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.
THE WEIGHT OF A RING
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 TRUTH ABOUT SHAME
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.”
HEAD HELD HIGH
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.■