This question came up at a talk I was giving in Washington D.C. A young man in the audience, due to wed in six weeks, wanted to know if there was anything he could do now to avoid a disastrous divorce, should the marriage end. “Uh, don’t tell your fiancé you’re thinking about divorce?” I suggested.
But actually, of course he should discuss divorce with his soon-to-be wife. A brief conversation about divorce can help set the intention to treat each other well, no matter what form the relationship takes. A quick nod to the reality of divorce in modern life also can give more security in the marriage.
While we know that having a shared vision for marriage is an essential ingredient of creating a happy, successful one, a shared understanding of divorce matters, too.
We’ve probably all heard married people say, “Oh, if we ever divorced, it would be war.” They voice this idea perhaps as a way to honor the marriage, to prove its permanence, to say, “Our marriage is such a pillar of our lives, if it ended, the entire foundation of our existence would implode.” It may be uttered in good faith, but it carries a real risk. It sets an expectation for enmity and mistrust. Rather than protecting marriage, it undermines the relationship, limits the parameters of respectful, caring behavior to this one form.
If the marriage doesn't last, this attitude contributes to the bad divorces we see.
In Splitopia, I write about an extreme example of this kind of negative forecasting as a misguided form of marriage “insurance.” Two different women in unhappy marriages told me their husbands had threatened to sue for sole custody if they pushed for divorce. Even if this threat worked, and the wives stayed, the idea now slept in bed between them. The wives knew that these men, supposedly dedicated to protecting their family, would instead pursue a path of destruction if the format of their relationship changed.
Do these men, supposedly such dutiful fathers that they’d want full-time responsibility for their children, actually think their children would benefit from losing contact with their mothers? Both of the wives in question were caring, dedicated, intelligent women. But the husbands, in their myopic quest to preserve marriage at all costs, didn't see their own children's happiness is too high a price to pay if it failed.
While there isn’t any one way to divorce-proof your marriage, you can certainly help prevent a bad divorce.
You can make a commitment, along with your undying love, to part with decency and respect, should the ardor of now give way to irritation and incompatibility at some future date.
Knowing that your partner has your best interest at heart—as a human being and friend, not only in the role of spouse—is a more real, and realistic commitment than one that says, “I’ll treat you well, as long as you sit in this chair and occupy the role of wife.”
Whenever I write about "commitment" and divorce, someone will write back, insisting that since a couple didn't "make good" on their commitment to stay married, they can't be trusted to stand by any promise. I understand this reaction—we all want to stand by our vows and rely on the promises of others—but the fact is, people divorce from all walks of life, all socio-economic backgrounds, all religious traditions and no religion at all. As sad and disappointing as divorce is, facing one does not mean that you or your spouse can't be trusted to uphold any of your best intentions. We all have a vision of our highest self, and we can reaffirm it and recommit to it again and again, even in the face of something as trying as divorce.
Next Post: Four tips to bad-divorce-proof your marriage.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.