Reality of divorce and why it is so prevalent today

Personal relationships at all levels can be quite tricky, precisely because we are navigating through not only someone else's life but also our own.

Recent media reports about how some Chinese couples intending to divorce must take a “test” assessing the state of their marriage or undergo a period of sobriety offer some wise perspectives concerning the reality of divorce, possible ways of avoiding it and some of the reasons why it is so prevalent in modern times.

Although going through a divorce, as I have, hardly makes one an “expert” on the matter, it certainly forcefully acquaints one with some of the realities involved. Perhaps something of my own experience will be helpful to someone who is pondering divorce.

Clearly, personal relationships at all levels can be quite tricky, precisely because we are navigating through not only someone else’s life but also our own. How we enter, sustain and even leave relationships is highly dependent upon the degree of our self-knowledge, at least as much as how solid is our understanding of the other person involved. And, for many, including myself, this is where potential problems begin.

I did not actually marry for the first time until I was 45, a relatively “advanced” age, I thought. Certainly my judgment about a life partner was more reliable then than it had been when I was 22 — in theory! However, especially in retrospect, my 40s were actually a turbulent time both personally and professionally. In truth, I was not in the “best place” to be making any important, enduring decisions.

This is important because after my divorce (when I was 50) my anger and hurt was directed against my ex-wife: She was the one who broke the covenant, not me. She was the one who kept her feelings to herself and decided, without my input, on this decisive action!

Useless bitterness

Divorces hurt, even when my wife behaved as decently as possible. It took me several years to heal and, in that process, I had time to better understand my own role. Yes, there were some things that my former wife had to work out on her own that contributed to the problem. But I had my own basket of issues to deal with.

Luckily, I was assisted — as always — by loyal friends (of both genders) who not only stood by me but — very importantly — spoke truth to me, telling me when I was drowning in self-pity or dwelling in useless bitterness.

Interestingly, it was almost precisely when I had jettisoned my bitterness, anger, and judgment toward my former wife and accepted that my future was likely to be one of living alone, that my beloved Karen called me up to ask some questions about legislation I had sponsored years ago in the Iowa House.

We had several more phone conversations, then a fateful dinner together, after which I knew I had finally found “the person.” We had been married 21 years last month.

Not all divorces have such a happy outcome. One of the reasons can be that people keep pursuing the same kind of persons they had been involved with before, caught up in an unconscious hope that “this time they could make it work” by “fixing” what went wrong before.

To the degree this is not heightened by any greater self-awareness than previously, however, any subsequent relationship faces similar difficulties. This is because, overwhelmingly, the “problem” is not the other person but, instead, lies in unresolved issues within ourselves.

Now, clearly, there are relationships that just do not work out; often, this is no one’s “fault” (even though many of us strive to assign guilt to the “other”), but sometimes a partner has become physically or emotionally abusive or, through some form of addiction, has effectively “checked out” of the marriage.

All of this would be complicated enough in a social vacuum but, as it has been pointed out, we live in a world that, intertwining our actions and thoughts, holds out promises of instant gratification, impossible dreams of sustained bliss, and not so subtle hints that “something better” might lie around the corner if we but had the will to leave our stale present and pursue it.

In the modern developed world, it is also a fact that marriages no longer have the economic and labor ties between and among partners that used to be the case for millennia. Except for the very rich or royalty, the vast majority of human beings used to work the land, a situation where a man and his sons engaged in the hard physical labor of plowing, sowing, and harvesting while the woman and her daughters equally labored to produce clothing, prepare food, and manage the other myriad needs of any household. Such families were both more isolated — unacquainted with the constant temptations fed to us through modern media and afforded us through crowded cities — and more economically inter-dependent: They needed each other.

Ultimately, as many suggest, we are ill served by the illusion of maintaining a lasting state of “falling in love.” This is not biologically possible. All lasting relationships involve intentionality: commitment of the will, generosity of heart and forgiving patience.

We would be well advised to remember that, without these things, few other people could stand us, either!

The author is a retired US statesman.

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