Editor’s note: Michael and Diane Medved will be appearing with Jay Nordlinger in Seattle on Wednesday night, hosted by the Discovery Institute. Tickets are available here.
Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage is a book Diane Medved says she had to write. “Don’t divorce!” the psychologist and author writes. “Mending the marriage is good for you and for your partner. Overcoming your problems will teach you how to prevent future problems in your marriage and with others. Facing your issues rather than running from them will provide insight about yourself, your needs, and areas where you need to improve. Elevating your communication and accommodating another will immediately improve your daily existence.”
Improving daily existence sounds compelling. And so does joy, which she urges and sees the potential for, having worked with countless men and women in her practice, and having experienced the heartache of divorce and the joy of successful marriage herself. She talks a bit about it — and some of the sensitive, grueling questions it raises.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You wrote one book warning against divorce only to be excoriated. Wouldn’t you try something else this time? Raindrops on roses or puppies — or any kind of dog (people seem to love dog books!)?
Diane Medved: Though I love dogs, I don’t really have much to offer about them, I’m afraid. I did write books on other topics since The Case against Divorce, which came out — I hesitate to reveal my age here — 24 years ago. That title is still in print and selling, and over the years I continue to receive article requests and speaking invitations on the topic.
But just as marriage has changed drastically since that book, divorce has also transformed, and simply discussing the downside of divorce is no longer enough. At this point, we’re seeing the damage that parental divorce has wreaked on now-adult children, who refrain from marriage (pushing the mean age at first marriage up to 29 for men) lest they endure or cause for their children the heart-wrenching divorce experience. I started to observe the underlying changes that demolished divorce stigma and let people put their desires and emotions ahead of their commitments, and that was the clincher — it was time to broaden the discussion and revisit the topic.
Lopez: Why do you “confess” your own divorce early on?
Medved: I’m embarrassed and sad about my early marriage ending in divorce, so my strong initial inclination was just to leave it out. After all, I’ve been married to my husband Michael for 32 years. But the truth is that one can never live down and never forget a marriage, even if it’s without children (as mine was), a phenomenon so common it’s now blithely dismissed with the term “starter marriage.” The inescapable lifelong pain of divorce is one of my messages, and so rather than omit or hide a fact that would probably emerge anyway, I just laid it out there at the outset. Also, I think I gain a measure of credibility, having experienced both divorce and long-term marriage.
Lopez: Telling people not to divorce and declaring that there is no good divorce can make people who have been divorced feel lousy and judged when there’s probably a lot of pain surrounding it already and there may have been good reasons. Why do you do it — knowing the pain yourself?
Medved: My book is for people suffering in a tough marriage who are not divorced, though they may be thinking about it (as well as for their therapists, pastors, friends and families). I discuss the fact that once someone’s divorced, he should feel, and needs to feel, that the divorce was necessary. The bromide “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade” applies here — though no divorce is fun, and every divorce brings pain, once it’s done, it’s healthy to move on and even to view that difficult chapter as part of the journey that brings someone to a better, more aware place.
Once a divorce is done, it’s healthy to move on and even to view that difficult chapter as part of the journey that brings someone to a better, more aware place.
That said, I was still surprised at the anger that arose when a friend of mine suggested that I come speak to her divorce-recovery group. Understandably, they were still suffering and struggling to extricate themselves emotionally from their marriages. The group facilitator even wrote me an e-mail with quotes expressing group members’ ire. I should mention that my book includes a whole chapter on justifiable, unavoidable divorce, even suggesting how to leave, in cases of abandonment or where an offending spouse won’t admit or address physical abuse, addiction, or personality disorders like full-blown narcissism.
Lopez: Why is it so important to stop “the divorce momentum”?
Medved: Once couples start using the “D-word,” escalating emotions kick in, and often they’re sucked into a divorce industry (well-meaning therapists, financial and law professionals, coaches, etc.) primed to spiral them down the funnel to a decree. Few couples even realize they’re in that well-worn groove. That’s why it’s useful to name and describe the process and suggest a step backward in order to realign to long-term goals and understand the consequences of immediately responding to rising emotions.
Lopez: How is everyone who is married “at war” with the menace of divorce?
Medved: Unfortunately, we find ourselves now in a culture with ubiquitous hazards to marriage and few countervailing safeguards for it. We’re offered constant gratification and no incentive to ride out dissatisfaction. I discuss three “divorce magnets” pulling couples apart: the divorce industry and “non-judgmental” friends and family who offer sympathy and accommodation to divorcing people; convenient technology that facilitates hook-ups and porn, fomenting “the grass is greener” syndrome; and a competitive, egalitarian workplace that pulls attention to career and away from marriage and offers proximity for fraternization.
Lopez: Are people not getting married somehow out of the fight? Part of the problem?
Medved: “People not getting married” is a strange way to recognize a generation of victims of no-stigma, prolific divorce. I mentioned before the huge numbers of adult children of divorce, who became skittish about commitment, afraid to repeat what they saw their parents endure. They also fear inflicting on their own children the rootless dual identity fostered by shared custody that they suffered. Still, 96 percent of the population is either presently married or would like to be. It’s nearly everyone’s desire to form a permanent, loving bond with another. Therefore, nobody’s “out of the fight.”
Lopez: “Everyone has the potential for joy.” Why did you feel the need to write such a sentence?
Medved: Astute you picked up on that. As I wrote Don’t Divorce, I was often saddened thinking back to my clients in unhappy marriages. Sometimes I’d find myself in therapy sessions with sobbing spouses, trying to disguise my own tears of sympathy for what these people were going through — such as years of verbal lashing, lack of affection, or their unheeded pleading to spouses to address hurtful habits. Some, women in particular, had been completely devastated by a betraying spouse. They couldn’t see their way ever to regaining joy, especially with the person they’d come in some measure to hate. Perhaps people in the depths of marital turmoil and depression should have those words on paper. There’s always hope.
Lopez: How can a couple struggling make use of this book? If a husband or wife is reading this interview right now, how might they go about approaching their spouse to consider something of your suggestions. Besides buying your book, obviously, what’s the first step you’d recommend?
Medved: Don’t knock buying the book — sometimes just one partner leaving it on a nightstand inspires communication that’s been long avoided. Keeping hurt and suspicion bottled inside can feed misconceptions and fuel an outburst, so I’d probably say the first step is to approach the other and admit to problems and aspirations. Expressing thoughts in a letter is often the most constructive way to do this, and if the situation is delicate or explosive, the letters might best be exchanged in the presence of a counselor.
Usually at least one person wants to revive the marriage, even if one wants out. The tendency is to accept that if one partner is no longer in love, it’s over — but a partner who wants to save the marriage can’t just nod and accept rejection; she needs to seek out support and push back, even if that’s uncharacteristic or difficult for her.
We need to start discussing honoring commitment and ideals broader than those in our personal microcosms.
Lopez: How might we all start thinking differently about marriage and family, in the midst of all the political and cultural and personal challenges?
Medved: The reason divorce rates ascended was because of a sea change in national attitude fomented by spoiled Baby Boomers. The Greatest Generation’s motto was “Do your duty”: pulling and sacrificing together for the sake of the nation. This morphed into the Disney mantra of “Follow your heart,” meaning that if today you’re bored or “missing something” or feeling disrespected, you’re entitled to leave. We need to start discussing honoring commitment and ideals broader than those in our personal microcosms.
We should start looking at our marriages not as two people in love, because when that love falters for one person, as surely it will, then the basis of the relationship crumbles. Instead, we should take a long-term view of marriage, understanding it as a “family project” in which each person — husband, wife, each child and the extended family and community — plays a valuable role. If we see things in the long term rather than the feelings-oriented “right now,” we become empowered to weather difficulties, knowing that the larger goal and ultimate outcome is worthwhile.
Probably the most important and inspiring research in Don’t Divorce offers hope for everyone in a troubled marriage, and even for anyone observing our bizarre political scene. Two major studies assessed hundreds of thousands of married couples, asking their levels of marital happiness. Of the spouses who said they were unhappily married, five years later two-thirds in one study, and three-quarters in the other, reported being happily wed. And the couples who were most unhappy at first measurement became the most happy five years later. In other words, “this, too shall pass,” and with trust in God and our Constitution — and in the importance and worth of wedding vows — we can surmount and get past our problems and regain equilibrium and confidence in the future.