Wendy Paris knows what you think of her divorce. It’s what her friends thought when she told them she and her husband were splitting:
“Neither my husband nor I like to fight, but once we entered the twilight zone of divorce, they assumed we’d lose our personalities and values and transform into raging lunatics of hate. Our son would be irrevocably damaged. I’d be destitute, too miserable to work.”
This litany of doom is the prevailing divorce narrative, perpetuated by pundits, popular culture, and moralizers. Sometimes social science research is marshaled in supposed support of this tragic tale.
Paris is having none of it. In Splitopia, she does not tiptoe over the heartache or the pain of ending a marriage, but she does gift us with a compassionate, compelling, carefully-researched account of a new and more humane story of divorce — one in which the main characters can become better people in the end.
Whatever you think you might experience in the early years of divorce, you will find a frank account of just about all of it. The cascade of emotions; the ways in which divorce affects not just the couple and their children, but friends and family and colleagues, too; the implications of the split for your financial, mental, and physical well-being, as well as your work — it is all there, with all the immediacy of the best memoirs.
Also significant is what is not there: sections on how to find the most brutal attorneys and take your ex for all he or she is worth. Instead, Paris shows us today’s more constructive options of mediation and collaboration, and even takes us on a tour of the Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing Families, “the utopia of divorce in Denver.”
Perhaps because I have written about the many ways we make a home now that so few of us live in nuclear family households (in How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century), I especially appreciated Paris’s chapter on creating a home on her own. In How We Live Now, I also wrote about committed couples who choose to live in places of their own — a phenomenon known as “living apart together.” I was intrigued by Paris’s version of it; after she and her husband divorced, they moved together across the country, into places of their own, while they continued to cooperate in raising their son.
I never have and never will experience divorce because I will never marry. I have chosen single life, and live it fully, joyfully, and unapologetically. Nonetheless, I enjoyed just about every page of Splitopia. Paris is an engaging storyteller and gifted teacher. Her careful instruction begins with the table of contents, which offers not just chapter titles, but a preview of what’s in each chapter. For example, we learn that the chapter “Laying the Groundwork for a Good Divorce” will tell us “What we can do to help ourselves get through: commit to self-compassion; take ownership; don’t confuse filing with closure; build a toolkit; combat anger with empathy; resist the urge to compare; create positive moments.” The same commitment to making it all very clear continues throughout the book.
Stylistically, Splitopia is an excellent version of a popular template for writing contemporary nonfiction. Wendy Paris has a strong central theme about the good divorce and how to achieve it. She makes her case by interweaving her own divorce experiences with those of many other people she interviewed, as well as featuring relevant social science research and insights from experts. Paris also provides useful material in the back of the book, including annotated lists of resources for readers and professionals, and a wise set of suggestions for policy reforms.
When journalists write about research from the social sciences, one risk is that they will focus only on the most directly relevant studies — for example, the ones with “divorce” in the title, and miss out on all of the psychological insights other research has to offer. That didn’t happen to Wendy Paris. I was delighted, over and over again, to discover that she found some of the most telling nuggets, wherever they were hiding.
Even when reporting on the most relevant studies, journalists sometimes describe the results in ways that fit the accepted wisdom of the times. Paris, fortunately, does not fall for that one, either. As have too few others before her, she explains what’s wrong with the claims that the children of divorced parents are headed toward troubled lives.
So many people will find their own experiences captured in Splitopia. But one group is entirely missing. They are the people I have been hearing from for nearly two decades, people who are among those accounting for the slipping rate of remarriage nationwide. I’m talking about the people who discover, after divorcing, that single life suits them. They are not single because they dread dating, and they are not running away as fast as they can from an ex that they loathe. (Some even have quite kind things to say about their former spouse.) Instead, they are embracing their new single life. They don’t fear loneliness; they savor solitude. They don’t ascribe to the narrow view of relationships, in which only romantic ones count; their friends aren’t “just” friends. To them, single life is a meaningful and authentic life, and they are so delighted to finally get to live that life.
Splitopia: Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well
Atria, March 2016
Hardcover, 325 pages