Why Millennials Are Embracing the "Happy Divorce"

Is this what the end of life-long marriage looks like?

(Image credit: Getty + Jonathan Knowles)

Conscious uncoupling." It was the parting shot heard round the world when Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced their intention to split amicably, even lovingly, in the spring of 2014. An epic backlash to their take on separation ensued. How dare the actress make one of the most stressful moments in life sound like a DIY spa treatment? But Paltrow was onto something already afoot: a craving for a kinder, gentler way to dissolve a marriage—simply put, a good divorce.

Since then, a bevy of new tools for taking the high road has flooded the marketplace. There are books like Splitopia: Dispatches From Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well, as well as sites such as Wevorce, which helps couples avoid a messy, acrimonious court battle. The newly single can celebrate with a divorce party or go somewhere exotic on a "divorcemoon." Lost the espresso maker in the split? You can set up a divorce registry. There are even "divorce hotels," where you check in unhappily married and, 48 hours later, you check out single and refreshed. But beyond all of this is the notion that a harmonious split can lead to better health, a more fulfilling career, and even an evolved relationship with a partner you once wanted to throttle.

[pullquote align='C']"We're all inside this happily-ever-after myth that is about 400 years old and was created when the life span was under 40." [/pullquote]

"I always say we had the most amazing divorce but a really terrible marriage," says Los Angeles–based fashion designer Mary Alice Haney, laughing, of her first marriage, to Graham Larson, whom she met 17 years ago in Palm Beach, Florida. After four years of dating and a few not-so-blissful wedded years, she realized, "We weren't soul mates and we both knew it." But, she adds, "When you're young like we were, you just think marriage is supposed to be hard like that." In 2008, the couple sought counseling with a therapist to discuss separating and a custody arrangement for their two toddler sons. No matter what, she says, they vowed to have a "happy divorce."

Haney credits their commitment to being civil and caring for the success she's since found as a Hollywood stylist turned designer (she launched an eponymous line of ready-to-wear dresses—Reese Witherspoon and Taylor Swift are fans—within a few years of her split). "There is no way I could have done it without Graham," she says. "If you have a negative situation with an ex, you don't have the flexibility and the support system."

Why is this movement happening now? Understandably, many couples with children, like Haney and Larson, are motivated to do what's best for the well-being of their kids. Others prefer not to repeat the mistakes of the previous generation; they watched their divorcing parents bitterly antagonize each other and are determined to do the opposite—especially now that they have the means to play nice with mediators, collaborative lawyers, and divorce doulas, who offer emotional and strategic support. But really, it may all come down to the statistical reality that a lifelong monogamous relationship is about as contemporary as a home perm.

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"We're all inside this happily-ever-after myth that is about 400 years old and was created when the life span was under 40," says psychotherapist Katherine Woodward Thomas, who coined the now-famous phrase for a mindful breakup and then popularized it in her 2015 book Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After. "Staying together was once a matter of survival and economic necessity. But the truth is that very few of us are going to meet just one person, fall in love, marry that person, and live with that person for the rest of our lives." (Woodward Thomas and her ex-husband live five floors away from each other in the same apartment building in Los Angeles so they can co-parent their teen daughter.)

Nicole Zien, a senior vice president of TV development in L.A., and her husband separated after eight years of marriage—including two years of couples therapy—and she remembers discussing ways to make the process as positive as possible. "We started dating when I was 20 and a young girl who was trying to find her way," says the now 43-year-old mother of two daughters. "Ultimately, we divorced because we grew apart. The people who we were when we met, we no longer were."

Although divorce is no longer a societal setback, and many couples hope to part on good terms, Splitopia author Wendy Paris, a former wedding reporter for Modern Bride, thinks the cultural shift to positivity would be further along if couples were more aware of their options. "Superstition prevents some people from getting information about, say, alternative ways to structure a family," notes Paris, who wrote her book after amicably splitting with her husband in 2012. She says there's still a notion "that if you learn about divorce, it's like you're welcoming the end."

Science hasn't caught up with the new paradigm, either. According to the psychiatrists who published the oft-cited Holmes and Rahe stress scale, divorce ranks as the second-most-emotionally-taxing life event after the death of a loved one. But this study was conducted in 1967, when less than 15 percent of women were in the workforce. For context, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment five years later (though the proposed amendment was never ratified by enough state legislatures to be added to the Constitution), and women now make up 57 percent of the labor force. Clearly, women have grown their net worth on average and made strides toward financial independence over the past 50 years.

Sociologists, too, have long suggested that married people are healthier and live longer than the unmarried. But what about the psychological toll of a miserable marriage? In October 2015, researchers at Brigham Young University reported in a paper aptly titled "It's Complicated" that ambivalence in a partnership may be associated with higher blood pressure.

Other studies also feel behind the curve. One recently published by the American Heart Association found that a woman who had been divorced at least once had a 24 percent increased risk of heart attack over a woman who was continuously married; women divorced twice or more had a 77 percent increased risk. However, the ongoing interviews for that research started in 1992, just two years after the release of the divorce-as-blood-sport movie The War of the Roses. Back then, the term "good divorce" was an oxymoron.

Michelle Crosby, the 40-year-old founder and CEO of Wevorce, knows just how ugly it can get. Her parents split contentiously when she was a kid, and she recalls being dragged into court 15 times during their custody war. "My parents were phenomenal people who were stuck in a broken system," she says. Determined to make it better, Crosby went on to study mediation and collaborative law at Harvard University and practiced as a family attorney in Boise, Idaho, before launching Wevorce in 2013. Crosby, who amicably divorced her own husband after 10 years of marriage, says the site's prime demographic is Silicon Valley tech types with high-stress jobs. Many of these couples don't have children ("In the Bay Area, we have more couples with dogs than kids," notes Crosby), a prime motivation for a peaceful split. But, "You still built this life together and want to honor the journey that you had," she says.

Since Wevorce launched, the site has collected a gold mine of data, including this nugget: In heterosexual marriages, the wife initiates the divorce 74 percent of the time, and in most instances, she has been considering a breakup for about 18 months. Despite the fact that they set the process in motion, many of these women depart their marriages conflicted.

[pullquote align='C']Lost the espresso maker in the split? You can set up a divorce registry. There are even "divorce hotels," where you check in unhappily married and, 48 hours later, you check out single and refreshed.[/pullquote]

Suzanne Riss, coauthor of The Optimist's Guide to Divorce: How to Get Through Your Breakup and Create a New Life You Love, based her book on a divorce club she started for women to share their stories. (More than 50 women showed up to the first meeting in her hometown of Maplewood, New Jersey, in March 2013.) She warns, "Even for women who make the choice to leave, there can be really strong feelings of anger and disappointment."

Twice-divorced Kristen C., who works at a tech startup in San Francisco, can speak to both divorce extremes. The 32-year-old's first marriage ended badly in 2010. "We were barely speaking and there was so much tension. I knew I didn't want to go through that again," she recalls. When she realized her second marriage wasn't working out, in January 2016, she specifically researched an amicable option and used Wevorce to help her legally dissolve the union. "It wasn't super-enjoyable, but it felt like we were keeping it civil and were able to be adults about it," she says. "My ex and I went together to file the divorce and then went and got coffee afterward. That was a little surreal."

After the prolonged pettiness and personal attacks that typify an old-school divorce, "Many people just dim down and shut their hearts because it's such a shattering experience," says Woodward Thomas. But one of the upsides to ending things on a high note is that it may leave both parties more open to finding love again. Haney, the fashion designer, agrees. In a thoroughly modern twist, after she reconnected with—and married—an old friend from college, she wanted her ex-husband to live happily ever after, too. Three years ago, she happened to meet actress Rhea Seehorn at an L.A. hair salon. Seehorn was fresh from a breakup, and Haney saw an opportunity. "I was like, 'I know this really awesome guy ... '" she recalls. Haney didn't let on that the guy was actually her former husband, but Seehorn found out after some pregame Googling and took a chance anyway. She and Larson are now engaged. "I told them I wanted to host their engagement party!" says Haney, though she adds, with a grin, that it all probably sounds "a little weird."

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Obviously, this rise in happy splits is breaking the stigma of shame and failure—and that's good for everyone. But Theresa DiDonato, a psychology professor at Loyola University Maryland, cautions that the trend can make it seem like breaking up is suddenly easy to do. "Resolving a conflict in an amicable way is great," she says. "But divorce can be really traumatic, and people shouldn't assume that it's not going to be a big deal from an emotional standpoint."

Zien, the TV development executive, can relate. She and her ex now live just three blocks from each other and spend holidays like Halloween and Christmas together with their girls. "But it's still a roller coaster of emotions," she concedes. "Sometimes, you love being alone, and sometimes, you get lonely." Nevertheless, she gained a great friend in her ex. Recently, he called to tell her that he overheard two people talking about their divorce horror stories and how awful they and their exes treat each other. "He said, 'I want to tell you how much I appreciate you as an ex-wife,'" says Zien. "I was like, 'Oh, my God. You're making me have warm feelings toward you.'"

This article appears in the April issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands now.