Is the bar too high?
There is a very powerful myth in our culture that says that the only successful marriage involves two people living “happily ever after.” While I agree that eternal happiness is a good goal to aspire to, this myth sets the bar impossibly high and it isn't true. Yet, many of us on some level believe this Disney fantasy story to be true and we ignore the realities of marriage which include both happy times and sad times, both highs and lows.
The phrase “failed marriage” is also a symptom of this story that doesn’t match the reality. Our culture seems to label any marriage a failure if a couple decides to end it before someone dies of old age.
It seems like the distress caused by the “happily ever after” and “failed marriage” stories is frequently worse than a couple’s actual distress about the end of a relationship. As a result, people argue and blame their partner (or themselves) for this “failure” and they proceed to ignore any good that came from the relationship. In the midst of this emotional upheaval, couples are rarely in a place where they can reminisce about the good times they had or what attracted them to each other in the first place. And even if the partners have made the split amicable, the pressure to justify the break-up to family and friends (or the media) can be intense. When you both know that divorce is the right decision, it can still be hard not to feel like you did something wrong. (I know this from personal experience.)
Challenging the cultural stories and finding more useful alternatives seems to be where much of the therapy work lies.
Here are some things I remind my clients when they are dealing with divorce:
Divorce doesn’t mean that the marriage wasn’t a success.
Divorce doesn’t mean that you failed - it means that the marriage didn’t work out.
Divorce doesn’t mean that nothing good came from the marriage or that it wasn’t something wonderful when it was working.
Regardless of your reasons, you entered into the marriage because you thought it was the right thing to do at the time.
Here are some of questions I ask my clients in order to challenge the cultural stories about marriage and divorce:
When were times that you would have said the relationship worked well?
What did you learn from this experience that you will apply to your next relationship?
What informed your decision to get married in the first place?
Who else benefited from your union?
What things did you accomplish while you were in this relationship?