None of us think, when walking down the aisle to pledge life-long devotion to our one true love, that we will one day wind up on the wrong side of that tenacious 50 percent divorce divide. Much of the shock of a breakup is the insult it is to our expectations. And even the most sophisticated and seasoned of us, deep down inside holds out for the hope of living happily ever after. Falling short of this collective ideal is not only terribly painful, but can also be deeply shameful as well.
According to former Columbia University professor and cultural anthropologist, Ruth Benedict, shame differs from guilt in that guilt is something we are likely to feel when we violate our own core values, disturbed that something we have done is fundamentally bad and wrong. Shame, however, is something we feel when we have violated the external rules and expectations that society has placed upon us, leaving us feeling as though who we are is fundamentally bad and wrong.
As modern and worldly as most of us are, we collectively still cling like barnacles to our fairy tale aspirations, as well as to our covert assumption that if a romantic relationship ends for any reason other than one or both people die, that that relationship is a failure. Yet the myth of happily ever after was actually created when the life span was less than 40 years of age. And as much as we all love riding off into sunsets, it may be time to revisit the standards to which we hold ourselves and others accountable when it comes to dating, mating and marriage.
Dr. Helen Fisher, professor at Rutgers University and renowned relationship anthropologist reports that serial monogamy has now become the new norm, suggesting that most of us will have two to three significant relationships in our lifetimes. Just as it was once the norm to meet and marry your one true love, it's now just as normal to not mate for life. With over 40% of first marriages, 60% of second marriages and 70% of third marriages ending in divorce, maybe we need to start recognizing it as normal to change our primary partners through our various stages of life? In an age where we up-level just about every aspect of our lives to keep pace with our ever-evolving life conditions--- our work environments, sleeping habits, child-rearing practices, workout routines and diets--perhaps we should also consider up-leveling our outdated and overly simplistic models for romantic love. Putting aside our escapist fantasies of the lives we wish we were living, in favor of a more wholehearted vision that is relevant to the lives that we are living.
A recent New York Times article reports that for the first time in recorded human history more people over 50 are divorced than widowed. It's my hope that we can begin a conversation about how to end our romantic unions with decency, respect and honor rather than assume them to be failures and slink away with our tails between our legs. Rather than define the value of our relationships by the overly simplistic question, "How long did it last?" that we instead begin asking questions like, "How did I expand my capacity to give and receive love in that relationship?" or "What beauty and goodness were created as a result of that union?" and "What have I learned about love that I can now apply moving forward?"
It's my theory that inside of the happily ever after myth and our collective assumption of failure, that we never actually learned how to complete our intimate unions in a way that allows us to do so with dignity, honor, respect and yes....even love.
Given that the majority of us will experience one or two major breakups over the course of our lifetimes, learning to consciously uncoupling so that we and those we love can live happily even after, may just be the next stage of our collective evolution.
Katherine Woodward Thomas, M.A., MFT is a national bestselling author, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of the upcoming book, Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After (Harmony, Sept. 22, 2015). For more information please go to ConsciousUncoupling.com