The Divorcée Stigma That's Alive and Well

10/04/2013 04:45 pm ET | Updated Dec 16, 2014

The divorcée. What a retro term, don't you think? It conjures a sexy little ex-missus in cocktail dress and kitten heels, presumed to be on the prowl for another woman's husband.

While the stigma of being a divorced woman is nothing like it was in the '60s or '70s, let's not fool ourselves into thinking the stigma has disappeared. You're viewed as a failure. You may view yourself as a failure. You've got wounds to heal and possibly, things to prove.

The way out of this particular bind, it would seem, is via remarriage. And if you haven't somehow compensated for divorce by walking down the aisle a second time, you're regarded with suspicion, pity, or at the very least -- bewilderment.

The verdict is this: you're unattractive, mean-spirited, ungenerous in bed, a helicopter parent. Then again, maybe your baggage includes the crazy ex and more drama than you're worth.

The bottom line is -- you're no longer good enough. You're out of the (marriage) club, and you can't get back in.

In "Divorce Makes You a Bad Person... Again," Laurie Essig, PhD writes:

Despite [the] trend toward a more familial and friendly divorce, divorce is increasingly seen as a sign of bad parenting and psychological failure among many Americans, especially educated and upper-middle class Americans... for educated Americans the divorce rate is steadily declining and coming with more and more social stigma attached... divorce has become a source of shame, a mark of failure, a sign that you just aren't working hard enough, or worse, are so incredibly selfish as to not consider the children's needs.


But in my experience, true.

Even a dozen years after the stamp on my decree, divorcée discrimination is the gift that keeps on giving. Try this on for size -- a comment in conversation from a married friend, in which I mentioned the challenges of earning a living, being a solo parent, and maintaining an ongoing relationship. My words elicited the following response:

That was quite the slap in the face, though I doubt she intended the remark to hurt as it did. Her comment was based on assumptions and ignorance: there must be something wrong with those of us that haven't been "chosen" a second time, there must be something lacking in us if we couldn't sustain our previous marriage, and marriage (in many circles) is still the measure of a woman's success in life.

There are other ways the stigma plays out. For example, the persistent question of marital status at social gatherings. Asking if you're single may be informational or accusatory. In the latter case, it's hard not feel as though you're subject to scrutiny, as if you missed the memo on the timeframe post-divorce for emotional readiness to date and explore sexually, number of lovers and months before risking a first real relationship, tips to avoid the pitfalls of the rebound relationship, and then proceeding into more serious territory.

That serious territory?

Remarriage, of course -- embracing the institution that tossed you out, or that you (foolishly) walked away from. After all, once remarried, you will no longer threaten or confuse with your single woman status.

Another example occurred just this morning. I ran into an acquaintance of 15 years, and she poses the same question every time I see her. Without fail she asks: "Did you get remarried yet?" And on cue, I smile, shake my head, and firmly say no. But today she added: "I thought you were seeing a nice man. Why don't you marry him and let him take care of you?"

There's another assumption that plagues both sexes -- the knight in shining armor who will ride in to the rescue, who will fix the female finances, solve outstanding family problems, and restore the Missus crown to boot. But isn't the White Knight Syndrome part of the flawed fairy tale of marriage in the first place?

Personally, I'm tired of being sized up, packaged up, or sliced up and diced up -- and usually, by other women. I'm tired of being considered a failure because I'm divorced, and whatever the reasons, remain unmarried. That I'm not anxious to institutionalize romance, sexuality, intimacy, or playfulness seems logical enough to me -- until or unless I explicitly choose to do so.

What's so hard to understand? Not jumping into the marriage arena doesn't equate to not being capable of committed, responsible, and loving relationships.

I suppose I ought to look on the bright side of reactions to my long-term post-marital singleness. The fact that anyone would ask why I'm not remarried could be viewed as a compliment of sorts. But I'm never invited into circles that were once an integral part of my life, and only rarely invited into anything that involves couples. More likely, the discomfort that I sense is a matter of fear... fear of being alone, fear of being abandoned, fear of being financially at risk, fear of being cut off from a world that is familiar.

The real stigma stems from fear of contagion: "If it could happen to her it could happen to me." That stigma is alive and well, even after all these years.