When you decide to draw a line in your marriage, it is almost impossible to avoid feeling guilty about divorce. For many, divorce remains a shameful public admission of defeat—a failure of the vow to be a faithful and loving husband or wife until “till death us part.”
Marriage is a binding contract from religious, moral, and evolutionary perspectives. However, is it still binding in today’s world of individualists and atheists? Surprisingly, even non-religious people find divorce a highly shame-inducing event because society has sacralized marriage and surrounded it with many irrational convictions and taboos.
Yet getting married or divorced has gradually gotten disconnected from religion and morality. We can observe growing divorce rates because people are no longer forced to remain in unhappy marriages if they don’t want to. But does it alleviate the stigma associated with divorce?
Even though public acceptance of divorce has been on the rise, divorcees continue to experience shame. It turns out that it is rather difficult to wave off divorce shame as something irrelevant in today’s individualistic world.
How come people accept divorce but continue to label divorcees as failures? Read our article to why and find out how to neutralize the shame of divorce.
Public Opinions Regarding Divorce
Many people labor under the misapprehension that marriage is a sum of effort equal for everyone. They do not think that those who decided to get a divorce know better. They do not consider that variables are different in each case.
They forget that whereas marriage requires two people, divorce requires only one, and you can mend nothing if your partner is against it. Their belief is, if I could make it work, you should too.
At that, they do not account for the price they pay for their persistence and the consequences to their families. The amount of their suffering can be hidden from their consciousness, or they can justify it, as long as they keep the semblance of a stable family.
Nevertheless, such people easily toss around tropes like “people used to stay married in the past and they all were fine,” or “you need to give more effort,” or “it is just a phase,” or “you want too much if you want it to be perfect,” or even the most manipulative, “Have you thought about your kids?”
Online shamers do not restrain themselves in expressions under any article discussing divorce and its repercussions. Without knowing any circumstance from a stranger’s life, they are ready to give advice and recommend staying together for the sake of God.
Intentionally or inadvertently, people pass their judgment on divorce all the time. “Such a gorgeous husband of hers. She’s a fool to let a man like that go.” “Many wish they could have a wife like her! How could he be so stupid!” “You were perfect together!” “If you want to be happy in your marriage, work on it!” “Being alone is terrible, so hold on to your marriage.” It goes on endlessly.
By good-humoredly saying, “Try this therapist,” “It's better for you to spend money on a joint vacation than family law attorney services,” or “We went through tough times, too. You'll get over it,” people are, in fact, hiding their own insecurities. They cannot imagine being alone.
They do not want to confront their feelings of unhappiness and despair. They believe that getting a divorce is a sign of weakness and acknowledgment of one’s failure.
People with more robust self-esteem can shake off unwanted advice and see through pretense and hidden sentiment. However, divorcees who are more vulnerable and less confident cannot say or think in response, “it is you who are disappointed with the state of your marriage but do nothing to fix it,” or “out of envy and fear, you want to dampen my aspirations for a better life.” It is they who struggle with stigma.
We live in a time when moral and ethical norms have relaxed to the point that a growing number of people believe it is senseless to remain in a miserable marriage.
People would get a divorce even in times when the Church prohibited it. Remember Henry XVIII, who established the Church of England and became its Head in order to get married as many times as he wanted. Or Edward VIII (weird repetition of the number eight in case of royal divorcees, huh?), who abdicated the throne to marry a commoner, Wallis Simpson.
More people get a divorce now that the pressure of religion has gotten weaker, and there are many more examples around, from royalty to Hollywood celebrities to ordinary people.
However, divorce rates are not skyrocketing, as it would be logical to suggest. People indeed grew more favorable towards divorce, as statistics shows. According to the 2017 Gallup survey, moral acceptability for divorce has grown since 2012. In the 1950s, only 53% of U.S. adults supported the idea of divorce.
In 2017, it was 76% of Americans, though more for non-religious than for the very religious (85% and 51% respectively).
In many aspects, divorce rates depend on age, class, and education level. For women, divorces are more common in the early and late 20s than in the late 30s. U.S. Census Bureau of 2011 reports the divorce rates for women in the United States are 36.6% for ages 20 to 24, 16.4% for ages 25 to 29, and 13.6% for ages 30 to 39.
Meanwhile, college-educated US adults are less likely to divorce than the rest of the population. The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia reports the divorce rate for the college-educated is 11% compared to almost 37% of the non-college-educated US population.
These numbers suggest that Americans have begun to see marriage and divorce differently. At the same time, everyone who went through a divorce can attest that society is never indifferent towards other people dissolving their marriages and often invokes such negative emotions as divorce guilt and shame in divorcees.
It creates a paradoxical situation where people accept divorce, but the stigma associated with it has not diminished.
Regarding divorce, society is now in a transient stage where attitudes are favorable, but stigma remains firmly in place.
And it is inconsistent because people are taught in school to correct their mistakes. Does this mean that the mistake of choosing the wrong person or being unable to resolve interpersonal differences is not allowed to be rectified?
Marriage is surrounded by cultural norms (everyone has a soul-mate), religious convictions (“It is not good for the man to be alone”), and practical reasons (it is easier to keep one household and bring up children together).
We understand that humanity has a history where it is sensible for many families to stick together and bear with each other’s differences for the sake of the greater good. On their own, individuals would not survive.
However, now in urbanist environments, where women are increasingly independent and can provide for themselves, and the elderly can live long on their pensions with assisted care, society can afford more individualism. And divorce is a manifestation of it.
Nowadays, many people see a lot of sense in serial monogamy. Since the once large many-generational household has reduced to a nuclear family, it makes sense to take personal preferences and individual happiness over an ephemeral ‘greater good.’
Meanwhile, not everyone reacts the same way to these changes. Reactions to those individual choices vary. Relationships can get disrupted. Friendships can get lost.
Upon learning that someone got divorced, people can change their opinion of him or her. They can stop inviting him or her in fear that the ‘disease of divorce’ will spread further.
Research reveals that the stigmatization of divorced people is common because they are seen as ‘incomplete’ and ‘failed.‘
Many factors determine people’s attitudes toward someone’s divorce. If you are female, you should tread cautiously as divorced women are still frowned upon in some social groups.
The 2016 study “Stigma and Divorce: A Relevant Lens for Emerging and Young Adult Women?” by Varda Konstam and colleagues reveals that divorced women were either perceived as “independent” and “successful” or as “failures and social outcasts.”
As a result, many people who decided on this critical step in their life often feel guilt over divorce and their divorced status.
Shame as an Evolutionary Adaptation
Evolutionary biology explains that all emotions are adaptations and have been necessary for survival. That is why it is not good for human health to suppress emotions and think that you need to express only positive feelings.
The 2015 study “Shame Closely Tracks the Threat of Devaluation by Others” carried out by Daniel Sznycer and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara, confirms that shame is an important, socially valid emotion that evolved as a defense against being devalued by others.
When people lived in big groups, it was critically important to be favorably valued by others. If you are highly-valued, your welfare is important for the group, and it ensures your survival.
Therefore, every individual was interested in keeping their reputation clean and protected from negative information that could adversely affect it and result in social devaluation and exclusion. That is a mechanism of shame development.
As soon as the individual realizes that there is a prospect of negative information spreading, it invokes shame. Upon feeling shame, the individual has an acute sensation that suggests what occurrences can lead to devaluation by others.
But how come this evolutionary underpinning for shame is applied to divorce? Why do many people still feel a sense of guilt from divorce?
In the book Sacred Cows: The Truth About Divorce and Marriage, Danielle Teller, MD, and Astro Teller, Ph.D., point out that the combination of religious notions, moral qualms, and practical reasons regarding marriage and divorce create grounds for misinformation and irrational beliefs.
A large number of Americans believe that to get a divorce is to violate God’s rules. Others think that by divorcing, they go against their ‘soul-mate,’ even if their spouse eagerly supports the idea of divorce.
Many people are confident that the divorce rate is on the rise. Others argue that children are irreparably damaged by their parents’ separation.
In their book, the Tellers address false cultural assumptions surrounding divorce that they aptly call ‘Sacred Cows’ (a tongue-in-cheek rhyme with ‘sacred vows’). Those Sacred Cows, or conventional wisdom and irrational convictions regarding divorce, are responsible for the shame and guilt of divorce people often feel.
The authors single out a list of Sacred Cows and what they represent.
The Holy Cow represents an idea that marriage is sacred and good, and divorce is vile and bad. This should be believed and requires no evidence.
The Expert Cow represents the idea that any issue can be corrected with therapy and hard work in a marriage. Try harder, and you will remain married forever.
The Selfish Cow represents the idea that only selfish people divorce. Put the greater good over your petty individual interests like self-esteem and happiness.
The Defective Cow stands for the opinion that those who divorce must be defective in some major way if they cannot save their marriage. It is also responsible to grill single people for what is wrong with them and why they are not married.
The Innocent Victim Cow tirelessly argues that divorce irreparably harms poor kids’ lives, but they forget to mention how children are ‘irreparably damaged’ by living with parents who hate each other.
The One True Cow is the ‘soul-mate’ mentality favored by many where people find their love once and for all, and if your relationship has gone wrong, then your ‘true love is not true after all.
The Other Cow stands for the idea that people should not break up to get together with a new partner.
Given how stressful divorce is (ranked second after the death of a partner and ahead of imprisonment), no one needs additional pressure from society. Usually, societal pressure does not change the fact that people want to divorce. They are merely feeling guilty for wanting a divorce and are ashamed of their desire to change their lives.
How Guilt After Divorce Impacts You
It is known that divorced people can experience the effects of stigmatization. They can notice changes in social acceptance and get limited access to financial and social resources.
Finding themselves stereotyped, such stigmatized individuals notice a negative impact on their self-esteem and confidence. Also, they avoid getting mental health services when they need them.
Sometimes divorced people can find themselves discriminated against. For example, sometimes divorced women have difficulties renting an apartment because the landlord does not need ‘drama’ with ex-husbands and does not believe rent will be paid regularly.
Apart from overt discrimination, stigma can reveal itself through stereotypes and prejudice. Often all three components of stigma are played out by the individual. For example, being aware of certain stereotypes about divorced people, the individual starts thinking negatively and acts it out through discriminatory behavior against them.
A Lot of Stigma is Self-Inflicted
Additionally, stigma can be internalized. It means that your divorce affects the way you look at yourself. Through self-stigmatization, people start labeling themselves with bad words, scolding themselves for wrong actions, and believing they failed in a major way.
In the study “Stigma and Divorce,” Konstam and colleagues interviewed divorced women and found out that some had internalized self-stigma. They were so afraid that other people would publicly shame them that they tried to hide the fact that they were divorced. For example, they did not mention their divorces in their profiles on dating sites.
Francine, 35, says that she clearly over-thought the whole ‘prejudice thing’ around her divorce as she had never had any negative remarks from others, whereas she fretted over it constantly.
Maureen, 31, says she was so embarrassed by her divorce that she did not want to tell her friends about it. At that, her friends were very supportive of her.
Some women agree that their self-stigma is ‘ridiculous,’ but nevertheless, it rules many of their actions.
Jennifer, 27, does not want her divorced status to affect her fiancée. She thinks that he will be pitied for marrying a divorced woman.
Overall, the women from that study agreed that they hardly ever met stereotyped and prejudiced behavior from others.
In particular, Carmela, 37, says that people often tell her that they would never have thought of her as divorced with three children. Nor does she think of herself like this.
Thus, it is possible not to stigmatize divorced people if they settled down well and are not in trouble because of it.
In other words, public stigmatization can vary, whereas self-stigma can significantly affect well-being and self-esteem.
Act with Logic
Now it is obvious how important personal convictions are. If divorced people can internalize stigma even having never come across public shaming for being divorced, the Tellers in Sacred Cows suggest the best defense is logic.
If you have divorce guilt under the pretext of you being a ‘failure,’ or ruining ‘God’s plan for yourself,’ dealing a terrible blow to your family and other irrational assumptions, ask yourself some questions.
Question your assumptions until you get to the bottom of each of them. You will probably see nothing wrong or nothing bad left when you peel down to the core of an assumption.
For example, if you curse yourself for letting love die in your marriage, ask yourself what lies at the center of your marriage contract. Did you intend to love each other till ‘death do you part,’ or did you expect to stay together even if you no longer love each other? You possibly cannot believe that it is possible to love one person for your whole life, can you? If you choose to stay together not because of love but for practical reasons, now is the time when the practical reason drove you to dissolve the marriage.
There is also a powerful argument about a greater public good. People may sincerely believe that with no marriages, society will crumble. As was said earlier, divorce rates are not high enough to threaten the solidity of society.
On the other hand, following this logic, the countries with the lowest divorce rates should be, at the very least, wealthier than countries with higher divorce rates. However, if we compare the social and economic development levels of European countries and Arabic countries, we will see that this hypothesis does not stand.
For example, Libya has low divorce rates and high marriage rates but ranks as the 56th wealthiest country. Whereas Sweden’s divorce rate is ten times higher, and it ranks as the 13th wealthiest country.
As soon as you unravel each conviction, you will see that it is based on clichés and platitudes. Shame and guilt glued them together, but you can shake them off on your own or with some help from a therapist.
Go into Therapy
One proven way of dealing with divorce guilt is to seek help from a professional therapist.
The main difficulty with self-inflicted shame is that it is often manifested unconsciously and automatically. It means that it is difficult to access your self-stigma through reflection.
You will continuously think that you are fine and understand that it is ok to divorce, but unconsciously you will continue to think of yourself in a stereotypical and discriminatory way.
As a result, you continue to feel ashamed and embarrassed because of your ‘failed’ marriage, and you are unable to change your behavioral patterns. Everything associated with divorce is too painful, and you avoid discussing it.
Meanwhile, a therapist is skilled to get to your unconscious and help you deal with internalized stigma.
Even without or before seeking the help of a therapist, you can carry out a self-diagnostic procedure. Have you tried to hide your divorce from some people? Have you felt embarrassed by your divorce?
Many people do not think that they self-inflict shame, but they admit that they feel ashamed by their divorce and fear that others will judge them negatively. These are indications of self-stigma.
It does not mean that you cannot hide your divorce from whomever. No one says you are obliged to tell everyone about your divorce. However, a willingness to hide it can be a telltale sign of self-stigma.
An experienced therapist will help you work through the emotions associated with your divorce without inflicting harm on yourself.
Another important aspect that a therapist can help with is self-narrative.
In an attempt to protect self from public stigma, divorced people often reject conflicting parts of their identity. That is where a therapist’s assistance is extremely helpful because a mature adult is capable of holding complex and contradicting narratives.
As people are complex human beings, events of their lives can hardly ever be explained in simple terms. You should steer away from the simplistic description of your reality.
For example, if you think along the lines of “I divorced because I am a failure and a bad person,” this is a primitive description that explains nothing and only judges and condemns.
Meanwhile, as soon as divorced people are able to create layered narratives of self, it is a sign that they have accepted various parts of self and feel good about themselves.
Thus, a therapist’s goal is to integrate the event of divorce into your life without negatively affecting your self-esteem and self-acceptance.
While some divorcees are wallowing in shame and guilt, others have started a new trend – divorce selfies. Social media launched the #divorceselfie tag.
People post their selfies taken before, during, or post-divorce. Some of them are funny, some awkward, and some level-headed where people write that they are thankful to each other for the years spent together, the children raised, and do it without regret and anger.
Many divorcees out there wear their divorce as a badge of honor – they did not want to live in misery and see nothing wrong in acknowledging it.
Acknowledge your courage. Starting a divorce takes a lot of courage. In contrast, cultural clichés encourage people to stay in miserable marriages for the sake of shared assets and earnings, children, religion, and the greater good. It takes a lot of inner strength to come out publicly with your need to separate and start a new life.
Tune out self-shaming. Stop ruminating about your faults and regrets. Do not think of yourself negatively. Say nice and thankful words to yourself. Surround yourself with support and cut off contacts with people who stigmatize your decision to divorce.
Find a reliable therapist. Even if you are doing great, talking to a therapist from time to time will keep you grounded and reflexive. However, if you are struggling with feelings of divorce shame, it can lead to depression and apathy. Seek professional help immediately. It is better to stay in contact with your therapist throughout the whole divorce process.
No longer are we a primitive society, yet we use the same adaptive emotions that originated during the times of prehistoric people. Emotions stay unchanged while society slowly evolves.
Therefore, it is useless to waste your energy on lamenting about why society is changing so slowly: divorce acceptance is at an all-time high while stigmatization remains firmly in place. It is possible to analyze an emotion post-factum after you have experienced it.
Shame has many aspects and governs both our individual lives and social aspects. The same event of divorce can produce different degrees of shame in its participants and invoke varying reactions from other people, from reproaches to support.
Many religious people condemn divorce, but do they remember the passage in the Bible, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
If you notice that you self-inflict shame for divorce automatically, what can you expect from other people? They also automatically experience their emotions and act on them in many instances.
If you feel stigmatization by other people, realize that you cannot influence them, but you can work with your own assumptions and attitudes.
Refuse to pay the emotional cost of divorce imposed on you by other people. Focus on taking care of yourself and your children. Keep asking questions to get to the bottom of cultural conventions and irrational convictions.