Why Do So Many Women in This Country Fear Divorce?

An anthropological look at the institution of marriage, and why the dissolution of a partnership can induce terror.

Like any woman facing divorce, I sought answers from the altar of the Almighty Internet and googled my heart away deep into the night. What I found confirmed my worst fears, furthered my anxieties, and led to bizarre rationalizations of a marriage that had long been dead. I dug in my heels to salvage a miserable relationship because the alternative divorce presented online was a dark end of unspeakable realities—a torture chamber to be avoided at all costs.

I was one of the 50% of married American adults and my personal belief in the institution of marriage was iron-clad, and wholly inflexible in how I applied it to my own life. Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, A History traces the shift of marriage as a basis for economic and political transactions to our current idea of “love as the central reason for marriage, companionship its basic goal.” My relationship lacked love, civility, and respect, yet cursory investigations of divorce failed to dissuade my belief that marriage was for life. I thought if I tried hard enough, it could work out.

What I read about divorce prompted me to imagine a cauldron of abysmal possibilities should I decide to leave: abject poverty; a child trapped in juvenile detention; a dismal life as a ravaged, alcohol-swigging wreck who’d spend her days wallowing in regret. I worried I would become half the person I once was. The deepest irony was that my divorce opened the door to my existence as a whole person. The images I conjured may have foreshadowed my future had I refused to divorce.

Related: 5 Lies About Divorce You’ll Read When You Google It—Plus the Truth You Need to Read

Given the overall global increase of divorce—not to mention the fact that women initiate nearly 70% of all divorces—why do so many women fear the dissolution of a marriage?

For starters, we focus on the emotionally fraught initial transition out of a marriage.

I see now that most of my understanding of divorce focused on “crazy time,” the few years author Abigail Trafford describes in her eponymous book Crazy Time. This is a trying period, marked by the sometimes cruel and unbearable rites of passage the uninitiated undergoes as she transitions into a new self. In Biblical terms, the clergy solemnly label this type of transition a walk through The Valley of the Shadow of Death. The old life goes up in flames and there’s a scramble to figure out how to create a new one. For me, this thought was on repeat: That was my marriage? Tears, mourning, rage, relief, and frustration were frequent, but I was adamant that I no longer wanted to live with disrespect.

It is imperative to acknowledge this transition, but a fixation on this “crazy time” sends an erroneous message. When we obsess about all the tough stuff that will inevitably pop up during this initial transition out of a marriage, we lose sight of the big picture: The fact that there are decades left to live.

Know this: If you apply the same energy that you spent trying to make your marriage work to courageously investigating your past and rebuilding a new life, you will boldly move into your future with a newfound perspective of survival, gratitude, and strength.

We also have “master narratives” about divorce that need re-writing.

Master narratives are dominant stories that control how you think and live because they are accepted as truths. They are the foundation of your belief system and are based on existing frameworks of worship, rituals, and customs of your culture and family, community and tribal ideas.

The master narrative many women hold of marriage as it exists in the West remains unshakably strong and is shaped by ancient texts, observations of relationships, and interpretations read, seen, or witnessed. The practices of medieval courtly love (swords, damsels, poetry) remain associated with the prelude to marriage, and by the 18th century, the institution was recognized as a private agreement between two people.

Related: How to Write Your Divorce Story—and Why It’s So Important You Do

The emergence of the market economy allowed day laboring women to earn their dowries and men to demand wages without attachment to an inheritance or farm, and the Enlightenment’s recognition of individual freedom shifted the definition of marriage. “Probably the single most important function of marriage through most of history, although it is almost completely eclipsed today, was its role in establishing cooperative relationships between families and communities,” writes Coontz. The association of love with marriage evolved over the centuries—as has longevity. For most of human history the average lifespan was less than 50 years; it is now 78 years. A successful marriage remains “’til death do us part”—yet how might longevity affect this institution?

Marriage is a public declaration of a commitment to the welfare of another. It signals adulthood and responsibility—and it’s often a prelude to children. Contemporary marriage is where we expect to meet a plethora of needs: social, sexual, psychological, financial, and/or familial needs. If the place where we place our highest hopes, ideals, and beliefs is torn apart, where do we turn? Marriage is cast as a prelude and precursor to birth, love, death, and life itself. So, what does this mean? The recasting of a master narrative—the adjustment of a story—forces us to ask the answerable question: What will happen? Why am I here? This is a profoundly uneasy line of questioning, but when your belief system shatters, you have no choice.

We forget that divorce often leads to a new self.

The break-up of a marriage is traumatic. It’s a death of what was. Yet from the embers of destruction and ash rises the phoenix—resplendent, strong, colorful, and fully present.

In Ashton Applewhite’s extensive study on marriage in the classic Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, interviews yielded this simple fact: “Women who end their marriages are far better off afterward…This despite the economics of divorce, which are indeed punishing, especially for mothers of young children.” While 6 percent of couples remarry each other after they divorce, I have yet to meet a divorced woman who wishes herself back in her abandoned marriage. Her life may be imperfect, the divorce process grueling, but divorce, in the end, is often a better decision for her and her children’s lives.

Related: Worried About the Effects of Divorce? Here’s Why it’s an Opportunity to Feel More Empowered

For many women, losing the identity as “wife” can be an especially tricky transition. A wife is a married woman, yet its subtext and power blanket the ideal and status with an allure backed up by a 57.9 billion dollar wedding industry. The paradoxical label of wife was fraught with conflicting meaning, I was anxious about losing this identification. Wife signified a claim to an identity rooted in norms; inferred the interdependence and membership to a couple, clan, family and tribe; finally, the word implied what I valued, but could never rationalize or admit: possession—to not only possess another, but to be possessed. If not a wife, would I belong to my own self?

What I, like so many women, learned is that my new identity as a single woman—an ex-wife—would ultimately free my body and mind, and help me live my life from a place of true authenticity.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s classic book, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, analyzes tales that center women’s bodies and the inner life of a woman that thrives on her own terms. She dares to suggest that “Through their bodies, women live very close to the Life/Death/Life nature.” Divorce clearly rejects the notion that the sole purpose of a woman’s life is to service others’ needs.

Consider how the definition of equity becomes highly personalized the second women step into a marriage. Patrilineal naming dominates the names of children, and 80 percent of women adopt their partner’s name upon marriage. If a woman’s public identity is fused with a husband’s family name—and women’s bodies are policed by the culture in which they live—what might happen to the woman’s body upon divorce? Estés calls the recognition of the self an understanding of the body: “It is wrong to think of it [body] as a place we leave in order to soar to the spirit…Without the body, there would be no sensations of crossing thresholds, there would be no sense of lifting, no sense of height, weightlessness. All that comes from the body.”

My own transformation from my status as “married” to “divorced” has been one of radical, unimaginable growth. Despite the trauma, anxiety, and upheaval, I have no regrets. In Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, the speaker decides between two paths, takes the one less traveled by, and concludes that “has made all the difference.”

Taking the terrifying, unknown path was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Divorce taught me to summon hope and belief from the stars, to ride the wave of life as my authentic self, to bravely declare my being as worthy, strong, wild, and free.

Dr. Stephanie Han teaches women’s creative writing workshops at drstephaniehan.com. Her fiction collection Swimming in Hong Kong won the Paterson Fiction Prize, and finalist for AWP’s Grace Paley Prize, the Spokane Prize, and the Asian Books Blog Award. A PEN and VONA fellow, she received grants from the LA Department of Cultural Affairs, and was the inaugural English Literature PhD of City Univ. of Hong Kong. Her work-in-progress ‘Break’ details how to write a divorce story. Han lives in Hawai‘i, home of her family since 1904.
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