So you've moved on from your marriage, started the next chapter(s) of your life, but somehow this question keeps coming up; What is your marital status?
Tara Thomas & Kia Handley talk about the considerations around whether to use that label, and what it means to be 'divorced'.
[Full transcript below]
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It was a conversation that came up partly after the census; You had a few options in your relationship status, you could select never married... or divorced.
It's led to conversations about when can we stop calling myself divorced, especially if you never remarry.
A number of you shared your thoughts on this with me after I shared my story of separation earlier this year. So how long do you have to live with the old D word? Let's look at this with Relationship Coach Tara Thomas, from The Sugar Doctor.
Do I Have to Keep Calling Myself Divorced Forever?
What do you make of feeling... of people feeling like they're forever tarnished with the brush of the term divorced? No matter what's changed in their life and relationship status?
Yeah, look it's something that might be a little bit, I guess, unfair in some senses where you you've made a decision and you've moved on and that part of your life, that chapter is closed, but it keeps being brought up over and over again. Administratively and legally, and even socially people will keep asking you that question.
So that does seem difficult to swallow, I suppose. And it's always going to depend on the context in which you're being asked. So there are lots of places, especially when it comes to paperwork where you get asked personal information. And I think that's important to know that we don't always have to answer that just because we've been asked!
So, you know, asking yourself that question, why do they want to know that information? And then we can decide whether it's appropriate to say yes, I'm divorced or not, decide to stop calling myself divorced, and be a little bit more discerning.
If your hairdresser is asking you on paperwork, whether you're divorced, I don't know that they need to know that...
...but then, when it comes to something like the census where we are collecting and mapping social change, I think it's helpful there to say, yes, I have been married because then over time we get more of a sense of what are the trends and what is emerging in terms of when people get married, how often they get married, do they get divorced? You know, do they never get married.
I think that's helpful information for us socially. So it's just about being more discerning,
Why Do I Feel Stigma About Calling Myself Divorced?
I guess, in that community, that social setting as well in between other people talking about, you know, personal things, are there connotations that come with the word divorce? Have you seen that change at all?
It's definitely changing... but I don't know yet that it is just a clean and inherently neutral term.
It should be an inherently neutral term, but historically, the history of divorce is that... originally marriage was about property and political and economic alliances, women as property, and political and economic alliances. So there's that, built in, you know, reason to make people stay together,
I guess that's so they don't, they, they don't break those alliances.
And then when, over time, divorce did become something that we were able to do originally, it was fault based. So you did have to prove cruelty and you did have to prove, you know, scenarios like adultery or alcoholism. And I think that that's where a lot of that stigma came from.
A lot of that kind of loading came from because it did have to be an unpleasant process in order to make it happen.
There was no no-fault divorce for a long time. And since we have had no-fault divorce since the late sixties, I think that that's begun to change. If you no longer have to prove that you know, that your partner is a terrible person in order to leave them.
But because that was hundreds of years of history, we still definitely carry those that loading to that term.
It's not, um, as I would like it to be, you know, that the whole peas and carrots thing - there's no emotional loading to choosing vegetables! Divorce should just be a marital status on an, on an administrative or legal form. It doesn't need to have all of the social information that we make it have.
What Does Calling Myself Divorced Mean About My Relationship Status?
And like, obviously, you know, there's kind of maybe even an unwritten timeline in that first year while you're kind of separated and not yet divorced yet, but like when you're 10, 12, 15, 20 years on from that divorce, is it even fair to still have to say that as so much can change in your life?
Yeah. I, I don't think socially it becomes meaningful at all because you are, you know, you could be divorced in the divorced category and you could be, could have lived with a partner for decades. You could be single by choice. You could be having lots of sex or none. You could be in three consensual non-monogamous relationships simultaneously.
You know, it doesn't really carry much meaning other than now statistical data beyond a certain point. Um, so it's a tricky one because it does have specific statistical data, but it doesn't carry a lot of meaning when people are asking you that information, as you say, post that process, you know, once you're done and forms are signed, it doesn't really carry that much meaning anymore.
What Does Calling Myself Divorced Mean About My Identity?
Do we have to be okay with the term? Is it about us individually going through that process to decide if I want to keep calling myself divorced?
Yeah. You know, the turn is only important because of the meaning that we bring to it.
So there's that external meaning, which is the systemic. So the political economic, the religious meanings, environmental meanings, and all of those things are somewhat outside of our control. And that's where we might have to sort of carry that label. Um, from a statistical data perspective.
There's the social external meanings, which is, you know, what do our families make it mean? What do our communities make it mean when I'm calling myself divorced? What do our friends and colleagues make it mean? And a lot of that comes from what their personal lived experience has been. If they've had good experience with others or themselves of divorce, then it's likely to be more neutral. If they've had charged emotional experience, then it's likely to be more dramatic.
But then there's that internal meaning, which I think is where you're getting at, where we're really talking about, you know, do I have to carry 'divorcee' as my identity?
Do I have to keep calling myself divorced to myself? Do I have to build it into the narrative and the stories that I tell myself about who I am in the world?
And in that sense, I say not, you know, it's funny because as we were talking, it's like, when you say I broke up with someone, if you weren't married, that's a one-time thing and you're not broken up then 10, 20 years later. You know, you break up and then you're done.
Whereas that divorced labels carries on for so much longer. So from an identity perspective and the narratives you tell yourself, you get to choose when you're... when you want to take on a new label, whether that's single, or available, or not available, you get to choose when that happens.
Is it Okay To Ask About People's Relationship Status?
What about from the other side? Should we even be asking people that sort of question, "are you divorced?"
Yeah, it's really sticky. And I was reflecting a lot on this. I don't know that asking about someone else's husband or wife or their partner... I don't think that it's always appropriate. And that's something that we, that we often do in professional settings, um, or
Small talk. Right. And it's kind of not small talk. It's big talk.
Oh yeah. Big talk.
So I think that if it's something that you're asking people as small talk, maybe you should reconsider, whether that's something that, you know, it is any of your business.
And particularly there are a lot of times... I think there are relationships that people have professionally where they're trying to make you think that you're closer than you are by asking about your family. You know, whether it's a bank manager or a real estate agent or a car salesman. I mean, these are all, um, apologies, uh, tropes that I have that I'm using. But yeah, if it's someone who's receiving money from you... I don't know that they have any business asking.
When you're asking questions, ask yourself "what might I be able to ask that would lead us to a different conversation?"
Can I ask them what are you up to now? You know, what's your passion, what's your hobbies? What did you do on the weekend? There's plenty of other options than asking about partners.
But I think when it comes to our closer relationships, like our family and our friends, even perhaps colleagues who are closer to them is an indication that they're interested in your life and that they care about you. So it's not always an invasive question. It's something that you really need to calibrate with the individual, you know, are they open to those conversations or are they maybe a bit more private about their lives?
Do I Have to Tell Others My Relationship Status?
And as you were saying, we can take control. Just cause we get asked the question in any sort of setting doesn't mean that we have to necessarily answer it.
We can sort of practice a line to say instead to deflect a little bit.
Exactly right. And I wish that weren't the case... but it is the case... so often when something happens in your personal life, people will keep asking you about it and you don't want to talk about it.
- It can be really helpful to firstly, presume that people are being generous and that they asking because they care about you. Not because they're being nosy, you know, they just want to know, are you okay? Do you need support? What can I do? What can I do to support you?
- And then I think that it's helpful to prepare a phrase that you're comfortable with. So you might say something like
"oh, it's really kind of you to ask about my partner. I don't really know how they're doing. We're not together anymore." and then you can just redirect the conversation. I prefer to talk about something else, so wha'ts been happening with you?
It doesn't need to be super dramatic but I would suggest, you know, it's really helpful to be clear with someone and then let them know where your relationship with them stands on that front. Like, is this a conversation that we're going to have at any point or would I rather, you know, not talk about it with you at all?
- Or you can just really simply redirect it.
And I recommend that if you have recently separated or, you know, broken up with someone who's gone through a divorce that you do practice; What is it that I'm going to say when someone asks me, so there's not that, you know, sinking awkward feeling that happens.
Yeah. Because we don't want to shame people on either side of the conversation. You know, a lot of this is just ingrained and it takes the, it takes time for anyone involved in that conversation to sort of rethink how they approach it.
Yeah, absolutely. And coming to that conversation from either side, whether you're asking or whether you're, ....come into that with, you know, generosity and patience.
I think we'll really begin to reframe that. So if you're the person who's asking, you might consider responding to someone telling you that they've been divorced or separated in the same way that you would, if they said, you know, I've moved house or I've changed jobs, you might just say, oh, I didn't realize, you know, what are you up to now?
You don't need to dive into the detail of what's been going on and, and then respectfully know that the other person will tell you if they'd like to let you know what's happening.
Tara, great to talk through this. Thank you so much. It's very complex and it's different for everyone, which I think is important to remember as well. You will approach this and deal with this in a very different way from the next person. And that is absolutely valid.
That's right. My pleasure. And you know, I'd love to hear if people start to come up with new identity variables for this, that would be very cool. I think completely changed that conversation.
I love that, Tara. Thank you.
Tara Thomas, Relationship Coach with The Sugar Doctor.
For full transparency you should know: This transcript has been lightly edited for flow, and to optimise the SEO on my website. That means that I have substituted some words or phrases so that the article is more likely to appear in a google search. In this article "calling myself divorced" has been optimised. I only do that in a context where the meaning will remain the same.
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