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Letting Go of the “Till Death Do Us Part” Myth

A pledge to “love one another till death do us part” has been a part of marriage rituals for centuries. The truth of the matter is, in the twenty-first century, many marriages end in divorce, despite pledges of eternal love on the marriage altar. There are a lot of negative consequences to holding onto this “marriage is forever” myth; but cherished myths are hard to dispel.

When I told people I was writing marriage ceremonies that acknowledged the possibility of divorce back in the early 1990’s, people basically told me I was crazy. There was kind of a “kill the messenger” attitude towards anybody who insisted on pointing out that it’s impossible to predict whether or not any given marriage will end in divorce. In the twenty-five years that have elapsed since I wrote the first edition of this book, the divorce rate has increased enough to force people to be a little more willing to acknowledge the possibility of divorce. However, I still think I am a bit of a “lone ranger” in my quest to actually mention the possibility of divorce in marriage ceremonies. Let me present my argument for this “outlandish” idea of discussing divorce at the time of marriage. I believe that addressing the issue of divorce as part of marriage ceremonies accomplishes two important goals:

  1. It helps remove the (often undeserved) stigma associated with divorce.

  2. It helps put people in a healthier “mindset” during their marriage. It encourages people to give some thought along the way as to how they will deal with all the logistical complexities of divorce if they are faced with it.

The stigma associated with divorce has religious roots. If the Bible is interpreted strictly, it prohibits divorce. Obviously, in the last several decades churches have become more tolerant of divorce. The government likewise granted acceptance of divorce when “no fault divorces” were instituted in the 1960’s. So, in theory, the churches and the government have declared divorce to be acceptable. Why then is there still so much guilt and shame regarding divorce? I would propose that most of the stigma associated with divorce today stems from the contention that divorce is caused by some kind of personal lack in one or both partners. There are certainly many divorces that are caused by a lack of good relationship skills, a lack of commitment or perseverance, or other mental health problems. Another common cause of divorce is making a poor choice of whom you marry. People who are emotionally scarred from their upbringing often marry the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, and then sadly discover that no amount of hard work can make the marriage happy.

It is always sad to see marriages end for these kind of preventable reasons. If these were the only causes of divorce, it might make sense to allow the stigma regarding divorce to remain. It would make sense to discourage people from divorcing and assist them in resolving the emotional or commitment problems that are destroying their marriages (and to try and help people make better choices regarding whom they marry.) As a mental health professional, I most certainly think as a society we should do everything we can to help people avoid “preventable” divorces.

However, I firmly believe that not all divorces fall into this “preventable” category. I conclude that there is a whole other class of divorces: divorces that are caused by sociological factors. These divorces have nothing to do with any kind of personal lack in either partner and therefore deserve no stigma. Let me outline these sociological causes for divorce.

Two important factors which have contributed to the increase in divorce are the increased life expectancy and the emergence of effective birth control. The custom of lifelong marriage was established when the average life span for human beings was well under fifty. The average life expectancy is now somewhere around seventy-five. This means that the number of years a couple has to remain together in order to have a lifelong marriage has greatly increased by as much as twenty-five years! The longer people live, the more likely they are to change as individuals, and this may lead them to grow in very different directions and become unable to remain compatible as marriage partners. In addition, up until a few decades ago, people spent their entire married lives raising children, verses the modern day norm of having the children raised by the age of 45 or 50, and still having twenty to thirty years of life ahead. Couples are much more likely to divorce when children are not involved because they do not have to weigh the negative effects on their children in making the decision to separate.

This brings me to another factor which contributes to the increased divorce rate. A substantial percentage more homogeneity than you do today, in terms of values and lifestyles. Our culture has become very diverse. There are radical feminists and traditional housewives, born again Christians, Zen Buddhists, and those who of marriages today do not include children, for a variety of reasons: concerns about overpopulation, infertility, and simply a greater acceptance by our culture of the choice to not parent. Childless couples can base their decision to remain married, or divorce, solely on the basis of the personal satisfaction with the relationship.

Another factor contributing to the increase in divorce is simply that human beings have become increasingly diverse in their values and lifestyles over the past several decades. If you took a cross section of the population of the United States, before the cultural revolution of the 1960's, you would have found a lot more homogeneity than you do today, in terms of values and lifestyles. Our culture has become very diverse.

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