Do Americans Equate Divorce With Failure?

woman walking alone along a deserted beach

A recent article in the New York Times suggests that there has been a cultural shift away from divorce since the 1970s, especially among groups of well-educated Americans. Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, said: “The shift in attitudes and behavior is very real. Among upper-middle-class Americans, the divorce rate is going down, and they’re becoming more conservative toward divorce.”

Author Pamela Paul speculates “Is this, then, the revenge of the children-of-divorce generation, rebelling against the experiences of their mothers and fathers? When I asked people who divorced in their 20s and 30s while researching my 2002 book, “The Starter Marriage,” about why they divorced with such alacrity, the response was near universal: ‘I wanted to do it before it was too late – before we had kids.'”

Whereas their parents were divorce pioneers in the ’70s, today’s divorcing couples are very aware of how divorce feels to a 7-year-old because divorce defined their own lives.

If you are a child of divorced parent, how do you think it has affected your adult relationships? And if you are divorced yourself, do experience the kind of judgment described in the article? Read the article here and share your experiences in the comments below.

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  1. 1

    I’m a child of divorced parents, and in an overwhelming obsession to not become like my mother (bitter and resentful to this day) I stayed in a toxic marriage far, far too long (he was a serious alcoholic).   I was going to keep the family together, and not “do that” to my kids.   I was going to honor the vows and not bail out like my mother did.   Ultimately I did leave, and my biggest regret is not doing it YEARS earlier.   Divorce certainly does have an affect on kids, but not always in the ways people think.

  2. 2

    My parents didn’t divorce until I went to college.   I wished they had done it at least 8-10 years earlier.   As the article said, sometimes a divorce can be better for the kids than remaining together.   Though I now see some benefits of them staying together, I don’t view divorce as the worst thing in the world for kids.
    That being said, I think seeing dysfunctional relationships as a child does influence people’s romantic patterns later on.   Because I didn’t (and still don’t) ever want to divorce, I paid careful attentions to where the wheels came off in other marriages around me, and tried to avoid making those same missteps in selecting my spouse.   I tried very hard to figure out what things I would need to be able to live with someone, be a partner with someone, and possibly raise kids with someone for a lifetime and only once I found someone I thought would be a good spouse for me did I commit.   But if I hadn’t found that person, I never would have married.   Because being raised within a dysfunctional marriage made me see that there was no real advantage of being married just to be married.  
    So I think perhaps the statistics in the article might be related to more careful spouse selection than just fear/hatred of divorce.   There is no longer so much pressure to get your MRS. as well as your bachelor’s, so women don’t have to pick the first guy who seems interested even if he’s not the perfect match.   Men are also doing more of the housework and childrearing which creates a balanced marriage (and therefore is decreasing the divorce rate as well).   My $0.02.

  3. 3
    Silly Girl

    Silly me – but I do feel like a failure…after 28 years of marriage to  be divorced…really? I routinely sit at the head of a conference table filled with other executives who are all male. I am ok with being the only female, but I am way uncomfortable with being the only divorced person. Sigh…

  4. 4

    I am 46 and twice divorced. As far as stigma is concerned, the idea of being “twice divorced” certainly put me off for a long time splitting up with my second husband – I really didn’t want to be in that category. As someone who usually likes to finish what I start and who doesn’t like to give up, I felt it would make me look like I’m rubbish at relationships and people would judge me for it. Its something I feel weighs on me when I start dating a new guy – obviously they will know from the outset that I am divorced…. but when to tell them I’ve been divorced TWICE?? Always a tricky one. I feel it makes me look like I’m not a good bet. That said, I was actually in these two relationships one after the other for a cumulative total of 21 years, which I feel does demonstrate a reasonable level of stability!

    One of the reasons I think people may be getting divorced less is that they are marrying later. I married my first husband at 21, and, like those in the article, there was time to get divorced BEFORE having kids. My younger sister, however, and her group of friends all got married much later – at 30+. By that stage they were weary of dating and desperate to have kids, and most started trying to get pregnant as soon as the ring was on their finger. 7-10 years in they’re in the throws of raising small children and are getting into their 40s – and divorce is a much less attractive proposition for a woman in that situation. They dated long enough to realise its no picnic – I had NEVER “dated” as such before meeting either of my husbands – we just met and got together. I had no idea what the world of dating was like before my second divorce.

  5. 5

    I don’t have kids so I have not experienced the kind of judgement talked about in the article. I find some women to be a bit envious because of the freedom I have.

    Sense of failure yep but I working thru that over the past 5 years it has lessened.

    On the other hand I see my ex now  he is unhappy while I  the most  contented I have been in my adult life so I seldom second guess my decision anymore.   Actually wish I had done it sooner.            

  6. 6
    valley Forge Lady

    I have been a 24/7 single parent for 10 years.   Last summer my 18 year old daughter thanked me  for divorcing her father.   She had just spent two weeks with him and saw how poorly he was dealing with life.   She was  very calm in her statement.   She manages to get along with her Dad, but also realizes that for us to have continued the marriage would have been way too much unhealthy drama.

    My late  mother had a great marriage to my Dad for 40 years.   She remarried with stars in  her eyes and was then divorced in   two years.     The same thing happened to my  uncle.   Thank God….there is freedom   to divorce from unhealthy relationships.

    What  I have learned from all of this is   that it is important to date and marry people who are very emotionally healthy.

    I faithfully read this blog because it addresses what is needed in a healthy realtionship.     I am workinging hard to have realistic expectations and clear sense of who  I am.


  7. 7

    I think you have to have 2 healthy people. I used to feel really guilty about my divorce until I realized the root of it was bad parents on my side and his – they are all married – but they are narcissistic. I have come to terms with the fact that there is nothing I did to cause that and there is nothing I can do to fix it. I can only keep myself in a healthy environment and not put up with being mistreated. The realization of all of this has brought a sense of peace and a love for myself that will carry me far.  

    As far as the divorce generation article, I think the one thing most divorces have in common is that the people created lives that were full of stress with no quality time and they took each other for granted. If one partner is selfish or not emotionally stable you are doomed. The marriage has to come first before all else or it just dies. You have to carve out quality time. You have to stop spending so much money and working so much. You have to say no to people who want to encroach upon your couple time.  

    At this point in my life I realize that less is more and I want someone who feels the same way, who wants to nurture a marriage every day and who wants to learn good relationship habits.

    It is better to have less things and more time. If you have 2 stressed out people who work too much and then try to juggle little kids no one is happy.

    Evan you have taught us a lot about what to settle on and what not to settle on and how to navigate modern dating – I appreciate that every day when I read what you write. Thank you!!

  8. 8

    The author of the NY Times article seemed to want to impress upon us that divorce is decreasing in marriages of upper middle class college-educated Is that really surprising, consider our economy and the fact that financial difficulties have long been the No. 1 factor in marital discord and divorce?   It’s simple math — if you can afford it and things are getting rough in your marriage, you get counseling, or maybe you pack up the kids to the grandparents house & you and the spouse take a nice little vacation.   But so many married people in this country don’t have that luxury. They’re strapped,they’re stressed, they both work, and there just isn’t enough time or money to really do much re-charging — either individually or as a couple.

    I’m also wondering how these 30-something New Yorker divorcees have more free time on their hands. Yoga 5 days a week? Dating? Who’s watching the kids? Do these women work? Have nannies?   

  9. 9

    I read the article.     I think it was saying that the pendulum has swung back to an opposite and older extreme attitude about divorce.     I think it is a healthy thing.   Marriages do take maintenance and I think it is healthy that people have the belief that GOOD marriages worth holding onto will not feel wonderful to be in every moment of their existence.       I think that to actually move forward people need to do more than just oscillate between old and new attitudes about divorce.     My opinion is that people need to be more thoughtful about whether or not marriage is for them.     I also think people need to become better at picking the right people to stay with “until death do you part”.
    I don’t mean any disrespect   to anyone, but when I see an online dating ad from someone with a toddler or even an infant my thought is “Wow, that person must have really lousy judgment to pick someone to be a spouse who they couldn’t even tolerate enough for the kids not to be small children anymore before they divorced”.
    So yes,   I do see a divorce in someone’s life as a failure.         We are all flawed human beings who have made and will make massive mistakes so I don’t think people should condemn themselves if they were in a failed marriage.   As with any failure, it is about what you do or don’t do with the experience.

  10. 10

    @Steve – the best laid plans… when I got married the last thing on my mind was the possibility that I would be divorcing this man  mid way through pregnancy – but it happens – curve balls come when you least expect them and the best thing for myself and my then unborn child was to get the hell out of there – and, with thanks to the Divine, we haven’t looked back   – (lousy judgment or not –   and quite frankly once  I was in the situation it would have been much “lousier” judgment to continue the marriage than to leave )-  the situation  definitely raises eyebrows but if a new  man can take that in his stride he has definitely seperated himself from “the boys”

  11. 11

    @Kate number 10: You rock girl! Same thing happened to me, at 3 months pregnant…my daughter is now 6 and I have never looked back, same reasons you state. And no, I haven ´t had any problemas with all the online men I ´ve dated in the past 4 years, or the 3 one year boyfriends I ´ve had!

  12. 12

    What really spoke to me in the article was how a couple of the divorcees featured in the article handled it for the sake of the kids.   I had a great deal of guilt and self-condemnation to work through. My ex and I had to make peace and put the kids first.   He is happily married and we all get along. It has been worth it for the sake of the kids.   I am a child of divorce as well. What I have come to realize is that I often second guess myself when thinking about ever getting remarried.   I had the marriage, etc. and was still unhappy.   I have since been working on being happy and fulfilled on my own.   

  13. 13

    @AQ – 7
    @Steve – 10
    I encourage you both to open your mind to people who are divorced.   Both of you are holding onto stereotypes about divorced people.   AQ, I was a devoted, educated housewife who prepared homemade meals for my family, was involved in my kids and husband lives, took time out for dates with my husband and had sex with him regularly.   I have always been a positive person, too.   However, he strayed and wouldn’t agree to healthy boundaries so it wouldn’t happen again so we ended up divorcing.
    Like someone else said, you can blame me for having bad judgement in the first place by getting together with him (actually he was a very good provider in a high position job and didn’t show signs of being a cheater at the beginning), but staying in that relationship would have shown worse judgement.   Just like racial stereotypes, holding onto generalizations about divorced people is outdated, in my opinion.   We all make mistakes — some are just more publicly obvious.

  14. 14

    Steve #9: I think you are being too judgmental in this case, perhaps out of ignorance (I don’t mean this in a bad way). Having an infant is absolutely one of the worst stressors in a marriage. It can take two people who are normally soft-spoken, considerate, and kind; and throw them into yelling matches and grudges and resentment toward each other. It’s the sleeplessness, the unremitting (often disgusting) work, the complete disruption of normal patterns of life, and the realization that there is no going back.
    Do not be so quick to judge new parents. In my own experience, including those of my friends, a sort of hump needs to be overcome in about the first 2 years after a child’s birth. Many couples get divorced in that time because the stress becomes unbearable, and one or both parties says or does something that the other considers unforgivable. But if the couple can make it through those 2 years, then things get easier. Until the next child comes.
    I do think that if neither spouse is abusive or intolerable, it is generally a good thing to try to stay together even through the rough times. Sometimes we tend to lose sight of the fact that life is in fact difficult, but tough times pass, and the companionship has value in itself. Of course, it takes a willingness to make it work with someone.

  15. 15

    @ Steve #9: “I don’t mean any disrespect   to anyone, but when I see an online dating ad from someone with a toddler or even an infant my thought is “Wow, that person must have really lousy judgment to pick someone to be a spouse who they couldn’t even tolerate enough for the kids not to be small children anymore before they divorced”.
    How do you know this woman is not a widow? How do you know her ex didn’t leave her for someone else against her will? that he didn’t develop a drinking problem or a drug addiction that made it unsafe for him to be around their infant or toddler? etc etc. If you’re not comfortable dating someone with an infant or a toddler, that’s perfectly understandable – neither am I – I’ve put in my time and hard work raising my own, and the only infants and toddlers I plan to help raising in the future will be my grandchildren – nothing wrong with that. So why even ponder on a dating ad like this, and pass judgement on someone you don’t know, if you’re not interested? just skip to the next one.
    Re: staying together for the kids in general – without getting into personal examples, I think a number of couples are confused as to what this means. To me it would mean staying together and working on the relationship for the kids to have a semi-happy family to grow up in. To a lot of people, apparently, it means something different – staying together in a crappy marriage and doing nothing to make it less crappy – just doing the time till the kids are grown up. In my opinion, the latter sets a much worse example for the children than a divorce would. I agree, it would be nice if everyone was a perfect judge of character and was able to see into the future as well, to make sure the marriage would still work in 20-30 years. Divorce wouldn’t probably exist then. In our real world though, people change over time, and we do not always make the best decisions, especially in our late teens and early 20s. As a result, sometimes things don’t work out. If the couple has tried everything in their power and everyone in the family is still miserable, there’s no shame in ending that marriage IMO.

  16. 16

    @ 13.

    Me too.   I was wife who put him first; his wants and needs mattered more to me than my own; we had sex often; I took care of all of the house hold chores minus the kids chores; I  was a  “yes” girl; we both agreed that the one thing i said “no” to was him sleeping with other women.   He took vacations with his friends “boys weekends away”.   I did not get vacations with my friends.     When i planned one, he was VERY against it for oh a variety of reasons; there would be men where I went (not part of my group but men who lived there or were vacation there themselves), he really wished I would wait and we could go together.  

    I forgave and forgot his first affair because we had three small children and because people make mistakes and because I loved him.    I did not wait around for  him to come to his senses  during his second affair.   He is now married to  the “other” woman but she doesn’t want commitment so they don’t live together; she lives  at her place with her kids, he lives with his parents; they  haven’t told anyone  they are married – I only know because he needed to tell someone.    

    And he, himself, tells me  he wishes he  hadn’t had his “midlife crisis”.   He wishes he  could  do things differently.

    About divorce: YES!   I feel like i failed.   I  know marriage/relationships take work, compromise, overlooking faults, forgiving,  holding your tongue, and the ability to not continually hold someone responsible for what they did yesterday; that is dead and gone.   I know and practiced that to the best of my ability.   I didn’t degrade my husband by complaining to others about him in any way.    I  have never put so much effort into something and have  it not work.    

    I would not go back to being married.   I didn’t realize at the time, but after  he left,  the atmosphere in my house being lighter,  he was a  negative person.   I started being my  own person.   My kids and I bonded  together in ways that are amazing.    OH YES, we have  had issues!   It wasn’t easy and the divorced DID effect them.   I wondered for awhile if ANY of my kids were even going to finish  High School.    But now  I have 2 in college and one  is a  senior  in High School (I only have three).    We  support and love and fight and tease.    

    The kids are still effected by the divorce.   I don’t know about other dad’s but my kids feel they aren’t important to their dad.   Especially when he makes all of his step kid’s events but he’s  too  busy to attend  his own kids.    Or takes trips with his “wife” and her kids.   they have been on two or three but he hasn’t taken his own kids along.   They are hurt by that.   They say so.  

  17. 17

    @raquel 11 – thank you for sharing your experience! Got a big smile on my face now 🙂

  18. 18

    If you’ve never been married, you’re judged, and if you’re divorced you’re judged. Plenty of people stay in mediocre or even crummy marriages not only for “the sake of the children”, but because it’s more socially acceptable, or to keep their partner’s health insurance, or to have someone to support them so they don’t have to work – is that better?  

  19. 19


    Or to continue to have the lifestyle a dual income provides, to  not have to move out of their house, or because being in a bad marriage is what they know and feel comfortable with.

  20. 20

    @Kate 17. You`re welcome…. these things we describe are not easy and I 100% support women who`ve gone through it. Best of luck!  

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