Glamorizing a marital split is narcissism disguised as feminism. Kat Rosenfield for The Free Press.
(Illustration by The Free Press, images via Getty and Instagram)

Does Divorce Make You Hotter?

Glamorizing a marital split is narcissism disguised as feminism.

Five years ago, all my girlfriends suddenly decided to abandon their husbands en masse.

That is how it seemed at the time, at least. It all started when one woman blew up her marriage with one of those affairs so indiscreet that getting found out seemed like not just a risk but the entire point—then landed on her feet with generous alimony and a new boyfriend who was a 24-year-old fitness influencer. A few others, perhaps hoping to replicate her results, followed suit.

I lost touch with these women during the pandemic, so whether it all worked out for them, I couldn’t say; all I remember is that shortly after the last of the breakups, the new divorcées threw a Halloween party at which I was the only woman not wearing lingerie as a costume, and also the only one accompanied by a husband (what can I say? I’ve always liked him). I spent the evening feeling excruciatingly frumpy and middle-aged and also, absurdly, a little left out.

I’ve been thinking lately of that party, those women, the husbands they jettisoned like so much dead weight in a mimetic frenzy of best-life-living. Maybe the men were bad and deserved it, but it strikes me that nobody ever said so. My friends didn’t talk about being unhappily married; they just thought they’d be happier divorced, and no wonder. Even as divorce has retreated from the oft-cited peak rate of 50 percent, its place in the culture has all the urgency and incandescence of a current thing.

This year, we’ve already had a glut of divorce memoirs from authors celebrity and non; a much-hyped “divorce album” from Ariana Grande; a buzzy debut novel called The Divorcées, which is set on a ’50s “divorce ranch” in Reno; a piece in The Cut, on Valentine’s Day no less, entitled “The Lure of Divorce”; and a New York Times feature about how Emily Ratajkowski has set off a booming new market for “divorce rings,” refashioned from the wearer’s old wedding band. One of them is engraved with the word badass, a detail I would have found absolutely impossible to believe had it not been accompanied by photographic evidence.

Is it badass to get divorced? Perhaps it was in the ’50s, when women had to schlep to Nevada to free themselves of their abusive husbands—or the ’70s, when women fought for the liberatory institution of no-fault divorce. And perhaps this history explains the current narrative, epitomized by a recent Guardian piece that portrays divorce as not just a path to empowerment but an exclusive sisterhood (the one I glimpsed among my newly single friends as they downed Jell-O shots and mimed intercourse on the kitchen countertop with a life-size plastic skeleton). Learning of the writer’s divorce, her hairdresser said, “all the coolest women she knew were divorced and sighed almost wistfully at the thought of it.”

Of course, these stories suffer from selection bias, in that they are created by and for the type of woman who sighs wistfully at the thought of divorce—as opposed to those of us who sometimes wake up sweating from nightmares in which we have inexplicably dumped our very good husbands. But they’re also a product of a popular “woman empowered by everything woman does” paradigm, where all choices made by women are a product of liberation, hence feminist, hence good. There is no error or disappointment that can’t be yass-kweened away.

This is how we get the memoirs, the movies, the one-time wedding band melted down and made new, engraved with the word badass. Per the jeweler who created the ring, this was “how the client felt after the transformation,” which is the first time I’ve seen this word used as a synonym for divorce.

I also wonder: Did the divorcée feel this?

Or is it how she wished she felt, a sort of “dress for the job you want” approach, except in place of career aspirations, emotional ones?

I try to imagine a world in which we’d tell a man that getting divorced made him badass, instead of a schmuck, a deadbeat, a loser who didn’t try hard enough. A world in which divorce rings for men are a thing, let alone one positively written about in The New York Times. It would never happen, of course. It’s only women who are seen as requiring this particular brand of cheerleading, who are relentlessly encouraged to reframe all their negative experiences as the best thing they ever did.

“I want to tell you that breaking is our power,” writes Lyz Lenz in her new divorce memoir, This American Ex-Wife. “I want to tell you that walking away is a strength. I want to tell you that there is power in giving up.”

I’m sure Lenz does want these things to be true, and also that sometimes they are. It’s not hard to picture a woman who walks away from an abusive marriage feeling empowered, who does indeed find herself stronger for having shattered. But the object of Lenz’s contempt isn’t bad marriages, or dysfunctional ones; it’s marriage itself, the whole, entire thing, and this sweeping indictment of the institution reads like narcissism disguised as feminism, where the goal is not so much to persuade others as to avoid admitting fault or weakness oneself.

Heaven forfend a woman admit that she made mistakes or has regrets or, worst of all, wishes she had her husband back. In this vision of feminism, marriage is a trap, divorce is a superpower, and women are not so much people as Strong Female Characters. Our therapy culture has one crucial caveat: it’s okay not to be okay, but being not okay about a man is a bridge too far.

Granted, the rare instances when someone bucks this trend make it abundantly clear why more people don’t. Without the faux bravado of the divorce-as-liberation narrative, things get real bleak, real fast. Last year, the writer Róisín Lanigan published an essay about the end of her marriage, “The Chic Young Divorcée,” which is laced with an anguish so searing that it can be only glanced at, gestured at, darkly joked about; to look it in the face would destroy you.

“Someone is going through a breakup and tells me they wish it was a divorce instead, because it is a more socially elegant version of sadness,” she writes. “My boss sent me a link to Emily Ratajkowski saying it is chic to be divorced before 30, and I reply ‘ha ha.’ Gisele Bündchen looks hotter after her divorce; everyone agrees this to be something that just happens to women when you get divorced. I do not look like Gisele Bündchen.”

What animates Lanigan’s essay is not just sadness. It’s the sense of having been fooled, and foolish, and mistaken. It’s the waste of it all—not just her own time, or her husband’s, but the friends and family who invested themselves in the union. The end of a marriage is understood here as profoundly destabilizing, a stumble from which you try and fail to recover until it becomes a wild, pinwheeling fall.

Compare this to Lenz’s huffy characterization of not just marriage but the act of trying to save it: “Fixing something restores what is old. It is a conservative effort.”

In other words, to attempt to course-correct a marriage before it implodes is something worse than pointless. It is, and please try to read this without vomiting, Republican.

It’s a hazard of our present moment that everything—every issue, institution, hobby, aesthetic, object—can be sorted into Team This or Team That. Marriage is no exception: between its traditional roots and fraught history as a vehicle for female subjugation, it naturally gets dumped into the “right-wing” box by those who insist on categorizing everything along a political binary. When Lenz dismisses the possibility of salvaging a relationship as “a conservative effort” while embracing divorce as a form of feminist self-actualization, she’s just operating within the same fandom-based political paradigm that makes it right-wing to lift weights, drink milk, or watch Yellowstone—but she’s also illustrating, perhaps unwittingly, how this reflexive tribalism would tear us apart if we let it.

At their most strident, the cheerleaders for divorce wouldn’t just see every couple torn asunder in the name of women’s liberation. They would free women from one confinement, only to trap them in another—one that may be stifling and lonely in its own way, not to mention sexually frustrating and also a lot of work, especially if children are involved.

It is true that marriage has not always been an institution that served women well, and also one in which we were once pressured to participate, no matter how unhappily. This was a mistake. But it would also be a mistake to now demand that women reject marriage just as reflexively, to tell us that divorce will make us fitter, happier, and hotter.

It’s interesting, that last one: women are allegedly made more appealing by divorce, but nobody ever specifies to whom. The feminist cause? The next ex-husband?

The universe itself?

Kat Rosenfield is a novelist, writer, and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Follow her on X @katrosenfield, and read her piece, “Baby Reindeer Is a True Story—But Whose True Story?

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