The other night a friend of mine confessed he was thinking of getting a divorce. After hearing his reasons why and finding them plausible, I bluntly asked him what was holding him back.
"Really?" he quipped. "Because I don't want to ruin my life. Not yet, anyway."
And, hey, I get it. Divorce gets a bad rap. It's frequently billed as the ultimate example of failure in life -- personal, romantic and familial. And a lot of those who've been through it refer to it with a tough swallow, advising you to never even think of going there.
But I'm here to defend it.
Yes, I said it: Divorce can be a wonderful thing.
Let's not get carried away: I'm not recommending it as a primary goal in life. Nor am I saying it should be the first option when a marriage hits a rough patch. My position is simply that sometimes divorce can actually be a healthy new beginning -- not just for the two parties divorcing, but for their kids, too, and for relationships with in-laws, friends, co-workers and everyone else affected by the warring couple.
I say all this because my parents got divorced. In my opinion, it was the best thing that ever happened to our family. My parents' marriage was never hostile or abusive, but it was rife with incompatibilities and differing priorities, including huge disagreements on crucial subjects like politics, money and parenting. When they divorced after nearly 20 years of marriage, it was years overdue.
I was terrified of it happening to my family at the time. I had been listening to the escalating discord between my parents for years and knew where it could be heading. I spent many nights in bed hoping we'd dodge that awful fate -- the stigma of being a divorced family, as if there were something defective about us all. That we -- all of us -- were fallen, never to rise again.
But when it finally happened -- much to my surprise -- things began getting better almost immediately.
For the first time, everyone was finally being honest about what was going on and how they felt. It was the late '80s; honesty wasn't so popular yet. It was all about a slick veneer. And from the outside, things looked great. We led a nauseatingly-privileged, white, upper-class existence. My two brothers and I were A-students, and all five of us were extremely athletic. Most of my friends and neighbors thought we were living the American Dream™.
But inside the house it was another story. Things were always tense, frustrated, uncomfortable. My dad was a stressed-out doctor who had a substantial anger-management problem, and his outbursts had us all living under a cloud of fear. We were all hiding from him and each other. My brothers, mother and I learned to just shut up and never express ourselves. Slowly my mother began to withdraw into herself, hiding the opinions she knew he'd disagree with just to keep up a false semblance of harmony. Family dinners were uncomfortable and filled with awkward silence. I longed for them to be over so I could head over to my friends' houses, to join families that actually laughed and seemed to enjoy each other's company.
While my mother would later confess she delayed getting a divorce as long as possible to avoid making things tough for us kids, it really just led to a bigger problem -- letting her kids grow up in a dysfunctional household. Finally she realized it wasn't going to improve and pulled the plug.
And in many ways, it was the change we all needed.
The divorce was by no means an instant cure, but within the first year, even though there was more arguing, the honesty amongst us all was infinitely preferable to the years of living in angry silence. Not only did my mother and father finally get everything out on the table, but my brothers and I threw our frustrations into the ring, too -- not only with our parents, but with each other. We thought, hell, we're already a "broken home," no point in holding back now. We all threw away the filter and learned what each and every one of us really thought of each other. We all began communicating more, being open about our feelings and taking a look at what really defines happiness and happy relationships. And I genuinely believe the transformation led me to my eventual careers in writing, teaching and music.
So while most of the world still sees divorce as if a disease to avoid catching at all costs, I was very much "saved" by my parents' split. And they became better people as a result of it, too, conceding their mistakes and both going on to healthier second marriages. I've seen dozens of my friends go through a similar process, where, though they were terrified of divorce at the time, are infinitely happier now, and can see how mismatched they once were. There's a continued shaming of divorce in America -- partly due to religion, partly to the general notion that we should commit to someone for life, for better or worse -- and I think it's a straitjacket that can often destroy lives if not escaped and cast aside.
I don't pretend to imply divorce is always a better solution, nor am I saying it will be pain-free.
And yes, I think people should fight to save their marriages, and to continually work on themselves in the spirit of personal improvement. I've seen plenty of marriages avert what seemed like a certain death spin through therapy or improved communication.
But if you're considering it yourself, maybe -- and only you can know if it's true of your own marriage -- the only way you and your kids can truly end up in a healthier place is by hitting the "eject" button.
To those who think divorce might be nothing other than a tragic end to a once glorious and unstained moral resumé, here's what one of my best female friends (who got divorced herself a few years ago and has never been happier) always says to the recently split-up:
"Congratulations! I'm so happy for you!"
Come on in. The water's fine.
This piece was originally run on the Good Men Project.