Week 31: Divorce Means Failure?

April 21, 2017 — What does it mean to fail — to be a failure? A close friend tells me the other day how her divorce makes her “feel like a failure.” Her personality is assertive — she’s a corporate litigator after all — she doesn’t like to lose. “But now I’ve failed at marriage. I feel like a failure at life,” she says.

Does divorce mean that you’ve failed?

I remember feeling that way too. I worked so hard at my marriage only to have it shatter into pieces at a time when I thought that things in the relationship couldn’t be better. It was a shock and a feeling of public failure in an area of life that feels very intimate.

I know divorce well. I’m a divorced divorce attorney. I’ve been to five weddings in my life, and hundreds of divorces. I should be the divorce expert. But every divorce is different (and every marriage is too). So does divorce really mean failure?

First hit on Google:

Fail:

1. be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal. “he failed in his attempt to secure election”

2. neglect to do something. “the firm failed to give adequate risk warnings”

By the first definition, divorce means that the relationship was not successful in achieving the goal of the marriage.

What was the goal of the marriage? Mine was to have a happy, supportive relationship. But in retrospect, the relationship was never very happy or supportive, even before we got married. So flag that as “perhaps I picked the wrong relationship to carry forward into the marriage from the start.”

But, is anyone getting married with a goal of just staying married until they die — regardless of how happy and fulfilling that might be? Seems unlikely. Most people go into a marriage believing that they will stay married forever — at least that’s what we tell ourselves at some point. But many of us on closer questioning will admit that we had doubts.

“I knew he wasn’t really ‘the one,’ even during the wedding,” my friend admits. “But we were good friends and it was time to settle down.” For me, I knew that my ex-husband would always be in my life in some way — maybe not as a husband, but just as a person in my life. And that’s where we are today, so maybe my marriage did meet the goal I knew existed in my gut: we are bound by our kids and forever in each other’s lives in some manner.

Is being “settled down” really a win? Marriage for the sake of marriage? Sounds like food that you don’t enjoy eating.

The second definition involves neglect. Divorce means something about the marriage was neglected. What does neglect mean? On Google:

Neglect:

  1. fail to care for properly. “the old churchyard has been sadly neglected”

  2. not pay proper attention to; disregard. “you neglect our advice at your peril”

  3. fail to do something.

Maybe this falls on many of us as internal feelings of failure: we recount all the things we might have done differently; how could we not properly have cared for our marriage? Yet, it takes two partners to keep a marriage working, so really then we can only accept half the blame. Even if you weren’t the spouse who was neglectful, if one party is not tending to the relationship, it is impossible to keep it cared for properly alone.

There are dozens of articles about coping with failure and redefining failure. There are tons of experts telling us all how failure lead them to success. If we don’t fail, then we didn’t try and that is a different sort of loss. I won’t slap all these articles into this blog.

The common thread of articles and experts out there seems to be that we should accept failure and redefine it so that failure does not mean a negative.

Divorce means we took the leap and we went for it. Divorce means we learned about relationships and marriage — what works and what doesn’t. Divorce means we are back to ourselves alone, looking to define and create a happy life. Maybe divorce means failure, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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