This may be me revealing my naivety, but I refuse to accept the platitude that people get divorced because it’s easy. There is nothing easy about divorce. Perhaps the actual signing of the documents is fairly straight forward, but that path that leads you to and from the divorce courts; that path is rocky and hard. Who you will marry is one of the biggest decisions you will make in your life. It impacts your health, your future prospects, where you will live, what family you have, the opportunities you will have, your financial stability, your happiness and personal fulfilment. The knitting together of two lives, even if it is never formalised by a marriage ceremony, completely transforms the trajectory of your life, and getting off that trajectory, picking through the wreckage of a broken home, family and dreams and deciding ‘where to from here’, is no easy task. In fact, some studies have found that the stress of the divorce has a greater impact on our physical and mental health than imprisonment, personal injury and the death of a close family member. Getting divorced is one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I would not wish that experience on anyone. I wish that we all could meet our one true love when we are still young and innocent, full of hope and devoid of bitterness and live together happily ever after. But for me, and for nearly 100,000 Australians each year, ‘happily ever after’ ended in pain, dysfunction, confusion, fear and a five minute session in divorce court.
There is nothing surprising about divorce statistics and the accompanying stories; we all know that marriage is risky business. And yet despite the frightening statistics, despite everything the cynics tell us, we can’t help but fall in love. We rush in like fools, we see their face and become believers, we write our stupid love songs, we ignore all caution and advice and risk it all on a chance at a once in a lifetime love. We tell ourselves that love will conquer all and that divorce won’t happen to us. We tell ourselves the bad boy is just misunderstood and all he needs love and devotion to stay on the straight and narrow. That he doesn’t really mean it when the blows come, and that it was our fault for making him angry. That she will stop with the mind games and manipulation once we’re better off financially, that she will stop flirting with other guys once she has a big enough rock on her finger. That we’ll stop fighting once we have kids, once we have a bigger house, once the kids are sleeping in their own beds, once the kids have left home… We tell ourselves that every relationship has their ups and downs. That we if we just hang in there, it’ll get better, until the realisation hits in the gut that it’s not getting better, it’s only getting worse. At this point we may try relationship counselling, read books, attend workshops, but it already feels like it’s too late. Resentment and bitterness fester un-checked. Anger, fear and despair spiral round and round, the panic of helplessness settles in as we grasp onto the last shreds of what was, until exhausted, hopeless and alone, there is nothing left of the love story from long ago. How did it come to this?
According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the most common reasons cited for divorce are lack of relationship skills, incompatibility, and abuse. Nowhere in the research about relationship breakdown do I find anything about the couples ‘not trying hard enough’. There seems to be this prevailing idea that all and any relationships should be able to stand the test of time, and that any relationship breakdown is a failure of persistence on the behalf of the couple. What we fail to consider is that some of the couples who pass through our divorce courts should never have gotten married in the first place. There are some couples that have such poor relationships skills that they have no way of being able to negotiate their way through the challenges of marriage. There are some couples who are so fundamentally incompatible that life becomes a string of battles, neither willing to give up the war. And there are some couples where an unequal balance of power has developed into something more sinister; an abusive relationship that has no hope, only fear and devastation. Yes, there are couples who beat the odds. There are couples who through grit, determination, and willingness to give up their pride, to accept help, to grow and change, admit they are wrong, forgive each other, and protect each other fiercely, that can beat the odds and despite their shaky beginnings, make it. But that kind of character, the type that is willing and able to overcome lack of relationship skills, incompatibility and/or abusive tendencies is rare and extraordinary, and what is even more rare, is when BOTH people in the relationship possess it. One of the most painful lessons I have learnt about relationships, is that they are only as strong as the person who cares the most about it. When one person emotionally checks out, there is very little that the other person, no matter how desperately they may try, can do to repair the damage.
Before you write this off as possibly the most depressing relationship blog ever written hear me out: I believe that part of the reason marriages are breaking down at such alarming rates is not because couples aren’t trying hard enough; I believe that they are doing everything they can based on the knowledge and the skills they possess. And that’s my point; as a society we don’t possess the necessary skills to be able to have healthy relationships. We’re setting couples up to fail, and then blaming them when they do. We have a culture where our young people are getting their relationship education from romantic comedies, soap operas and violent porn. They don’t appreciate the difficulties in entering into relationships with deep incompatibility issues, because popular culture tells them that if they just love each other enough it won’t matter. They are walking blindly into abusive relationships because they have never been taught the warning signs to look out for, or worse, because they think that violence, abuse, manipulation and intimidation in relationships are normal. The problem isn’t that they aren’t trying hard enough to make their relationships last, it’s that they are investing in relationships that they shouldn’t be involved in in the first place. It has to stop.
In any campaign to change culture, education is the silver bullet, and there is a huge amount of investment into relationship education. But my belief is that the focus of relationship education has been too much on trying to fix bad relationships, and not enough on educating young people on how to choose better relationships. We need to start focusing on preventative measures, teaching young people to say ‘no’ to unhealthy relationships, and equip them with the skills, self-awareness and discernment to be able to find someone they can have a successful, beautiful, life long relationship with.
Choose Well is a program that aims to do just that; educate and equip young people how to protect themselves from unhealthy and unsafe relationships. I do not claim to have a magic solution or all the answers, but I am passionate about starting the conversation, and helping young people to learn from my mistakes. The program focuses on three areas; discerning character, understanding compatibility and the importance of community. Discerning character focuses on teaching what constitutes safe and unsafe character traits, understanding compatibility focuses on some of the myths around compatibility, and how couples can work through incompatibility, and finally, the importance of community explores they ways in which being part of a loving, supportive community can help foster healthy and safe relationships. My hope and prayer is that through Choose Well, we will be able to help young people be better equipped to make one of the biggest decisions they will ever have to face; who they will entrust their heart and life to.