How divorce went from a devastating life event to a cause for celebration

In his review of the 1979 film Kramer vs. Kramer, Roger Ebert wrote, “The movie is about a situation rich in opportunities for choosing upsides: a divorce and a fight for the custody of a child. But what matters in a story like this isn’t who’s right or wrong, but if the people involved are able to behave according to their own better nature. Isn’t it so often the case that we’re selfish and mean-spirited in just those tricky human situations that require our limited stores of saintliness?”

When it comes to the depiction of divorce in popular culture – both before and after Kramer vs. Kramer – the dissolution of a marriage is predominantly painted in a negative light. Since North America’s divorce rate soared above 50 per cent in the 1970s, we’ve been inundated with visions of restraining orders, depositions, custody battles, alimony payments and traumatized children. As a result, we’ve been led to believe that few things inspire as much anxiety, anger, resentment and despair as the end of a marriage.

However, splitsville is no longer a shanty town full of bitter exes, crippled finances and broken hearts. While the breakup of a marriage is rarely easy, the big “D” has changed significantly over the decades. In the span of a lifetime, it’s gone from being highly taboo to more American than apple pie; from the inspiration for a decade of angsty grunge anthems to introducing terms like “conscious uncoupling” and “divorce-moons” into our break-up lexicon. Today, we’re witnessing the rise of the “happy divorce.”


The history of divorce in the Western world has always been one of shifting values. While the ancient Athenians were fairly liberal in allowing divorces, dissolutions of marriage were rare in the early days of the Roman republic. However, as Rome expanded, so too did the Roman mindset when it came to divorce. By the time Rome became an empire, divorce was frequent among the patrician class. Christian emperors would from time to time make divorce more difficult for Romans, only for succeeding emperors to do away with restrictions.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, divorce in the West became a matter of church rather than of state. The divorce rate plummeted during the ninth or 10th century after the Catholic Church claimed marriage to be a sacrament indissoluble by humans. It wasn’t until the Reformation when marriage would again be considered a civil contract. However, because no precedent existed at the time, secular courts would more often than not rely on the rules put in place by the Church when asked to grant a divorce. While different regions in Europe adopted different rules at different times, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that conditional (typically in the case of adultery) divorces became widely legal.

In North America, divorce rates increased dramatically during the 20th century, as a result of two major divorce revolutions. The first occurred in the late 1960s. Though divorce laws vary, there are two basic approaches: fault-based and no-fault-based. California Governor Ronald Reagan ushered in the era of “no-fault” divorce in 1969, requiring no proof of fault for either party for a marriage to be dissolved. By the mid-1970s, nine more states would adopt no-fault divorce laws,and by the early 1980s, every state (with the exception of South Dakota and New York) had introduced some form of no-fault divorce. Meanwhile, in Canada, the Divorce Act was amended in 1968 to permit divorce for reasons other than adultery or cruelty, including a separation of at least three years.

The laws reflected general changes in social attitudes at the time and directly led to the divorce boom of the 1970s. Reagan would later call his move to no-fault divorce the biggest mistake of his political career. Between 1960 and 1980, the divorce rate more than doubled, hitting an all-time high of 52 per cent in California. In Canada, the divorce rate doubled in the five years following the 1968 amendment of the Divorce Act. However, it didn’t reach its peak of 41 per cent until 1986, when the Divorce Act was amended once again to reduce the separation period to one year, and removed any requirements to prove “fault” by either spouse.

As a result of the increased number of legal separations, half of the children born in the 1970s saw their parents divorce – more than any other generation in history. This led to the second divorce revolution, one that came at the hands of those scarred by the messy splits of their parents: the Gen-Xers and older Millennials who have been dubbed the “Divorce Generation.” 

It’s no coincidence that this generation is known for being cynical about authority figures and steeped in anger and disillusionment. Their greatest life-defining moment can often be discerned by asking, “When did your parents get divorced?” We see this perhaps most clearly in the pop music this generation went on to infamously produce. Angsty and emotional, it’s riddled with references to broken families, from Blink-182’s “Stay Together for the Kids” to Good Charlotte’s “Emotionless” and Papa Roach’s “Broken Home.” As Pink sang in “Family Portrait,” “You fight about money, ‘bout me and my brother / And this I come home to, this is my shelter / It ain’t easy growin up in World War III.”

While the first divorce revolution led to a dramatic increase in the number of divorces, the second was more about being conscious of the consequences. Gen-X’s acute awareness of the impact a contentious divorce can have, especially on children, has led to a slight decline in the number of splits, but more importantly, it has brought about a change in the adversarial status quo that had previously defined a divorced couple. Gen-Xers, it seems, are determined to work hard for happy marriages and, failing that, strive for an uncontentious break-up. 

The result is the rise of the “happy divorce,” by far the biggest cultural shift when it comes to splitting up since the 1970s. The concept hit peak pop culture awareness in 2014 when Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced they were consciously uncoupling. “When the whole concept of marriage and divorce is reexamined, there’s actually something far more powerful – and positive – at play,” said the former couple in a statement.

In addition to having to tolerate the public relations statements of supposedly high-minded celebrities, we’ve also been introduced to an entirely new set of divorce-related terminology and customs. Enter the rise of the divorce doula: women who offer emotional and informational support through the process, and the international DivorceHotel, which claims to seamlessly split couples in just one weekend away at five-star romantic resorts full of red wine, champagne, luxury massages and mediation sessions. For the more tech-inclined, startup Wevorce claims to be the “premier self-guided divorce solution” for those looking for a peaceful and collaborative process.

The terms of divorce have changed, too. Instead of one partner walking away with the house, it’s now increasingly common to time-share the family home. Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck vacationed together post-split in the Bahamas on a divorce-moon (a post-divorce honeymoon), and even planned to continue living with their kids on the same large estate (but in different buildings).

Post-break-up trips have become so popular that resorts are marketing specifically to the demographic. Casa Velas in Mexico offers a “divorcée package” that includes a private farewell party complete with a coffin for your wedding ring, a jewelry consultation to redesign your engagement ring and a VIP night in town to kick off your newfound singledom. Other resorts have offered break-up butlers, while some former couples simply choose to return to a favourite destination to mark the occasion.

While some of these notions will no doubt incite eye-rolls, the ability of divorced couples to get along and co-exist bodes well for future generations. Studies show that children are better developed and are happier with parents who have good relationships, whether they’re divorced or not. In fact, family law organization Resolution found 82 per cent of those aged 14 to 22 who have endured family break-ups would prefer their parents to part if they are unhappy.

The research of psychologist Constance Adams, author of The Good Divorce, revealed that the health and happiness of children is mostly influenced by the tone and after-effects of a split. Kids who experience stigma-less break-ups, maintain access to a binuclear family and are part of positive divorce and parenting strategies tend to fare just fine. Unsurprisingly, happy divorces also make for happier exes. Amicable splits routinely save both partners time, anxiety and money. As the saying goes, a good divorce is better than a bad marriage.

In 2015, Connecticut took the marked step of legally allowing couples to submit petitions for non-adversarial divorces rather than pursuing traditional litigation. Spouses in the state can file a joint petition, which means no one has to sue the other for to make the breakup official. Traditional terms such as “plaintiff” and “defendant” won’t apply and the couple will never have to appear in court. However, there are certain conditions to qualify: the couple can’t have children, the combined net worth of either party can’t be more than $35,000 and neither person can have a company-sponsored pension plan. Still, other jurisdictions and lawyers are looking to Connecticut for inspiration as they seek to modernize divorce laws to align with an evolving culture.  

This newfangled “happy” approach to a historically traumatic life event makes one wonder if we’ve had the wrong idea about splitting up all along. While we’ve spent decades hand-wringing over divorce rates, maybe the break-up itself isn’t such a big bad. The stigmas, legal hurdles, outdated financial burdens, lack of support systems and grief over all of the above are the real evils giving the practice a bad rap. If we can address the entrenched attitudes, practices and negative language that surround divorce and reconsider the default of the practice to be acrimonious, it doesn’t really matter whether divorce rates sink to 10 per cent or rise to 75 per cent. The most important matter in all of this seems to be the effect a divorce has on the next generation – an issue that the “happy divorce” tackles head on. Minus the trauma and ill-effects, divorce has the potential to be a positive development for all involved – perhaps something even worthy of a Gen Y-inspired champagne toast and beach vacation.

So, what about that next generation?

It’s too early to really decipher what divorce will mean for Millennials. According to Gallup, 59 per cent of Millennials have still never been married. However, so far they appear to be taking Gen X’s peaceful approach a step further with celebratory rituals like divorce selfies, divorce parties and even divorce registries in case they lose the avocado slicer in the split.

Whether this attitude is steeped in social progress, or a fear of acknowledging failure and dealing with pain that is characteristic of the generation, is up for debate. They grew up getting participation ribbons for losing and now receive parties, vacations and gifts for getting divorced.

It appears as though Baby Boomers may be the final torchbearers of divorce as a financially and emotionally devastating life event. As Roger Ebert also wrote about Kramer vs. Kramer, “We have no inclination at all to choose sides. The movie has encouraged us to realize that these people are deep enough and complex enough, as all people are, that we can’t assign moral labels to them.”

Today’s “happy divorce” acknowledges that a relationship is comprised of two individuals, and that the success of a marriage shouldn’t be measured in its length, but rather what comes out of it: whether it’s well-adjusted children or a future that isn’t dragged down by dissolution.


Image by Becky Guthrie/National Post

Sabrina Maddeaux