Marissa Korbel woke up one morning and decided she would write the divorce announcement herself. “The first version had a lot of frustration and blame about why we were getting divorced,” she told me when I asked her about it. “I kept taking those things out.” Korbel, 40, a lawyer and writer in Portland, Oregon, had known for two months that she and her husband of 21 years were parting ways after he’d entered another intimate relationship. “Every time I told someone in person, it ended up being a big conversation. I was exhausted by the emotional labor of holding everyone else’s hand.” So, like many divorcing couples today, Korbel decided to use social media to communicate the change in her relationship, but she wanted to craft a narrative that avoided the usual trope of divorce as a bitter ending.
Before Amy Bond, a 39-year-old businessowner and writer in Oakland, California, posted about her imminent divorce, she’d heard predictions from friends and family to expect an acrimonious fight with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, even though she and Keith were intent on remaining close. “Our divorce was more of a transition into a new version of our relationship,” she said. “But the messages we received from others implied there’s only one pattern for what divorce is supposed to look like. Our culture doesn’t offer many healthy models.”
I follow Amy and Marissa on social media. We’re all writers on the West Coast whose paths occasionally intersect at writers’ conferences, critique groups, and readings. Their divorce announcements, posted just weeks apart from each other, came at a crossroad in my own career. Two years into the pandemic, my caseload included more people contemplating divorce than ever before. Every week, it seemed, another couple announced that they were calling it quits. I joked to my partner that I was becoming the “divorce whisperer.”
A few of these clients had asked for my help in crafting social media announcements about their divorces—an area of clinical practice for which I felt totally unprepared. So I decided to call up Amy and Marissa to ask about their experience with public divorce announcements. After all, helping clients create a common divorce story meant facing some foundational questions I’d rarely considered in my 30 years of practice. What is the story we tell ourselves about what it means to divorce? What are our intentions in announcing the decision to split up? How do we tell family and friends in a way that supports each person as an individual moving into the future? And how can a common story become a healing part of a breakup?
Breaking Free of Tropes
A mythic ideal of marriage, reflected in both perfect and imperfect versions, is enshrined in popular culture, including novels by Edith Wharton, Leo Tolstoy, and Jane Austen. While Austen presents a model of the perfect forever relationship, Tolstoy and Wharton describe the tragedies—social shunning, despair, suicide—that result when matrimony doesn’t go as planned. These classic stories underscore the myth that divorce is inevitably a calamity, destroying families and reputations, leading to personal ruin and ostracism, and usually focusing on one bad actor. The divorce-as-catastrophe trope runs deep—and often unexamined—in our social DNA.
But today, many couples facing divorce are challenging this cliché. They have therapists and mediators reminding them that, for their children’s sake, they need to be their “best selves” during an often emotionally volatile transition. They may be intent on maintaining a friendship or an amicable coparenting arrangement, or at least planting the seeds for a more positive relationship in the future.
As a teenager growing up in the late 1970s—the era of “broken families”—I had a personal stake in the issue. My parents had an adversarial, lawyer-orchestrated divorce that lasted almost a decade—a carousel ride of painful and expensive court appearances as they haggled over child support and alimony. They took their cues from lawyers intent on winning; they didn’t know another way. And in talking to his three sons, my father didn’t hold back his resentments about my mother, often villainizing her, compelling me and my brothers to choose sides. We had no shared understanding of what had happened in their marriage. For years after the matter was settled, the debacle haunted all our relationships.
Couples counselors have a role to play in shaping these transitions as both ordinary and transformational, providing a safe space for individuals, either separately or together, to make sense of more volatile emotions before telling anyone about the new reality. Part of that work is unpacking some of the conventional ideas of what a divorce means and coming up with their own story in all its individual complexity. In my own work with clients, we explore the cultural messages they received about marriage and divorce. What is a happy marriage? What does a divorce mean to us? And what is our unique story of why we came together as a couple at a certain point in our lives, why that made sense at the time, how we weathered joys and adversities together, and why, now, separate journeys make sense?
How Did It Come to This?
Amy knew her husband had struggled with depression in the last year, but she didn’t realize that their marriage was part of his unhappiness. One night, she and Keith were on the couch watching an episode of Ted Lasso, in which Ted looks wistfully at his estranged wife while she says to him, “I just don’t feel it anymore.” Overcome with a sadness they didn’t fully understand, Amy and Keith found themselves in each other’s arms, crying. A few days later, Keith asked for a divorce.
As they puzzled over the steps they needed to take to make it happen, Keith and Amy talked about their “divorce PR strategy.” Because Amy is a writer active on social media, she offered to write a first draft. “Take out anything you want,” she said to him. “I’m not attached to any of it.” But that wasn’t completely true. When Keith asked Amy to take out her references to how great their marriage had been, she agreed, but felt hurt. For the first time, she realized that his story wasn’t as rosy as hers.
Marissa’s situation was different. Her husband didn’t want to process feelings or write anything. Because of the strain between them, she couldn’t get him on board with a public announcement. “Somehow, I was caught in the narrative that I had to get him to agree with me,” she said.
It’s not uncommon for one or both members of a divorcing couple to sidestep the painful processing of grief and loss, and to move on quickly without fully reckoning with deeper emotional realities. Kate Sutton, a couples counselor in San Jose, California, warns that it can be risky to proceed with a solo announcement. “If you put your story out there before there’s agreement, you’re going to get backlash. You don’t want to promote a polarizing narrative that causes more hurt.”
But Marissa realized the only way to move forward was without her husband’s input. “Your partnership is ending. You don’t need the other person’s permission to make your peace with it,” she told me. She wrote multiple drafts of an announcement, each time editing out her anger and disappointment. Despite the continuing strife between them, she was intent not to demonize her partner or set a tone that might cause friends or family to take sides. “I had to keep bringing myself back to the point of the announcement: to minimize the emotional labor for me, and to make my social media and my life a more authentic space.”
Novelist Michael Cunningham once wrote, “We become the stories we tell ourselves.” Amy and Marissa resemble many of my clients who seek to redefine the terms of relationship transition as something challenging but positive, painful but capable of producing growth. Sutton expresses an idea that aligns with my clinical experience when she says: “Coming up with a shared narrative can be so helpful to get rid of the hurts. Not a shared description of who did what, but a joining together in this next phase of life. How can this be about personal growth as opposed to a ‘moment of failure’?”
As I reflected on the challenge of reimagining what it means to divorce, I called family therapist Mary Jo Barrett, my friend and former supervisor, for her thoughts. She focused on the troubling lack of ritual when couples divorce, which constrains their ability to integrate and make meaning of this existential shift. “You’re changed when you’re married, and you’re changed when you’re divorced,” she said. “But there’s so little ritual for divorce compared to all the rituals that come with getting married.”
Barrett also noted the deep, immobilizing shame surrounding divorce that can block couples from thinking for themselves. Crafting a common story and sharing it with others, even on social media, can be part of setting the right tone for moving forward and alleviating that shame. Barrett told the story of her own divorce, which involved a get, a highly symbolic Jewish custom involving, in her case, a court of three rabbis and the divorcing couple ripping up the ketubah (the marriage vows) and burying them. “I’m not saying that everyone should have a get,” she said. “They’re quite shame-based. But in a helpful way, they make it clear, before witnesses, that the marriage is over, and we’re separate people.”
Divorce announcements, however they’re shared, can include ritual elements as well. Sutton encourages her couples to journal, going through multiple iterations of their marriage story, exploring the sometimes raw and jagged emotions—rage, betrayal, hurt—that may accompany their experience. Eventually, she’ll help her clients distill elements they can agree on. The public announcement is less about the marriage than about the separate paths of two individuals moving into the future.
Lauren Mac Neill, a Portland-based mediator and couples therapist, has adopted a mediation model that emerged in the Netherlands several years ago. Mediators there will not proceed with any discussion about the separation of assets or division of parenting time—often areas of high conflict and reactivity—until the divorcing couple settles on a common story, one that makes sense to both parties. “Without the working through of the shared narrative, those emotions will continue to flare during discussion of other material,” she said. It also becomes a template that can be adapted for different audiences, like children, family, close friends, and followers on social media.
Mac Neill invites couples to work through multiple iterations of a narrative. In her practice, one way of generating multiple drafts that can lead to a common story is to have each person respond to questions: What are they saying goodbye to when the marriage ends? What habits will they no longer have to endure in the other? What plans had they made that won’t come to fruition, at least as a couple? How do they say hello to their new relationship as coparents and possibly friends? A shared narrative that’s been processed by both individuals can help spouses stay grounded during an undertaking that often activates primitive feelings of rejection and abandonment.
Decades of research confirm that children do not respond well to villainizing, or negative talk, about the other parent. The therapists I consulted underscored the importance of crafting public announcements with children in mind, when there are children, regardless of their ages. Sutton poses this question for couples: “What’s going to be most useful for your children over the long term? If you spit something out on social media, even if it’s just to a hundred people, it may get back to the kids at some point in their lives.”
Garnering Community Support
In a wedding ceremony, the assembled guests are often asked to support the new couple. This ritual element can strengthen the new couple as they start out on their marital journey. For some divorcing couples, however, feelings of shame and embarrassment can isolate them from potential supports. What do soon-to-be-ex-spouses need from their communities when they go through this life-changing transition?
After they posted their divorce announcements, both Amy and Marissa were pleased by the responses. Amy felt buoyed, surprised by the company of fellow travelers who’d had similar experiences. “So many people who never made an internet announcement told me that they were best friends with their ex-partners, just as I announced my ex and I intended to be,” she shared. “It turns out it’s not so strange. I was shocked by how many people insisted they’re much happier now as friends than they ever were as a married couple.”
Marissa also felt flooded by support. She said, “The responses validated the choice to frame it the way I did, to keep the anger out, to not make it a juicy narrative that people would ask me about because there’s some dirt there. No one bad-mouthed him. They reminded me that I’m loved and have community. My friends are the gold of my life.”
Stories For a New Era
Every person I spoke to about revisioning divorce referenced Conscious Uncoupling, Katherine Woodward Thomas’s 2015 New York Times bestseller, with some awkwardness, as if “uncoupling” were a dubious lifestyle trend, but they also noted that it provided an important language for talking about marital transition without shame or the taint of failure. In contrast, a 2010 feature in The New York Times Magazine focusing on couples with unconventional living or economic arrangements—like living separately, neither conventionally married nor conventionally divorced—produced only one clumsy term for the phenomenon: the undivorced. Both examples underscore two truths: there’s a cultural shift about marriage and divorce that demands reckoning, and there’s a dearth of affirmative language for people who change the terms of their relationship.
What are our own biases and psychological baggage as therapists when it comes to divorce? Have we done our own work on the narrative of divorce-as-failure? As I contemplated what it means to end a marriage, I called my mother, now 80 and living with my brother and his husband outside Baltimore, Maryland. Even though she’s on Facebook, she’d never seen a divorce announcement. I explained what I see in my practice when people divorce—parenting classes, discernment counseling, mediated agreements, and custody studies, all research-based supports that were unheard of when she and my father split. In the 1970s, they’d attended counseling, which both found unhelpful, and later mostly communicated through lawyers. The most valuable help she found, she said, was Al-Anon, where she connected with fellow travelers who understood what it meant to struggle with an alcoholic in the family.
Then, she mentioned something that had happened two decades after their divorce was finalized. “When your father was so ill, I decided I was going to visit him in the hospital,” my mother said. “I was hoping he might acknowledge regrets, maybe even say he was sorry about what had happened between us.” Sadly, my father was unconscious and couldn’t have visitors. He died the next day. They never got closure. Their story was stuck in time.
Mom’s story—which, as her oldest son, the divorce whisperer, is also my story—underscores that today’s therapists can play a crucial role for clients whose relationships are changing. We can help them manage the often overwhelming, distracting, jagged emotions in the present-moment crisis of separating lives once joined, keeping our eyes on the long view. We can help shift the divorce-as-calamity image that shames and constrains them as they move into an uncertain new reality. Most crucially, we can encourage them to create a compassionate narrative of what happened and what’s needed from friends and family as they move into a future they might not yet be able to imagine.
Photo Credit: ISTOCK/RAWF8
Wayne Scott, MA, LCSW, is a writer and couples therapist in Portland, Oregon. Recently his New York Times essay, “Two Open Marriages in One Small Room,” was adapted for the Modern Love podcast and read by Edoardo Ballerini. It is adapted for the Modern Love (Amsterdam) television series, available now on Amazon Prime. Visit his website at waynescottlcsw.com.