Did you know that today is ‘Divorce Day’, aka one of the busiest days of the year for divorce lawyers? Neither did I until I started researching this article – but divorce has certainly been on my mind regardless (despite the fact I am not even engaged, never mind married). 2021 was a year when we were all forced to think about divorce in a big way: whether as a major theme of Adele’s comeback album or after the public dissolution of mega celeb couples like Kim and Kanye.
And while divorce has always – and rightfully so – been depicted as something tragic and life-altering, last year saw something of a shift. The pain was still there, of course, but we are also being reminded that there really is life after divorce, that on the other side of a marriage can be a string of career highs à la Adele or some much-needed new romance à la Kim and her surprise pairing with Pete Davidson. It's clear that leaving behind a relationship that isn't good for us can only be a positive thing – a chance for us to reclaim our time and reach better emotional and mental health.
By now, there’s an understanding that divorce isn’t really something to be ashamed of – it’s just a fact of life. In the UK, it’s estimated that 42% of marriages are expected to end in divorce and it’s no secret that plenty of marriages won’t be a case of “’til death do us part”. And maybe due to a resulting cautiousness, millennials are significantly less likely to be married compared to other generations: a 2018 US study suggested that 46% of 25 to 37 year-olds in this bracket were married, compared to 57% of Gen X and 67% of Early Boomers at the same age.
But while marriage definitely seems to be on the decline among younger populations, it doesn’t seem to be dying out altogether. After two years of lockdown, this year plenty of us will be receiving lots of wedding invites as couples look to finally have the big bash of their dreams. The #marriage hashtag has 25.7 billion views on TikTok and, similarly, there are 221 million results when you search it on Instagram – suggesting that digitally-savvy generations like Gen Z and millennials are throwing (and chronicling) their own picture-perfect weddings with gusto.
But why exactly does this generation continue to glamourise and aspire towards marriage when they’re already clued up on how common divorce is? The answer might surprise you. Speaking to relationship expert and author, Sam Owen, she explains that these younger attitudes about marriage and divorce are grounded in a sense of realism and acceptance – but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their hopefulness.
“Millennials are more easily accepting of divorce and hopeful [whereas] older generations can be more distressed and pessimistic about what the future holds,” Sam says. “When millennials hear the news of someone’s divorce, they are sympathetic but also happy that the divorcee is free of something that wasn’t good for them. They more easily and frequently offer empowering words to suggest the person will find love again.”
Moreover, Sam, who has worked with brands like Hinge and Netflix, explains we also benefit from more of an awareness of unhealthy relationship patterns, making them more likely to put their emotional wellbeing first, above a marriage which isn’t working. “There's an understanding that it’s better to be happy and healthy and single than be in a relationship that is making a person deeply unhappy and/or unhealthy,” explains Sam. “They are more aware of toxic relationships and that they shouldn’t have to endure them, rather than what older generations often did which was just ‘put up and shut up’, and I’m glad the younger generations are less likely to feel trapped, consciously or subconsciously.”
It seems that, nowadays, marriage is framed less as a social expectation and more of a personal choice, one which you should feel empowered to accept, reject or shape into your own preferred mould depending on your wants and need. At least speaking to Ana* and Kai, who both got married and then divorced in their twenties, seems to back this up – both explaining that divorce wasn’t the end of their happiness but a step along the way.
“Marriage can be beautiful - you choose your next of kin”
For 32-year-old Ana, who got married to a man at 26 and divorced three years later, coming out as queer was one of the catalysts for her divorce – part of a process of growing apart from her ex-husband that also included coming to terms with some fundamental differences. “I realised at the end that we had very different views on marriage – for my ex it was something definitive and serious and I definitely didn’t take it as seriously, even though I did it very earnestly anyway,” Ana says.
While the marriage ultimately didn’t work for them both, Ana says that it hasn’t led her to lose faith in marriage as a concept, in fact, she still sees the beauty in the tradition. “I loved the wedding and the party and having all your community around you while you declare love for someone, I think it’s beautiful regardless of the governmental part of and whether you choose to have it in the official institutional way or not,” she says.
And while Ana is open to marriage again, the self-knowledge that divorce has given her is something she is grateful for – and now is one of the reasons she can see marriage through a specifically queer lens. “Marriage can be beautiful because you choose your next of kin and I could probably get married again. But also being divorced is quite liberating and gives you the understanding that we’re all humans and we can fuck up but life goes on.”
“Divorce has really helped me understand myself better”
Kai, the 25 year-old founder and creative director of My Lady Garden, met her ex when she was 19 – tying the knot with him two years later, after he was offered a job in the US. While the two were deeply in love at the beginning of their marriage, they ultimately began to want different things. “We were slowly turning into different people, and our relationship was starting to suffer. Debates on where we wanted to live, have children, our opinions on life started to differ and we weren't agreeing on things,” Kai explains.
However, it was when her then-husband asked to open their relationship – which Kai agreed to, in an attempt to repair their connection, that ultimately led to their break-up. “The open relationship was one of the major triggers that caused me to slowly disconnect, and feel rejected by my partner,” says Kai. “I threw myself into work, which led us to spend even less time together and eventually our relationship drove me to such a level of sadness that one day I just came home and said I couldn't do it anymore.”
Kai believes that her experience, while extremely difficult, has helped shape her in positive ways. “Divorce has really helped me understand myself better. Obviously, therapy has [also] helped with this, but [divorce] has opened up this new realm of knowing why and how I react to certain situations, and what I want from a potential partner,” she says.
Ultimately, her major takeaway from the experience is one that we could all benefit from implementing in our lives. “Divorce helped me realise that you have to be true to yourself, because it's really only you that is in charge of your happiness.”
From what she’s seen in her practice as a relationship coach, Sam explains that one of the main factors driving divorces for people in their twenties and early thirties is quite simply growing apart - as Ana and Kai both found out from first-hand experience. At this point in your life, where there is a great deal of self-discovery yet to be done, there is always the risk that the couple might begin evolving at different speeds or in different directions. According to Sam, this creates “distance and discontent where they suddenly don’t fit together anymore” which can’t always be overcome.
But while things don’t always work out, Ana and Kai are thriving in life after divorce. Coming out the other side, they – and women like them – are looking at divorce as an opportunity for growth, self-discovery and new horizons in love and life.
*Name has been changed
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