Even in the hip, ultra-progressive borough of modern-day Brooklyn, NY, the demographic of parents on the preschool circuit skews traditional. With few exceptions, mothers and fathers (both heterosexual and gay) tend to be married to one another—bound together, perhaps in part, by the mutual wonder, exhaustion, and overwhelm that are the hallmarks of rearing young kids. After all, when spending a handful of years in triage mode, who has the luxury of evaluating lower-ranking concerns like the health of a romantic relationship?

But once the elementary school period dawns—and people begin finally resurfacing and resembling their pre-baby selves again—an interesting phenomenon occurs. Suddenly, word spreads that Hannah’s parents have parted ways. Conversations turn from curriculum towards gossip about which single dad has been spotted most recently, bare-chested, on Tinder. A cursory browse through the student-parent directory reveals a steadily increasing ratio of children being raised in two separate households—fifth grade, in particular, seems especially inhospitable to the nuclear family.

In other words: The honeymoon is over.

 STATE OF THE (DIS)UNION: A BRIEF HISTORY

Divorce is such a pervasive, buzzed-about and ever-present part of our social fabric that it can feel, at times, as if everyone’s doing it—or at least thinking about it. Statistically, we know that’s not actually the case: The well-worn data about 50 percent of all marriages ending in divorce no longer holds true—these days, it’s closer to around 40 percent, due to factors like people waiting longer and longer to get married. (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age for first marriages reached an all-time high in 2018 at 30 years for men and 28 years for women.)

And yet, there’s no denying the ubiquitousness of divorce—or its seismic impact. “Even though the rates are leveling out, they’re still high,” says psychologist Richard A. Warshak, PhD, author of Divorce Poison. “With 2400 divorces happening in the United States every day, nearly everyone we run into is apt to have had their life touched by it.” Indeed—and when we are confronted with it, we’re hit hard. “Relationships are the heart of life,” Warshak explains. “We want to learn everything about divorce that we can as a way of coping so we don’t get the rug pulled out from under us.”

As cultural institutions go, divorce is still a fairly recent addition. According to Ann Gold Buscho, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of the upcoming book The Parent’s Guide to Birdnesting (September 2020, Adams Media), it wasn’t until the 1950s that divorce became a viable option for the masses. “Historically, women had been financially dependent on men, and typically had a lot of kids to take care of,” Buscho says. “They couldn’t support themselves.” But once women joined the workforce in droves during World War II, they got their first true taste of independence. When their husbands returned to the home front, Busch says, “wives weren’t willing to go back to being barefoot in the kitchen.”

In the years that followed, the dawn of reliable birth control further helped shatter the status quo—people were no longer obligated to have large families that tied them down. Or stick with just one partner, for that matter. “Birth control helped facilitate extra-marital affairs,” Buscho notes.

Changes within the legal system also contributed to the growing popularity of divorce. “Prior to no-fault divorce laws, it was much harder to obtain one,” says Sarah A. Crabtree, PhD and LMFT, a family therapist and postdoctoral research associate at The Albert and Jessie Danielsen Institute at Boston University. In 1969, California passed the Family Law Act, which allowed a spouse to file for divorce by citing “irreconcilable differences”—rather than an overt misdeed—and other states followed suit. “It was a huge win for domestic violence professionals and feminists,” Crabtree says, “but it did raise concerns about the newfound fragility of marriage, since couples could now divorce over issues such as no longer feeling ‘in love.’”

Add that to people’s ever-growing life-expectancy, buoyed by rapid advances in modern science, and it’s no wonder that the prospect of “till death do us part” was suddenly up for reconsideration. “It’s huge to think that you’d marry at twenty and still want to be with that person at 90,” Buscho says. “Of course divorce is going to become more normalized when you live that long—people change!”

Which leads us to our current predicament, with slightly less than half of the married population ultimately throwing in the towel. How do we explain, though, why there are moments in time when divorces feel far more plentiful than that, and others when they’re relatively scarce? If you seem to be surrounded by the newly single, it’s probably not your imagination: There are certain life stages and seasons that usher in a wave of breakups. “Most of my divorcing clients are in their mid-thirties to mid-forties—their kids have become less dependent on them, and they’re coming up for air and ready to make changes,” Buscho says.

Those couples are likely grappling with the effects of their earlier parenting years spent in the proverbial weeds, which never got tended. “The cumulative stress of that stage can often strain a couple’s marriage to the point of it [eventually] ending,” Crabtree says. Another common spike in divorces tends to occur once people hit their fifties and sixties. Says Buscho, “By then their kids have left home, so they’re retiring and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. It’s called ‘The Grey Divorce.’”

 DIVORCE AND THE OUTSIDE WORLD

Whether we’re devouring all the dirt on the latest celebrity split or swapping secrets at book club, there’s no denying it: Other people’s breakups are an endless source of fascination and speculation. “There is some vicarious pleasure in it,” Buscho says.

But schadenfreude isn’t the only—or main—fuel for our curiosity. The real reason is that the dissolution of others’ relationships hits us close to home, literally. “It makes us confront our own feelings,” Buscho says. “When you see a friend getting divorce, it’s very scary, because you know it could happen to you.” It’s especially destabilizing if the news seemingly comes out of the blue sky. “When it’s a couple that everyone thought had their act together, it makes you wonder, ‘What things am I not seeing in my own marriage?’” Warshak notes. “It arouses anxieties.”

Which explains, then, why there’s a collective eagerness to “get to the bottom” of what really happened in a divorce. “People need to know that someone is at fault—it helps them understand and feel like they have a handle on it,” Buscho says. After all, knowledge is power. “The sense is, ‘The more I can learn about the problems and details, the better I will be at making sure this doesn’t happen to me,’” Warshak says.

Under the guise of compassion, we pepper the divorcing individuals with probing questions. “People’s inquiries are in part supportive, in part fact-finding, and in part to pat themselves on the back for not going through the same thing,” Warshak says. A natural—but unfortunate—byproduct is the inclination to take sides.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of us tend to stick with the horse we rode in on. “Most people line up behind their closer friends and blood relatives,” Buscho says. This impulse can seem unfair or even downright cruel to the individuals on the wrong end of the equation. Recalls Crabtree, “One woman told me she had come to terms with losing her spouse, but the ongoing grief she felt about losing her in-laws has caught her off-guard.”

Once lines have been drawn in the sand, it’s difficult for people to carry on having a positive relationship with both parties. “Mutual friends often feel conflicted about who to side with,” Crabtree says. “Trying to maintain relationships with both feels like a betrayal to one or both of the spouses.”

 Terry’s friends have begun avoiding her calls and texts. The initial swell of sympathy, interest and support that she received in the immediate wake of her separation has leveled off, and people have retreated back to the comfort of their own lives. Terry’s state remains fragile and unpredictable, and it’s not always possible or practical for the members of her inner circle to provide a shoulder to lean on. On a rough night, Terry may strand a confidante on the phone with her until 1 a.m. as she unleashes bottomless tears and vitriol for her ex. Or, when she’s in a more buoyant mood, Terry might enlist a wing-woman to accompany her to a local bar—despite the fact that her reluctant partner in crime still has to be up the next morning at 6 a.m. to pack school lunches. Although Terry’s friends want to be there for her, they’re finding that they simply don’t have the will or the stamina to join her on her emotional roller-coaster ride. 

PUBLIC BACKLASH

In a perfect world, divorce would be a time for loved ones to rally around a person in need. “When I got divorced, there was one friend who would always call me up and ask, ‘Do you wanna come?’ And it was the best possible thing,” Buscho says. “You should be getting support when you’re going through a divorce, because you’re going to need lots of it: Child care, school pick-ups, all the hands-on stuff.”

Regrettably, it doesn’t always play out that way. “The anxiety that people have about their friends’ divorces leads them to withdraw,” Warshak says. “There’s a sort of pulling back—like not inviting a divorced spouse to dinner parties as frequently. They think it’s subtle, but the person who’s being withdrawn from sees it.” The rejection feels highly personal, even though it’s quite the opposite. “Some people avoid friends going through divorce the same way that certain people don’t handle illness or dying well,” Warshak says.

The instinct to distance themselves could also stem from a desire to “protect their own”—i.e., to keep their family away from what’s perceived as a potentially volatile situation. “Parents may not want their children associating with the divorcing family as much, because they’d prefer to shield their kids from the conflict and tension,” Warshak says. “That’s very hard on the child who’s going through it, because now they’re dealing with both their parents’ divorce and not having their usual friends to fall back on.”

As for that well-worn adage about divorce being contagious? It may contain a grain of truth—but not in the way we imagine. “That theory only applies if someone’s marriage is already in trouble,” Buscho says. “If you’re in a very secure marriage, your friend’s divorce is not going to make you want one.”

Paranoia aside, we are inclined to draw general conclusions about divorce based on the examples around us. A divorce that ends up being a success story can be compelling—aspirational, even. “When we see someone go through a divorce and then thrive, it can lower the bar to entertaining it as an option,” Warshak says. “A husband might worry, ‘Gee, is my wife going to see her sister as a role model now and follow her example?’”

On the flipside, particularly rough divorces serve as cautionary tales. “If you’re surrounded by divorced families doing miserably—spending a fortune on lawyers, putting their children in therapy, struggling to cope—it will make you think twice about it,” Buscho says.

ANATOMY OF A DIVORCE

One of the biggest factors impacting how a divorce will play out is the specific cause or precipitating event. “The reasons definitely affect how quickly the couple will cope and how much they’ll be able to put the past behind them,” Warshak says. Are there duos out there who simply drift apart and then decide to go their separate ways? Sure, but they’re the exception to the rule. “Almost every divorce I see has been caused by some kind of betrayal,” Buscho says. “A lot of affairs, yes, but other betrayals as well, ranging from financial betrayal to gambling to addiction.”

Most garden-variety marital fissures—communication breakdowns, parenting differences, dissonant love languages—can potentially be tackled and improved with time and effort. But betrayal is a different animal. “It makes many people think that they cannot forgive or work through it,” Buscho says. And that goes for both sides: “The person who does the betraying feels terribly guilty and scared—but that guilt doesn’t last long enough, and it turns to anger and justification,” Buscho explains. “Meanwhile, the person who feels betrayed becomes more grief-stricken, depressed, or angry.”

In most cases, the final decision to move forward with divorce isn’t mutual. “90 percent of divorces are initiated by one person, not both,” says Steven M. Harris, Ph.D., LMFT, a professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota and co-author of Should I Try to Work It Out?. “Very seldom is it two people wanting it; it’s usually one who says, ‘I want to be done.’”

Unsurprisingly, divorce gets exponentially more difficult and complicated when kids are involved, and the couple is forced to continue interacting in perpetuity. “As one of my patients said, ‘In my divorce, I got rid of absolutely everything that was good—the sex, the friendship—and kept all the problems,’” Harris notes. “Issues with finances, disagreements about parenting—they’re all still there.”

Exactly how painful is divorce? The Journal of Health and Social Behavior ranks it as one of the most stressful life events, second only to the death of a loved one. “Divorce is a huge loss,” Harris says. “You wanted to spend the rest of your life with this person, and when that doesn’t happen, grieving is required.”

Part of the reason divorce is so derailing is that many of us are defined by our relationships, considering ourselves spouses or parents above all else. “Our identities are linked to our marital status, so if being married says something about me, so does getting a divorce,” Harris explains. “People look at it shamefully.” And although there are clearly millions of others in the same boat, it doesn’t seem that way at the time. “A lot of people feel very alone and ashamed, like nobody understands,” Harris says.

After all, even unhappy marriages serve as a constant, familiar touchstone. “Marriage is a glue that keeps you anchored—it grounds you and allows you to go through life feeling settled,” Warshak says. “When you’re divorcing, you lose that sense of home, and there’s a feeling of being at sea when you have to recreate yourself as a single person.”

Beyond coping with internal turmoil, there’s the external reaction to contend with—and the accompanying fear of social stigma. “Although we’ve certainly made progress on that front since the last century, the stigma still exists,” Warshak says. “But I think people do understand now that divorce may be a good decision for a family, and it doesn’t have to be a mark of shame.”

Although society is giving a gentler pass to divorcing couples, they may not be extending themselves the same courtesy; much of the judgment around divorce is self-imposed. “There is a sense that a divorce is a failure rather than another chapter in life,” Warshak says. “You think, ‘I wasn’t able to make this work, I’m embarrassed,’ and you assume that other people are usually judging you as harshly as you’re judging yourself, which is not usually the case.”

We’re even physiologically wired to suffer through divorce. Researchers who’ve delved into the neuroscience of romantic love (e.g., Fisher, Brown, Aron, Strong, and Mashek, 2010) have tracked the brain’s response to loss and rejection. They observed that the end of a relationship activates, among other areas, the parts of the brain that house our reward and survival systems. It turns out that we are—just like the pop song warned—addicted to love, as dependent on it as we would be to a substance like cocaine. So it follows, then, that when that drug is taken away from us, it can trigger obsessive, wildly out-of-control thoughts and behaviors.

Unfortunately, the frequently excruciating aspects of divorce are not short-lived. “It typically takes people one to two years to recover,” Buscho says. That might seem extreme, until you consider that divorce touches upon virtually every aspect of normal existence. Confirms Buscho, “Everything is in upheaval. Divorce brings about so many changes—and at a time when you’re also feeling rejected, angry, betrayed and terrified.”

With all of the pivoting required, it makes sense that divorce is a drawn-out event. “I don’t think there is much that isn’t touched by some amount of change,” Crabtree says. “There’s the obvious—who gets the house, who has custody of the kids, who pays alimony or keeps the bulk of the retirement account. But one spouse also needs to buy a new coffee maker. One may need to find a new synagogue. Friendships are tested, identities are challenged.” The mental load required to reinvent the wheel on a daily basis ends up being profoundly taxing. “Everything requires a decision and everything is new,” Harris says. “It’s like, ‘I used to not have to think about this, and now I do,’—and that’s around every corner.”

THE STAGES OF DIVORCE

Each divorce is destined to have its own, snowflake-like peccadillos. Still, the experts agree that there are certain phases that are shared by many—and virtually nobody emerges fully unscathed. “One thing that’s clear is that divorce is not a single event—it really is a process,” Warshak says. Here’s a breakdown of some of the common stops along the way.

WILL WE OR WON’T WE?: THE LIMBO PHASE

When contemplating divorce, many couples don’t go from zero to sixty—they start somewhere in-between. “One of the areas I’ve concentrated my research on is divorce decision-making—people trying to decide which direction to go,” says Harris. “Once you get into it, you start to realize that there’s this whole secret club of people who have been separated and don’t talk about it.” (In a study co-authored by Harris and Crabtree, they estimated that 6% to 18% of still-married couples have separated at some point during their marriage.)

This period can be an opportunity to work on and, sometimes, repair the marriage—but without forward momentum in either direction, it will become a state of purgatory. “The word ‘limbo’ gets used all the time,” Harris says. “The not knowing wears you down, until somebody gets sick of it and pulls off the Band-Aid.” Even if, at that point, divorce is the chosen path, the mere act of making the call can bring relief. “There’s a letting go of angst when a decision has been made,” Harris says.

THE “EVERYTHING IS GREAT AND I’VE NEVER BEEN HAPPIER!” PHASE

Divorce is harrowing—but still, we’ve all encountered people going through it who appear euphoric, eager to crow about their new lease on life. Alas, says Warshak, in most cases that is a fleeting condition—the calm before the storm. “Divorce lawyers always know to worry about someone who’s acting like that in the immediate aftermath of the split,” Warshak says. “When things are overly friendly and amicable, there’s concern that it’s a defense against the underlying anger to come—and when it does ultimately erupt, it can be a shock and surprise.”

THE FINGER-POINTING PHASE

It’s been eleven months since Jake separated from his wife, Nina. The longer they’re apart—and the more he’s exposed to the unsavory side of her that’s brought out by legal proceedings and crumbling negotiations—the harder it becomes for him to remember why he fell for her in the first place. Lately he’s been reading self-help guides and articles about divorce, and it’s clear to him that Nina is a textbook narcissist, incapable of feeling love for anyone but herself. How could he not have seen it the whole time?

As a society, we’ve become increasingly well-versed in mental health and therapy—and with that comes the temptation to play armchair psychologist, especially where divorce is concerned. It’s not uncommon to hear someone complain that she left her husband because he refused to deal with his depression—or chalk up emotional unavailability to an undiagnosed case of Asperger’s Syndrome. “People are throwing around diagnoses much more than is rational or accurate at this point—calling their spouses narcissists or borderlines, and they’re just not,” Buscho says. “The fact is, people just don’t like their spouse or what they’re doing.”

It’s particularly tempting to hang marital issues on something like a mental illness because it functions as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. “When you put a diagnosis in the mix, it makes it easier to leave. You think, ‘It’s incurable. I can’t live with that!’” Buscho says. “Sometimes the assessment can be valid, but chances are your spouse is the same person you originally married, and you didn’t think they had that problem back then.”

Even in the absence of genetic deal-breakers, real or imagined, it’s natural for divorcing partners to harden their feelings towards each other. “Demonizing of the ex-spouse often happens,” confirms Harris. In fact, it’s a natural part of moving on. “By devaluing an ex, it makes it easier to lose that bond,” Warshak explains. “This is someone you’ve been close to and depended on for years, so by focusing on the negatives, it makes the loss seem less great.”

In most cases, this form of thinking isn’t irreversible. “After the initial high levels of devaluing, people mostly come out on the other end seeing their ex in a more balanced way,” Warshak says. “Like, ‘Yes, there were problems, but this is not a bad person to the core.’ They didn’t have what you needed and disappointed you deeply, but it doesn’t wipe away all of their good attributes.”

THE TEMPORARY INSANITY PHASE

Sound dramatic? Well, it is. Divorce can bring about highly, er, unusual and erratic behavior. “In extreme cases, that could mean destroying property or smearing their ex’s reputation in the community,” Warshak says. “It’s been characterized as ‘Not-Me Behaviors,’ and people will often look back on what they did later in disbelief that they acted that way.”

The cause: When individuals are taken out of their comfort zones and put under sustained and acute stress, it can result in conduct that isn’t part of the standard repertoire. “The usual self-control is just not there,” Warshak says, pointing to a combo of destructive impulses and relaxed self-control. “It makes for a toxic brew.” Thankfully, it isn’t a permanent state, but it might require some clean-up. Says Warshak, “The acting out can be very hurtful and destructive, and afterwards they’ll often try to make amends.”

The living room of a compact Oakland apartment has been festooned with Pokémon-themed decorations in honor of Alex’s 6th birthday. Eighteen sugar-fueled kids careen around the perimeters. The parents in attendance cluster around the snack table, keeping one eye on their respective children while making the requisite small talk with each other. Alex’s mom, Clara, and dad, Martin, bustle around in hosting mode, refilling pretzel bowls and cleaning up spills and stray napkins.

Clara begins readying a vividly colored Pikachu cake for serving, looking around in exasperation before turning to Martin. “Could you please grab the box of candles and a serving spatula from the kitchen?” she asks, her voice politely pitched an octave higher than usual. Martin appears to stiffen involuntarily, glancing only briefly at her as he replies. “I don’t know where you keep them,” he says. Clara presses her mouth into a thin white line and takes a steadying breath. “They’re in the drawer to the left of the—” then stops herself. “Never mind, I’ll get them myself.”

It’s a seemingly innocuous exchange—certainly not out of the ordinary for a husband and wife. But several onlookers noticeably perk up, eavesdropping with thinly veiled curiosity. Only a small percentage of the guests are aware that Clara and Martin have actually been separated for seven months, and Clara resides here alone. Over the course of the party, word slowly travels.

THE P.R. SPIN PHASE

Sooner or later, a couple has to go public with their divorce—and even the most skilled diplomats will have to find a way to package the news. Disseminating the “why” of it can be more challenging if the couple had been keeping their difficulties under wraps. “When you’re married, you develop a narrative about how much you love that person, and family and friends have bought into that,” Harris says. “When you get a divorce, you have to take that story in a different direction and say, ‘There are other chapters or parts of this book that I never told you about,’ then convince them why this person is actually not the one for you.”

Cue the he said/she said, which can play out in a number of ways. “Some people throw their ex under the bus,” Harris says. That may garner sympathy in the short-term, but the strategy will likely backfire, particularly when children are in the mix. “Parents will smear the reputation of their ex in the community, not realizing that they’re damaging the reputation of the whole family,” Warshak says. “They don’t realize that the victim of their venting is gonna be their children.”

There’s a fine line between rallying supporters and talking smack. “It’s a big issue because someone going through a divorce needs people to truly confide in, but not all around the school parking lot,” Buscho says. “Ideally it should be kept to one to two trusted friends who are not going to spread it around.”

Divorcing newbies might also look to those who’ve already been through the same battle—or vice-versa. “There is a tendency to want to associate with likeminded people, and seek out others to commiserate with who’ve been through a similar experience,” Warshak says. It’s worth noting, however, that the advice from divorce veterans will inevitably be colored by whatever happened to them, even if it bears no resemblance to the situation at hand. “People confuse their own experience with predictions about what will happen with their friend’s divorce,” Warshak says. “For example, if you’ve gone through a hostile custody dispute, you’re going to be protective of your friend and discuss those risks.”

THE POWER TUG-O’-WAR PHASE

As a divorcing couple transitions from “we” to “I,” their agendas are likely to diverge. It’s frustrating to no longer get a say in what the other person does, and an every-man-for-himself mentality often results. “When people start to experience a loss of control, they seek to protect themselves,” warns Harris. (Think: Playing offense instead of defense and claiming the kids for Spring Break or introducing a new love interest without an ex’s sign-off.)

That dynamic can be compounded—exponentially—by outside forces. “When lawyers get involved, they start advising their clients to advocate for their own best interests,” says Harris. “Suddenly names are being moved around on bank accounts, cash reserves are claimed and accounts are raided.”

THE FINANCIAL PANIC PHASE

Divorce is crippling enough—then you factor in the financial strain. “The impact is immense,” Buscho says. “There will now likely be two homes to support instead of one, and people’s income generally doesn’t go up—if anything, it can go down, because you’re spending more on housing, legal expenses, counseling and child care.” It’s possible that the parties weren’t equal earners, or one person stayed at home prior to the breakup. “If there was a nonworking spouse, they have to go out and find a job, which will typically not be high-paying,” Buscho says. “The standard of living definitely goes down, more so for women than men.”

Resentment is a natural offshoot, as people hold their ex responsible for the newfound hardships. “I’ve heard people say awful things to their kids like, ‘We’re not gonna have Christmas this year because your mom took all my money,” Buscho says. “It’s terribly painful and anxiety-inducing.”

Of course, a small percentage of couples will be well-off enough that the divorce won’t cause them to suffer monetarily—but that doesn’t necessarily make them any less emotionally damaged by the proceedings. “In my experience with patients, rich people don’t have an easier time coping,” Warshak says. “Money is no insulation against terrible unhappiness and bitterness.”

THE FINDING NEW LOVE PHASE

After going through the gauntlet of separation and divorce, the prospect of finding a new partner should be a welcome respite. Still, navigating the dating scene—which may have changed significantly from the last time a person was single—comes with its own challenges. Exhibit A: The presence of unwelcome baggage. “Before moving forward romantically, people need to be aware that they may not have resolved anything from their previous relationship,” says Harris.

Even if the divorce papers are signed, one or both parties may still have a foot stuck in the past. “If they continue to be wrapped up in how they’ve been done wrong, they might still need to get an emotional divorce,” Harris cautions. “If you haven’t looked at yourself and your issues, you can repeat old patterns.”

THE REGRET AND HINDSIGHT PHASE

Not every divorce reaches a tidy conclusion—or concludes at all. The process can lead a number of folks to second-guess their choice. “There are people who find themselves happier than they were before, and others who say, ‘There are so many things about divorce that I never anticipated—I wish I had worked harder on my marriage,’” Harris says.

This can lead to a relapse of sorts, with some exes reverting to pre-divorce behaviors out of desire or habit. “I know divorcing couples who still go to parent-teacher conferences holding hands. Some of them are still sleeping together,” Harris says. “They’re still acting like a couple.”

In those cases, reconciliation could be one eventual outcome—provided the divorce momentum doesn’t take over first. “Sometimes people slide into divorce, even if they’re not sure about it,” Harris says. “Once the machinery gets hold of them and they’re in a court system that wants to process them, it takes work to slow down the conversation and make a different, purposeful decision.”

It’s no wonder it feels like everyone around you is all of a sudden talking the D word. Between those who actually go through with it, those who separate and then reconcile, and just knowing people in either one of those two camps, you can feel surrounded.

Last Updated: Apr 29, 2020