Last week, Sarah and Todd Palin announced they were divorcing after 31 years of marriage. A few weeks ago Larry King filed for divorce from his seventh wife. And of course the new year began with a bang in January when the world’s wealthiest couple — the ex-Bezoses — revealed their split.
After more than a decade of insufferable media frenzy over Brangelina, was anybody really surprised when Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt headed to divorce court in 2016? I certainly wasn’t. That handwriting was on the wall the day they tied the knot. Don’t even get me started on the recent marital travails of Liam Hemsworth and Miley Cyrus. A real shocker, right?
Obviously, divorce is predictable in our culture and never more so than when it comes to celebrities. So why is any of that news?
It wasn’t always this way of course. As a child of the 1960s, I grew up in a small rural town in Southern Maryland, surrounded by aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents — on both sides — none of whom ever divorced.
Not that they didn’t experience the range of marital problems most couples do from illnesses to financial pressures. My father lost his job a week after my parents married. A few times my mother got so frustrated by my father’s easygoing attitude in a crisis she loaded me in the car and drove around the neighborhood, so fit to be tied she claimed she was never going back.
But she always did, not because she was a helpless female who couldn’t extricate herself from matrimony or because the divorce laws were too strict. Rather, she loved my father and he loved her and their way of seeing things just didn’t always mesh. It’s probably akin to what Todd Palin called “incompatibility of temperament” in his divorce papers, merely the latest example of how far our intolerance for those we hold most dear has plummeted.
But divorce was a rare occurrence in my hometown. So when it did happen, that was news. Back then, even though Elizabeth Taylor had been married many times before tying the knot with Richard Burton, I remember the shock when my family and friends and I heard the news about their divorce in 1974.
In late 2002, when my own husband left and sued me for divorce after 20 years of marriage, I was stunned and devastated by his betrayal. But by then divorce had become commonplace. Our two daughters began shuttling between two homes for visitation, not unlike many of their classmates.
In recent years, the divorce rate has fallen, in part because researchers believe millennials “do marriage better.” Yet the state of marriage in the U.S. remains in trouble. The divorce rate is still between 40%-50%. Marriage rates have plummeted in the last several decades from 72% to 50%. Marriage is becoming more of an entitlement for better educated, more financially stable individuals. And the divorce rate for those over 50 is on the rise, doubling since 1990 and causing serious financial challenges for older Americans.
So with divorce so routine, why the continued ink? Clearly, we’re celebrity obsessed. But I believe it’s more than that. I don’t think we actually want to be like celebrities when it comes to our relationships. And so-called “news” of their latest split gives us the opportunity to say, “That’s not me. That’s not what I want. I’m better than that.” I know that’s how I feel.
Despite the mess we’ve made of our own unions, we still yearn for the fairytale of life-long unions. Three out of four Americans prefer romance stories at the box office that end in marriage, rather than mere flings, and overwhelmingly find stories about “golden anniversaries” inspiring. We believe in love so much that we’re willing to give marriage another chance, too, with remarriage in the U.S. on the rise.
We cling to the hope that, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, we too can find a way to make our latest union last. Indeed, twenty-nine million Americans rose at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning in 2018 to watch the royal wedding, ratings eclipsed in 2018 only by football and the State of the Union.
I had the worst divorce of anyone I know personally. It’s a continual surprise to me that I emerged not jaded about marriage. I root for the likes of Hugh Jackson and Deborra-Lee Furness, and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, and Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon, even though I don’t hold my breath. If they do split up, that will be news. In the meantime, I wish they and the few still-married like them in Hollywood would step out of the shadows and help couples out by making them understand what and how much it takes to remain committed.
Like sometimes driving around the neighborhood to get the frustration out of your system and then driving back home to the loving partner waiting there, continuing to do the hard work relationships call for, again and again, day after day.
Willett is the author of the book “Disassembly Required: A Memoir of Midlife Resurrection.”