When Ellen Myers finalized her divorce in 2013 she felt an overwhelming sense of freedom — and a deep sense of shame. “It was a weird time,” she recalls. “On one hand I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, but at the same time, I didn’t want anyone to know.”
The Colorado mom had married young, at just 18, and had children right away. Like many divorced people, she felt embarrassed that she hadn’t been able to make her marriage last. She became convinced her friends and family were all silently thinking, I told you this would never work. But worse were the slights she dealt with in public — glances at her empty ring finger, a lack of invitations from former friends, and, most troublingly, a pointed remark from a clergy member at her church, who read Myers discouraging stats about children of divorce, then suggested she continue to endure her abusive situation for her kids’ sake. She even faced rejection from a potential landlord after disclosing that she was a single mother who relied on child support for income.
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“He told me he never rented to single moms because the ‘deadbeat dads’ didn’t pay up and he ‘didn’t need that kind of drama’,” Myers recalls. “It was awful. Even though I knew, deep down, I’d made the best choice for me and my children, it was hard not to feel like I’d failed.”
Myers isn’t the only woman who has struggled with feelings of shame about her split. Despite the ubiquity of divorce — just over half of marriages will make it to the 20-year mark, according to the most recent data from the National Survey of Family Growth — there is still a lingering stigma that many people, especially women, face, says Anita C. Savage, a divorce and family law attorney at GoransonBain.
“I;ve seen countless clients who feel stigmatized by their divorce. In fact, despite my profession, I was one of them,” she admits. “I was embarrassed and ashamed to tell my friends and family that I could not make my marriage work.”
And while it’s perfectly normal to feel that way, Savage says, shame should never enter into the picture. Getting divorced doesn’t mean you’re “dumb” or “damaged goods.”
“Even ‘good’ people face divorce, by choice or because of their spouse’s decision, but the divorce itself does not reflect who that person is or what that person stands for,” she says. “For a variety of innocuous reasons and despite their best attempts, two emotionally healthy and functioning people sometimes cannot make their marriage work.”
Not only is divorce not a commentary on your personal worth, it can actually show the world just how strong you are, says Nanda Davis, Esq., a specialist in divorce and family law and president of the Roanoke chapter of the Virginia Women Attorney’s Association. “Divorcing a spouse takes a lot of courage,” she says. It involves being honest and publicly open about very painful personal topics and standing up for your and your children’s needs — all tough things to do, she adds.
Divorce is ultimately about getting a fresh start, and wanting a better life is nothing to be ashamed of, says Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., a family therapist and divorce expert. “Some people still think that you should stay married just for the sake of it, even if you’re unhappy. But why would you do that?” she asks.
On an intellectual level, these messages seem easy enough to grasp. So why do so many people still feel like Myers? Although social stigma is certainly still a factor (case in point: Myers’s pastor), it’s fading from what it was several generations ago. (A Gallup poll conducted earlier this year determined that 73 percent of American adults believe divorce is “morally acceptable,” compared to 59 percent in 2001.)
According to Savage, it’s because divorced women often end up blaming themselves for the end of their marriages. “The good will we’re willing to give to others experiencing a divorce is something we haven’t provided to ourselves,” she explains. “We believe that our failed marriage means we have failed as a human being, as a partner, and as a parent who wanted to provide their child with an example of what a long and successful marriage looks like.”
They key to overcoming these painful feelings is to give yourself a break, she says. Tune out negative self-talk by surrounding yourself with supportive people, whether that’s family, friends, a church group, or even a divorce recovery group where you can talk it out. There’s great relief in discussing your questions and concerns with people who have been there too — plus it helps others overcome their own sense of shame and embarrassment, Savage says.
If you’re really struggling to shake negative feelings after a divorce, Smerling recommends connecting with a therapist. “Unresolved feelings of shame and guilt can lead to depression and feelings of paralysis,” she says. “So if you’re feeling that way, it’s important to go seek professional help.”
For Myers, time has been the most important part of her healing process. Nearly four years after her divorce, “I’m able to look back now and see that I was doing the best I could with what I had at the time,” she says. “Now my life is so much better, both for me and my kids, and I’ve discovered I’m stronger than I ever knew — and that’s something I’m immensely proud of.”
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