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Jennifer Cullen Headshot

The Stigma of Divorce

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If so many marriages end in divorce, then why is there still such a stigma associated
with breaking the "'til death do we part" vow? Because the last thing you need when
you're going through your divorce, and experiencing all of the accompanying emotional
anguish, guilt and turmoil, is for anyone to judge you for it. Yet, it happens.

And it happened to me.

Eight years ago, my son started kindergarten at a pricey private school where we didn't
know anybody but where most of the other families had been attending the pre-school
program for a few years.

Unfortunately, a month prior to school starting, after a few months of therapy, some soul
searching and much crying, my husband and I made the decision to get divorced.

We still wanted our son to attend the school, even though the divorce would make it
financially harder. To gain admission to the school, the three of us had submitted to
multiple admission interviews and, once accepted, signed a contract for the upcoming
school year. So it seemed like the right thing to do.

Plus, I had already come to terms with being the Jewish mother of a half Catholic kid
going to an Episcopalian school in a small town in Florida. It's easier to explain if you
can just say that your husband is Catholic. But now, I was also a divorcee. Try explaining
all of that to some of the other mothers. Or not.

Because it turns out, I didn't have to explain. This information was available the first
time I showed up to volunteer, serving lunch to the entire school, and didn't wear a
wedding ring. I was volunteering so that I could meet some of the other parents and to try
to feel connected in a school where I was already different by virtue of my religion.

That first volunteer day, I introduced myself to the other moms who were on lunch duty.
And I self consciously tried to keep my left hand in my pocket but when you're serving
out food to that many kids, you need both hands.

In the lulls between classes in the lunch line, the questions started. And they started off
innocuously enough.

"Where do you live?" Easy enough to answer.

"How many kids do you have?" This question was easy too.

"Do you go to church here?" "Um, no I'm Jewish."

"What does your husband do?" "Oh, well, I'm divorced. Actually in the process of
getting divorced."

Silence. And then the next class came through the line.

I learned that nothing stops a conversation more quickly among a bunch of mothers with
young children than one of them saying that they're getting a divorce.

I only made one mom friend that year even though I kept volunteering. I tried. I took my
kids to the same playground that everyone went to after school. My kids were cute, well
behaved and nicely groomed. But we never got past the playground. I was even on my
best behavior until I started dating one of the kids' dads during the second half of the
year. But he had already been divorced for a while.

After that year, my then ex-husband and I decided to send our son to the local public
school. It was an excellent school, free (well, almost) and the families there were much
more diverse in their ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic levels and, yes, even in their
definitions of "family." My non-nuclear family fit right in. So did I. And some of the
women I met that year are the ones that I'm still close with today.

So I wonder, what happened during that year of private school? Did being near a divorcee
make some of the other moms worry about the health of their own marriages? Because
my marriage had always looked good on paper. Did they object on a religious basis? The
Episcopalian church seemed pretty liberal and accepting to me. Or were they afraid I'd
hit on their husbands? I was looking pretty good for a mother of two kids under the age of
6. The no-eating, lots of exercise stress diet of divorce did my body good.

I'll never know the answer but it's probably a mixture of all of those things. I've talked to
other women -- mothers who have had the same experience of feeling ostracized or judged,
even by their friends. Going through a divorce can stop invitations from coming and the
phone to stop ringing.

The reality is people get divorced. And they get divorced for good reasons. Abuse,
infidelity and yes, just plain old unhappiness. That counts. But there will always be
people (friends, parents, teachers, co-workers and even random strangers) who disagree
with divorce.

So how do you deal with that stigma, especially when you are in the thick of the divorce
process, at your most vulnerable and needing support? Surround yourself with those who
are understanding and those who are non-judgmental. Keep your sense of humor and try
not to give a shit. Focus on your well-being and taking care of your family.

Then when you're on the other side of it, you really won't care. And maybe you can be
the one to help a friend or even an acquaintance get through their own tough times. Trust
me. They'll appreciate it. I know I sure did.