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By Mary Kelly-Williams, M.A.  

"For some reason, we see divorce as a signal of failure, despite the fact that each of us has a right, and an obligation, to rectify any other mistake we make in life.” Dr. Joyce Brothers

Rudy Giuliani has been in the news a lot lately and not just because he’s running to be the next President of the United States. He’s making headlines because, according to media “experts”, his “blended family” may not be all that blended.

Giuliani has a son from a previous marriage who apparently hasn’t fully adjusted to his parents’ divorce and his father’s subsequent marriage. Remember that kid? He was the rambunctious 7-year-old who wouldn’t stop making goofy faces during Giuliani’s campaign speech when he was running for mayor of New York City. Now 21, Andrew is loudly proclaiming that he won’t campaign for his father because, he insists, he learned his family values only from his mother. Now, Giuliani’s morals and abilities are being questioned. There are some who seem to be implying that because he is on his third marriage, and can’t seem to “blend” his own family, how can he blend the differences in a country and the world?

Are you in a second (or subsequent) marriage? You, me, and our presidential hopeful are in good company. Take a look at this list of well known marriage experts, authors and psychologists who are also in second marriages or more: Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, John Gottman (world renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce predictors), Jay Haley and Chloe Madanes (once married family therapy innovators), Harville Hendrix (Imago Therapy, “Getting the Love You Want”), Howard Markman (PREP Marriage Enrichment), Steven Stosny and Pat Love (co-authors of “How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It”). These marital experts earn their livings by helping other couples stay married, despite their own divorces.

Does this mean that we should consider them and ourselves as failures, selfish, or dysfunctional…all descriptions frequently used to depict the divorced? The obstinate stigma of divorce is quite frankly irrational. A recent long-term study found that besides reporting the divorce rate at over 50%, about 60% of all marriages result in divorce in the first decade, and more than 80% do so within the first 20 years.

As a divorced and now remarried woman, I’ve often taken offense at these portrayals of failure and moral decay that have been used as permanent markers on my life by those who have either not experienced divorce themselves or who have not resolved their feelings about their own. And, despite the reality of the large number of divorced adults, as a society we continue to persist in painting the picture of divorce on a dark and gloomy canvas.

I remember an encounter I had with a friend shortly after my divorce. She worked in the main office of my children’s high school. I had been called in to meet with the principal due to a prank in which one of my sons had been engaged. As I was waiting to be seen, she said to me, “Don’t worry, Mary, EVEN INTACT FAMILIES have problems with their kids.”

Her words, while well intentioned, pierced the heart of this stay-at-home mom. When did my family suddenly become non-intact? My children’s father and I were no longer married, but we were still a parental unit. Being divorced did not make me a single parent. My ex and I were still in daily communication about our children. Yes, the family structure had changed but the family intactness had not. I told her this in a not-so-polite way as I walked into the principal’s office (feeling like I was the one being called in for discipline).

Her stare which was slowly turning into a gawk followed me as if she wanted to scream, “What? Divorce and intactness do not go together!”

Because over 50% of the adult population experiences divorce at least once in their lifetimes, I find it irrational that divorce was being seen in such a negative light. Is divorce awful, gut wrenching, and painful? Yes! Is it hard on children? Yes! However, this does not necessarily mean that divorce equates to dysfunction.

When my parents died, I experienced grief, anger and pain. When I didn’t get a much-wanted position, I felt confused and alone. When my last child left home for college, I suffered and fumbled around the house for a time (fortunately, this was one of my briefer phases).

Loss of one’s parents, being passed up for a job, and experiencing an empty nest are all considered unpleasant but natural parts of life; divorce should be seen in the same compassionate light.

Dr. William Pinsof is a clinical psychologist, marital and family therapist and a noted family researcher. In his groundbreaking article, “The Death of ‘Till Death Do Us Part’”, Pinsof says,

“For the first time in human history, divorce has replaced death as the most common endpoint of marriage. This unprecedented shift in patterns of human coupling and uncoupling requires a new paradigm, that is, a more humane approach for social policy, family law, and marital therapy”.

I think it’s a good idea.

We also need to stop insisting that divorce is only acceptable in the presence of infidelity, drug, alcohol, or physical abuse. Many of us choose to divorce because we are lonely and unfulfilled in our marriages. There really doesn’t need to be a bad guy to justify divorce. I have come to believe that my first marriage had a lifetime within my lifetime. I married at 23. My young husband was the perfect match for me then and for many years afterwards. We had four great children, worked hard, and together created a wonderful home for our children and ourselves.

In my 19th year of marriage, it became clear to me that my husband and I were going in very different directions. It wasn’t that we had gotten in a rut or given up. The breakup of a marriage is a complicated and often muddy affair. To this day, my former husband and I disagree on why we divorced. I spent insane amounts of time obsessing over why my marriage had ended and at the end of the day, I had to let it go, like the release of a balloon that’s lost all its’ air. No floating away…just a resigned plop to the ground.

Relieved from the burden of trying to make rational sense of it all, and ready to move on, I turned around and stared straight into the face of FAMILY VALUES. BAM! Recently, Mike Huckabee, who is also running for President, stated that one of his top priorities as President would be to prevent divorce, as he feels its effects are severely hurting the morals and lives of America’s children. OUCH!

As a woman who believes in the value of family and marriage, beliefs like his hurt deeply and I’ve grappled long and hard with this. How could my divorce be congruent with my strong sense of family values? How could I move past the ideal of wanting the mommy and the daddy to live in the same house with their children? How could I reframe my divorce so I didn’t allow fears of damnation and ruination upon my children because of the breakup of their parent’s marriage?

I then thought that perhaps the problem was not that people divorce but, rather, the problem is in how people PERCEIVE divorce and HOW people divorce.

As time went on, I married a wonderful man and began the arduous task of combining our two families. Several years into it, I had the revelation that my divorce was actually a catalyst for the promotion of family values!

Time Magazine had come out with a cover story pronouncing the destructive effects of divorce on children. Shortly after it hit the newsstands, I had a conversation with my then 18-year-old son who had read the article. He passionately disagreed with the conclusions of the article and said he that was very thankful for his father’s and my divorce. He felt the process had taught him compassion and understanding, and, more importantly, had given him new role models for healthy relationships. My other three children have echoed his sentiments and their words have been a balm to my guilt-infested wounds.

I’ve thought of the many divorced people I know who have had the integrity, courage and discernment to know that they weren’t doing their children or themselves any favors by staying in a loveless or turbulent marriage. In my work with remarried couples, I marvel at those who have been through the heartbreak of divorce and are courageous and optimistic enough to remarry and combine children, pets, furniture, and finances (not to mention the continual presence of ex-spouses!).

Remarried people with children represent some real family values! We have managed to not only survive divorce, but have also learned to thrive because of it. And the fact of the matter is that one of three Americans is now a stepparent, a stepchild, a stepsibling, or some other member of a stepfamily.

Because of my own experience and the experiences of those with whom I have worked with as we have navigated our way through the jumbled maze of divorce and remarriage, I’ve realized that it’s time to stand up, be bold and reframe divorce in ways that aren’t shrouded with a veil of shame and remorse.

Dare I even say that it’s time to normalize divorce. Intelligent, wise, moral, loving people do it everyday.


Member Comments

    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Nate23 wrote Jan 14, 2008
    • Finally someone is saying something that sixty percent of us are thinking. I had an extremely difficult time with my divorce and articles like this one help ease some of my guilt and help me realize that divorce isn’t always a bad thing and that there doesn’t even have to be a bad guy. If only more people were as enlightened as you. Thanks for the great read.

            Report  Reply

    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Mary Kelly-Williams, M.A. wrote Jan 18, 2008
    • Thanks Nate.  It is surprising that when over 50% of the adult population divorces, it is still seen as some kind of dysfunction.  I’m glad you are coming to grips wit your divorce.  I’ve often found guilt when it comes to divorce to be an unproductive waste of time.

            Report  Reply

    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Myjennnow wrote Aug 20, 2008
    • Although, I am still in the throws of divorce, thank you.
      My ‘husband’ and I have tried to be focused on what we can do to make sure our children have what they need (short of two parents in the same house).  I could easily be bitter and evil about his choices in life, but I don’t see the point.  People do change - change is the only constant in life.  If divorce rates are at 50%, maybe we should help our children figure out why and how to do better than us, not be ashamed.

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