Many years ago when my husband Tim and I were splitting up, I was in the process of moving back into the first house we had bought together. The tenant who had been renting that house had moved out and I was spending my evenings painting the inside before moving my furniture.
Different friends had been stopping by each night -- some would just come by for beer and pizza, while others would pick up a paintbrush and pitch in for a while. Then there was Candice. Candice and I worked together, and she kept telling me she was going to come by, but each night she was a no-show. This pattern continued until I was done painting the house and had completely moved in. One Friday as we were leaving work for the weekend, she again mentioned how she was going to swing to see my new house. This time I called her on it.
"Candice, why do you keep saying that? It's no big deal if you don't come by. But don't keep saying that you're going to if you're not."
It was then that Candice put her cards on the table. She didn't want to come to my house because she was terrified that my divorce was contagious. At the time I dismissed her fear as being completely irrational. How could the fact that my marriage was ending have a negative impact on her marriage if her marriage was sound? Because I had never heard of the condition I didn't even recognize that my friend was suffering from Divorceaphobia. I just thought she was crazy.
As it turns out, there was something to both of our reactions. Research indicates that if someone in your social circle gets divorced it increases the likelihood that others within your social circle will follow suit. As Candice suspected, divorce can have a ripple effect; but as I suspected, it's not likely to affect a marriage that is solid to begin with.
In the wake of this research, news stories surfaced likening divorce to a disease. If your marriage was healthy it would be immune to the effects of a divorce with which you came into contact. But if your marriage was in a weakened or stressed condition, there was an increased likelihood that contact with a divorce might infect your marriage.
In this analogy, divorce is always the sickness and marriage always equates to health. If the folks in your social circle believe that staying married, no matter how miserably, is inherently better than getting a divorce then this analogy works for you. And if you subscribe to this belief, then it makes sense for you to be wary of people who are going through a divorce.
I believe a better analogy is this: Imagine you and a friend both had a chronic illness for which you thought there was no cure. Both of you lived your lives trying to manage this illness because you thought that was your only option. One day your friend told you that she was going to undergo a procedure designed to eradicate the illness. You thought this sounded risky and tried to talk her out of it. After all, you knew plenty of people who suffered from this chronic condition, but none of them had undergone this procedure. Your friend didn't listen to your appeals, and went ahead with the procedure anyway. Then, as time went on you noticed how much better your friend's quality of life was. You understood that living with the chronic illness wasn't your only choice. Finally, you decided to have the procedure yourself.
When I explained my theory to Candice, her reaction was like a transplant patient rejecting a mismatched liver. The notion that getting a divorce could somehow be better than staying married was completely inconsistent with her view of the natural order of things. In Candice's world, no matter how terrible your marriage was, divorce would always be worse.
Turns out divorce isn't the only thing that is contagious. By the time I was getting my next divorce (it was over a decade later so stop judging me) the condition from which Candice suffered had spread. This time I didn't encounter just one mom suffering from divorceaphobia -- I discovered an entire cluster.
Divorceaphobia stems from the tendency of some people to seek to identify a cause and then quickly assign blame to everyone else's misfortunes. This is the same tendency that causes someone to ask whether a person was a smoker upon learning of his cancer diagnosis. In this way, people seek to reassure themselves that as long as they do not make the same "mistake," they will not meet with the same fate.
There's no group more easily terrified than moms with young kids still under the roof. Moms generally strive to protect their families against any and all perceived threats. And when it comes to threats to the family, divorce is widely regarded as public enemy #1. As a result, if a mom discovers that you are going through a divorce, it may trigger the onset of divorceaphobia. Symptoms may include a strong showing of fear, loathing, judgment, and scorn, and a complete absence of caring or concern. Divorceaphobes often attempt to contain the threat they perceive you to pose to them by pigeon-holing you into one of the following personality types:
Contagious Callie. Like my friend Candice, moms who typecast you as Contagious Callie believe that divorce is a communicable disease and you are a carrier of this deadly divorce virus. Whether you were at fault for contracting it is irrelevant. The fact that you have it and it is contagious means they have to put you in social isolation. Technically you may still be alive, but socially you are completely dead to them.
Sinner Sandy. Woe be to anyone who is labeled Sinner Sandy. The divorceaphobes will not hesitate to cast the first stone -- and they will continue to pelt you until you retreat completely from their sight. Like many fundamentalists, divorceaphobes don't need actual facts -- they have already rendered judgment. God told them your divorce was nobody's fault but your own. Plus, even if your divorce weren't your fault (which it totally is), the mere fact that you are divorcing makes you a sinner. And even though you might be hurting, don't expect any compassion from these ladies. They don't subscribe to any of that "soft on crime" New Testament nonsense. You're unclean; so it's straight to hell with no last supper for you.
Ball-breaking Bianca. Even if you don't yet know exactly why your marriage unraveled, the divorceaphobes who typecast you as a Ball-breaking Bianca have it all figured out. You were such a bitch to your husband! These moms know that the real question isn't why you're getting a divorce, it's how your husband put up with you as long as he did. It's obvious how pushy you are. You were so busy climbing up the career ladder you didn't even notice that your marriage was going down the drain. No one could expect a husband to live with the likes of you for very long--unless he's no man at all. Face it: your divorce is no one's fault but your own.
Frumpy Frances. You want to know why your marriage failed? Those suffering from divorceaphobia can tell you -- or you could just look in the mirror instead. Those extra pounds and your plain Jane clothes? Two words: Not hot. Husbands don't want to come home to someone who looks like you. It's no wonder yours struck up that affair with the new hire at his office. Those with divorceaphobia know the number one rule of affair-proofing your marriage is to never let yourself go. You did and now you're paying the price. The divorceaphobes have reduced you to a cautionary tale that serves as motivational fuel to keep these terrified moms peddling as fast as they can while they sweat it out at the gym.
Another reason divorceaphobes shun you is that you are now single -- and probably dropping significant chunks of weight thanks to the Divorce Diet. Folks suffering from divorceaphobia believe that a single woman who is getting thinner by the minute is a siren to happily married husbands everywhere. That makes you a direct threat to all of these moms' marriages, no matter how amazing they insist their marriages are. (And they always insist their marriages are amazing.)
When you are trying to get through one of the toughest ordeals of your life and you suddenly become a social pariah and you have no idea why, it can do a real number on your self-esteem. Here's what you need to understand: If ever there were a time to bastardize a line from Seinfeld, it's now -- because now more than ever before, it truly isn't you; it's them. Moms who react to your divorce by demonizing you are operating from a place of fear. Although they might not realize it (and would never admit it even if they did) they are at some level very frightened about the state of their own marriages. But rather than taking an honest look inside their own houses, they'd rather make assumptions about what happened in yours instead.
Sadly, the only effective cure for divorceaphobia is for the divorceaphobe to experience a divorce of her own, which means her odds of beating the illness are roughly 50-50. Once you understand this, you'll know that it would be a waste of your time to try to convince a divorceaphobe that you are not a threat to her marriage. Instead, spend your time enjoying the company of friends you can trust; and invest your energy into cultivating new friends whose company you enjoy.
Before I sign off, let me give you a quick update on Candice. She never did stop by my house, but her marriage ended in divorce anyway. Her sacred union had been strong enough to withstand her husband's alcoholism, verbal abuse, and serial cheating. But my divorce apparently proved to be too destabilizing and her husband ended up running off with another woman. Without a dad there to fly into rages and smash things up, Candice and her kids became another grim single family statistic, forced to live out the balance of their years at home together in peace and quiet. Some days I just don't know how to live with myself.