We humans

The inconvenient truth about love — and divorce

Mar 16, 2016

We think of modern marriage as an institution of love — but when love ends, we cling to old-fashioned stories about divorce. Astro Teller and Danielle Teller suggest we take a more humane, empathetic look at the end of a marriage.

When Gwyneth Paltrow announced her split from her husband using the term “conscious uncoupling,” the media and blogosphere went wild. While some commentators congratulated the couple for taking a non-confrontational approach to divorce, most people ridiculed them for using a new-age euphemism for what is necessarily a dark, painful life event. The two of us may not be experts about conscious uncoupling, but we believe that the derision was misplaced. While death cannot be made less frightening by labeling it “kicking the bucket,” and toilets cannot be made cleaner by calling them “restrooms,” we respectfully disagree that divorce cannot be made less painful through rebranding and rethinking.

The demise of a long-term relationship is sad, and changes in family structure are difficult for everyone involved. As we describe in our book Sacred Cows, and in the talk we gave a few years ago at TEDxBoston, divorce is intrinsically hard, but our cultural beliefs and attitudes make it even harder than it needs to be. Guilt, shame and a sense of failure significantly raise the emotional cost of divorce.

Although this additional cost is created by our society, most of us are unaware of our complicity in perpetuating it, because we have been unconsciously absorbing society’s message about divorce since childhood.

Ask yourself this: Are you the sort of person who gets divorced? No matter what your marital status, we are willing to bet that you said, “no.” That’s what we both thought before we got divorced from our previous partners. Heck, that’s what we thought when we were in the middle of signing divorce papers. We all think that we are better than the average person who divorces, by which we mean, “I am a loyal, responsible, morally upstanding, caring person who keeps promises.”

Divorce is intrinsically hard, but our attitudes make it harder than it needs to be. Guilt, shame and a sense of failure significantly raise the emotional cost of divorce.

This attitude is ridiculous, not least because some people do not get to choose whether to stay married or get divorced. (If your spouse decides to leave you, you have no say in the matter.)

More important, people contemplating divorce are generally profoundly unhappy. America has taught us that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human right — yet because our society feels threatened by divorce, it does not particularly want to attach that concept to the dissolution of marriage. We want to talk about love and happiness on the way into marriage, but after the exchange of rings, we demand an old-fashioned narrative, one of self-sacrifice, loyalty and hard work.

These attitudes are rooted in the past, when marriage was an economic institution designed to build wealth and raise children. While it was surely the case that humans longed for love and happiness as much then as they do now, those feelings were not expected to derive from marriage. The pursuit of love and happiness was not considered to be an adequate reason for marriage, and it certainly was not an adequate reason for divorce.

Today, in contrast, the vast majority of Americans marry for love. We promise at the altar to love one another until death do us part. We do not pause long enough to ask ourselves what that promise signifies, because we do not want to know the answer. Can anyone commit to feel an emotion in perpetuity? No, of course not. We can force ourselves to be loyal and self-sacrificing, but we cannot force ourselves to love. We humans have little control over our hearts.

This truth is so inconvenient that we try to tell ourselves stories about how love can be created through determination and hard work, but we don’t really believe our own stories. If we did, we would all still agree to arranged marriages. In reality, some modern couples are held together by a strong bond of love, but for other couples, love fades, leaving behind an existential question: If we married for love, what does it mean, now, to be married without love?

If we, as a society, were honest with ourselves, we would admit that it is not reasonable to expect people to marry for love yet not to divorce for lack of love. We should either go back to the old brand of marriage, telling our children that matrimony is about duty, sacrifice and endurance, or we should get off Gwyneth Paltrow’s case. She may not have put her finger on the perfect brand name, but at least she is trying to move us along from our 19th-century mentality that divorce represents failure and shame. When divorce represents a couple’s best chance at future love and happiness, let’s imagine a world where empathy and support trump our old-fashioned concepts.

As “Captain of Moonshots” for X, Astro Teller oversees the secret projects that could reshape our lives in coming decades. Danielle Teller is a physician, scientist and writer. She is working on a novel about the life of Cinderella’s stepmother. Together, the Tellers wrote the book Sacred Cows.