that’s not how norms work: divorce stigma edition

divorce is not an option

crap like this really grinds divorcees’ gears.
but it shouldn’t.

I think I mentioned this somewhere on here previously, but I have had what you could call a “starter marriage” already – I was briefly married to my long-time college boyfriend when I was in my early 20s. [More on the specifics of this, and the lessons I’ve learned, some other time for sure]. Within the last year or so, I ended up joining a Facebook group for women who have been divorced in their 20s, run by the author of a book on early divorce. This Facebook group is sociologically interesting (although mostly depressing) and it has gotten me thinking real hard about a number of aspects of the state of gender relations, dating, marriage, + family in the United States today.

Here’s the first of what I expect will be several important divorce board observations: the women in this group have absolutely no grasp of the situation regarding divorce stigma. Frequently, one member or another complains that some family member has made a backhanded and insulting comment about her divorce. Or, a Facebook acquaintance has posted a meme to the effect that “marriage is forever no matter what.”

However, these same divorcees complain about how uncommitted their ex-husbands were to their marriages: neither holding jobs nor helping around the house, refusing to talk about problems, abandonment at first sign of downturn in the relationship, whatever. In fact, they observe that in general men of formerly marriageable age seem not to get it and are shitty partners even if you can manage to talk them into marriage in the first place. Marriage is supposed to be a pretty sweet deal for both parties involved. However could this have happened?

Well, sorry ladies, you can’t have it both ways: Either…

  1. Social norms regarding the permanence and moral significance of marriage exist – in which case they tend to shape men into husband material and explain why people disapprove of your divorce, or
  2. Those norms don’t exist, and you’re stuck on a marriage merry-go-round in which no one cares whether your marriage lasts – including your husband(s).

Occasionally, I have joked about the marriage equality issue, saying stuff like: “Same-sex marriage objectors, don’t blame the gays. If you think there’s a problem with marriage in America, lay your blame with me.” It was tongue-in-cheek, but I kind of meant it. Even if your particular circumstances warranted (or at least seemed to warrant) divorce – lack of love, boredom, substance problems, infidelity, etc – what are social trends other than aggregations of individual decisions? The fact that any given person ends up divorced in her 20s is partially reflective of a previous climate of divorce in the moral community, but it then informs members of that community’s future behavior in turn. Kind of a vicious norms-weakening cycle.

I understand that it’s very hurtful to be on the receiving end of comments suggesting that you must not have taken your marriage seriously, that you didn’t try hard enough, that you’re disobeying God’s will, that you’re degrading civil society, and etc. But that’s the whole point! Norms don’t work if they don’t have teeth; although some members of society in effect free-ride on the willingness of others to enforce the social norms, those norms enforcers are critical to the norm’s health and its capacity to motivate individuals’ action. Indeed, if norms are not enforced adequately, then they eventually fall out of existence altogether.

Social norms have to be fairly general, so people pick them up easily and apply them readily to others even on the basis of fairly little information. It’s reasonable for a divorcé(e) to expect that his or her family and closest friends will care about the situation’s particulars enough to hear them out and to draw a more nuanced conclusion about whether the divorce was warranted, whether it’s turning out for the best, etc. It’s also reasonable to expect that mere acquaintances and strangers will obey norms of etiquette, refraining from outright rudeness (e.g., one divorcée’s relative sent her a Christmas card chastising her about it – totally uncalled for, and not constructive besides).

But these women of all people, the early divorcées, definitely realize that marriage matters, and they honestly want marriages to work. Criticizing the norms that will make this possible once again and refusing to participate in norms enforcement is near-sighted and contrary to their own purposes.

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