In a widely circulated post, sociologist Lisa Wade addresses marriage and the “paradox of declining female happiness” and ponders why the media relentlessly tries to sell women on marriage when “Compared to being single, marriage is a bum deal for many woman [sic].” Wade asserts, “Accordingly, married women are less happy than single women and less happy than their husbands, they are less eager than men to marry, they’re more likely to file for divorce and, when they do, they are happier as divorcees than they were when married (the opposite is true for men) and they are more likely than men to prefer never to remarry.”
Instead of following the trajectory I expected, I find myself fitting into the demographic Wade describes. I was less happy in a difficult marriage than I was as a single woman. My husband broke my trust beyond repair and I filed for divorce. I am noticeably and exponentially happier to be single again. And despite my initial! adamant! protestations! to my divorce attorney that I had no interest in a new relationship or remarrying, I am happily reconsidering that stance.
The idea that single or single-again women are happier than married women flies in the face of prevailing wisdom and the relentless media messages Wade describes. However powerful the data, people seem wary of accepting the assertion that marriage begets a decline in women’s happiness—as if it is risky to believe some people are truly, significantly happier after a divorce. And if you’re happily divorced Mormon, fugeddaboutit. That doesn’t always compute. People seem unsure that they heard you right when you say that.
Why is there so much emphasis on avoiding single-again life? According to Mormon theology, marriage equals happiness in this life as well as the next. Divorce doesn’t fit into Mormon cultural training. It’s the opposite of what we’re taught to believe as teenagers, at church colleges such as BYU, or after entered the roiling waters of the post-college Young Single Adult scene.
One reason why divorce is particularly difficult for Mormons is that there’s a low cultural tolerance for failure. It’s not OK to fail at things that are believed to be within your power to fix. Fear of judgment about a failing marriage keeps many people suffering in silence. Or if they do come clean about marital problems or an impending split, sometimes their revelations are met with silence or abandonment. It’s complicated.
If there are problems in your Mormon marriage, you’re supposed to work hard and do everything in your power to save it. Just apply enough love, patience, selflessness, understanding, and prayer and it will get better through your concerted efforts. However, it’s a problem to assume there are one-size-fits-all solutions to healing a troubled marriage. This view supposes that the steps to fix a marriage are the same, whether you’re dealing with emotional or financial abuse, physical violence, infidelity, mental health issues, chronic illness, stress, bankruptcy, poverty, apathy, or evildoing.
It’s also daunting to face the judgment that can come at people contemplating divorce—if it’s so bad, why don’t you just leave? Or the impatience if you take longer to exit a bad situation than others believe it should take. Divorce also uses a lot of resources, some more readily available than others. If you seek assistance from church leaders, LDS bishops are not supposed to encourage couples to divorce even if they might personally believe it’s the best option. Additionally, LDS Church policies and practices make it so that divorced men are not “employed” in higher-ranking leadership positions. This means that the person to whom you turn for help or counsel is not likely to have any firsthand experience with navigating a divorce. It’s akin to seeking marital advice from a celibate Catholic priest. What expertise can he share on the topic?
For Mormons, it’s fundamentally transgressive to get divorced in a church that puts so much theological and social stock in marriage. It’s transgressive to give a different answer than the one people expect: that your divorce was a gift and a blessing and arguably the best thing to happen to you in years. It’s transgressive to tell people you’re happier after a life event that is widely considered a tragic failure. It’s transgressive to go “off script,” which is why I suspect so many people in difficult marriages hide their troubles and hope the situation will improve.
One of the most difficult things I finally acknowledged to myself—and eventually to others—was that my marriage was NOT WORKING. It was a difficult, conflict-riddled, abusive, and often unbearable nine years punctuated with a smattering of brighter moments, but not enough positives to offset the negatives. What made it worse: I hid the realities of my situation from nearly everyone I knew. I was embarrassed that I wasn’t “making it work,” that counseling with four different therapists had produced no discernable improvement, and that I had stayed years longer than I should have. When I first started “coming out” about the divorce, most people were supportive and kind; others reacted with various measures of surprise or pity or they backed away as if my uncoupling was somehow contagious. In some ways, it parallels the negative reaction toward people who express doubts about LDS Church doctrine or history. There is risk in disclosing one’s countercultural beliefs.
Eventually, I reached a point where I could no longer reconcile the public façade of “everything is fine!” with the misery I was experiencing in private. The shame of hiding my bad marriage and failing in my efforts to resuscitate it was unbearable, but I hid what was happening because that’s what Mormons do—endure to the end, put your shoulder to the wheel, and stoically go the extra mile. Mormons aren’t supposed to fail, let alone quit something as important as marriage—and they’re certainly not supposed to feel happier about it afterward!
As a result of my experiences, I shed the cultural belief that divorce is a fundamentally bad choice and avoidable if you just try hard enough to fix a broken union. I appreciate now how difficult it is to exit a marriage, divvy up a shared lifetime of assets, debts, and material possessions, resolve custody issues, and figure out the next chapter of life as a single-again person.
To clarify, my increased happiness in being single again doesn’t mean there was no heartache or loss connected with my divorce; there was. Other relationships changed due to the divorce—in-laws, professional colleagues, friends. Only one of my four step kids has stayed in contact with me. The process of getting divorced is arduous, draining, and expensive. Most divorced Mormons I know did not undertake their split lightly. Most stayed and tried to work on the relationship rather than bailing out. Couples with children had an even more complicated situation to untangle.
I wanted to contribute to this series on singles because I learned a great deal from exploring the other side of the coin in an essay I wrote for a forthcoming book, Baring Witness: 36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage edited by Holly Welker. I wrote honestly about my Mormon marriage, as did other contributors, and found the reality-based stories infinitely more interesting than and preferable to the carefully curated tales of perfect marriages we so often hear from the pulpit. I wanted to talk about what marriage was like in praxis, in the moments that were not highly polished, gushing, or intended for public consumption.
When it became clear that I would be legally single long before Baring Witness was published, I wrote a postscript for my essay and observed that discussions of Mormon divorce could easily fill another book. Gathering contributions and bringing that book into being is my next project.
Given that Mormon divorce statistics are not appreciably different from the divorce rate in the rest of the U.S., it’s surprising that Mormon divorce remains such an underrepresented, even taboo topic. Writing this article about becoming single again was a profoundly liberating and healing exercise. I’ve also learned a great deal from participating in a couple of support groups for soon-to-be single and divorced women. We’ve listened, mourned, comforted, and encouraged each other through the process. We’ve shared what we’ve learned and applaud each other’s successes. It takes a village to get through a major life event like a divorce. Through the community and commiseration in these support groups, I see that there is a much larger conversation to have—and one that our Mormon community truly needs.
My intention for a book of essays on Mormon divorce is to create the space for other divorced Mormons to share their stories, write about their experiences, and explore the complexities and peculiarities of Mormon divorce. Together, I believe we can make a valuable contribution to Mormon cultural studies and create a deeper understanding of those who have walked this path and have hard-earned wisdom to share.
If you would like to contribute a personal essay for consideration or want to know more about the Mormon divorce anthology project, please contact me via Facebook or Maryellen.robertson[at]gmail[dot]com.