Young, divorced and stigmatized

Flash-in-the-pan marriages are for celebs; the norm is fewer divorces and more serious commitments

Young, divorced and stigmatized

Denise Truscello/WireImage

Young, divorced and stigmatized
Denise Truscello/WireImage

Wedding season can be demanding, no matter how great the parties or how happy the couples. For Malik, a 26-year-old from Oshawa, Ont., who attended three weddings this summer, it was especially tough because he was keeping a secret from his friends. At an age when many of them are settling down, he’s in the process of separating from his wife. Soon, he’ll be divorced. “It is really isolating. I still haven’t told everybody,” says Malik, who asked that his real name not be used so friends wouldn’t learn of the split in Maclean’s. “I’m going to a wedding at the end of November for one of my closest friends. I don’t have the heart to tell him, ‘I’m going through a divorce, but congratulations.’ ”

A glut of books, movies and magazine stories suggests Malik’s situation isn’t unique: consider the recent, impossible-to-avoid breakups of stars Zooey Deschanel and Kim Kardashian after two years and 72 days of marriage, respectively. (Kardashian’s divorce attracted nearly as much attention as her over-the-top wedding, minus the televised special.)

But even if the celebrity cycle and the Eat Pray Love juggernaut would suggest that marriages are fizzing out in record numbers, that’s actually far from true. Four in 10 of the Canadian couples who married in 2008 will be divorced by 2035, according to a report from the Vanier Institute of the Family, an Ottawa-based think tank, and the rate has been relatively stable for more than a decade. That year, there were 70,229 divorces across the country, a four per cent drop from the year before—and a full 27 per cent lower than in 1987, the year after amendments to the Divorce Act made breaking up easier, legally speaking.

Overall, fewer couples are getting married, but among highly educated people, a more traditional idea of marriage seems to be taking hold. In a widely cited 2010 report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, college and university graduates reported the highest levels of marital happiness: 69 per cent said they were “very happy,” compared to 52 per cent of high school dropouts. This group seems to be increasingly divorce-averse. Even though the highly educated are typically the most “socially liberal,” they’ve moved in a “more marriage-minded direction,” the same report says. From the 1970s to the 2000s, the number of highly educated people who believe that “divorce should be more difficult to obtain” grew from 36 to 48 per cent. Divorce rates have dropped for all sorts of reasons. We’re waiting longer to get married, picking our partners more carefully, and are sometimes more willing to work on a marriage. Countless Gen X- and Yers lived through their parents’ divorces, and seem anxious about not repeating their mistakes. But maybe because of this fear of divorce, those who go through it now can sometimes face “a huge stigma,” says Susan Gregory Thomas, 43, Brooklyn-based author of In Spite of Everything: A Memoir, which tells of her own experiences. “In our mothers’ generation, divorce could be a path to liberation,” she says. “Today, there’s this sense of, ‘Didn’t you know marriage was going to be difficult? Didn’t you understand the commitment you’d be making?’ ”

Malik got married at 23 to a girl he’d met in university, and in that way, was already outside the average. In Canada, the typical age of first marriage was 31 for men and 29 for women in 2008 (the most recent year tracked by Statistics Canada), up from 28 and 26 in 1994. This partly helps to explain the shrinking divorce rate: getting married before 25 is a risk factor for splitting up.

Despite the old cliché of a groom carrying his bride across the threshold, about 70 per cent of couples have now lived together before they tie the knot—and before that, they probably slept over a few nights a week. Tyler Jamison, a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri, recently published a study of what she calls the “stayover,” defined as spending three nights a week or more in a partner’s home, while keeping separate residences. Couples in these types of arrangements “rarely shared keys, and kept personal items at their own place,” says Jamison, who interviewed 22 college students and recent grads for the study. When they were at their partner’s place, they thought of themselves as a guest: they might leave a half-eaten bowl of cereal lying around their own apartment, but “they wouldn’t do that at their partner’s, because it would be rude.”

Couples choose to sleep over but keep separate homes for all sorts of reasons, like convenience and comfort, or the ability to maintain their own private space, Jamison found in her study. “Sometimes it’s as simple as, ‘My house is a mess and hers is much nicer,’ ” she says, or maybe one of them lives closer to campus or the bars downtown. Not every stayover will lead to a wedding. Staying over doesn’t make it harder to break up, logistically speaking: unlike a couple who lives together, there are no leases to sort out, no shared collection of dishes to divide.

Of course, stayovers have existed forever, but the fact that researchers are now bothering to define them speaks to the fact that pre-marriage relationships are increasingly important and complex. Instead of seeing a spouse as an ideal parent or breadwinner, more people spend their twenties searching for an equal. In Canada, the age gap between brides and grooms is narrowing. According to a report from the Vanier Institute, during the first half of the 20th century, a man marrying for the first time was 3.5 years older than his wife, on average. In the 1950s and 60s, it was three; in the 1990s, it was two. Couples might work to hammer out differences before they officially wed.

This cautious attitude toward marriage seems like a good idea, but strangely enough, living together first is also a risk factor for divorce. In just one of several studies to reach this conclusion, U.S. researchers found that the likelihood that a marriage would last for 10 years or more dropped by six per cent if the couple had lived together beforehand. Some argue that this is because of the “selection effect”: people who cohabit are more liberal and less traditional, so they’re also more likely to view divorce as an option.

But even after controlling for this, the pattern sticks. Pamela Smock, director of the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center and an expert on cohabitation, points out that other factors increase the divorce risk much more than living together before marriage: “Level of education, having sufficient money, and age at marriage are all more important,” she says. And as more people continue to live together before marriage, it will become even less of a factor in divorce rates. “The danger is for people who slide into living together without making a clear decision, and end up marrying someone they might not have,” says Galena Rhoades, senior researcher for the Center for Marital and Family Studies in the University of Denver’s psychology department. In other words, getting married can sometimes be easier, in the short term, than breaking up.

That was the experience of Sascha Rothchild, author of How to Get Divorced by 30. “I dated a real jerk in my early twenties, and after we broke up, I went right into the next relationship,” she says. “He was so different from the jerk, I thought he must be right for me.” After two years of dating, they moved in together; as their three-year anniversary approached, Rothchild was seized by a fantasy he would propose. “I don’t know where this fantasy came from. He hadn’t done anything romantic in years,” she says, adding that she wanted to check marriage off her “to-do” list. When he didn’t pop the question, Rothchild had a “little meltdown,” so they hashed it out and agreed to get married. (Women seem to be more likely to campaign for marriage, but interestingly enough, they also legally initiate two-thirds of divorces, according to U.S. figures.) Rothchild bought her own engagement ring, and walked down the aisle to Joe Jackson’s Is She Really Going Out With Him? The marriage lasted 2½ years.

In 2007, a year after separating from her husband, Rothchild met Matt Kay. Early on in their relationship, they started attending couples’ therapy. “I went to therapy to try to figure it out, with somebody willing to work on themselves as well,” Rothchild says. In March, they got married. “Sadly, second marriages have an even higher divorce rate than first ones,” she says, maybe because people go on to “make the same mistakes.” But this time around, Rothchild feels like she’s picked the right partner. “People often asked me when the book came out, ‘Will you get married again?’ At the time I said, ‘I don’t know, but I know I’m not going to get divorced again.’ ”

Adam Purkiss, who comes from a small town outside Leicester, England, met his future wife, Crystal, a Canadian, over the Internet. The two struck up a long distance relationship, travelling back and forth to visit each other. When they married, in 2000, they had two weddings: one in Canada, and one in the U.K. The couple settled around Waterloo, Ont., and today they have two children, 6 and 8 years old. “We came to the conclusion that things weren’t working out,” says Purkiss, 32. They separated last fall, and are now in the process of getting a divorce. To keep things from getting messy for the sake of their kids, “we decided to go the route of mediation,” he says. Adam and Crystal Purkiss intend to stay on good terms.

It’s a far cry from what Thomas remembers of her own youth as the child of divorced parents (they split when she was 12). “I was born in 1968, at the centre of Generation X, and I would argue our generation went through the ultimate war at home, which was divorce,” she says. From 1960 to 1980, the U.S. divorce rate more than doubled, “and if you look at popular culture of the time—The War of the Roses, Kramer vs. Kramer—they were hostile, they were vicious. Parents only spoke to each other through their lawyers.” Clearly keen not to replay this with her own kids, Thomas stays in regular touch with her ex-husband. (When Maclean’s contacted her for an interview, she accidentally provided her ex-husband’s cellphone number instead of her own.)

If couples are increasingly cautious about marriage, it is at least in part because many of them lived through their parents’ divorce as kids. “It’s totally verboten to get divorced,” Thomas says. “You’re basically wearing the scarlet letter.” The flip side of the societal push to work on relationships is that when marriage becomes a project to be constantly improved, divorce, if it does happen, feels like a complete failure.

Of course, the experience of divorce is vastly different depending on the couple’s age, and whether they have children or not. Karen Stewart, president and CEO of Fairway Divorce Solutions, which offers mediation, argues that young people are actually more accepting of divorce, whereas “for some members of the older generation, there can be that sense of, ‘I failed.’ ” The actual process of divorce can be more seamless for younger couples, too. “The younger people are, the less there is to divide up,” she says. If they don’t have kids, they could theoretically go their separate ways and never see each other again.

But young divorce has its own pitfalls. Joelle Caputa, 30, who lives in Bloomfield, N.J., got married at 27; it quickly became clear that she and her husband were incompatible, and she was divorced by 29. “The first thing I did was to look for a book to read, by somebody my age who’d been through this,” she says. “I found one book with stories of divorce, but it was all women in their 40s and 50s, and I couldn’t relate.” Caputa is now interviewing younger divorced women for a book she’s working on, called Trash the Dress: Stories of Celebrating Divorce in your 20s. “Going through this in your twenties, you’re having a nervous breakdown, feeling like you wasted the most important years of your life,” she says. And starting to date again was tricky. When Caputa met her current boyfriend, “he made fun of me for watching soap operas, and he said, ‘You’re like a 49-year-old divorced lady,’ ” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Well actually, I’m a 29-year-old divorced lady.’ ”

And as common-law marriages and cohabitations become the norm, leaving these relationships can be complicated and painful, too—even if it’s not technically a “divorce.” About three years ago, Joshua Rottman, a 30-year-old from Ottawa, separated from his common-law partner with whom he has two kids. “We had differences that weren’t apparent at the start of our relationship,” Rottman says; these only really surfaced when they were about to become parents. “I think there is a stigma [around divorce],” he says, “but I find it’s more of an internal one, almost like there’s been a failure in your life.” Rottman views his situation as a learning experience. After spending a year on his own, today he’s happily in a new relationship, and the father of “two beautiful ladies,” who are now 8 and 5 years old.

After Kim Kardashian announced she was filing for divorce, on Halloween, it didn’t take long for the backlash to begin. Her split from Kris Humphries inspired widespread ridicule: even author Salman Rushdie, award-winning author of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, posted some Kardashian-themed jokes on his Twitter feed. But the I-told-you-so’s seemed only to be matched by the complaints of those who were disappointed, or even enraged, that the lavish wedding could have been a ruse. Pundits wondered whether it could hurt her multi-million-dollar family brand. The fact that fans put any stock at all in her nuptials, for which Kardashian apparently earned millions (for the televised special), speaks to the fact that many still place a high value in the traditional institution of marriage—even if it’s the highly publicized marriage of a self-interested reality TV star.