View from
The Left

Looking Beyond Easy Explanations for Divorce

“Maybe there is something in our environment that makes staying together so hard.”

If one does a simple Internet search of marriage statistics, he or she will discover “strange” and worrisome facts like “couples who earn $20,000 or less argue less frequently than couples who earn $250,000 to $500,000;” or “more than 33% of men and women say they have watched a TV show or movie that affected them so much they considered breaking up;” or “people are more likely than ever to marry into their own class;” or “almost 50% of all marriages in the United States will end in divorce.”

Still, when we divorce, break up, find out we were cheated on—or when we feel stuck in a “single” phase of life for too long—we tend to search for the reasons and answers exclusively, solely in our own selves. Something might have been wrong with our childhood, relationship (or lack thereof) with our fathers; maybe we are too toxic, frigid. Perhaps we need to be more mindful, are not connected with our authentic selves, or are always focusing on the negative. It could be that we are too dramatic, too pressuring, too busy, or maybe out of shape—just anything. But what should we do? Could all the answers be truly only within us? After all, it is unreasonable to analyze romantic relationships, desire, and marriage without the context of modernity and ideology because they are, of course, not only individual but also sociological and economical phenomena. Getting divorced or entering into a romantic relationship in 2020 certainly does not feel anything like getting a divorce or becoming a couple in 1820. Maybe there is something in our environment that makes staying together so hard.

When it comes to relationships, we expect ourselves to live up to the ideals which are—if we look at them closely—nearly impossible to succeed at. In an interview with Sun Magazine therapist Esther Perel mentions: “People come to me because their spouse isn’t making them happy. I don’t think any of our grandparents would have considered that a reason to seek therapy. A passionate relationship in which we ask for novelty and mystery from the same person we look to for security and stability—that is a grand, new invention in the history of humankind.” Even infidelity, she believes, is not necessarily a sign of a failing relationship, and it should not become the reason for a divorce or break up: “If you see adultery only as a symptom, you sometimes take good relationships that have worked well for decades and make them look like failures. I don’t think that’s right. You raised your kids, you buried your parents, you created a home, you dealt with bankruptcy or cancer—and then one of you has an affair, and suddenly we’re going to call it a ‘failed marriage’? It privileges this one event over every other thing that ‘s happened in the relationship.”

In her 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone points out that bliss in love is seldom the case: “For every successful contemporary love experience, for every short period of enrichment, there are ten destructive love experiences, post-love ‘downs’ of much longer duration—often resulting in the destruction of the individual , or at least an emotional cynicism that makes it difficult or impossible to love again. Why should this be so, if it is not actually inherent in the love process itself?” Before blaming ourselves or our partner for the failed relationship, I believe it is worth thinking of concepts like the marriage market, capitalistic culture, ideology, and commitment phobia. These are all powerful forces outside of ourselves that influence our lives and over which we have absolutely no control.

Sociologist Eva Illouz in her book Why Love Hurts further explains: “Women are culturally compelled to take the blame (euphemistically known as responsibility) for the fact that they forge relationships with unavailable men and even more spectacularly blame themselves for ‘loving too much.'” The question we should be asking is why are so many men emotionally unavailable. We should be seeking answers in our culture too. As Illouz writes, “What is activated here is the implicit psychological view that the self is responsible for making the wrong choices and for actually needing the inherently social basis of recognition and worth.” In many cases, the advice from psychologists and therapists would be to substitute love for self-love, which, as Illouz mentions “denies the fundamentally and essentially social nature of self-value. It demands from actors that they create what they cannot create on their own.” Illouz believes that “the modern injunction and obsession to ‘love oneself’ is an attempt to solve through autonomy the actual need for recognition,” which can only be reached by recognizing one’s dependence on others. Illouz claims that “psychological models of explanation, ultimately, encourage self-incrimination.”

Staying together can be hard. Loving another person can get hefty too. But I hope we can blame ourselves less for failing at this complicated task. We can also get better at loving—by trying to not only look within ourselves to find the reasons and problems but also to look outside into the environment: to culture, ideology, and larger social systems that influence us.

Natalia Lomaia studies psychology in Berlin.

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