Divorce is having a moment—for women.

For example: Actor Drew Barrymore, who recently divorced for the third time, shared on her talk show that divorce is liberating.

I had so much shame around divorce and, for some reason, something happened, and I said, “I’m no longer willing to feel this way.” And it just lifted from me. When you find yourself in a situation that isn’t working out the way you hope and want, you accept it and improve the quality of life by moving forward. And for me, divorce is no longer a reason for shame. I am totally free.

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For her part, model Gisele Bündchen says it takes “courage to leave an unhealthy relationship” and sees her divorce from football star Tom Brady as a new opportunity for her—“when a door shuts, other doors open.” Model Emily Ratajkowski marked her recent divorce from Sebastian Bear-McClard by turning her engagement ring into a divorce ring and praising how transformational a divorce can be, especially for women.

Women, who are overwhelmingly the ones to initiate divorces, actually are feeling better about it. In fact, they are celebrating it. A few years ago, those celebrations looked like divorce parties, divorce cakes, divorce registries, and divorce selfies.

Woman on a porch looking to the side with one hand in her hair and serious expression

More recently, Gen X women have turned to writing memoirs that put their marriages, as well as the institution of marriage, under the microscope and magnify just how toxic heterosexual marriage can be. These memoirs, from Australian author Clementine Ford (I Don’t), and American authors Leslie Jamison (Splinters) and Lyz Lenz (This American Ex-Wife: How I Ended My Marriage and Started My Life), not only skewer heterosexual marriage but also praise breaking free.

As someone who has been divorced twice—once after a short-lived marriage when I was in my early 20s, and once at midlife with two tween children—and who has written extensively about marriage and divorce, I know a thing or two about both.

I don’t regret either of my divorces. As weird as it may sound, divorce was the best thing that happened to me (besides having my children). In fact, I would never have become an author if I had not left my last marriage, which lasted 14 years.

Divorce is much more commonplace and accepted nowadays—a recent Pew Research Center survey reveals that 55% of Americans believe unhappy spouses tend to stay in bad marriages longer than they should. But should we be celebrating divorce, especially if young children are involved?

The answer can be yes. There is a positive, research-based case for divorce—if the split happens under the right conditions.

What can be good about divorce?

Paul R. Amato is a sociologist at Penn State University whose research focuses on marital quality, divorce, and family issues. In his 2000 review of research on the consequences of divorce for adults and children, he notes that numerous studies have found that many people flourished after divorce. They experienced higher levels of autonomy and personal growth once untethered from their marriage. Many women had a boost in self-confidence and a better sense of control. Divorced moms tended to see improvements in their career opportunities and their social life, as well as an increase in happiness.

While most studies of the past tended to focus on the negative consequences of divorce, he writes, “If more studies explicitly searched for positive outcomes, then the number of studies documenting beneficial effects of divorce would almost certainly be larger.”

Some more recent studies have done that.

“There is a societal assumption that divorce is always negative,” says Connie R. Wanberg, a professor at the University of Minnesota who recently co-authored a study on how divorce impacts people in the workplace. Still, even Wanberg was surprised how many said they were better at their jobs after their split. “Some of these individuals had been in very dysfunctional relationships,” she says.

Like the recent divorce memoirs reveal, women tend to thrive post-divorce, not necessarily financially (in fact, many women suffer unnecessary financial hardship in a divorce), but emotionally and physically.

Women are “significantly more content than usual for up to five years following the end of their marriages, even more so than their own average or baseline level of happiness throughout their lives,” according to a 2013 study from London’s Kingston University.

One reason women feel happier than men after a divorce, despite the financial repercussions, could be that “women who enter into an unhappy marriage feel much more liberated after divorce than their male counterparts,” according to Yannis Georgellis, director of the university’s Centre for Research in Employment, Skills and Society, who co-led the study.

Women are more likely than men to get mental health support while divorcing, more likely to depend on supportive relationships, less likely to rely on drugs or alcohol post-divorce, and more likely to turn to experiences that enrich them, such as travel, researchers observe.

San Francisco Bay Area therapist and author Susan Pease Gadoua has been offering groups for women in transition since 2000, mostly to divorcees and soon-to-be divorcees. For many years, a consistent theme she heard was how ashamed they felt as well as experiencing a sense of failure.

If “until death do us part” is how society measures a successful marriage, a union that ends in divorce, instead of death, is seen as a “failed marriage,” even if the marriage was loveless, sexless, lonely, and full of anger and perhaps contempt.

While some gray divorcees—boomers in their 60s and older, a cohort that is divorcing faster than any other age group—Gadoua counsels still feel those pressures, most of her younger clients do not.

“There’s definitely less stigma and it’s not uncommon to hear from women who come to see me that they’re on their second divorce, even third. That’s quite prevalent. Those numbers don’t seem to matter anymore,” she tells me.

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Boomers grew up in an era when there was little to no help for parents going through a divorce, or their children. And the influential books penned by therapist Judith Wallerstein—1989’s Second Chances and 2000’s The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce—convinced millions that divorce was more harmful than previously thought and with lifelong consequences for young children caught in the crossfire. Her methodology and research, however, have since come under scrutiny and been criticized.

“The idea that divorce is bad, and kids are going to be damaged, those are really outdated beliefs. We have the choice to have a different kind of divorce today, for people to think, ‘Oh, I have the power to make this a good divorce,’” Gadoua says. “It can bring out the worst in people, but it doesn’t have to.”

Coming back to life

Still, mothers who leave their marriages while their children are still young, as Barrymore, Bündchen, Ratajkowski, and all the memoirists did, are often judged harshly.

“Mothers in almost every culture are programmed to bury their needs in the greater needs of family. Acting on their own desires, following their hearts, searching out their own private happiness—all of this is still perceived as transgressive and profoundly selfish,” British author Lily Dunn writes of her decision to leave her husband for another man while her two children were young.

As famed therapist Esther Perel writes in her book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, “Home, marriage, and motherhood have forever been the pursuit of many women, but also the place where women cease to feel like women.”

Which is why divorce often kickstarts a woman’s libido.

“For women who appear to have ‘low desire’ in long-term marriages, many times when they get divorced they’re sleeping around with everyone,” sexologist Tammy Nelson and author of The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity, tells me. “People confuse the loss of sexual interest with the loss of sexual interest with a specific person.”

And for some heterosexual women, a divorce leads them into the arms of another woman for the first time, as described by authors Elizabeth Gilbert and Glennon Doyle in their bestselling memoirs. In fact, some 36% of women in their 40s in a same-sex relationship had been previously married to men. It’s higher for women in their 50s and older.

“[M]any women report feeling a ‘second adolescence,’ with many of the associated feelings and behaviors. She is not crazy if she suddenly has sex on the brain all the time!” writes Nancy C. Larson in her 2006 study “Becoming ‘One of the Girls’: The Transition to Lesbian in Midlife.” Larson herself came out as lesbian after 19 years of marriage to a man.

No one would promote divorce as a path to sexual pleasure. Still, a 2018 study of middle-aged hetero, bisexual, and trans divorcees found that while some of the women had regrets about the end of their marriages, divorce got them out of their comfort zone and opened them up sexually.

“Women sometimes have to break rules to find sexual pleasure for themselves in a society which is not consistently supportive of female sexual pleasure,” the researchers wrote. “It also takes seriously women’s right to seek pleasure and to overcome barriers to pleasure even if those barriers are socially sanctioned.”

Mothers and children

Of course, divorced moms aren’t just focused on their sexuality. They focus on their children, too.

According to a 2019 U.S. Census Bureau report that culls numerous studies in the States and overseas, divorce laws can hugely benefit divorced moms, who often invest more in their children’s schooling. They also have more time to spend on leisure as well as work, and spend less time on chores.

That’s what Lyz Lenz discovered, in part because she had 50-50 shared custody with her former husband, as an increasing number of divorced parents in the United States do, according to a 2022 paper, “Increases in shared custody after divorce in the United States.” As Lenz writes in an essay for Glamour magazine:

I had more time to write and more time to work. I started making more money. I was able to do things I’d never been able to do before: a set at open-mic night at a local comedy club; drive to Minneapolis to see my friends. I had less housework, and I didn’t have to worry about having a fight if I made vegetarian food for dinner, or just didn’t cook dinner at all, or if I swore, or if I wanted to stay out late at a book reading (yes, all real fights we had). I had more friends because I could be a better friend.

In a 2020 study, “Families in Later Life: A Decade in Review,” sociologist Deborah Carr found that although divorce has long been described as among the most stressful of life transitions, more recent studies indicate that many older adults adapt and even thrive post-divorce, from finding new romantic partnerships, to spending more time volunteering, to strengthening ties with their adult children.

Typically, it’s the mothers who have more contact with their adult children after divorce. For dads, later-in-life divorce cuts the odds of frequent contact by nearly half, at least for a while, especially with their sons, mostly because adult children often blame their fathers for the divorce. And while a father’s re-partnering often contributes to those fractures—they’re seen as “swapping families”—a mother’s re-partnering “has no appreciable effects on their relationships with their adult children,” according to a 2022 study.

As Carr shares with AARP, despite some emotional bumps right after a split, most older adults eventually “fare quite well”​ after a few months. “Whether you’re depressed or not depends upon what the relationship was like and the context in which it ended. If it was a conflictual marriage and not emotionally satisfying, there are fewer symptoms of depression and loneliness.”​

Lenz believes divorce is a cause for celebration. She celebrated hers by burning her wedding dress—“a reminder of all my failed dreams”—that had been hanging in her closet for the 12 years of her marriage.

“In response to news of divorce, people often reply, ‘I’m sorry.’ But I think we should say ‘congratulations.’ Congratulations for prioritizing yourself. For being brave. For the self-knowledge to know when to leave,” she writes in the Washington Post.

Gadoua thinks rather than celebrate divorce—although individuals are certainly free to do so—what’s really needed is a way for former spouses to honor the exit from their marriage.

“It’s a personal choice to celebrate,” she says. “I do think that we lack in our culture a rite of passage out of marriage. The women who come to my retreat are so grateful to have a sense of closure and some kind of ceremony around honoring what they had but looking forward to what is in front of them.”

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