioned I’d become.

Almost all of us had married by the time mine was ending, and almost all of us had been raising babies and juggling careers. None of these women was a stranger to the trials of marriage, and yet no one else had called it quits.

I’d told them over the years about our troubles, the various rounds of couples therapy, my periodic crises of identity, but I’d kept the hardest parts close to my chest. I knew that my news would be met with some surprise, and it was. It was also met with sadness, which felt appropriate, particularly given I wasn’t divorcing an asshole.

My oldest friends liked my husband. They weren’t especially close, which would have required nearer proximity, but he’d part of our community and I think from their vantage points at the time considered him a good match for me. When I told them we were splitting on one of our monthly zoom calls, I could see their faces fall and their eyes search for how to process the news.

There were the anticipated “I’m sorry” and “I didn’t realize” and the loving inquiries about how I was doing and how my children were coping. A few admitted to feeling grief, which I appreciated, and for hearts hurting for my ex-husband, which I’ll admit sent some sharpness through my chest at the time, but now feels like a testament to their kindness and humanity.

After the round of love yous and the urges from them for me to let them know what I needed, I closed my laptop and sat leaning against my headboard. I didn’t feel the sense of having disappointed them as I’d most feared, but I also didn’t exactly feel relieved. I just felt like I had entered new waters, waters none of them had swum, and I felt lonely.

I didn’t set out to find a divorce squad, but what happened – and I expect it happens for many of us who make our way into these waters – is that one started to form around me. Two close friends from a different part of my life were in the process of separating from their long-term spouses when I announced my own split, and we became lifelines to each other. We would text furiously after meetings with attorneys or a particularly acerbic interaction with our exes. Our messages ranged from bitterly hilariously to achingly sad, and we felt stronger being in the company of each other. At least I did.

As more of my community learned that my marriage was ending, people who had been firmly in the acquaintance category but going through the deaths of their own partnerships reached out. Quickly they became friends, and we kept tabs on each other as we figured out how to deal with the jarring quiet of the times our kids were with their dads and how to not lose our cool in divorce negotiations, at least not in front of our exes.

Friends would introduce me to other women going through or recently divorced because they, correctly, thought that we might be good for each other. I met up for coffees and lunch with ladies, supported in part by these previously unwanted stretches of time not parenting. Before I knew it, I no longer felt like I was on an island. Or perhaps more accurately, there was now a party on my island.

A few friends joked that a decade or two beyond the wedding season of life, we were now in the divorce era. As I looked around at the community of newly single women around me, that certainly seemed to be true. We weren’t all the same age, but there were some other obvious similarities. We all had children, mostly ones that were potty trained but still quite dependent on us. We all had careers, not just jobs, and we cared a lot about the work we did. And, with some particular exceptions, we had exes who by and large were decent humans, but were not the right humans for us. And, I realized, we’d all been the person in our marriages to choose to divorce.

When I read a couple of years ago that 69% of divorces are initiated by women, I was surprised, but then quickly not. I’ve written before about how the institution of marriage is particularly rough on women. Consider alone the fact that getting married – not just cohabitating – increases a woman’s household work by five hours per week – and that’s without children. It’s no secret that women continue to bear the brunt of domestic labor, regardless of how egalitarian both partners saw they strive to be.

But it’s not just the burden of invisible work that batters women in marriage; it’s also the deep disillusionment that sets in. After the courtship and the wedding and the intense season of early parenthood, many women come up for air long enough to take stock of what may have been missing all along: mutual emotional maturity, skills to weather the inevitable storms of long-term partnerships, and pathways back to one another.

I don’t want to speak for all the women in my sample, but I think I can say that most of us woke up to the deep unhappiness in and around us, employed the usual systems of repair, and when those didn’t seem to move the needle, asked ourselves if we were willing to live like this indefinitely. As a generation of feminists brought up to question the status quo, we allowed ourselves to begin exploring the very idea of leaving.

My own mother divorced when she was 57 and she openly acknowledges that it should have happened much, much earlier. She doesn’t blame herself – and neither do I – for staying in a marriage that was wholly unfulfilling for her. While she was far past the time of not being able to take out a credit card in her own name, a reality faced by my grandmother’s generation, divorce in the era of my childhood was still seemed reserved for those marriages where someone was abusive, unfaithful, or had a second family somewhere on the coast. Saying that you were divorcing for simply being unfulfilled or incompatible would have been met with a healthy amount of incredulity in my midwestern Catholic community.

Today, it feels possible, albeit still very difficult, for women to leave a marriage that just isn’t working for them. The ability to do so isn’t equally dispersed, it must be acknowledged. Women who are in economic precarity, financially and otherwise dependent on a spouse, with less education or community resources, are not, generally speaking, choosing to leave marriages at the same rates. Their lives may be worsened by marriage, but their lives also in many cases depend on it. On the other hand, among women who are college-educated and get divorced, 90% are initiated by them.

Yes, I said 90%. If this doesn’t tell us who gets the worse deal in marriage, I’m not sure what does.

But as the current generation of unhappily married women – mostly Gen X and Millennial, at this point – begins to opt out of what they did at one point genuinely believe was forever, my own heart fills with an uncomfortable pride for women owning their future, but also a profound grief. Because at the end of the day, of course, divorce was never what we wanted. We wanted a fulfilling marriage.

A few months ago, one of my group chats that’s home to a number of us now unmarried ladies, was on fire with divorce memes. At some point in the course of the meme-frenzy, one of the gals chimed in to light heartedly apologize to the couple of married women in the group for spamming the chat. The married women both laughed and said they were totally here for it, but when I was talking later with one of them she acknowledged, “Sometimes I feel weird being married still. Like I’m missing out, but that’s not exactly it.” She blushed, and then tried to apologize, saying that she knows how hard divorce is and that she wasn’t trying to make light of it. I reassured her that I didn’t take it that way at all, and I thought I knew exactly what she meant.

To be honest, there are some definite perks to be unhitched. There’s the spaciousness of time that happens when not parenting 24/7 and the rediscovering of self. Depending on how your Bumble feed looks, there can be a fun exploration of romance, though for most women I know that’s on the list of cons these days. There’s a wide open bed to sprawl out on and no one to feel obligated to when pouring cereal for dinner.

But I knew that this friend, like some other married friends I’d observed, was feeling unsettled about something else – at least I suspected she was. They were looking around at their newly divorced friends, ones who had left marriages that weren’t serving them, and they wondered if there was something wrong with them that they had stayed in partnerships that weren’t perfect.

These were women who considered themselves feminists and grew up with their mothers and the world urging them not to settle (even while upholding systems that force them to). And now here they were doing more than their share of care work at home, having the same arguments with their husbands on repeat, and laying in bed wondering where the feelings of affection and connection went. They were experiencing many of the same frustrations and resentments as those of us who ultimately decided to leave, but they had chosen to stay. And they wondered what that meant.

I won’t go as far to say that we’re in a totally new era, given that there are plenty of circles in which divorce is still met with shame and stigma, but I can’t help but see a trend emerging, at least among relatively well-resourced women. The decision to stay in a marriage, what was once considered the noble and strong, is being feared by some to be the weaker option. They worry that staying might appear less self-respecting, that without the experience of burning a marriage and rebuilding, they might never feel as self-actualized. They wonder if all the good feminists are getting divorced.

I was in session with a patient recently and talking about the breakdown of her own relationship. While I’ll never share details of a patient’s story here or anywhere, I’ll say that in her case, the pending dissolution of her marriage was something she was choosing. She shared with me that it had been hard to find resources as she processed her separation because everything she came across framed divorce as the wife’s choice. Most had an empowering bent and were framed in the celebratory “I know it was hard, but you made this amazing choice for YOU!” vibe.

“I just don’t see myself in the narratives that are out there,” she said.

As I sat with her experience, I realized what a seismic culture shift we had experienced in the last generation. Whereas in former eras the divorce support out there for women basically assumed that your husband had run off to start a new family, now it was hard to find stories where the decision wasn’t framed as part of a journey to realizing one’s highest self.

On the one hand, it makes sense given the 90% statistic. Women are indeed making the choice much more often. On the other, one can see where women who are choosing to stay in imperfect marriages or who are robbed of a choice at all by a partner who makes the choice to leave might feel left out of the empowerment conversation.

And while I certainly don’t hold any special keys to cultural conversations, I’d like to address each of these groups for a moment, as a feminist and someone who did have the privilege and resources to choose divorce.

To the women who choose to stay: I trust that your reasons for staying in your marriage are good and true and valid. Whether it’s because of the logistical realities of your life or because you see a seed of hope in your partnership that you believe you can grow, I support you in making the difficult choice to stay. You may end up making a different decision later when your capacity or life allows, and that will not mean that you made the wrong choice now. You may end up being so grateful that you weathered the storm of this season. You know that relationships are messy and imperfect – and sometimes heartbreaking – and you are a badass for facing the reality of that with courage and perseverance. As long as you feel you are making a choice based in your truth and values, you are making the right choice for you.

To the women who didn’t get to choose: I am deeply sorry that this loss happened. I honestly fucking hate it for you, and it’s a special kind of hell. You may not want to have to be strong right now, but you are strong. I know this because you are still here, still doing life and holding your head above water and you haven’t burned anyone’s house down. Someone else taking a bowling ball to your life can certainly make you question your power, but I want to tell you that your marriage is not your power. You are power. It’s not just within you; it IS you. You are a force and every day that you start to heal and rebuild you are showing us that. Maybe you didn’t want to or get to walk out the door of your marriage feeling a sense of self-determination, but every choice you make from this moment forward represents it. You are amazing.

We all know – I think we all know – that the most basic tenets of feminism are that everyone should be treated as equal humans and that we all should have access to choice in our lives. As one of our several marriage therapists annoyingly reminded me, “Only you can decide what’s right. No one else is inside your marriage but you.”

It’s an interesting time to be navigating the trials of marriage and to be making decisions in an evolving context. My hope for women – whether divorced, contemplating, or satisfactorily married – is that they don’t feel their decisions in this realm make them any more or less strong or self-respecting. No one can truly understand our unique experiences and processes (except, perhaps, your friendly therapist). We are all feminists, and we’re all doing the very best we can with figuring out how to handle the institution of marriage that still isn’t built to serve us very well.

And hey, married friends, if you get tired of the divorce memes, you can tell us.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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