Opinion | Divorce led me to my happily ever after

Lyz Lenz writes the Substack “Men Yell at Me” and is the author of multiple books, including “This American Ex-Wife: How I Ended My Marriage and Started My Life,” from which this essay is adapted.

When we talk about the beginning of the end of a marriage, there is rarely just one moment that breaks everything apart. There are often several stressors, some small, some large, all building to the day that everything shatters.

In spring 2016 — 11 years into my marriage — I received an email from a publisher who’d read an article I’d written on politics and religion in Middle America. They wanted to know if I was interested in turning it into a book. I’d been trying to get publishers interested in my writing for years. So when this offer came, I thought it was my chance. I threw everything I could into the project. And the more the book came together, the more my life fell apart.

It wasn’t because I wasn’t getting everything done. I was cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping and writing my book. But I was asking for more from my husband. Not a lot, just a little. Maybe he vacuumed the floors once in a while? Took the kids grocery shopping? I would have settled for the scraps of his efforts. But he’d vacuum once and never do it again. Grocery shop once and complain it was too hard to do with the kids.

In the middle of it, my husband suggested we have a third child. He brought it up in therapy one day: Maybe I could quit writing for a while? Maybe I could simply write a nice little novel, at night, after the kids were in bed? And we could have another kid. Wouldn’t I be less stressed out?

I stared at him in disbelief. My dream was finally within my reach, and he wanted me to give it up?

It soon became clear: I could be successful, or I could be married.

Adapted from “This American Ex-Wife” by Lyz Lenz. Copyright © 2024 by E Claire Enterprises. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House.

Divorce rates in the United States are hard to calculate. There is the “crude” rate, the number of divorces among all people in a year. There is the “refined” rate, the number of divorces among women in a year. (Researchers use women because female respondents’ data reporting is seen as more reliable.) Divorce rates can also be calculated by dividing the number of marriages in a year by the number of divorces. Perhaps impossible to count: the marriages where couples separate but never divorce.

It is an oft-cited statistic that half of U.S. marriages end in divorce, but that figure has not been accurate since the 1970s. Some numbers put the current divorce rate around 40 percent. But even then, imagine: If 40 percent of Honda CR-Vs had engine failures, Honda would issue a recall of the whole line.

Studies show that when women advance in their careers, they are more likely to divorce. So are female breadwinners. One 2020 analysis specifically examined the marriages of women in Sweden, who have more income parity than American women and more of a social safety net. It wasn’t the lack of social support that made these women divorce; it was the lack of relational support.

Lyz Lenz and Shadi Hamid are chatting about modern relationships. Submit your questions now.

One of the study’s authors, Johanna Rickne, a professor at Stockholm University, pointed out that men are used to being asked to fill the gap in domestic duties but not to take on more than that. It is “still seen as quite unusual for men to be the main supportive spouse in someone else’s career,” Rickne said. Ask for 50-50, and that’s okay. Ask for 51-49, and the marriage falls apart.

Popular culture often suggests it’s a given that women’s careerism is what ruins marriages. In “The Devil Wears Prada,” Meryl Streep plays a successful magazine editor whose overlooked husband leaves her. As Stanley Tucci’s character, Nigel, opines to Andy, Streep’s beleaguered assistant, played by Anne Hathaway: “Let me know when your whole life goes up in smoke. Means it’s time for a promotion.”

Yet married men have careers and families all the time. They’re able to do this because they have a partner at home supporting them. Essentially, it’s not the time commitment and stress of success that break up marriages; it’s the husband’s resentment about the time commitment and stress — and his refusal or inability to step up.

These days, nearly 70 percent of divorces are initiated by women who are tired, fed up, exhausted, no longer in love. Women who are unhappy. Some of their breaking moments are quiet. Some are loud. Often women who seek divorce are pathologized, dismissed as “crazy” or unable to cope. They are problems for a therapist and a self-help book to solve. Certainly not a political crisis.

But I don’t think that’s true.

Divorce is both personal and political. It is still harder to divorce in America than to marry — and lately, activists targeting no-fault divorce would make it even harder. Most states have waiting periods for divorces with anywhere between 20 and 180 days before a couple can finalize a divorce. A majority don’t have a waiting period for a marriage license, and if they do, it’s not longer than three days, except in Wisconsin, where it’s five days. Most marriage licenses don’t cost more than $100; divorces can cost far more.

At the same time, our governments sponsor and prop up the institution of marriage with tax breaks and incentives, while making it nearly impossible to be a single parent.

Here’s some politics for you: In lieu of a social safety net, states hand out grants to fund marriage counseling and seminars. As recently as last year, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients in Iowa were still receiving a letter touting the benefits of a “healthy marriage.” One woman who shared the letter with me, a new divorcée, said it had made her feel as if the government was calling her a failure, that “[if] I had been in a healthy marriage, I wouldn’t be on SNAP now. … Just this little, innocuous document letting all of us sad, little welfare peasants know that we should be married.” As if being married and miserable and staying off welfare were preferable to being happy and having a social safety net.

In 2022, the Republican Study Committee’s fiscal report “Blueprint to Save America” advocated moving SNAP benefits to a discretionary block grant program that would cut out federal rules and oversight, and allow states to change work requirements. Throughout the document, the RSC repeatedly emphasized that marriage and family should be the focus of these programs, pointing out that being a single parent (specifically a single mother) tends to lead to poverty. (A search of the document reveals that the term “single mother” appears four times; “single father” appears zero times.) The solution? Push poor single mothers into marriage in the name of cutting the social safety net.

It’s not a new plan or even a secret one. It’s not even just a Republican plan. State-funded marriage initiatives have been policy priorities under the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and President Biden. The logic of each program has always been, as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) stated in 2014, that marriage is “the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty.”

But this thinking gives government and society a pass, propping up marriage as a panacea while ignoring the systemic biases, including racism, that lead to poverty, and the fact that good outcomes for women and children arise from a complex mix of factors. It also ignores the prevalence of domestic abuse and other dynamics within marriages that lead to very poor outcomes indeed for women and children.

In a 2022 article for Slate, Scott Coltrane, professor emeritus of sociology and former provost at the University of Oregon, and writer Gail Cornwall broke down the flawed studies that for so long warned parents that divorce would hurt their children. “The ‘children will suffer’ beat … had incredible staying power,” they wrote. But far more than the existence of a marriage, they argued, it was access to money and social privilege, as well as good parenting, that led to better outcomes.

“As a result of the way the Christian right was able to frame — and effectively close — the policy debate,” they wrote, “national solutions have focused on individuals’ decisions and bolstering the institution of marriage: Choose the right spouse. Go to couples therapy. All but ignored is the government’s opportunity and obligation to families. And that disproportionately affects women, Black families, and lower-income kids and caregivers.”

Keep in mind that even if people marry, it is hard to stay married when, for instance, the state is more likely to incarcerate Black women and Black men, and social services are more likely to get involved in their children’s lives. Today, nearly half of all Black women have never married. That’s compared with roughly 30 percent of all American women.

Michael Warner summed it up perfectly in his book “The Trouble With Normal,” when he called marriage “nothing if not a program for privilege.” Marriage, simply put, can’t be the solution to societal ills, because it isn’t accessible to all people in our society.

Compare the situation in the United States against the research evidence showing that countries with well-funded social safety nets have less divorce. A 2019 article on the Census Bureau website points out that in societies where divorce is relatively easy to access, “the number of marriages increases by at least 9%. Female suicides decrease by 8% to 16% and domestic violence decreases by around 30%. Women start working more outside of the home — up to 7 percentage points more — increasing their economic clout in a marriage by bringing income that they control into the home.”

Maybe instead of discouraging divorce and pressuring people to marry for financial security, we should make a more equitable society.

In 2017, I’d been working on my marriage for a dozen years. I scheduled the therapy appointments. I scheduled the date nights. I hired the babysitters. I sat with my husband and watched “Star Trek” because he liked it. I had memorized Kirby Puckett’s number and watched the entire 1991 World Series highlight reel. Multiple times.

For years, I packed my husband’s lunch. Exactly how he liked it. Two slices of wheat bread, the Brownberry brand. Meat and a slice of cheese and honey mustard. He liked the Hy-Vee brand of honey mustard. Carrots. Chips. SunChips were best. And a Dr Pepper. In our first years of marriage, I’d put notes in there — flirty little messages, sometimes scandalous. I’d think, I’d hope, that he would reply. That he’d call in the middle of the day to say how happy it had made him. He didn’t.

When our second child was born, I was too exhausted to keep making the sandwiches, and he told me he thought I didn’t love him anymore. No, no, no, I am just so tired, I tried explaining. And I was. So tired. I had a toddler daughter. I had a baby boy who did not sleep and wanted only me to hold him. Who screamed when he wasn’t near me. Who refused a bottle. Sometimes I’d escape to grocery shop, and my husband would call me with the baby screaming in the background to ask, “When are you coming home?”

Please, I’d beg. Just bring food home one day? I need help.

“But what if you’re already cooking?” he said.

I didn’t even know how to reply. His words were so devoid of the experience of my life.

Once, when my son was just 4 months old, I put him down for a nap, then got my toddler into her room for rest time. She refused to nap. But I tried to get her settled, so I could have just a few moments with no one touching me, no one needing me.

She was defiant and pooped in her underwear and began screaming. I came upstairs to find poop smeared on the carpet and the baby screaming, too. I started screaming. I screamed so loud, my daughter was scared. I was scared. I was terrified of the well of exhaustion and rage inside me, of how much I wanted to run. I shut myself in the bedroom and called my husband. “Come home,” I sobbed.

He did. He got the kids, and I refused to come out of the bedroom until it was the baby’s bedtime. I simply could not face them. When I did come out, I found my husband had fed the children. There was Chinese takeout waiting for me. This is good, I thought. Maybe he sees. That night, after I put the baby to bed, I scrubbed my daughter’s poop off the carpet. Then my husband told me I needed to get it together. Maybe, he suggested, I should sleep more. And I realized he didn’t see me at all.

Help is such a misleading verb. We emphasize the person aiding. The help. The helpers. People are thanked for their help. But the verb implies a request, a cry, an appeal for aid.

My husband would help. Aid was given, yes. But it wouldn’t be a regular thing. It would come only when things were dire, when there was toddler poop on the floor and I was sobbing. I had economic stability, a home and children, but the cost had been my entire loss of self.

Criticizing marriage and telling the truths about the emotional lives of married women have always been a fraught enterprise that kicks up backlash, obfuscating the reality.

In 1987, Shere Hite published “Women and Love,” the third installment in her groundbreaking research into the lives of American men and women. From a sample of 4,500 survey respondents, women aged 14 to 85, Hite found that despite pushes for equality, four-fifths of American women felt their relationships were unequal; nearly 90 percent of separated or divorced women reported being lonely in their marriages; and 95 percent reported “emotional and psychological harassment” from their men.

Instead of causing a cultural reckoning, Hite and her research were attacked. That is: In response to the news that women thought their partners were defensive, difficult and not listening to them, American men did not listen.

I was the one who broke. I want to make that clear. If I hadn’t, we might still be together. This article wouldn’t exist. Much of my work wouldn’t exist. But my marriage would. And maybe we’d reach the end of our lives and have joyful, peaceful moments. And our children might idolize what we had — not knowing, never knowing, how much it cost me.

In the 1996 remake of the movie “101 Dalmatians,” Cruella de Vil tells Anita: “More good women have been lost to marriage than to war, famine, disease and disaster. You have talent, darling. Don’t squander it.”

I often wonder how many stories, how many scientific breakthroughs, how many plays, musical scores and innovations, have been tossed onto the pyre of human marriage. I am not saying the work I have done and will do is so incredible that it justifies everything. I am saying it doesn’t have to. I shouldn’t have to win a Nobel Prize or be a heart surgeon for my life, ambition and happiness to be worth fighting for.

After I left my marriage, I began to talk to women — hundreds of women — about their moment of breaking. It happened almost by accident. When you divorce, women like to tell you about their own problems, their own marriages and divorces; they tell you of the frustrations that lay behind their own carefully constructed homes and smiling holiday cards.

I noticed patterns. These weren’t just stories of women falling out of love, but of a political, cultural and romantic institution that asks too much of wives and mothers and gives too little in return. As one mother of four, who runs her own small business, said: “I’m a divorced single mom. Leaving my husband didn’t increase my workload. He wasn’t doing much. My workload is the same, but I have more peace now.”

These are not the rantings of bitter women. Well, they are sometimes bitter, but when did being bitter imply that women weren’t telling the truth? I listened as the stories piled up one after another. The whisper network of women who’d broken their lives apart and found freedom and happiness.

The moment people knew their marriage was over ranged from the simple (“I saw him in a robe and realized I wasn’t comfortable enough around him anymore to wear a robe in my own home”) to the violent (“He left a gun on the table”). On social media, a woman told me she knew her marriage was over when she saw her husband kick their dog. Another wrote to tell me she knew when her husband took a painting she had purchased from Turkey off the wall so he could hang it in his office.

Many men I’ve talked to about the end of their marriage say they were stunned. (“One day I woke up, she was gone, and money was missing.”) Others report small betrayals. (“I told her I wanted to go to therapy. She wished me luck finding one. I realized I was on my own.”)

What struck me was that women seemed to know the end was coming, while men seemed surprised by it. One man told me he knew only when she didn’t come home one day and he was served with papers three months later.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised at the men’s surprise. In a 2019 study, sociologist Allison Daminger found that women carry the majority of the cognitive load in their relationships. Meaning women are the ones noticing, analyzing and anticipating the issues in a marriage — thinking of the problems, trying to solve them and monitoring them for success.

This is the unspoken reality of fixing a relationship. Yes, it is hard work. And the labor mostly falls on women.

It is worth pointing out, too, that while women do more housework than their male partners, even when women are the primary earners, this work also goes largely unobserved by men, who statistically perceive themselves as doing equal work. Add the fact that husbands add hours of labor to a home — labor done by their wives — and it’s a bleak picture of domestic partnership. I think of all the conversations I had in couples therapy, begging him to help. You shouldn’t have to beg.

Do you want to know how I finally got my husband to do his fair share? Court-ordered 50-50 custody, that’s how.

Whenever I point out the inequality in marriage, a man inevitably will bemoan the loss of marriage in our culture. The “whatever happened to the good old days when people stayed married?” flavor of cultural critique is baseless and boring. But it persists because, as Susan Faludi wrote in her seminal work of cultural analysis, “Backlash,” the one constant of marriage is that men have benefited from the institution.

Faludi quoted sociologist Jessie Bernard, who wrote in 1972: “There are few findings more consistent, less equivocal, [and] more convincing, than the sometimes spectacular and always impressive superiority on almost every index — demographic, psychological, or social — of married over never-married men. Despite all the jokes about marriage in which men indulge, all the complaints they lodge against it, it is one of the greatest boons of their sex.”

Meanwhile, I am confounded by the contradictions inherent in the data that show men are happy in marriages, when women often struggle. If their partner is struggling, wouldn’t that make men … not happy? If marriage costs women more in health and happiness, but men benefit — aren’t they actually not benefiting? If men’s happiness rests on the unhappiness of their partner, shouldn’t that lead to unhappiness?

In response to news of divorce, people often reply, “I’m sorry.” But I think we should say “congratulations.” Congratulations for prioritizing yourself. For being brave. For the self-knowledge to know when to leave. “Self-knowledge,” as Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “is no guarantee of happiness, but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it.”

Millions and millions of people — mostly women — are looking up and realizing that they just cannot do this for one more minute: the gendered expectations, the unequal share of domestic labor, the abuse, the exhaustion, everything.

Of course, not all women want to divorce. Many have written to me to share how miserable they are, but they love their husbands. This is just what marriage is, they say.

Some tell me how they’ve trained their partners. Sure, those men came rough and reluctant, but now they do the dishes without complaining. And they’ll cook dinner some nights. See? Maybe, they imply, if I had tried harder, worked harder, trained my husband, stayed miserable a little longer, I could have stayed married. As if that was the one thing I wanted to spend my time on — training a grown man like a horse.

Or they say how they’ve persisted for the children. Note: My children have a stable home, and that is the home I am building. They also have a stable home in the one their father has with his new wife, as well as a little sister. Not to mention — and this is no small thing — happier parents.

But being divorced must be lonely, women say. Aren’t I lonely?

Here is the truth: I have never been lonelier than I was when I was on the inside of a miserable marriage.

I hope these women find the courage to ask for everything they want and more. I also want to tell them: If they raise the bar and it breaks, that’s okay. There is power in giving up. Yes, it’s hard, and you might cry putting together Ikea furniture at 2 a.m. But walking away is strength.

Since I divorced and started making my own money, my entire relationship with relationships has changed. With economic freedom came my freedom to say no to men who offered me less than what I wanted. And the knowledge that without them, I’d be fine.

Happiness is found along many different paths. So let me tell you something else that is true, that our governments, our institutions, our communities so often won’t say: You do not have to waste years of your life hoping that maybe, one day, you’ll finally get there. You can be happy now. It is your turn now.