Why do people divorce?
Like a snowflake, each divorce case is entirely unique. The common pattern, if such exists, is broad indeed. So why do people get divorced? Do you know why it happened to you? Here are some possible answers.

By Larry Frolick

Statistics tell us that about half of all marriages now end in divorce, and many people today can expect to be divorced --with all the attendant pain, loss, and conflict --two or three times in a lifetime. The frequency of divorce is increasing as well, with the average American marriage ending at eight years, and getting shorter.

Like the Black Death that struck down half of Europe's population six centuries ago, divorce as a social phenomenon has grown beyond epidemic proportions, to the extent that some people are beginning to describe it as a "normative" process, even a natural one.

What model shall we use in describing this phenomenon? Is divorce a new kind of plague? Is it something like twentieth-century disease, or new-building syndrome, or AIDS? Does divorce have similar, biological origins? Is it a failure of our immune systems to cope with new changes sweeping the social environment? Is divorce a pathology?

Or, on the contrary, is divorce an exercise of our new-found economic freedom? And specifically, how is your own divorce to be understood? Is it simply a negative photographic image of your marriage? When people speak of going through a "bad divorce," does it mean that there are good divorces as well? Are some marriages plainly bad, making the divorces that end them good? Is a good divorce one in which both sides are amicable, and calmness prevails throughout the proceeding?

These questions, and the general theories they are modeled on, come from how we look at marriage itself --both in the general and the specific. How we look at marriage is based on the cultural expectations we have of marriage. Expectations that now are not going to be met.

Marriage Expectations

Your hopes for a good marriage, now dashed in divorce, may be considered to be failed expectations. But where did these expectations come from, exactly? On reflection, it seems that they must have come from a bundle of different sources: your parents' marriage, likely; your own ethnic-cultural tradition, certainly; stories you read and popular movies you saw, perhaps; and finally, from the specific historical details of the making of the relationship itself.

Apart from external sources, many of our expectations of marriage came at the forging of the marriage bond, from the actual "deal" we made. This marriage deal is the source of the failed expectations that a divorcing person must confront.

The Marriage Deal in Western Society

Any marriage made between a husband and wife can be written (as in a formal marriage contract), or it can be unwritten, but either way an enormous amount must be left unsaid.

By the "marriage deal," I mean all the stated and unstated conditions, the concerns, the goals, and the requirements, the idle thoughts and expectations. At some point in the discussions that lead to marriage, explicit agreement must end and assumptions begin. These assumptions are left unverbalized, but as specific riders, addenda, and escape clauses, they accompany the basic express deal: I promise to love you, support you, not commit adultery, etc.

It is safe to say that all marriages everywhere are still negotiated. In some cultures, marriages are arranged by professional matchmakers or family members; but in our society, it's up to each couple to do their own negotiating. And North American couples are working out their marriage deals with reference to personal, idiosyncratic standards. Do you know what they say about doctors and lawyers who practice on themselves? They have fools for patients and clients.

It's not surprising that the practice of doing it yourself may not work out quite so well in the end, as the following example illustrates.

Joe and Mary:

A Typical Marriage Deal A typical, subjective Western marriage deal was negotiated by Joe and his wife Mary. It started like this.

In Mary's terms: I'll love you (and sleep with you and nobody else, listen to your problems and try to help [as long as they are not too overwhelming and especially if they don't remind me of my alcoholic father's problems] and keep you company on most weekends [unless the business I intend to start in 36 months takes off and gets me out of town, and unless my sisters call for a family emergency that will take precedence over any situation here, except your heart attack or other life threatening disease]), and I'll continue to work at my (boring) job to pay for our (first) house (but only for two years after which I expect [based on what you bragged about when we were drinking orange juice and champagne with the Fergusons], that you will start earning $100,000 by then), when we will move to a house (at least as good as my parents' and in a comparable neighborhood) and have a baby (who had better not remind me, as she grows up, of your mother, whom you'd better stop defending pretty quickly) who will be like me (but who will not be forced into things by her family, like having to escape because they are so demanding and unreasonable)É etc., etc.

In Joe's terms: I chose to marry you, Mary, because you're calmer and more deliberate than my mother, so don't you dare ever do anything that reminds me of her, and especially when I go fishing every spring like my dad, and don't freak out like she did, about leaving her alone on weekends É etc., etc.

Of course, none of this important stuff went into their legal marriage contract, which was 12 pages long and filled with stuff that applied mainly to the case of a breakdown of their marriage. Lawyers call this "Boilerplate."

Subjective = Unconscious

The problem with such subjective, personalized standards as Joe and Mary's is that these issues are not particularly obvious to the other party. Not at the onset of marriage, and not later. Nor are they necessarily apparent to the very party upholding these standards, because many such standards remain unconscious and unexpressed until triggered by some event that throws them into high relief.

To complicate matters even further, there are side deals.

Side Deals

Each marriage partner also makes side deals with other parties. Who are they? Parents. Peers. Siblings. And increasingly, employers, ex-spouses, and children from previous marriages. And advice columnists and sex educators and a whole industry of domestic consultants! All those who feel they too have a legitimate say in the marriage deal come barking for attention. Parents are the most obvious parties to a first marriage, when the parties are still attached to them.

Here is a typical side deal: "This marriage doesn't mean, Mom, that I won't come home every Thanksgiving for the rest of my life, and sleep in my room and overlook Dad's fooling around with Mrs. Carter in our little family game we know so well, and I'll continue to be your little girl/boy, etc."

So what happens to this highly-subjective marriage upon divorce?

The Subjective Marriage Upon Divorce

All the parties who had a real say in the structure of one's marriage (even if they are voiced unconsciously) are going to have a say on its break-up. A big say.

Again, understand that the disparate voices that went into a marriage deal are unique to the specifics of the situation. Because they are set to subjective standards, such standards do not necessarily correspond to any particular social norms. It's often the "silly little issues" that go to the very essence of the problem of the Western subjective marriage deal. If we cannot get what we want subjectively out of a marriage, then what on earth is it good for? If the purpose of Western marriage is ultimately to conform to subjective standards, and to satisfy our psychic needs, and then if it fails to provide for them, we must either change the deal or move on. Changing the deal involves replacing those subjective standards with objective ones: standards that the parties can clearly see and agree upon.

There is the possiblity that a couple could move on to a relationship that replaces unexpressed issues with truly negotiated and open discourse; in my experience as a lawyer, handling hundreds of divorce cases, about one in 20 couples can do this. It requires much work, and there may always be this nagging feeling that your true wants and needs could be better served by meeting the right individual --not by all this laborious compromise and protracted discussion.

However, if there's any prospect at all for reconciliation, I'd urge you to make the effort. I've had more than a few clients tell me later that they walked out on the best thing they ever had --purely out of self-destructive pride.

Real Love, Examined

North American marriage pits the particular idiosyncrasies of our deepest, private urges (which it insists we must satisfy in marriage) against the demand that every couple perform a consumer role --one that equates its public success with its level of consumption. The single biggest indicator of whether an American couple may break up is economic: the chances are greatest that they will divorce if the wife is working.

Unless it's made in heaven, a Western marriage taxes each couple with this fundamental opposition between love and consumption, creating an invisible fault-line. Other sets of like oppositions nudge up against each other like continental plates. Tragically, spouses don't know about these fault-lines until it's too late.

Entering marriage, a new husband and a wife act like hopeful settlers emigrating to California. There they are, enjoying the sunshine, without a clue that the ground could move under their feet at any time. Since each partner stands on a different plate, the fault-line always runs right between them.

Inside the Spook House:

Theories of Divorce There are many theories accounting for the common breakup of marriage in Western society. I have picked ten of them (there are at least 15) to represent a range of possibilities.

I maintain that such theories are also stories of divorce, myths told for a sophisticated audience. According to the structural-anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, all variants of a myth are "true," like the six blind men's description of the elephant. Here they are then, the ten different parts of the divorce elephant, in no particular order:

  1. Affective Disorder. Divorce is caused by the inability of the parties to separate their unresolved childhood issues from their relationship with their spouses. They are not getting what they expected their spouses ought to give them: "Make it all better Mommy/Daddy." Usually this expectation is unconscious. Failure to resolve such childhood issues in the marriage causes divorce.
  2. The Spell of the Blue Angel. According to the poet W.H. Auden, people get divorced when they discover, to their shock, that they have married an ordinary human being --flawed and boring --and not an Isolde or Tristan --the ideal lovers of mythology. Or, like Don Juan, they can only approach, but never attain, perfection through a multitude of lovers. In either case, it's our attraction to the bright flame of the Absolute that destroys us like moths. See the film "The Blue Angel" for more on this.
  3. Urban Anomie. A worldwide and observable social trend is that urbanization weakens and destroys kinship bonds and severs extended-family ties. As we enter the 21st century, living in cities of five million and more, the alienation and anonymity of every individual accelerates --which puts enormous strains on long-term family commitments.
  4. Normative View. Divorce is the hard-won freedom to choose one's associates. It is a healthy act of self-improvement, similar to the power that medieval townsfolk won as members of guilds (a power the rural peasants, still beholden to their lords, did not get). Divorce represents the continued political enfranchisement of the urban population, now free to choose ways of living increasingly independent of Church or State.
  5. Women's Biological Re-engineering. According to research scientist T.D. Kemper, rising testosterone (T) levels in women may be responsible for creating divorce. Men historically had ten times as much testosterone --the hormone that stimulates the sex-aggression drive --than women. Women have been politically suppressed until recently. Being subjugated lowers your T-level, while being dominant raises it. In any social outcome, a dominant/submissive relationship inevitably results. As more working women become bosses, their T-level increases. Men they meet now have the option of either submitting, or attempting dominance with less chance of success than previously. This is a zero-sum game, in which men and women are both essentially "looking for wives." Divorce is about nobody wanting to be the "wife," the submissive one.
  6. Social Plague. Divorce is like bad weather. As with war and flu epidemics, it comes on an ill wind from the East. It is an unpredictable, inexplicable, but natural phenomenon. As with any storm, you must batten down your hatches and try to hang on. Eat your cherry pie if you have one, and wait for a better day to come.
  7. State Power.
    According to Michel Foucault and his school, the State has, since the Enlightenment of the 18th century, expanded its jurisdiction over formerly private domains. In its official guise of bureaucrats, experts, and commentators, the State has colonized sex and the family, making them objects of legislative commodification and targets of surveillance, commentary, and control. The marriage/divorce syndrome is explicitly encouraged by these "experts" as an exercise and demonstration of their social power.
  8. Structural Incompatibility. According to Johns Hopkins sex-researcher John Money, as many as 80% of all couples are fundamentally unhappy with each other because they are structurally and emotionally incompatible. Real compromise is impossible. Every person has a unique set of sexual, emotional, and habit-needs, and such needs cannot change. Finding the right person, the needle in the haystack with the same eye and point as you (e.g., someone who likes sex at dawn, or staying up late and sleeping in), is extremely difficult, but critical to relationship success.
  9. Post-Modern Role-Deconstruction. Following Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida and others' claim that not only is God dead, "man" is also dead. Divorce is merely an ironic commentary on "marriage." There is no such thing as "human nature," in the sense of a basic ground of being we can count on. All such social structure is arbitrary, the product of authors speaking from their point of view. There is nothing "objectively true," so we act out social roles we know to be artificial, self-consciously. To demonstrate our awareness, like the actors in Waiting for Godot, we mug, we comment on, and we ultimately trash our pointless roles.
  10. Feminist Critique. According to Shalamith Firestone and others, divorce is the latest phase of the ongoing American revolution, a direct result of the rising class-consciousness of a marginalized group --women --in their political struggle for self-determination. Marriage is a patriarchal institution, created to dominate and subjugate women, and will inevitably be abolished in favor of freely entered relationships based on equality.

One Last Theory (or Two)

Dizzying stuff, right? I think they're all great theories, but if I had to choose my favorites, I'd pick the "Women's Biological Re-engineering Theory," the "Structural Incompatibility Theory," and the "Social Plague Theory." You might have your favorites, too.

Just for the record, though, I must mention a few more theories: the "Karmic Theory" (people work out past lives in this life); the "Shopper Theory" (marriage is a commodity like any other, and people weigh relationships like car purchases, measuring depreciation against residual value, and dump their spouses when the warranty expires); the "Serial Marriage Theory" (most people get married again, so their divorces are really mere blips in marriage-as-a-continuing-state with different partners); and finally, the "Lower Death Rate Theory" (marriage only lasts 20 years for most people, and in the old days we usually died before reaching this magic number, so now people divorce instead of dying off).

Then we have our last theory. (Were you able to see what was missing from the ten theories?)

Q. Well, it must be somebody's fault when a marriage breaks up --where is that in all these theories?

A. Perfectly right. Not one of these technical and highly entertaining theories mentions fault as the cause of divorce. Yet we hear this word "fault" all the time. Whenever people discuss their own or others' divorces, it's always somebody's fault.

The Fault Theory of Divorce

The "Fault Theory of Divorce" is the last one we're going to look at in our examination of the variant explanations as to why people are divorcing in such huge numbers.

In answering the big question, "Whose fault was it?" people gossip. When somebody gets a divorce, they talk. Why did the theorists leave this out? Were the experts talking about divorce in general terms, not specific terms? When it comes to a specific divorce --yours, for example --then fault appears?

Does this make any sense? Surely we read all the time about abusive relationships, about alcoholic spouses. We have seen with our own eyes examples of bad marital behavior --behavior we wouldn't stand for one minute. Surely the gossips are on the right track, and though it may be none of their business, and even if we never find out whose fault it was, it must have been somebody's fault in every divorce.

However, if you're divorcing, you certainly don't want anyone to think it was your fault. You tried your best. You'll do whatever you can to defend yourself from the shameful charge that you caused the divorce.

This is exactly what the law wants you to do.

Unlike our social theorists, the law has this very peculiar idea that everything unpleasant that ever happens in the world is somebody's fault. Accidents, mine disasters, drowning, rotten hamburgers, and marriages ending are all someone else's fault! That's why the law has these great complicated and expensive procedures --called trials and inquiries and commissions --to look into the whole history of some event, isolate its causes, and then attribute the blame to some human agency.

Q. Well, what about all those no-fault divorce laws? We have them in our jurisdiction. Doesn't that mean "fault" is now irrelevant?

A. Unfortunately, no.

No-fault divorce only means that for the purposes of getting a divorce, the law doesn't care whose fault it is --not that there isn't any fault. Fault still appears in the law in many guises, depending on the jurisdiction in which you reside, regarding child custody, support, and regarding the division of family assets. The spouse found at fault can get hit, and hit hard.

So Which Theory is Right?

How is it we have all these social theorists on the one hand, talking about global trends and implying divorce is not individual fault or responsibility, but the effect of a wider, enormously complex social phenomena --and then all the lawmakers and gossips on the other hand, looking for empty rye bottles in the garbage can? Have the gossips failed to keep up with the times, or is it these social theorists who are out of touch with reality?

To answer that, look at your own marriage. Can you honestly tell anyone that you invested all your hopes, time, money and effort into your marriage just so that you could go and smash it up later --like some careless drunk doing 150 on the freeway? That you were recklessly negligent, or full of wanton disregard, or careless and indifferent? If you had to do it all again, is there anything you would have done differently? Could have done differently? These are not idle questions.

If you examine these theories carefully, including the "Fault Theory," they fall into one of two broad categories: either you can learn appropriate behaviors and make the right choices (numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 10, and Fault) or it is all a matter of plain dumb luck, the grace of the gods, and it doesn't matter what you do (numbers 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9). What happens, will happen. Six of one, half-dozen of the other. What a surprise: exactly even!

Which is it then? Free will or fate? Is there such a thing as human freedom? Can we learn from the past? Or is everything just an "empty gesture, signifying nothing," in T.S. Eliot's phrase?

The ancient Greeks, who thought about such questions quite a bit, made a tentative conclusion that you might be doomed anyway by the fickleness of the gods, so you might as well go ahead and act like you could win the game.

In other words, consciousness of the risk is everything --and this is what makes you a whole person.

Greek philosophers would say that all of the above theories are right, and none of them are. You simply give your marriage, your divorce --and whatever else happens to you in life --your best shot. The only thing to regret is not giving it your best shot. All the more glory if you struggle on, in the knowledge that it might be entirely futile.

This article has been edited and excerpted from Splitting Up: Divorce, Culture, and the Search for a Real Life by Larry Frolick (reprinted with permission from Hounslow Press/Dundurn Group, $19.99). Drawing on his most interesting cases from 20 years practicing law as well as social studies, the author takes you on a trip into the strange world of divorce, revealing the new social order and the roles we must play in order to survive --from the Working-Warrior Mom to the Treat Daddy to the Lost Child. This handbook for divorce in the 21st century deals with many fascinating topics, such as: the "worst divorce story ever told"; post-divorce sex; depression; the role of lawyers and therapists; raising children as a single parent; and how to keep both your money and your sanity during the process. Available at better bookstores, or order directly from: www.amazon.com in the USA or www.indigo.ca in Canada.