How di­vorce went from trau­matic life event to cause for cel­e­bra­tion.

While we might roll our eyes at ridicu­lous terms like ‘con­scious un­cou­pling,’ al­ter­ing our perspective on what has tra­di­tion­ally been con­sid­ered a dev­as­tat­ing life event could have ben­e­fits for all Sab­rina Mad­deaux

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In his re­view of the 1979 film Kramer vs. Kramer, Roger Ebert wrote, “The movie is about a sit­u­a­tion rich in op­por­tu­ni­ties for choos­ing up sides: a di­vorce and a fight for the cus­tody of a child. But what mat­ters in a story like this isn’t who’s right or wrong, but if the peo­ple in­volved are able to be­have ac­cord­ing to their own bet­ter na­ture. Isn’t it so of­ten the case that we’re self­ish and mean-spir­ited in just those tricky hu­man sit­u­a­tions that re­quire our lim­ited stores of saint­li­ness?”

When it comes to the de­pic­tion of di­vorce in pop­u­lar cul­ture – both be­fore and af­ter Kramer vs. Kramer – the dis­so­lu­tion of a mar­riage is pre­dom­i­nantly painted in a negative light. Since North Amer­ica’s di­vorce rate soared above 50 per cent in the 1970s, we’ve been in­un­dated with vi­sions of re­strain­ing or­ders, de­po­si­tions, cus­tody bat­tles, al­imony pay­ments and trau­ma­tized chil­dren. As a re­sult, we’ve been led to be­lieve that few things in­spire as much anx­i­ety, anger, re­sent­ment and de­spair as the end of a mar­riage.

How­ever, splitsville is no longer a shanty town full of bit­ter exes, crip­pled fi­nances and bro­ken hearts. While the breakup of a mar­riage is rarely easy, the big “D” has changed sig­nif­i­cantly over the decades. In the span of a life­time, it’s gone from be­ing highly taboo to more Amer­i­can than ap­ple pie; from the in­spi­ra­tion for a decade of angsty grunge an­thems to in­tro­duc­ing terms like “con­scious un­cou­pling” and “di­vorce-moons” into our breakup lex­i­con. To­day, we’re wit­ness­ing the rise of the “happy di­vorce.”

The his­tory of di­vorce in the Western world has al­ways been one of shift­ing val­ues. While the an­cient Athe­ni­ans were fairly lib­eral in al­low­ing di­vorces, dis­so­lu­tions of mar­riage were rare in the early days of the Ro­man repub­lic. How­ever, as Rome ex­panded, so too did the Ro­man mind­set when it came to di­vorce. By the time Rome be­came an em­pire, di­vorce was fre­quent among the pa­tri­cian class. Chris­tian em­per­ors would from time to time make di­vorce more dif­fi­cult for Ro­mans, only for suc­ceed­ing em­per­ors to do away with re­stric­tions.

Af­ter the fall of the Ro­man Em­pire, di­vorce in the West be­came a mat­ter of church rather than of state. The di­vorce rate plum­meted dur­ing the 9th or 10th cen­tury af­ter the Catholic Church claimed mar­riage to be a sacra­ment in­dis­sol­u­ble by hu­mans. It wasn’t un­til the Re­for­ma­tion when mar­riage would again be con­sid­ered a civil con­tract. How­ever, be­cause no prece­dent ex­isted at the time, sec­u­lar courts would more of­ten than not rely on the rules put in place by the Church when asked to grant a di­vorce. While different re­gions in Europe adopted different rules at different times, it wasn’t un­til the mid-19th cen­tury that con­di­tional (typ­i­cally in the case of adul­tery) di­vorces be­came widely le­gal.

In North Amer­ica, di­vorce rates in­creased dra­mat­i­cally dur­ing the 20th cen­tury, as a re­sult of two ma­jor di­vorce rev­o­lu­tions. The first oc­curred in the late 1960s. Though di­vorce laws vary, there are two ba­sic ap­proaches: fault-based and no-fault-based. Cal­i­for­nia Gov­er­nor Ron­ald Rea­gan ush­ered in the era of “no- fault” di­vorce in 1969, re­quir­ing no proof of fault for ei­ther party for a mar­riage to be dis­solved. By the mid-1970s, nine more states would adopt no- fault di­vorce laws, and by the early 1980s, ev­ery state (with the ex­cep­tion of South Dakota and New York) had in­tro­duced some form of no-fault di­vorce. Mean­while, in Canada, the Di­vorce Act was amended in 1968 to per­mit di­vorce for rea­sons other than adul­tery or cru­elty, in­clud­ing a sep­a­ra­tion of at least three years.

The laws re­flected gen­eral changes in so­cial at­ti­tudes at the time and di­rectly led to the di­vorce boom of the 1970s. Rea­gan would later call his move to no- fault di­vorce the big­gest mis­take of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. Be­tween 1960 and 1980, the di­vorce rate more than dou­bled, hit­ting an all-time high of 52 per cent in Cal­i­for­nia. In Canada, the di­vorce rate dou­bled in the five years fol­low­ing the 1968 amend­ment of the Di­vorce Act. How­ever, it didn’t reach its peak of 41 per cent un­til 1986, when the Di­vorce Act was amended once again to re­duce the sep­a­ra­tion pe­riod to one year, and re­moved any re­quire­ments to prove “fault” by ei­ther spouse.

As a re­sult of the in­creased num­ber of le­gal sep­a­ra­tions, half of the chil­dren born in the 1970s saw their par­ents di­vorce – more than any other gen­er­a­tion in his­tory. This led to the sec­ond di­vorce rev­o­lu­tion, one that came at the hands of those scarred by the messy splits of their par­ents: the Gen-Xers and older Mil­len­ni­als who have been dubbed the “Di­vorce Gen­er­a­tion.”

It’s no co­in­ci­dence that this gen­er­a­tion is known for be­ing cyn­i­cal about au­thor­ity fig­ures and steeped in anger and dis­il­lu­sion­ment. Their great­est life- defin­ing mo­ment can of­ten be dis­cerned by ask­ing, “When did your par­ents get di­vorced?” We see this per­haps most clearly in the pop mu­sic this gen­er­a­tion went on to in­fa­mously pro­duce. Angsty and emo­tional, it’s rid­dled with ref­er­ences to bro­ken fam­i­lies, from Blink-182’s “Stay To­gether for the Kids” to Good Charlotte’s “Emo­tion­less” and Papa Roach’s “Bro­ken Home.” As Pink sang in “Fam­ily Por­trait,” “You fight about money, ‘ bout me and my brother / And this I come home to, this is my shel­ter / It ain’t easy growin up in World War III.”

While the first di­vorce rev­o­lu­tion led to a dra­matic in­crease in the num­ber of di­vorces, the sec­ond was more about be­ing con­scious of the con­se­quences. Gen-X’s acute aware­ness of the im­pact a con­tentious di­vorce can have, es­pe­cially on chil­dren, has led to a slight de­cline in the num­ber of splits, but more im­por­tantly, it has brought about a change in the ad­ver­sar­ial sta­tus quo that had pre­vi­ously de­fined a di­vorced cou­ple. Gen-Xers, it seems, are de­ter­mined to work hard for happy mar­riages and, fail­ing that, strive for an un­con­tentious breakup.

The re­sult is the rise of the “happy di­vorce,” by far the big­gest cul­tural shift when it comes to split­ting up since the 1970s. The con­cept hit peak pop cul­ture aware­ness i n 2014 when Gwyneth Pal­trow and Chris Martin an­nounced t hey were con­sciously un­cou­pling. “When the whole con­cept of mar­riage and di­vorce is re­ex­am­ined, there’s ac­tu­ally some­thing far more pow­er­ful – and pos­i­tive – at play,” said the for­mer cou­ple in a state­ment.

In ad­di­tion to hav­ing to tol­er­ate the pub­lic re­la­tions state­ments of sup­pos­edly high- minded celebri­ties, we’ve also been in­tro­duced to an en­tirely new set of di­vorce-re­lated ter­mi­nol­ogy and cus­toms. En­ter the rise of the di­vorce doula: women who of­fer emo­tional and in­for­ma­tional sup­port through the process, and the in­ter­na­tional DivorceHo­tel which claims to seam­lessly split cou­ples in just one week­end away at five- star ro­man­tic re­sorts full of red wine, cham­pagne, lux­ury mas­sages and me­di­a­tion ses­sions. For the more tech-in­clined, startup Wevorce claims to be the “premier self-guided di­vorce so­lu­tion” for those look­ing for a peace­ful and col­lab­o­ra­tive process.

The terms of di­vorce have changed, too. In­stead of one part­ner walk­ing away with the house, it’s now in­creas­ingly com­mon to time-share the fam­ily home. Jen­nifer Garner and Ben Af­fleck va­ca­tioned to­gether post- split in the Ba­hamas on a di­vorce­moon (a post-di­vorce honey- moon), and even planned to con­tinue liv­ing with their kids on the same large es­tate (but in different build­ings).

Post- breakup trips have be­come so pop­u­lar that re­sorts are mar­ket­ing specif­i­cally to the de­mo­graphic. Casa Ve­las in Mex­ico of­fers a “di­vorcee pack­age” that in­cludes a pri­vate farewell party com­plete with a cof­fin for your wed­ding ring, a jew­elry con­sul­ta­tion to re­design your en­gage­ment ring and a VIP night in town to kick off your new­found sin­gle­dom. Other re­sorts have of­fered breakup butl ers, while some f ormer cou­ples sim­ply choose to re­turn to a favourite des­ti­na­tion to mark the oc­ca­sion.

While some of these no­tions will no doubt in­cite eye­rolls, the abil­ity of di­vorced cou­ples to get along and co­ex­ist bodes well for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Stud­ies show that chil­dren are bet­ter de­vel­oped and are hap­pier with par­ents who have good re­la­tion­ships, whether they’re di­vorced or not. In fact, fam­ily law or­ga­ni­za­tion Res­o­lu­tion found 82 per cent of those aged 14 to 22 who have en­dured fam­ily breakups would pre­fer their par­ents to part if they are un­happy.

The re­search of psy­chol­o­gist Con­stance Adams, au­thor of The Good Di­vorce, re­vealed that the health and hap­pi­ness of chil­dren is mostly in­flu­enced by the tone and af­ter- ef­fects of a split. Kids who ex­pe­ri­ence stig­ma­less breakups, main­tain ac­cess to a bin­u­clear fam­ily and are part of pos­i­tive di­vorce and par­ent­ing strate­gies tend to fare just fine. Un­sur­pris­ingly, happy di­vorces also make for hap­pier exes. Am­i­ca­ble splits rou­tinely save both part­ners time, anx­i­ety and money. As the say­ing goes, a good di­vorce is bet­ter than a bad mar­riage.

In 2015, Con­necti­cut took the marked step of legally al­low­ing cou­ples to sub­mit pe­ti­tions for non-ad­ver­sar­ial di­vorces rather than pur­su­ing tra­di­tional lit­i­ga­tion. Spouses in the state can file a joint pe­ti­tion, which means no one has to sue the other for to make the breakup of­fi­cial. Tra­di­tional terms such as “plain­tiff ” and “de­fen­dant” won’t ap­ply and the cou­ple will never have to ap­pear in court. How­ever, there are cer­tain con­di­tions to qual­ify: the cou­ple can’t have chil­dren, the com­bined net worth of ei­ther party can’t be more than $ 35,000 and nei­ther per­son can have a com­pany-spon­sored pen­sion plan. Still, other ju­ris­dic­tions and lawyers are look­ing to Con­necti­cut for in­spi­ra­tion as they seek to mod­ern­ize di­vorce laws to align with an evolv­ing cul­ture.

This new­fan­gled “happy” ap­proach to a his­tor­i­cally trau­matic life event makes one won­der if we’ve had the wrong idea about split­ting up all along. While we’ve spent decades hand-wring­ing over di­vorce rates, maybe the breakup it­self isn’t such a big bad. The stig­mas, le­gal hur­dles, out­dated fi­nan­cial bur­dens, lack of sup­port sys­tems and grief over all of the above are the real evils giv­ing the prac­tice a bad rap. If we can ad­dress the en­trenched at­ti­tudes, prac­tices and negative lan­guage that sur­round di­vorce and re­con­sider the de­fault of the prac­tice to be ac­ri­mo­nious, it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter whether di­vorce rates sink to 10 per cent or rise to 75 per cent. The most im­por­tant mat­ter in all of this seems to be the ef­fect a di­vorce has on the next gen­er­a­tion – an is­sue that the “happy di­vorce” tack­les head on. Mi­nus the trauma and ill- ef­fects, di­vorce has the po­ten­tial to be a pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment for all in­volved – per­haps some­thing even wor­thy of a Gen Y- in­spired cham­pagne toast and beach va­ca­tion.

So, what about that next gen­er­a­tion?

It’s too early to de­ci­pher what di­vorce will mean for Mil­len­ni­als. Ac­cord­ing to Gallup, 59 per cent of Mil­len­ni­als haveever been mar­ried. How­ever, so far they ap­pear to be tak­ing Gen X’s peace­ful ap­proach a step fur­ther with cel­e­bra­tory rit­u­als like di­vorce self­ies, di­vorce par­ties and even di­vorce reg­istries in case they lose the avo­cado slicer in the split.

Whether this at­ti­tude is steeped in so­cial progress, or a fear of ac­knowl­edg­ing fail­ure and deal­ing with pain that is char­ac­ter­is­tic of the gen­er­a­tion, is up for de­bate. They grew up get­ting par­tic­i­pa­tion rib­bons for los­ing and now re­ceive par­ties, va­ca­tions and gifts for get­ting di­vorced.

It ap­pears as though Baby Boomers may be the fi­nal torch­bear­ers of di­vorce as a fi­nan­cially and emo­tion­ally dev­as­tat­ing life event. As Roger Ebert also wrote about Kramer vs. Kramer, “We have no in­cli­na­tion at all to choose sides. The movie has en­cour­aged us to re­al­ize that these peo­ple are deep enough and com­plex enough, as all peo­ple are, that we can’t as­sign moral la­bels to them.”

To­day’s “happy di­vorce” ac­knowl­edges that a re­la­tion­ship is com­prised of two in­di­vid­u­als, and that the suc­cess of a mar­riage shouldn’t be mea­sured in its length, but rather what comes out of it: whether it’s well- ad­justed chil­dren or a fu­ture that isn’t dragged down by dis­so­lu­tion.


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