Divorce through time

My parents split up in 2011. My mother packed her bags and moved my brother and I about 10,000 kilometres away to a new country. In my middle school eyes, this looked nothing like a divorce or even a separation, because their motivation was us: to put us kids in a different education system. They kept emphasizing that nothing was “not working” and that everything was fine. This had nothing to do with them.

Seven years later, my mother revealed to me that even before 2011, my brother and I were the glue that kept the family together — legally, if not geographically. Over breakfast, she once shrugged as she said, “There really is no other reason for us to stay together.” A shrug for decades of marriage. Two people stuck in limbo, “just ’cause.” I couldn’t stop thinking childishly, “I thought this was about love?” What about love?

Over 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, marriage was a means of keeping power within the family. These strategic partnerships based on the production of heirs are the first recorded evidence of marriage contracts. For centuries to come, the idea of romance existed strictly outside of these business affairs as marriage was too serious to be influenced by the vulnerability and fragility of emotion.

Around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the concepts of romance and marriage began to be seen as compatible. The growth of the middle class in the nineteenth century offered greater autonomy and financial means for individuals to make their own decisions about what marriage would represent in their lives. In turn, this also gave divorce the impetus it needed to nearly double within a decade.

From 1971–1975 alone, divorce rates increased by a whopping 90 per cent in Canada. While this was happening, marriage rates were declining. The latter half of the twentieth century was characterized by drastic changes to the entire culture of marriage. As a consequence of the social and economic developments of industrialization, parents, economic conditions, and patriarchal expectations started to release their grip on the unmarried. Instead of social obligations and financial demands, subjective happiness became a central factor in marriage, following what was dubbed the “soulmate model.” Institutional marriage was becoming outdated and replaced by companionate marriage at an alarming rate.

Historically, companionate marriage has been met with a slew of criticisms and has even found itself under the spotlight of social policy. A primary concern has been the individualistic nature of companionate marriage, perceived as the abandonment of building traditional, cohesive family units. The social order was being challenged.

In valuing sexual and emotional compatibility over kinship, childbearing, and property relations, companionate marriages do appear to result in higher divorce rates than traditional marriages that are established on stricter familial obligations. Advocates of this evolution offer an alternate view, saying that this is making room for self-development and second chances. The practice of divorce itself is being destigmatized, and we’re becoming less afraid of leaving marriages that simply aren’t working for us. 

While these offer new pathways for us in love and give us more room to navigate the roles of dating, relationships, and marriage in our lives, prior to that, we are subject to our parents’ experiences. What if right now you’re not in your twenties or thirties looking to settle down, but are instead a 10-year-old hearing your parents argue in the next room, or a high school kid realizing for the first time that they might not be as in love as you always thought they were? What happens to you when it’s your turn?

The impact of divorce on children at different ages

U of T student Afeq Aiman revealed that his parents’ divorce drastically impacted his promises to his future self.

“I’m not going to make my family in the future go through that. I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone I know.” He agrees that his ideas of family-building are tied to his experiences, watching his parents go through divorce and witnessing the aftermath for all parties.

About half of all divorces will involve children who will witness firsthand the individual economic and social struggle of each parent to survive. Having chosen to stay with their mother while his brother went to live with their father, Aiman watched closely how his mother managed the difficulties that followed in the coming years. “I think she’s still suffering, she’s not that stable right now. I want to do my best to help her out sooner or later,” he explains. He looks forward to graduating and getting a job to offer her more financial support.

The divorce had different effects on him and his brother, who is eight years older. “Because you’re older, you understand more of the whole thing,” he says about the heightened sensitivity observed in his brother. While Aiman was eight, his brother was in high school. “He was a teenager, his education suffered the most impact… it was harder for him to go to a bigger university especially with the timing and money and all.” He reflected that being the older sibling subjected his brother to more of what was happening.

Studies have shown that young adults tend to assume greater responsibility to care for their parents throughout the turmoil of a divorce or separation. Furthermore, in being forced into the middle of a loyalty conflict, they can internalize guilt that weighs them down. Parents often hold on to children, who may have initially planned to move, in subtle ways as a means of finding a replacement for a lost figure in their home life. As a result, grown children can be unprotected from the nasty edges of divorce and be left to deal with their unique experience of dissolution of the family alone.

Being younger in such situations can be advantageous as children will have little memory of the divorce process. However, children need a consistent familial environment to offer the necessary stability for optimal development, which can be challenging to maintain during times of divorce. Being young doesn’t mean you don’t know what’s happening, but it does mean you’re faced with a greater challenge of articulating your concerns when witnessing clear parental distress. Some have cited this as the cause for deep-seated anxiety that presents itself in children in divorce in their later years.

When asked about what else he remembers of his parents’ marriage prior to the split, Aiman mentions vague memories of loud arguments and knowing that his parents never saw eye to eye, but one particular instance stuck out to him. “I was eight — I think seven or eight — and my parents were fighting in this room and I think I heard my mom throw a vase or something.” He tells me that he spent the rest of the night crying in the room next door while his brother comforted him. The memory is vivid, and in the years leading up to the divorce, Aiman says that he continued to watch the temper in his family members cause fights that led to more screaming and breaking furniture.

In his current relationships, Aiman considers himself even-tempered and tends to avoid expressing his anger. “My current girlfriend of five years, every time she gets into a fight, she gets really angry really fast,” he says. As for him, “I’ve never gotten angry at her, not even once. I’ve gotten annoyed, but not angry.” Aiman says that watching the divorce unfold has contributed directly to his tendency to avoid arguments and confrontation that could escalate.

Though only eight years old at the time and completely oblivious to the split until he was sat down for a conversation, Aiman admits to seeing some lasting effects on his personality. “I think the divorce had the most impact on arguments and confrontations and how I try to have a conversation instead. It’s taught me a few things.”

Aiman says that although he doesn’t necessarily want to reverse his parents’ decision as he remembers so little of it, he does confess that “the hardest part to go through was never having a sense of family. I just never had that.” He recounts a time when he went to a friend’s family dinner and had the sudden realization of what he’d been missing. “It’s just that I had it and then I lost it, and sometimes you don’t realize you’ve lost it until you see it again with someone else. So I think that was a hard part, I never had a big family for a long time.”

As he grows older, he’s more able to compare his upbringing with that of his peers. Some realizations he has made have changed the way he views how he was brought up. If he were to ever have to go through a divorce of his own, Aiman says that he would immediately feel like he was “going back on [his] own word.” Evaluating how his home life had shifted so much without him realizing led to a dedication to commit to marriage, he says. “I promised myself something big.”

The deinstitutionalization of marriage: how to find your own ideas of love

I was 18 when my mom revealed her marital indifference to me. Innocent as I was, I was completely appalled. Realistically, none of this should have come as a surprise as I had gone all 18 years of my life not witnessing a single hug shared, hand held, or affectionate word spoken. For some unknown reason other than an unexplainable strength of naïveté, I had never once considered that my parents were disinterested in one another.

My parents’ relationship had evolved into a simple partnership built on co-raising two kids without my knowing, and it built the four walls within which my conceptions of marriage had been insulated. I held on to the belief that love was the basis for marriage, and by that logic, if my parents weren’t divorced, they had to have been in love. This is what it looked like to be married. This is what 30 years together looked like. I might’ve even believed for 18 years that this was what it looked like to be happily married.

With their marriage’s mortality revealed, being 18 suddenly became so much harder. I was moving away for college and slowly becoming financially independent. Their reason for partnership was nearing an end, and our home life was suddenly suspended in mid-air. It begged the question of whether the problem belonged to me and my brother, as it constantly felt like the onus had somehow been placed on us to always lend a fraction of our lives to keeping the four of us bound as a family unit. I felt so responsible for something that dismantled my entire childhood.

I don’t blame my parents for wanting to protect us from ‘failure,’ but as I attempted to forge romantic relationships of my own, I realized that their ‘protection’ resulted in a personal battle of building ideas of love that existed independently from this experience. It put my own views of intimacy in flux and left me with polarized approaches to dating. On the one hand, I would experience phases of desperately wanting to escape the limits that this experience seemed to have placed on me. On the other, I couldn’t convince myself that people knew how to stay in love and instead adopted the idea that time gave way to inevitable deterioration.

In the year that I have lived with this tension, I have simply wanted to know this: how do you learn to love in a completely unaffected way? How do you learn to love in a way that is your own?

In the bigger picture of society, I am not alone in my ever-changing conceptions of intimacy. It seems that every decade we’re learning new ways of how people choose to come together and fall apart.

When divorce rates skyrocketed in the ’60s, moving from the margins of society to the mainstream, we were changing our minds about what we owed to each other as members of a family unit and as members of society. We were becoming more aware of our responsibilities to ourselves and our moral obligation to self-fulfilment. We can still feel this ethical shift in 2019 as we constantly remake our ideas about the nature and purpose of family.

As the serial killers of industries ranging from soap to motorcycles, millennials are also blamed for putting marriage on the chopping block. Noted as one of the most recent and key moments in relationship building, we are entering the age of non-marital cohabitation, and with fewer marriages come fewer divorces.

Throughout history, love has taken on various shapes and forms. From love and marriage being mutually exclusive to the former being made the very bedrock of the latter, relationships have faced criticism, embrace, and fear. The impacts of family breakdown — however it may happen — are undeniable and can cause retrospective confusion and questions about the foundations of a family. But I’d like to think that prospectively, we have a lot more choice. Prospectively, some of us may vow to never argue, to never divorce, or to never marry in the first place. If marriage can make its way from being a tool for establishing diplomatic and trade ties to fulfilling emotional needs and intimacy, then prospectively, love is what we make of it.