The case of the name change of “divorce”. Ending a partnership – personal or… | by Scott Galloway | May 2021
When Bill and Melinda Gates recently announced their divorce, people expressed a surprising amount of shock and disappointment. Seattle’s second richest divorcing couple will be fine because money is the shock absorber of the modern world.
Similar to its effect on so many other things, the pandemic has acted not as an agent of change for marriage, but as an accelerator: Ask for information with divorce lawyers heated up a third during the lockout while 58% of Americans surveyed said the pandemic has made their marriage stronger. Strong unions have grown stronger; the wide open split fracture.
It’s not just couples who re-evaluate their ties. Last week, Verizon parted ways with its media harem (Yahoo, AOL, TechCrunch, etc.). It was a divorce that everyone saw coming – at this corporate wedding ceremony, attendees politely smiled and wondered why this was happening. In DC, the Republican Party is renewing its vows with Donald Trump, ignoring Liz Cheney’s sober reminder that their abusive relationship is bad for everyone.
Ending a partnership – personal or corporate – is generally seen as an admission of failure and sticks. Often on administrative forms, the options for marital status are single, married and divorced. (How is “divorced” a status? Isn’t that just single?) Five years after my own divorce, telling people about it still inspired a depressing mixture of pity and judgment on the part of those whose (married) life was somewhere between denial and horrible.
Likewise, companies feel ashamed after a failed marriage. To avoid sounding stupid, companies refuse to write down the value of an acquisition or outright sell it (like Verizon did with Yahoo). After unwrapping the freebies and evangelizing synergies to shareholders, they are loath to admit they were wrong. Breaking up any union is costly and painful, and most people and businesses had better admit the mistake sooner.
As if stigma and pride weren’t enough, divorce was once legally impossible or incredibly burdensome. Couples who file for divorce would do things like organize the husband meet another woman in a hotel and take nude photos to provide “evidence” of adultery. Henry VIII founded the Church of England so that he could annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. I understand. I would be ready to create a religious institution to avoid spending more time with the spouses of several of my friends. But I digress.
Trapping people in unhappy marriages can have profound negative consequences. Relaxation of restrictions on divorce are correlated with an 8% to 16% decrease in female suicides and a 30% decrease in domestic violence.
Today we have largely stopped trying to limit divorce through the legal system. California was the first state to enact a no-fault divorce in 1969; New York was the last, in 2010. The divorce rate peaked around 1980 and has declined since. Before the pandemic, it had fallen below its 1970 level.
While divorce is legally possible today, it is still expensive (the median divorce in the United States costs $ 7,500), and in the short term, it’s emotionally draining. Women initiate most divorces (maybe up to 80%), but they also bear the brunt of the financial impact: Women generally see their income decline for years afterwards and have a harder time recharging their batteries. It is even more difficult for women with children. The data on long-term psychological well-being after divorce is mixed – as with most things we tend to revert to the mean – but men can experience greater emotional damage.
The deepest costs of a split don’t weigh on the couple. Divorce is hard on children, and the consequences persist into adulthood. I remember when I was 10 years old saying that I was a handicap in the eyes of the men who came to our door to take my mother on a date. Children of divorced parents are on average more unhappy, more anxious and more likely to be depressed. They are also less likely to graduate from high school and college, generally earn less money, and are more likely to divorce themselves. But the same goes for children whose parents have remained in a high-conflict marriage. Relationships that generate serious conflict can be as difficult for children as breakups. Chaos is the culprit, not legal status.
Divorce has been at the center of the most disturbing times of my life: when my mom picked me up from Little League and told me we weren’t coming home; when I recognized my huge shortcomings after telling my wife that I wanted a divorce; and more recently, when I saw my father leave his wife of 25 years a year before he died. Just as Jane Goodall was deeply disappointed when she realized that chimps are like us, violent and selfish, divorce brings you face to face with your flaws and the collateral damage they impose.
Marriage is a powerful institution. This gives us an economic, emotional and logistical partner. Two people form a more efficient household and a more solid foundation for the children: just two thirds of income necessary to support two households for separated parents. The married ones have better health insurance (like their children) and better access to social networks (via their spouse). So, not surprisingly, they tend to to live longer, have fewer strokes and heart attacks, and have a lower incidence of depression
Yet the marriage rate in the United States has steadily declined – it has fallen by 25% since 2000 and by 50% since 1980.
The share of adults who have never married is at an all-time high: 35% of Americans between the ages of 25 and 50 have never married. The decline in the divorce rate that we have seen since 1980 is in large part due to the decrease in the number of marriages.
Marriage and divorce rate reflect our growing economic inequalities. Rich people are much more likely to marry and stay married. Among the top third in terms of income, 64% of people are in their first marriage compared to only 24% in the bottom third. Americans with a college degree are more likely to marry (38% vs. 30%). Prior to 2000, college graduates were less likely to marry, but the reverse and the gap is widening. Schooled Americans have seen their falling divorce rate by about 30% since the early 1980s, while Americans without a college degree have seen theirs increase by about 6%.
Employment is a major factor. Men without full-time jobs are much less likely to marry than employed men. Among men aged 25 to 50 without a full-time job, 55% have never married, compared with only 32% of employed men. Meanwhile, there is evidence that the structure of our social safety net discourages marriage among low-income people.
It widens the embrasures of our already fractured Commonwealth. At a minimum, the matrimonial partnership creates economic strength through shared expenses and consolidated income. The decline in the marriage rate among already disadvantaged people, combined with the growing number of children being raised in single-parent households in this demographic, can only deepen our economic divide.
The liberalization of divorce laws initially freed many couples from unhappiness, literally saving the lives of women chained to violent men. But ending a marriage that should end is still extremely costly, and our society struggles to provide a stable environment for children that is not based on having two parents under the same roof.
My father has been married and divorced, to our knowledge, four times. He divorced his last wife at the age of 89, just a year before she died of Parkinson’s disease. At 34, I was divorced.
What can we learn? There is no doubt that we need better marriages. Do we want less divorces? Do the costs of getting out of shame discourage people from forming partnerships in the first place? Does “Divorce” Need a Rebranding? Or do these exit costs encourage people to endure the obstacles that inevitably appear in a relationship despite our naive expectation that a marriage can absorb all the stressors? Is it wrong to be held responsible for the disappointments of life? It’s complex.
I’m looking for a takeaway, a lesson that will last. Is Marriage Or Divorce Better? I think the answer is yes. Only one truth emerges: Twitter should absolutely leave Jack Dorsey.
Life is so rich