Valentine's Day advice for a marriage to be 'divorce-proof' is offensive and dangerous

It projects a sense of blame — and shame — on those of us who've decided to end a marriage, as if we just were too lazy to do our homework.
Image: I was married for 19 years. In many ways, the marriage was a success: it resulted in great kids, many good times, and represents my primary relationship through the majority of my adult life.
Looking at divorce as a failure erases all of what came before the end of the marriage.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News
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By Meagan Francis

This time of year, we're all bombarded with advice about love and relationships. For those of us who've joined the ranks of the divorced, the annual onslaught of Valentine's Day advertising and content can be particularly rankling — and not necessarily because we're sad to be single or resentful of happy couples. What I find offensive — and even dangerous — are the magazines and blogs filled with articles on how to "divorce-proof" your marriage or that refer to marriages that have ended in divorce as "failures."

What bothers me the most is the notion that a marriage that ends in divorce instead of death is by definition a failure, implying that somehow the entire marriage no longer counts.

The notion that there was some way I could have "divorce-proofed" my marriage if I had just followed a 12-step program or we had worked harder at romance via date nights and weekend getaways demeans the work we did as a couple — not to mention, it hypersimplifies the complicated dance of living in a partnership with another human being. Worse, it projects a sense of blame — and shame — on those of us who've decided to end a marriage, as if we just were too lazy to do our homework and study.

The notion also trivializes the reasons marriages fall apart. Yes, lack of connection, poor communication, not making enough time for each other and all the other cliché explanations are often at play as a marriage dissolves — but they are often as much symptoms as they are causes.

Which is why these messages about how to "save" a marriage from defeat are not merely callous but also outright damaging. Encouraging people to stay in struggling marriages for the wrong reasons is not the best thing for any of the people involved, and leaving a marriage is hard enough without the addition of social pressure and reproach.

But perhaps what bothers me the most is the notion that a marriage that ends in divorce instead of death is by definition a failure, implying that somehow the entire marriage no longer counts. You wouldn't call someone who switched careers midstream a "failed" engineer. You don't call two buddies who fall in love and get married "failed" friends.

Relationships change; that doesn't mean they failed or, often, that they even actually ended. (Ask me about the time I got a drink with my ex last week or how often we call each other to good-naturedly vent about one of the kids.)

The problem with looking at divorce as failure is that it both erases all of what came before the dissolution of the marriage and sets up our future interactions (and how our children process them) to be that much more antagonistic. Instead, we would all do better to work to strengthen a marriage while it's part of our present and celebrate its successes if it becomes a thing of the past.

I married my college boyfriend at the age of 20, and we were together until I was 39 — nearly my entire adult life. We have five children, which means that together, we sat up worried with sick little ones for dozens of hours, tag-teamed night wakings for hundreds of weeks and, between us, changed about 35,000 diapers. We chased his career opportunities around the country and traveled frequently for mine and somehow managed to watch all 11 seasons of "The X-Files" and all six seasons of "Lost" — twice. We laughed (often) and vacationed (somewhat less often).

The fact that our marriage officially ended two years ago sometimes leads me to question whether we were just fooling ourselves — maybe it was all a sham. But when I look at our day-to-day lives, I know it wasn't. Were we as fun as we seemed? Actually, yes. Did we enjoy each other's company to the end? Also yes. Was our public-facing, cheerful, collaborative approach to raising a houseful of young kids really how it played out behind closed doors? Yep.

Were we particularly well-suited to be each other's forever partners in the "business of life" — seeing those same kids through college and beyond, seeing each other into retirement and beyond? It would seem not. But that doesn't mean it was all a waste and that the good memories can't be cherished. It just means that the success of the marriage was time-limited — in our case, to 19 years.

Maybe if my ex and I had taken the advice in those "5 Ways to Divorce-Proof Your Marriage" articles, I'd still be married right now. Who knows? When you're in the thick of it, no number of date nights, therapy sessions or communication tools seem like the answer, and when you're on the other side of it, second-guessing is useless.

Almost nobody vows to stay partnered with someone until they die unless they really mean it. Yet sometimes, when faced with the choice of continuing to slog and suffer versus bringing something to its natural conclusion, the choice seems not only clear but also unavoidable. As a therapist once told me: "When you get married, it's like you create an unspoken contract. Every now and then, one of you renegotiates the contract, and sometimes you can't agree."

In December, I, like many other divorcées who thought it would be a good idea to punish ourselves by watching a movie about a marriage breaking up at Christmastime, sobbed my way through "Marriage Story" on Netflix. The lawyer scenes made me nod with recognition, cringe and occasionally tense up with rage, but the most compelling interludes were the little moments of cooperation and tenderness between Charlie, played by Adam Driver, and Nicole, played by Scarlett Johansson, even in the midst of the proceedings.

Those moments rang as true to my experience as the uglier scenes in the courtroom and, to me, represented a kind of success: You can still tap into your humanity in the face of unbelievable stress, and there is still a relationship to be salvaged, even if the marriage goes away. Moreover, you don't do it just "for the kids" — you do it for yourselves, too. It's simply better to be in a positive relationship with a person you care about than one that's resentful and contentious — even if, initially, finding that positivity is difficult. (Sometimes incredibly so.)

During one exchange in "Marriage Story," Charlie's good-hearted lawyer Bert, played by Alan Alda, says, "I want you to know that eventually this will all be over." He's talking about the divorce proceedings, but really, he could be talking about anything in life. Childhood. Illness. A vacation. A stressful period at work.

We would all do better to work to strengthen a marriage while it's part of our present and celebrate its successes if it becomes a thing of the past.

Whether it ends in death or — nearly as likely — divorce, every marriage will end, and there are a lot of ways we can make that end more healthy and more human and keep open the possibility that two people who once loved each other enough to vow to stay together forever can probably, under the right circumstances, find a way to renegotiate that relationship into something positive.

I think it starts with taking the focus off "not divorcing" in the first place. Married people should spend time together and communicate well — not because it will shield them from the pain and hassle of a divorce later but because it will make the here and now better. A marriage that ends most likely still has parts worth celebrating in it. So I prefer to view the fact that I was married for 19 productive years as a success, rather than fixating on the "failure" of that marriage's end.