Everyone knows divorce sucks, but, according to 2 people with a decent claim on “most brilliant power couple on the planet,” that very unanimity creates a societal view of divorce that just makes it worse.
Astro Teller is Google’s “Captain Of Moonshots” (actual title) and leads the teams developing everything from Glass to self-driving cars to whatever else comes out of Mountain View’s stew of sci-fi idealism and techno genius. His wife Danielle is a former cancer research (and surviver) and ICU doctor who held faculty positions at Harvard and University Of Pittsburgh. They both devoted their lives to research and innovation, and after each went through their own divorces and found each other, they did what came naturally: tried to figure out what happened.
The result of that effort is Sacred Cows: The Truth About Divorce And Marriage, a book that dives into the existing research on divorce, picks apart the prevailing cultural attitudes, and comes out the other side with a way to reframe how people going through divorce think about it, and how their friends and family might better support them in the process.
What Science Says About Divorce
Basically, not much. Studies on the effects of divorce are plagued by spurious correlations, incalculable variables, and the near-impossibility of separating cause from effect. “It’s not just that the studies are hard to do,” Danielle says. “It’s that the social science is not funded well in our country.” So, while it’s taken in some circles as fact that 50 percent of people who ask for divorce regret the decision, the reality is that research is too flawed to draw any real conclusions from.
The same is true for the common assumption that divorce harms children, which is of particular concern for the Tellers, each of whom have children from their previous marriages. Given that digging through research is a huge part of what they do for a living, they looked into existing research and found … nothing. “There’s actually no good evidence that divorce affects long-term outcomes for kids,” Danielle says.
What would an accurate study of divorce’s effects on children look like? “You would need thousands and thousands of people,” Astro says. “And you would have to randomly assign half of them to sign up to stay married for an extended period of time, no matter how much they disliked each other. And a bunch of them would have to sign up to get divorced no matter how much they were in love or not.” Even if you found all the masochists you’d need to perform such a study, it would also cost millions and take years, which is to say it’s never going to happen.
What Modern Culture Says About Divorce
Society encourages you to pursue true love at all costs. “Up until the point that you get married, the dominant narrative in our society is that (A) true love exists, and (B) everything is worth ditching in exchange for getting true love,” Astro says. “Once you are married, that barrier evaporates. The narrative is, true love, if it exists at all, by definition exists with the person you said ‘I do’ to.” After that, you are expected to finish what you started, heart’s compass be damned. Your spouse may change, cheat, or cease to love you altogether, but a promise is a promise.
This emotional jiu jitsu is at the core of the Teller’s “sacred cows,” a set of cultural assumptions around what’s really going on when two people realize that they’re better off parting long before death. Here’s the shorthand:
• The Holy Cow: Marriage is always good and divorce is always bad.
• The Expert Cow: All marital problems can be fixed with the right self-help book or marriage counselor.
• The Selfish Cow: Everyone who gets divorced is selfish and everyone who stays married is selfless.
• The Defective Cow: If you cannot make your marriage happy, or if you choose to divorce, you must be defective in some way.
• The Innocent Victim Cow: Children’s lives are ruined by divorce.
• The One True Cow: Finding true love should be your highest goal in life unless you’re married, in which case you should stop believing in love.
• The Other Cow: Nobody should be allowed to leave a marriage in order to be with a new partner.
The Teller’s realization that there’s no reliable evidence that any of the above is true led them to an understanding of divorce that’s so simple as to be banal: everyone’s situation is unique and there’s no easy way through it for any individual or those individual’s loved ones. But this understanding is less banal when you begin to consider how society might handle divorce if everyone understood it the same way.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Mqse6_LOds expand=1]
What Society Should Do About It
Astro has a mantra for his scientists at Google that applies pretty well to marriage: “The only real failure you can have is when you get at some point into the experiment and it’s clear that it’s going to be one answer, not the answer that you wanted, and you keep going in anyway.”
The Tellers aren’t for or against divorce — their whole point is that it’s irrelevant beyond the 2 individuals contemplating it. In addition to hoping their ideas help those 2 individuals assess their situation more clearly, they’d like to see those people’s loved ones understand the situation differently. “In order for things to change, society as a whole would have to lighten up on the narrative,” Astro says.
When your friend is going through marital troubles, consider the particular circumstances of that relationship instead of jumping to say, “I hope you two work it out.” Blindly encouraging the persistence of a broken marriage may come from good intentions, but it only serves to shame the couple whose divorce could very well be for the best. And if you’re pretty certain a friend who is sticking it out would be better off without the bum/bumette, remember: “People get married for a lot of different reasons, and people have very different definitions of love,” Danielle says.
And none of them are sacred.