Divorce, an Act of Authenticity or Escapism?

There was a time when married couples would stay together for life. Despite a lack of happiness in the relationship, often rooted in unhealthy co-dependency between two partners, marriage wasn’t easily dissolved. People would choose to stay ‘glued’ together in the name of a commitment they made many years before. Often because it was financially more comfortable. Other times because they lacked the courage to take a leap of faith and enter the unknown. And more times than not, because they were used to conforming to the expectations of a hypocritical society.

Today, everything is far from the same. With marriage more rooted in personal choice and the search for happiness more than ever before, people are becoming more aware of their freedom of choice and take ending a marriage far more lightly. I believe maybe too lightly. We omit considering the consequences this choice might have on ourselves as individuals and our children. We’ve gone to the other side of the pendulum, from a time where divorce was unspoken of and we devoted ourselves to subtle, silent and accepted happiness to a time where divorce is taken totally for granted as a ‘way out’ if it all goes wrong.

Yes, today divorce is a valuable and easy option disguised as personal choice in the search for freedom.

The question that arises for me is, “are we, men and women, truly happier than we were before?”

My family was an example of obligatory endurance despite the unhappiness both my mum and dad felt and I witnessed. I grew up watching two unhappy people live in denial and choosing to stay together anyway. My dad had his first heart attack at 53, which instigated the long and arduous medical issues he’d face for the rest of his life until he died aged 77. My mum suffered from depression and exhaustion from a very young age. I remember them talking about separation several times but they never went through with it.

On the contrary to them, my maternal grandfather had divorced my grandmother as soon as the option to end marriage was given. They spent their whole lives hating each other.

My ex-husband has a mum and dad who, like my parents, stayed together despite the unhappiness they were nurturing internally externally. He was already divorced for 7 years when I met him.

In short, I had a mix of role models around me when it came to choices made around marriage and divorce

So what was my choice? Well, I eventually divorced after many years, although it was not my decision. In fact, I chose to endure and be resilient during the time I was married. I never wanted to give up, just as my mum had never wanted to. I wanted to somehow, and probably unconsciously, repeat the same destiny as my parents’: a path of unhappiness. Choosing differently would have meant proving to be ‘better’ than them and unfortunately many of us children can’t subconsciously allow ourselves to be ‘better’. I know it’s a weird concept to digest and often really hard to believe when at first relayed: we are often not aware of the unconscious forces that drive us when it comes to parental legacies. These forces can have significant negative effects on our choices and lives without our knowledge.

As children many of us remember promising ourselves, faced with the unhappy marriages and relationships of our parents, that we’d never be like them. We vowed to be better.

In his theory of Systemic Constellations, Bert Hellinger suggests that unbeknownst to us and our best intentions, we tend to repeat the same destiny a our parents because we have a unconscious fidelity to their destiny. We’re connected to them on a much deeper level than we might know. We make promises to ourselves as children, which seem to completely unravel as we grow up because on an energetic level being better or happier than them, would be like betraying them. So we grow up, and eventually that internal promise we made to, “never be like you”, loses its power over our subconscious and becomes, “I will never be better than you, I’ll follow your same path because I choose to remain faithful to you”. Interestingly enough, what our mum and dad truly want in their hearts (and I corroborate this as a mother myself), is to see us live a happier and more fulfilled like than them. This is often a complete contradiction to what we end up choosing to do.

I’m aware not everybody buys into Bert Hellinger’s theory and that there are many skeptics, as with all schools of thought. So let’s explain this ‘shift’ in direction in a more pragmatic way…

We make our promise to ourselves in childhood or adolescence and then we grow up. We mature and enter society. We ‘conform’ to its standards and expectations and we adapt to its rhythms. We enter the comfortable world of materialism that we live in today. Eventually, something inside of us switches off. We find ourselves realising that it requires character and willingness to be ‘better’ than our parents. So we settle for what is more or less the same destiny, because it’s familiar and its easy. Often, this is not a conscious choice. But sometimes it can be.

Slowly we slip into our parent’s same old patterns and comfortable behaviours and day by day we find ourselves further along the road, consciously or unconsciously following their tracks. And one day we wake up and realise that, “gosh, I just became exactly like my mother and father”.

I look back and see I was indeed repeating my parental model of unhappiness. I chose to stay with and married to someone who I was incompatible with for too long. Though my grandparents had divorced, to remain loyal to the legacy of unhappiness, my parents chose to stay together. I believe my ex-husband followed the same model of unhappiness as his parents by having not one but two divorces.

So the question remains…

Is happiness in a couple dependent on remaining together forcefully or resorting to divorce as a quick fix?

Was it better years ago when people chose to stay together despite their unhappy marriage or today when we marry, don’t think twice about divorce and return to our search for some mythical happiness in the next partner?

I believe that before being able to answer these questions, we have to recognise two fundamental things:

Happiness does not depend on whether we stay or leave a marriage.

Happiness is rooted within us and therefore needs to be searched for within us.

A marriage or a divorce can’t determine a state of joy that can only be nurtured from within. After 25 years of marriage and a divorce that I didn’t choose (in fact, I strongly believe I unconsciously wanted to be faithful to my family’s destiny as Bert Hellinger’s theory suggests, despite my commitment not to conform and make all the necessary efforts to be happy), I choose to find joy within myself.

It is not healthy to remain stuck in a marriage if that marriage is causing us health, mental or emotional issues. Those issues can manifest when we don’t recognise or acknowledge that something is wrong, and choose to stay in denial. I saw my parents go through that and I slowly realised I was repeating the same dynamic. Towards the end of my marriage I was often seeing doctors and hospitalised for burnout and nervous breakdowns, just like my mother had done.

I also don’t support the idea that a divorce is the only option when we face unhappiness or lack of joy in our relationship. There are bound to be moments of struggle and change in any partnership over lengths of time because as individuals we change and our needs change. When we look to ending a marriage because of a challenge that could be momentary or overcome with patience, resilience and love, we forget to consider how truly challenging and arduous divorce can be. Divorce signifies disappointment, loss and grief for unmet expectations and dreams… and our family. There are many emotional, legal, familial and financial aspects in our lives that require shifts because of a divorce and it often takes people years to regain balance and a sense of normality. Nevertheless, divorce serves an important function in legally and emotionally freeing people to form a more sustainable and happy relationship.

The reality is that with a lack of self-awareness or desire to develop self-awareness, we can easily grow apart from our partners during the journey that is marriage. After many years, we’re no longer the same people we were when we first married. We we change as individuals, it’s easy to head in different directions and perhaps begin to share fewer things in common over time. We might begin to realise after many years, that actually we’re incompatible. Or we can no longer compromise our basic needs to support the needs of another. Furthermore, the person we may have desired as our partner in our 20s, may not be the same person we desire in our 50’s and 60’s. Priorities, values and personal philosophies change, and some of those changes can be absolutely significant and undeniable.

What is the ‘right’ way?

Truth is, there is not right or wrong. As much as there is no better or worse when it comes to following or own destinies or that of our parents. We all have free choice. Happiness? Unhappiness? Enduring a marriage or facing divorce?

Just as it’s relevant to know and understand ourselves, it is also of fundamental importance to get to know the meaning of marriage and the consequence of divorce. It should be a requirement to understand how to face a divorce if we choose to go that way or how to be resilient in a marriage should we choose the other way.

One thing is important to remember: if we choose to stay in a marriage, it must be a conscious one where both partners work on becoming self-aware and let go of ego or pride. We must be sure to understand that it takes two to tango and we must both be willing to participate in the steps of the dance. We cannot achieve the success and happiness in a marriage that we envision by ourselves.


header image by Foto Pettine


The following blog posts go into more detail on some of the topics and themes touched on above:
What Does 'Giving & Receiving' Mean In A Couple?
Vindictiveness: a Holiday Special
Life is Not a Battle


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