Marriage is hard work but worth it. If you end up divorced, it means you didn’t try hard enough, you don’t know what commitment means and you’re putting you own happiness before your family’s — or all of the above — and that’s why you have a failed marriage.
What divorced person hasn’t heard that — or some variation — before?
As a twice married and divorced woman, I sure did. So did Astro and Danielle Teller. Despite their best intentions when they said their “I dos,” each of their marriages ended, and when they started dating and then married, blending families and many marital years behind them (14 for Astro, eight for Danielle), they began to question a lot of the messages they’d been told about marriage and divorce, as well as the one-size-fits-all answers “experts” and the self-help industry had for struggling couples.
As scientists — Astro is a computer scientist who oversees Google[x] and Danielle is a physician — they tried to remove the emotional responses we all have about divorce so they could focus on the logic. The result of their inquiry is a book that came out right about the time The New I Do was published, Sacred Cows: The Truth About Divorce and Marriage(Diversion Books).
Both books question the status quo when it comes to marriage and divorce, and offer outside-the-box thinking. I didn’t know about their book until recently, and as I read it and found myself highlighting much of what they wrote — scribbling in the corners, “Yes!” and nodding my head in agreement because they get it — I was eager to connect with them and thank them. It’s the book I wish I read when I was contemplating divorce (and I read a lot of self-help books) and sorting through the inevitable messy emotions I was feeling while also weighing the co-parenting, financial and everyday realities of divorcing with kids without crumbling under the shame and judgment that basically well-meaning people thrust upon me.
Their book presents the false cultural assumptions about divorce as Sacred Cows, illustrated as, well, cows, and if you have been divorced or are contemplating it, you have likely heard what the cows spew as “truth”:
- Holy Cow: Marriage is always good and divorce is always bad.
- Expert Cow: All marital problems can be fixed with help.
- Selfish Cow: People who divorce are selfish, people who stay married are selfless.
- Defective Cow: If you can’t make your marriage happy, or if you divorce, you must be defective.
- Innocent Victim Cow: Children’s lives are ruined by divorce.
- One True Cow: True love is why you marry but if you become unhappy in your marriage, you should stop believing in true love.
- Other Cow: It’s not OK to leave a marriage to be with a new partner.
Except, as the Tellers point out, the research doesn’t back up any of what we’ve been told and thus believe. The New I Do asks you to question your assumptions about marriage; the Tellers ask you to question your assumptions about divorce.
If you’re struggling in your marriage or thinking about divorce, I highly suggest you read Sacred Cows. It won’t give you any answers and it isn’t going make some things about divorce — the grief, pain, financial impacts, etc. — any easier. It will, however, help you be aware of society’s damaging messages that clutter rational thinking.
Just as you have permission to have a marriage based on your values and goals, you have permission to examine your marital situation without shame or guilt.
Q: Your book originated from your own divorces. You mention how people tried to help while others made you feel shame. How did you sort through all those conflicting messages to look at the bigger picture of how we marry and divorce?
Danielle: Quite painfully. I spent a good year feeling horrible before I started getting a new perspective. Society’s giving you these messages that don’t make a lot of sense.
Astro: We didn’t come to any truths, but we did uncover some deep inconsistencies in society. That’s what the book turned into; neither an argument for marriage or divorce, but simply that we felt we had uncovered some sufficiently large hypocrisies in those narratives. We felt freed from a lot of the narrative pressure once we recognized how much hypocrisy was baked into those narratives.
Q: One divorce is often enough to scare people away from any sort of relationship, let alone another marriage. What was the path each of you followed that led you to the decision to tie the knot again?
Astro: We were just madly in love, there was no way we weren’t going to get married. … but, importantly, we made sure from the very beginning that there wasn’t going to be any guilt or the overhang of those sacred cows. Instead of promising that we were going to be together, which neither of us believes, it’s a desire to be together. If she decides tomorrow she’s no longer into me, she’s not a bad person. I’ll be sad, but she’s not a bad person. It sounds like a really small change, but it’s not.
Q: What makes a second, third, fourth or 10th marriage different than the first — is it just having a new partner, is it wisdom or personal growth, is it doing things differently or something completely different?
Astro: We went into our marriage even more romantically than into our first. … Everyone who goes into a second marriage has to understand, at least conceptually, that marriages don’t last because they have this abject lesson in their lives. What they do about that is very different.
Danielle: We have this narrative that all marriages are equal. If you’re unhappy in your marriage, then being married to someone else isn’t going to make things better. … I don’t know why as a culture we don’t admit who you marry makes a difference.
Astro: I think we do know why, because if the narrative of who you choose matters and choosing differently could be a successful way to get yourself happier, it would allow people a legitimate reason to end their marriage and try again. Society is not OK with that. Society starts from the perspective that it doesn’t want people to get divorced, and then it comes up with stories and reasons that cut off all the avenues of escape.
Q: The Holy Cow’s message is that married people are “better than divorced people.” Lots of people who prefer to be single or cohabit hear that, too. Why do you think so many of us believe that’s true?
Astro: I think it’s the other way around. It’s, how are the sacred cows tricking us into it? The reason is society, which we are personifying as these cows, wants us to get married and stay married, not to make you happier or your spouse happier or your kids happier, but because society, rightly or wrongly, believes it will get what it wants if it gets people to get married and stay married. (It’s) a mob mentality where no one of us is puppeteering this but we collectively talk ourselves into it.
Q: Society seems to hold on to a nostalgic view of marriage, that people who married “back then” understood what marriage is really about. Except “back then,” marriage was more a duty than a choice, and an institution that was often a pretty crappy deal for women but they had few choices. Why do you think we still cling to that vision?
Danielle: We romanticize everything about the past. We really want to believe that marriages can be happily ever after.
Astro: If I’m afraid she’ll leave me, and my main tool in keeping her from leaving me is shame and fear and guilt, which the sacred cows bring to my arsenal… If I want her not to quit, I have to look at people who quit less. If I point to them (and say) that those people were noble, it latches into the general romanticizing of the past and then I can effectively make her feel like shit if she’s thinking of leaving.
Q: What are the most important things you hope people get from reading your book?
Danielle: To give permission to make decisions about marriage and divorce without the piles of guilt society puts on them. … Just because you’re divorced or you want to get divorced, that doesn’t make you a bad person.
Astro: If they go through the process of asking whether marriage is working for them without the fear and shame that the scared cows produce, they’ll still probably have some soul searching to do and maybe a lot of pain to go through, but it would be less than it would be otherwise and they’ll probably end up in a happier place if they can make that decision free of that fear.
Illustration courtesy of “Sacred Cows.”
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