The XX Factor

Was Divorce Ever Truly Groovy?

After reading Pamela Paul’s How Divorce Lost Its Groove in the always-entertaining NYT Sunday Styles section, I felt like I ought to defend my willingness to associate with divorcees, the apparent new pariahs of the college-educated stroller pushing set. The women Paul interviewed, without for one minute seeming to regret their marriages, all cited instances of having felt pushed out of their former circles in a form of social isolation that, Paul notes, seems like “more of a Todd Haynes set piece than a scene from ‘families come in all shapes and sizes’ New York, circa 2011.” I am certainly the college-educated parent of young children (although not in New York), and I longed to argue with that part of Paul’s premise. Of course I wouldn’t abandon a friend going through a divorce!

But I couldn’t come up with a good example. Anecdotally, my experience in this particular outpost of Park Slope-style existence appears to fit precisely into the trend Paul describes: I know very few divorced couples, and among those I know well-the one I know well-both husband and wife have indeed each slid off into different social circles than the one they once shared. That sounds like it supports the idea that the “upper middle class” of which I am part has taken a more conservative view of divorce (according to the article, less than 11% of college-educated couples now divorce within their first ten years of marriage, a decrease of 27% compared with college-educated couples who married in the 1970’s, although in the total population, 37% of marriages still end in divorce within the first ten years). It sounds as if divorce is both rarer and more transgressive than it once was, yet I’m still hesitant to embrace the idea that society is renewing its tendency to brand the divorced with the scarlet letter of failure and set phasers on “shun.” I don’t question the experience of the women Paul interviewed. What I question is whether anything other than the numbers has truly changed.

Was divorce every really “groovy?” It’s indisputitable that among couples within a particular cohort, divorce has become more rare. Many reasons have been offered: a generation with a larger experience of divorce may be more cautious in marrying; college-educated people marry later now than they did in the 1970’s and later than the population as a whole. Men and women both marry with different expectations than we would have had forty years ago. But are divorced people really judged more harshly than they once were? As different as the marriages may be, I doubt that the experience of divorcing has changed for the worse. What’s new isn’t that divorcing women feel ostracized by their social networks (and I am willing to bet many men would say the same). It’s always been difficult for people having fundamentally different experiences of similar events to feel fully integrated. What’s new is that we, divorced or not, find that surprising.

I’ve never heard anyone who divorced in the ‘70s describe it with the glow of nostalgia inflicted on the era by those of us who weren’t adults at the time. It may be that the divorcing women of the ‘70s felt that they were taking back their lives and their freedom from fundamentally unequal marriages, but within that victory must have been a sense of a failure of a different kind, and with it came what I remember as the same loss of community. My parents remained married; most of their friends were still married or remarried. Among close friends with single parents, most of those parents appeared to hang out with single people. Can transitioning from one group to the other have been any easier then than it is now, for women or for men (whose experiences aren’t described)?

At the time, that separation among the single and the not seemed far more reasonable. Men and women were friends in fewer numbers. Divorce was becoming common, but it still wasn’t considered commonplace. As the children of that era, we may be the first to have once (as kids) seen divorce as something ordinary and not unexpected, and so we’re suprised to see and feel ourselves experiencing some of the same struggles that our parents (again, divorced or not) went through as they or those around them weathered this change.

I’m just beginning to see friends divorce (and I hope never to be there myself). Older friends tell me that this is because we’re just entering the first of the two divorce “sweet spots:” when all the kids are in full time school and when the last kid graduates from college. What I see is fallout like that of a move or any other substantial change: real friends remain so, while the friends who were friends more due to similarity and proximity (and we all have those) slip away. Divorce itself feels like it’s become a different entity as practiced by the veterans of the ‘70s; more often civil, more complex and more aware that a divorced partner, when kids are involved, is still a partner. Some things have changed. Maybe the others are still changing. What Paul’s article, and the women it profiles, says to me is that divorce hasn’t lost its groove, but that it’s still in the process of finding one.