- Shearn doesn’t actually advocate for divorce. Yet her piece still comes across as a sales pitch for splitting up a family. Tweet This
- The "good divorce" rubbish has repeatedly been exposed as the myth it is. Tweet This
- Although I had primary physical custody, that was never enough. Big holes exist in my life during the decade my children shuttled between residences. Tweet This
A recent essay in The New York Times claims that a “50/50 Custody Arrangement Could Save Your Marriage.” But how can a married couple really split custody without divorcing? The author, Amy Shearn, never explains her non-sequitur. A more accurate title might be “How Divorce and Drastically Cutting Time With My Children Made Me Happier and Helped Me Achieve Self-Actualization.”
Post-divorce, Shearn, a once-harried writer who allegedly dreaded split custody with her ex at first, has become a convert, “absolutely restored” to herself. She sleeps in, dates, takes long walks, plays the ukulele, and has even published another book in her spare time. But at whose expense? If a man had written this piece, women would be screaming “narcissist!”
Is Divorce Really a Slam Dunk for Happiness?
True, Shearn doesn’t actually advocate for divorce. Her point seems to be that a more equally divided share of child care and housework could be key to saving some marriages. Yet her piece still comes across as a sales pitch for divorce. She and her tribe of divorced moms swear by the prescription. “I now think everyone else should do it,” she writes, going on to boast, “Every divorced woman I know is happier post-marriage.”
Don’t count me in—or the throngs of women and men I know who would vehemently disagree. Divorce makes life way more difficult for lots of women, including financially.
Worse than my ex-husband’s betrayal, worse than the loss of my home, worse even than my recent breast cancer diagnosis, was the loss of my family when my ex-husband walked out after 20 years of marriage. Worse still by far is the precious time I lost with my children—who were only ages 7 and 12 at the time—while they grew up.
In his divorce complaint, my ex-husband demanded sole custody. I was devastated. It was merely a negotiation tactic, he claimed. “Offer your ex the kids, and he’ll pay you to take them,” my lawyer joked. But horse trading with my children’s lives was no laughing matter to me.
We ended up with the typical every-other-weekend schedule where I had primary physical custody. But that was never enough. Big holes exist in my life during the decade my children shuttled between residences. Whole chunks of time unaccounted for in their memories and mine. I didn’t become an author until mid-age, two years after my youngest graduated from college. If I’d had the choice between getting my book published a decade and a half sooner or more time with my children, I’d take one more evening with my kids in a heartbeat.
And What About Dad?
Why exactly Shearn’s marriage warranted family Armageddon is unclear. “My soul was no longer aligned with my husband’s,” she writes, whatever that pablum means. She also questions “the whole project of monogamous marriage.” In our culture, we hear mostly about commitment-phobic men. But as Shearn acknowledges, women initiate divorce more often.
Beyond that, she carps about picking up dirty socks and the lack of time for self-actualization. There’s copious ink about the nightmare of allocating household chores and keeping track of dad’s shortfalls. What she describes sounds like the typical low-conflict marriage with children, the category most marriages fall into—the ones with the greatest likelihood of being salvaged.
Trust me, though, I get it. Balancing a relationship with kids, work, and household duties isn’t easy. The second shift is real! So is the rampant mental health crisis in our culture that propels adults into taking all sorts of harmful actions.
After working long hours as a lawyer and putting together the down payment for our home, I became a stay-at-home mom a few years before my ex-husband left. I distinctly remember Sunday evenings when I’d be cooking dinner, making school lunches, and juggling bath time, when I’d occasionally ask my ex to pick up something we’d forgotten at the grocery store only a few blocks away. “But it’s my weekend off,” he’d typically grumble. When did I get a weekend off?
So, I started attending a meditation class every Saturday morning, whether he balked or not. Walking out on my family wasn’t the answer. I’d have continued marital therapy for as long as it took, too, if my ex hadn’t quit. I say that as a woman who was betrayed and burned by the family court and the other woman.
As Time Magazine editor Belinda Luscombe explains in her book Marriageology, navigating marital dissatisfaction and the pet peeves that can sometimes infuriate spouses is simply part of being married. For Shearn, however, divorce offers a more appealing option. When husbands don’t measure up, why not just get divorce courts to “force” dads to do their fair share?
Yes, the upshot is that dad will have to house, feed, and clothe the children while they’re in his care. But no court on earth can make him return them with their homework done or anything else. They may even be left to fend for themselves if he takes off with his new girlfriend on his weekend.
And what happens to some of those sock-dropping dads whose wives leave them? Look, I realize that men have become persona non grata in so many ways. Does that mean we’re not supposed to care that men caught up in the divorce system commit suicide eight times more often than women?
What About the Children?
Shearn tells us how much more fulfilled, happier, and patient she is now that she only sees her children half as much as before. And how much easier parenting has become. But what about her children’s feelings?
I think we should trust science, not to mention the voices of adult children of divorce, on this one. The social science research is clear that children raised in intact two-parent families are far more likely to avoid poverty and prison, and to achieve higher educational attainment. They also fare markedly better on many other measures of wellness, with higher levels of well-being if parents in low-conflict marriages stay together.
Moreover, children learn by example. Divorce teaches them to bail when they encounter relationship problems—and that self-actualization trumps family and commitment.
Shearn claims her children now view her as a “human being,” not just mom. No doubt, being a healthy role model is important. But kids mainly just want to be kids, free to enjoy their short-lived childhood, feeling secure and cared for by the team that made them and that puts them first. They really don’t care whether or not their parents are self-actualized.
Nearly 3,000 years ago, King Solomon reigned in ancient Israel. He was renowned for his wisdom in settling disputes. The most famous story goes like this: two mothers came before him, both claiming to be the mother of the same child. King Solomon asked for a sword to solve the dispute by suggesting that the child be cut in half. One mother agreed that the child should be divided 50-50. But the child’s real mother immediately relinquished her claim to save her child.
Sadly, the odds are that Shearn’s divorce euphoria will wane. A University of Chicago study showed that, over time, unhappy adults who divorced or separated were no happier, on average, than unhappy adults who remained married. And that 2 out of 3 unhappily married adults who choose to work things out became happier over time. So many parents divorce without realizing the consequences of their actions. And it’s not for lack of literature or attempts at reforms, like extended waiting periods and informed consent by both adults before they pull the marriage plug. Thankfully, the good divorce rubbish has repeatedly been exposed as the myth it is. In the meantime, with the known damage of divorce across the board to men, women, and especially children, megaphones like Shearn’s—even those that masquerade as marriage-saving advice—are distressing and potentially reckless.
Beverly Willett is a former lawyer, author of Disassembly Required: A Memoir of Midlife Resurrection, and the co-founder of the Coalition for Divorce Reform.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.