Re­la­tion­ship – Re­mov­ing shame from di­vorce

We look into why dis­as­so­ci­at­ing shame from di­vorce is es­sen­tial to women mov­ing on pos­i­tively


Di­vorce is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly com­mon, yet it still car­ries a heavy stigma that sticks to women far more than it does men. The term ‘Re­turn Sol­dier’, a com­mon slang word used to de­scribe di­vor­cées, im­plies that these women have gone to war, lost and have now re­turned home. When four out of 10 mar­riages in South Africa end in di­vorce be­fore the 10-year mark, why is it mainly women who are de­scribed as re­turn sol­diers when there’s no hap­pily- ever-af­ter for them?

When 59-year-old Ly­dia* Ndlovu’s hus­band of 31 years de­manded a di­vorce, her world fell apart on many lev­els. “I’ve al­ways taken mar­riage se­ri­ously, even be­fore I mar­ried at the age of 23. I was raised to believe in it and even though my mar­riage had a lot of hard­ships, I was al­ways sure I was do­ing the right thing by stick­ing it out. When my hus­band asked for a di­vorce, I felt like I had died. And I knew I’d have to keep dy­ing be­cause every­one would be ques­tion­ing what hap­pened, and I’d be seen as not hav­ing been suc­cess­ful at sus­tain­ing a mar­riage un­til the end. I didn’t know what I’d say to my fam­ily, to the church and to my cir­cle of friends,” she shares.


Shame is what women al­most al­ways have to con­tend with when they di­vorce, says Irene Jones, a Johannesburg-based re­la­tion­ship coun­sel­lor. Khosi Jiyane, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist, agrees. “In black cul­ture, girls are raised with the ex­pec­ta­tion that they’ll be wives some day. State­ments and ques­tions like: ‘what kind of wife are you go­ing to make when you don’t want to learn how to cook?’ are nor­mal in our com­mu­ni­ties. We say these dam­ag­ing things to girls from a young age, un­til their whole self is painted with the ex­pec­ta­tion that you are in­com­plete just as you are. As women, we de­fine our­selves by how well we can per­form those pro­jected roles for so­ci­ety. So, it’s no won­der women feel inad­e­quate and ashamed when they can­not keep up with that,” Jiyane says.

It’s im­por­tant to know that how we see mar­riage is what cre­ates the shame that comes when it ends. “We’d be bet­ter off if we pri­ori­tised our sense of enough­ness on our own. The value we at­tach to our­selves in the pres­ence or ab­sence of mar­riage is the is­sue,” Jiyane adds.

This re­spon­si­bil­ity is placed al­most solely on women. “Be­cause so­ci­ety sees men as providers and pro­tec­tors while women play the role of nur­turer, the re­spon­si­bil­ity to nur­ture and keep the mar­riage alive is seen as women’s work. Ours is then to make our­selves wor­thy of pro­tec­tion and pro­vi­sion, and be­cause many women de­fine them­selves within their mar­i­tal sta­tus, shame is the out­come when they can’t keep all of that

to­gether,” Jiyane con­tin­ues.

Choos­ing to see mar­riage as an ex­ten­sion of who you are, as op­posed to the core of who you are, will free you of this over­bear­ing pres­sure. This ad­vice ap­plies whether you’re mar­ried or look­ing to get mar­ried in the fu­ture.


The op­po­site of pow­er­fully liv­ing your truth and ac­cept­ing your life as a di­vor­cée is in­ter­nal­is­ing the shame so­ci­ety at­taches to di­vorce. “Shame gen­er­ally makes peo­ple re­coil into them­selves. In this con­text, the story can play out in sev­eral ways, such as not get­ting a di­vorce even when that’s the best de­ci­sion for you to make, or not al­low­ing your­self to re­cover from a di­vorce,” Jones warns.

“I would have di­vorced ear­lier if I hadn’t felt like I was go­ing to be a fail­ure,” Retha­bile Mokoena* (33) ad­mits. “Those feel­ings of shame kept me in my mar­riage even though it was un­healthy. I knew within the first year that the mar­riage was a mis­take. I had two more chil­dren dur­ing that time and even though I adore my kids, I feel like I had them for the wrong rea­sons. I was try­ing to so­lid­ify some­thing that couldn’t be saved. The de­ci­sion to have more chil­dren made me feel more trapped. And it didn’t help that my fam­ily kept ask­ing who would want me with three chil­dren. That made me stay longer. That’s the cy­cle I want to warn other women against.” Jiyane says one of the ways to free your­self from feel­ings of shame is by ask­ing your­self some crit­i­cal ques­tions. “There’s a preva­lent abantu bazoth­ini fear in our so­ci­ety. Most of us get stuck there. Peo­ple talk about you any­way; recog­nise that you have no con­trol over what peo­ple think. Peo­ple are free to think what they want; what mat­ters is what you think of your­self. In­ter­ro­gate ev­ery­thing you think they’ll say, in your mind. What hap­pens when they’ve said it? Noth­ing! That mo­ment of fear dis­ap­pears when you con­front it.”


Once you have made the de­ci­sion to get a di­vorce, it’s im­por­tant to get reac­quainted with your­self. “A di­vorce can be a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence once the dis­tress is over. This is a chance to relook your life and pur­sue what­ever direc­tion feels true to who you cur­rently are,” Jones says.

It’s been five years since Ly­dia’s di­vorce was fi­nalised and she’s in a dif­fer­ent space to­day. “I am the hap­pi­est I’ve ever been. I re­gret spend­ing so much time hid­ing the truth about my di­vorce and feel­ing like I was no longer wor­thy of my po­si­tion in so­ci­ety. Di­vorce is not the end of the world; it’s the be­gin­ning of a new one. I still have a full life with my chil­dren, my friends, church and fam­ily. I didn’t think it was pos­si­ble to start afresh at my age but I’m happy that I did,” she says.

Com­mon mis­con­cep­tions such as lone­li­ness, not be­ing de­sir­able or re­spected af­ter di­vorce are of­ten fear-based. “These are all rooted in mak­ing women feel bad about own­ing their lives. Not feel­ing lonely, be­ing de­sired and re­spected are not guar­an­teed by mar­riage, and they def­i­nitely don’t have to be your re­al­ity when di­vorced. Life’s more var­ied than we give it credit for,” Jones adds.

It’s been a year since Retha­bile’s di­vorce, and she says she’s re­gained most of her con­fi­dence. “I man­aged to work my way through my feel­ings by stay­ing fo­cused on my life and not what peo­ple were say­ing. My life’s about me and my chil­dren with a lot of fo­cus on me. I’ve grown and I feel stronger than I have in years.”

An­other mine­field of mis­con­cep­tions lies on the le­gal side of di­vorces. Babongile Bophela, a Johannesburg-based at­tor­ney says, “It’s a mis­con­cep­tion that the di­vorce process is usu­ally easy when both par­ties have jointly agreed to a di­vorce. Just be­cause your spouse has agreed to a di­vorce doesn’t mean the process will be easy in the le­gal sense,” she warns.


Friends and fam­ily add to the stress. Many peo­ple will re­gale you with their tales of ukubekezela and how that even­tu­ally made them feel more in love. Some might even guilt-trip you into stay­ing mar­ried by say­ing that the ef­fects of a di­vorce are ir­repara­ble, es­pe­cially on chil­dren. “This ad­vice can be well-mean­ing but come across as judge­men­tal and hurt­ful. Cre­ate bound­aries and al­low a lot of things to wash over you. You don’t have to lis­ten to ev­ery­thing you’re told. Do what­ever it takes to keep your san­ity be­cause ev­ery­thing will grow from there,” Jones ad­vises.

You too, should steer clear of be­ing pre­scrip­tive about other peo­ple’s choices and how they live their lives. “The goal ul­ti­mately as a so­ci­ety is to re­spect each oth­ers’ de­ci­sions. Live and let live,” Jones con­cludes.

*Not their real names.■

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