I was giving a reading about the history of marriage and divorce at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. My piece was about the critical social and economic role that marriage served historically, and how demographic shifts, real material advances and women's rights have made it largely optional today, a choice, not a necessity. Meaning: as much as we love the idea of marriage, ending a bad one is a choice, too.
After the talk, a woman about my age approached, an artist, liberal minded. “I think you have to acknowledge that many people see divorce as a failure,” she said. “I do. I think it was the best choice in my situation, and for our child, but I still feel a sense of failure for not having been able to make my marriage work, or maybe for having married the wrong person.”
Failure. The other F-word.
I was so wrapped up in the attempt to explain divorce in social science terms, I hadn’t give much thought to people’s sense of failure.
I didn't see divorce as failure. I grew up with it. Divorce seemed more a part of life than some aberration. But many people do feel divorce as a failure, as I’ve since learned.
Whatever you think about divorce, failure in general is so universal, you could write a book about it. Many books. Many people have. There’s a recent subset of books on failure promoting its economic upsides, including Fail Fast, Fail Often and The Upside of Down.
Carlin Flora, author of Friendfluence: The Surprising Way Friends Make Us Who We Are, recently wrote a feature article for Psychology Today magazine about failure I caught up with her to get her take.
Wendy Paris: Why did you want to write about failure after writing a book about friendship?
Carlin Flora: “It seems like the message now is that failure will lead to success and you have to fail to succeed. But they’re talking about traditional views of success.
‘You have to have five failed companies before you have one successful one. You have to have 500 auditions before you get the lead role.’
I was interested in instances where failure does not lead to traditional success. A lot of people never have that success. Failure can still bring benefits, even if it doesn’t lead to clear success.
WP: Are there relationship or friendship benefits to failure?
CF: Yes! Empathy. Before you experience failure, you might be able to relate intellectually to other people’s sadness or hardships. But afterward, you know how it feels. You find yourself saying the right thing, really understan ding. Empathy connects us to people. It leads to more successful relationships, and more tolerance and acceptance.
Failure also helps with your own social comparison. You might feel down, and look around and think everyone else is doing great. Once you experience a failure, you know that other people have pain about something, too, even if they’re not telling you.
There’s also a vulnerability that comes with failure, and it’s attractive to people. It’s hard to become close to someone who has a hard exterior and never lets on that anything’s wrong. We live in a society in which you’re always supposed to be achieving and posting your happy pictures. Failure lets people feel they can let their guards down with you and be themselves.
WP: Is there another benefit of failure, absent some dazzling, quantifiable later victory?
CF: Humility, as opposed to entitlement. We hear a lot today about the problems of entitlement. When you realize that you don’t have a special right to success, and that no one does, it makes you more grateful for the things you do have. It also makes you better able to accept that bad things happen to people. You can take them less personally. I think this really applies to divorce. You could feel like, ‘I’m a good person! I deserve a happy marriage!’ But no one deserves anything. Much of success is arbitrary, not merit based. Everything doesn’t turn out well just because you work hard and are nice.
Also, failure and success are not individually-achieved outcomes. We want to say, ‘He pulled himself up by his bootstraps.’ But that’s a huge myth; there are others around who helped him. People with successful friends and who are embedded in a social network are more successful. The same is true with failure. People don’t individually fail; others contributed. If you’re not solely responsible for your success, you’re not solely responsible for your failures.
WP: Any other non-commodifiable upsides?
CF: Maturity. Some psychologists define maturity as having a complex view of life, instead of a black-and-white one. It’s about acknowledging a loss but still maintaining hope for the future, finding new ways to feel motivated and to grow. Say you see divorce as a failure to achieve the life you wanted, to grow old with your partner. The mature way is to feel that loss. Paint that picture. Grieve that. Then move on and focus on new goals, attainable goals. The reward is a more complex view, which allows you to see all the different factors at play in people’s outcomes.
Gaining maturity also improves relationships because it lets you see your friends’ lives as complex. You can give them better advice and be a better friend.
Wendy Paris: Thank you. And just to add one ka-ching!-style upside . . . if your goal is to enter a new marriage that really works, developing empathy, humility and maturity can help.
* This post originally appeared on wendyparis.com.
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 movement. 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.