Some Thoughts About Divorce and America

I am in the mood this morning to riff on the institution of marriage. So here goes:

Al and Tipper have divorced after 40 years of marriage and the American punditry have been having a field day with the story. I obviously do not know Al and Tipper and am in no position to comment on their marriage. But my mind started spinning this morning when I read Deirdre Bair’s New York Times op-ed, “The 40-Year Itch.” Bair argues that a divorce can actually be a good thing. It can provide people with more freedom, more opportunity, and new experiences. Here a few snippets from her piece:

“People change and forget to tell each other,” Lillian Hellman said. Still, many couples seem to have an “aha!” moment when they realize that it’s time to split up. No matter how comfortably situated they are, how lovely their home and successful their children, they divorce because they cannot go on living in the same old rut with the same old person.

Men and women I interviewed insisted they did not divorce foolishly or impulsively. Most of them mentioned “freedom.” Another word I heard a lot was “control”; people wanted it for themselves for the rest of their lives. Women had grown tired of taking care of house, husband and grown children; men were tired of working to support wives who they felt did not appreciate them and children who did not respect them. Women and men alike wanted time to find out who they were.

One spouse might have wanted to keep working while the other wanted to retire. Often, there was an emotional void; one would say that the other “doesn’t see me, doesn’t know who I am,” while the other hadn’t a clue: “I thought everything was just fine; we never argued, we don’t fight.” One grew disenchanted with the wrinkled person across the dinner table and wanted someone new and exciting.

Many stories ended with some rendition of, “It’s my time and if I don’t take it now, I never will.”

One cannot go on living in the “same old rut.” People want their “freedom.” Men and women want to find out “who they were.” They want something “new and exciting.” Of course they do. Don’t we all?

As I read these blurbs from Blair’s book, I became more convinced that divorce is really an American thing to do. (And I am assuming here a divorce that does NOT stem from abuse or violence or perhaps even serial infidelity). Divorce celebrates the wants and desires of the individual and the therapeutic culture that defines our society. If you are bored in your marriage–then it only makes sense to get out. If you are “disenchanted with the wrinkled person across the table,” then go find something “new and exciting.”

I say that divorce is the “American” thing to do because America is, of course, a country that celebrates personal self-fulfillment, starting anew, freedom of choice, and therapeutic consumption. Marriage is all about what YOU get out of it, and if you are not getting what YOU need from it, then it is time to bail out. To honor a marriage commitment that might, at times, place limits on one’s life or force one to sacrifice his or her own desires for the good of this sacred compact, undermines the self-interested philosophy that passes today for “common sense.”

So it seems to me, all you children of the 1960s or New Left wannabees, if you want to be countercultural, then stay in your marriages.