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My ex-wife and I agree: Divorce can be a sign of relationship success

Since I've been divorced, I've had more than a few people imply this means that my 10-year relationship (and three-year marriage) was a failure, or even that I am a failure at relationships.

My ex-wife, Jane, hears this too, and says she has often felt ashamed to be divorced so young, barely into her 30s. Yet despite the stigma divorce carries, both of us feel that not only was the relationship a success for the decade it lasted, but the fact we ended it at the appropriate time is a sign we are, in fact, quite adept at love.

A few weeks ago, I read a story in The New York Times that labelled the season just past "the Summer of Divorce."

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The writer cited the big-screen release of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love and the television show Mad Men as examples of what he called "divorce porn." His argument was that with "vicarious divorce" so prevalent in our entertainment, actual divorce - which is at a 30-year low in the United States, down 34 per cent since 1979 - isn't as necessary.

It's a cute theory and a bit tongue-in-cheek, to be sure, but I think the rise in pop-culture divorce stories is actually related to the dip in real-life splits in a different way: Divorce is finally losing the last vestiges of its taboo status.

And if the end of a marriage no longer leaves one with a scarlet 'D' on their relationship résumé, it puts less pressure on married couples to stay wed, thus ironically allowing them to relax a bit and focus on something a little more important - the relationship itself.

But I'll admit I might be promoting this theory for selfish reasons.

Heading back into the dating scene in your 30s, with the possibility of another marriage and family ahead of you, the last thing you want to feel like is a failure. Unfortunately, trying to perceive one's ended marriage as a "success" doesn't have a lot of cultural history.

When I was discussing this with Jane last week, on the two-year anniversary of our split, she did come up with a couple of good parallels, though: "You would never say that was a lousy dinner party last night - everyone left," she joked. "And when you finish reading a book, you don't think the book failed because it didn't go on forever."

Perhaps wedding vows have been taken too literally. The bride and groom say they want to be together until death parts them - some would even say they imagine being together after death, and thus "forever" - and there is an emotional truth to this.

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"I committed to our marriage with every intent of it being forever," Jane said last week. "Those were the vows we took, and that was my intention."

I believed her then, but I also knew that my marriage was likely over when she told me one day after dinner: "I don't know any more if we're going to be together forever."

She didn't mean that we might break up in 10 years. She was talking about how she felt right at that moment, just as she did in front of the minister a few years before.

After some time, I realized she was right - we needed to move on from each other. The only reason I hadn't come to the conclusion myself was that I had been so loyal to loyalty.

Coincidentally, while reflecting on divorce this month, I got a note out of the blue from my father's ex-wife (not my mother, but the second one). She had read a column I wrote a year and a half ago about my father's "failed" relationships and she wanted to correct me.

"I guess it's a matter of perspective," she wrote, "but I never look at ended relationships as failures. I just look at the great times we had and how it fulfilled our needs at the time."

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I was glad to receive the letter because I had misunderstood their parting as acrimonious. (And who knows, maybe it was back then. Breaking up, after all, is hard to do.) My father's ex also gave me this nugget: "Maybe your dad just makes healthy life changes too frequently to stay with the same person."

My father agreed, and added: "You could say that some people fail to have the courage to leave a relationship. It can go both ways." He also said he thinks the stigma grows each time you divorce, because people think it reflects an inability to choose the right person to marry.

But I would say the opposite is true. One female friend, who also divorced young after a nine-year relationship, put it well: "I learned so much," she said. "Now I know the warning signs better and I know what things are important to me in a marriage, things which I didn't realize before that I needed."

In this sense, a divorced person is actually your best option for marriage (those twice divorced are doubly so!).

On the education angle, Jane had another good metaphor regarding post-divorce relationships and second marriages: "It's like moving on to university," she said. "Not that I would compare you to high school! Let's say it's like taking another degree. You want to keep growing and learning."

Multiple marriages are not for everyone, and I'm not saying that people shouldn't end up being together their entire lives; even with divorce losing its stigma, some relationships do work out that way. (If there are kids involved, this is an especially nice outcome, though I would echo the oft-repeated sentiment that kids would be happier if their unhappy parents split up.)

I'd like to say that I'll never get divorced again, but I realize I'd be saying it just to appease those who make the judgment that divorce equals failure. So instead, I'm making the vow to have as many happy divorces as necessary, forever. Life's too short to view everything that ends as a failure.

Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published Sept. 28.

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