The XX Factor

Are Divorces Becoming Less Hostile?

A couple visits a stand during an exhibition for couples who want to divorce in Milan. Placard reads: “Bye bye love.”

Photo by Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images.

I had to put down Susan Gregory Thomas’ memoir of her failed marriage and divorce, In Spite of Everything, because while I sympathized with her anguish at being divorced, I also found the levels of self-pity incongruous with the detailing of spending $100,000 on renovating a kitchen in a Park Slope brownstone. The book had some interesting insights about how our generation—Generation X—is reacting to growing up during the divorce epidemic, but Thomas had a tendency to generalize her own specific responses to our generation at large. I promise, not all of us or even most of us reacted to being raised by divorced parents by entering into sexless marriages centered around conspicuous consumption. On the contrary, I think the reason Gen Xers have seen lower divorce rates is that we have higher standards than our parents’ generation when it comes to who we marry, if we bother marrying at all, and that means prioritizing passion. Thomas, by her own measure, married a man who didn’t do it for her, but I don’t think that’s typical of our generation.

That said, I found her piece in the New York Times about the growth of amicable divorce to be thought-provoking. She continues to make some fundamental errors, with the big one being the assumption that divorce itself is the problem. A more realistic assessment would be to say that bad marriages are the problem, and divorce is the solution. The only humane way to lower the divorce rate is to tackle the bad marriage problem. Thomas lurches toward this understanding better in this article than in her book, noting that Gen Xers generally do put more effort into vetting someone before marrying them than our parents did. She also generalizes her own experiences yet again, wondering if people have amicable divorces because they weren’t that into each other to begin with. Again, she’s wrongly assuming that her decision to enter a passionless marriage is normal, when most evidence suggests that it’s more abnormal than ever.

Still, I think Thomas might be on to something in assuming that many couples are divorcing with much lower levels of hostility than in previous generations. The reasons for this are probably less profound than she’d like to imagine, though. Gen Xers don’t love their children more, and we certainly aren’t less invested in our romantic entanglements. I have a couple of counter-theories. One, I think that growing up in the age of divorce has destigmatized it. One reason that couples tear at each other during a divorce is that they feel deep shame about divorcing, and that incentivises blaming the other person for the marriage’s failure. If you see no real shame in divorcing, it’s a lot easier to say, “Hey, it didn’t work out, but we’re not bad people and we can get through this with the minimum of emotional bloodshed.” The second reason is feminism. Having seen a lot of divorces (and breakups of long term relationships) in my time, one thing I’ve noticed that turns an already sad situation into open warfare is when one person feels like the other person simply doesn’t have the right to leave. While this can go both ways, since men are traditionally socialized to think of marriage as a claiming of a woman—you even get to name her after yourself!—men have, in the past, been more likely to refuse to accept the divorce. This escalates hostilities. But the men of my generation didn’t get nearly the intense social training to believe your wife belongs to you, and so are more likely to get to the acceptance level of the divorce process faster if their wives leave them. Just by changing that dynamic, you’re dramatically reducing the opportunities for a huge number of divorces to turn ugly.