'Getting divorced doesn't mean my marriage was a failure'

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Kerri Sackville

"My 17-year marriage wasn't a constant delight, but nor was it a failure," says Kerri Sackville.

"My 17-year marriage wasn't a constant delight, but nor was it a failure," says Kerri Sackville. Photo: Stocksy

When I was in my early 20s, my best friend and I broke up. I thought we'd always be friends, but our relationship turned out to have a beginning and an end. It spanned nearly 20 years, from kindergarten to early adulthood.

I don't consider that relationship to be a failure because it didn't last forever. It was a great success because it contributed so much to my life.

And that's not surprising. We don't regard friendships as failures when two people drift apart. Quite the opposite: we regard friendships as extraordinary when they are ended only by death.

So why do we not see romantic relationships in the same light? Why are romances considered failures unless they end in marriage? And why are marriages considered failures if they end in divorce? After all, most of our relationships will end until we find the one that does not. Are all the others that precede it simply a waste?

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I recall one of my first romantic relationships, with a gorgeous young man from Melbourne. We weren't ever going to get married and raise kids, but we had a wonderful time in the year we spent together. It wasn't unsuccessful. It was a delight. And I have never framed it in any other way.

My 17-year marriage wasn't a constant delight, but nor was it a failure. We loved each other. We created a family. We travelled. We laughed. We had fun. By the end we were both miserable – we wouldn't have split if we weren't – but that certainly doesn't negate the positives.

Sadly, though, this is not the paradigm of divorce in our culture. A marriage, by definition, is supposed to last forever, and so a marriage that ends is considered a failure.

Now, I am not going to debate the value of marriage. I chose marriage, many do, and many are fighting for the right to choose the same. However, the downside of marriage is divorce, and it is the framing of divorce with which I take issue.

Divorce is, of course, undeniably sad. The end of a marriage or intimate relationship robs the partners of so much – of comfort, of support, of love, affection, sex, intimacy. But it also robs the partners of their dreams and plans for the future, which can be just as devastating as the actual, present losses.

And of course, relationships often end very badly. As an ex of mine was fond of saying (and certainly, in our case, he was correct), "If it doesn't end badly, it doesn't end."

Most of us separated couples aren't Gwyneth and Chris, consciously uncoupling as we move gently towards platonic love. Most of us are hurt, or angry, or crushed, or in despair. And out of that pain comes a deep cognitive dissonance, because the cause of all of that terrible pain is the person we once loved the most.

And so we reframe the relationship in new terms to ease the discomfort. It was dysfunctional. They were impossible. He was abusive. She was a bitch.

No doubt that's all true, or at least, true at the end. But really, even lasting relationships are dysfunctional in some way; there are just varying, and more and less acceptable, levels of dysfunction. And most relationships have many positives, certainly at the beginning, even if those positives are gradually eroded with time.

And so to dismiss a relationship as a failure or dysfunctional seems wrong to me, and somehow sad. Of course there are relationships that should never have happened. Of course we've all had relationships we regret. But most of us can find something good in the relationships that ended, and it is that good that makes them worthwhile no matter how long they actually last.

Perhaps we need to let go of the belief that relationships must last forever, in order to better appreciate them while they last. Perhaps letting go of the notion of failure will allow us to take more care in our breakups, to remember the love we once shared, and honour the good times together.

Or perhaps that is all idealistic codswallop, and relationships will always end with great pain and distress.

But I refuse to consider my romances failures, any more than my wonderful 20-year friendship was a failure. And I hope that I will enjoy any future romance while it lasts, and not see it as invalid if it doesn't last the rest of my life.

Or perhaps that is idealistic codswallop too. But I promise you – and myself - I am going to try.