How I Stopped Viewing My Divorce as a Failure & How You Can Too

It was the middle of the summer in 2013, and I was doing all I could not to completely lose my shit at work.

I thought I was doing a decent job of masking things from an appearance standpoint. This entailed wearing sunglasses despite being indoors, covering up as much of my blotchy face as I could with my hair, and otherwise attempting to look as professional and normal as possible in my muted business casual attire.

I was managing a large project, and my boss could tell (probably along with everyone else, because who was I kidding?) that something was up with me. It was taking every ounce of effort I had to keep my voice from wavering as I gave him my weekly project update. Despite my efforts, after I’d finished my report, my boss paused and then asked me if everything was okay.

I hated these moments when I had to explain that I was going through a divorce. I had gotten married less than two years before, and it felt so embarrassing to admit that things had already fallen apart.  

I began to feel the shame bubble up and start to burn across my face as I explained to him that I was in the midst of a divorce. He expressed his condolences and seemed to genuinely feel sorry for me and what I was going through, but I still felt like I had failed in some way...like I hadn’t put in the requisite effort to make my marriage work.

Even vulnerably admitting to friends around this time that I was getting divorced made me feel insecure and paranoid.

Were they judging me?

Were they wondering if I’d been a bad wife?

Had I not tried hard enough to make it work?

Did I do something despicable that led to the marriage’s downfall?

In part, I think my feelings of shame stemmed from having grown up in the U.S., where I had learned to view things in terms of winning or losing, succeeding or failing.

We’ve all heard the statistic ad nauseam: approximately 50% of marriages in the United States end in divorce. The subtext to this statement? --that half of U.S. marriages “fail.”

As a society, we’ve been conditioned to view divorce as a failure. Organized religion is mostly to blame for instilling and reinforcing that perspective in us. Marriage got placed on a pedestal and defined as a holy union, and divorce was categorically condemned.

But is that lens appropriate, or even necessary? We don’t go into marriage expecting that we’ll ever get divorced. And divorce certainly isn’t a desirable thing to go through.

Even if we want the end result, the process is almost always stressful, emotional, costly, and time-consuming. Yet, despite divorce’s undesirability, about half of us who marry in the U.S. will eventually go through it.

So how do we shed the shame and move forward in a healthier and more productive way?

In my case, it took some words of wisdom from a friend who had grown up abroad to drastically alter my perspective on my “failed” marriage.

This shift took place one afternoon, a few weeks after the awkward conversation I’d had with my boss. I was sharing with my friend how despairing and lost I felt in the wake of my husband choosing to leave me, and I began to feel those nauseatingly familiar emotions of shame and embarrassment creep back up. But before they could entirely consume me, my friend pointed out something that I’d never considered before.

He said that it’s a very American tendency to assign a normative value to things, such as the dissolution of a marriage (i.e., to see it as an inherently “bad” thing). But, he countered, you can really only assess the value of a given event in hindsight. After all, at the outset, there’s no way to know whether something will end up being positive or negative in its outcome.

Turning this lens to my divorce, my friend explained that even if I didn’t want my relationship to end, I might actually end up being much happier in life not being married to my husband than I would have been as his wife.

I paused to consider this possibility. My assumption had always been that I was meant to be with this other person, my spouse, for the rest of my life. We were supposed to live happily ever after together just like our parents.

But what if my husband and I would’ve been incredibly unhappy together over time, no matter how hard we both tried to make it work? What if something about our relationship was irretrievably broken? Or, what if it wasn’t broken, but he and I had the potential to live freer and happier lives (ones in which we could be truer to ourselves) apart than we did together?

I started to entertain the possibility that my ex and I might both end up leading more joyful and fulfilling lives by moving forward independently from one another than we would’ve if we had remained a married couple. Gradually, I even began to internalize and embrace the idea.

It would take me months to get there, but once my grieving started to subside, I would begin to discover that I was more consistently happy in my new life without my ex than I had been while with him.

So, taking a step back, if we acknowledge that we can’t reliably assign a positive or negative value to something that happens right out of the gate, then how should we go about approaching and interpreting life-changing events like divorce? My friend encouraged me to try to look beyond the filter of pain that was clouding my vision and coloring my perspective at that time and to instead view the event simply as an opportunity.

For instance, I now had complete freedom and independence to move to another part of the state, the country, or even the world, without having to consider my spouse’s wants or needs. I could change careers or start a business of my own without having to take another person into account.

I had a newfound freedom. And I had to admit that this way of looking at things felt somehow healthier, more constructive, and less doomed than choosing to view my divorce reductively as just the failure of my marriage.

My friend’s advice had a profound effect on me. I walked away from our conversation with a completely different and more positive perspective on things. The shame that I used to feel around my divorce had dissolved, and I felt enlightened.

I now called our society’s conventional views on divorce into question. It no longer felt constructive to me to perceive marriage as a strictly “positive” thing that should be preserved at all costs. Marriage can be a wonderful thing. But you know what? Life after divorce can be a pretty amazing thing too.

So here’s what I’d ask you to consider:

What if we were to think of divorce not as a failure, but instead as an opportunity to learn and grow?

  • How would adopting that perspective change your approach as you seek to move forward in your life post-divorce? What have you learned from your divorce?

  • How would shedding all of that guilt and shame serve you on an individual level or all of us on societal level?

Lastly, are there any other “negative” events that have recently happened in your life that you might be able to reframe and instead treat as opportunities for growth? I would love to hear your thoughts or feedback in the comments to this post or via email (kim@whenitsknotforever.com).

We can’t control everything in life. I mean, hell, we can’t control most things in life. But we can choose to learn and grow from the things that don’t work out. And that’s the type of person that I’d like to be. How about you?