Divorce is as old as the institution of marriage itself.
In ancient Egypt, not only was divorce allowed, but a person could divorce their spouse on any grounds, without any interference from the State.
Among the ancient Romans, any person could divorce by sending a letter to their partner, or even by declaring that the marriage was over in front of witnesses. But these liberal attitudes towards divorce changed with the advent of organised religions.
After Christianity became the official religion of the Romans in 380 C.E., divorce was strongly opposed by the Church. The only ‘proper way’ to end a marriage was annulment, a declaration with church officials to dissolve a marriage in exceptional cases.
Hinduism used marriage as a vow to stay together for not just one life, but eternity, in accordance with Dharma. Islam includes various provisions for divorce under religious law, but still used divorce as an ‘evil,’ that must be avoided. Why most religions were so strongly opposed to divorce, is unclear. But some theorists argue that it has to do with the fact that religions prioritise institutional sanctity over the well-being of individuals.
In the 18th century, with the American and French revolutions, secularism was on the rise, and the West saw a separation between the State and the Church. There was a shift from religious laws to secular laws that centred individual well-being and freedom.
Nonetheless, when the first divorce laws were introduced, the divorce rates were so low that in 1857, only 324 cases of divorce were filed in all of Britain. It was only with the rise in industrialisation, and a change in family structures and gender roles, that divorce became more common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was generally known that divorces in the United States were getting more numerous each year during that time.
But, while divorce rates began to rise globally from the late 20th century onwards, India’s rates have remained at a mere 1%. So – Is India the land of eternal love? Not exactly! Less than 20% of Indian women are in the paid workforce – one of the lowest rates of female labour force participation in the world – making them financially dependent on their husbands and therefore less able to leave a bad marriage.
Added to this is the collectivist and conservative nature of our society, where keeping the family unit together is an important determinant of social status. Within such a framework, divorce becomes an individualistic act of aberration.
The stigma of getting a divorce is so high that many times, people in unhappy marriages choose to stay apart, rather than getting divorced. In fact, the number of people separated in India, is thrice the number of people divorced. But even this stigma of the ‘divorcee’ tag impacts women much more than men, with Indian men being twice as likely to remarry after a divorce. Being able to stick by one person and love them through life, may be the right choice for some people, but for others, it may not be.
In order to talk about divorce in a healthy way, we need to understand why we’re so terrified of the word ‘divorce’ in general! It is primarily because our understanding of marriage is faulty.
The current paradigm around marriage states that a successful marriage is one that lasts for eternity. It doesn’t matter if both people are miserable, or do not speak to each other, or grow, or stay in harmony; it doesn’t matter that the greatest lies they tell are to each other.
None of that matters. The key indicator of a successful marriage, according to a large section of people is – longevity. If you have that definition in your mind, then obviously ‘divorce’, which is a break in longevity, indicates terror, failure, despair, devastation to you. So, when you have that paradigm, no wonder, you can’t approach divorce in a healthy, abundant, joyful way.
So, in order to talk to the family and kids about divorce with health and abundance, we need to transform our whole understanding of marriage. We need to no longer define successful marriage as one that is long lasting, but on the terms of growth, authenticity, freedom. ‘Divorce’ is simply the end of a phase; it’s the divorce of the dysfunction, inauthenticity, from the fear, the status quo.
But, we are afraid of it because of our cultural conditionings about marriage. Whether it’s a choice to favour one’s mental health and physical well-being over an institution, or its simply to seek happiness and fulfilment elsewhere, we need to destigmatise this very mundane choice to end a partnership and just move on with our life.
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