Wright Foundation | April 16, 2019

The Failure of American Mythology and the Divorce Crisis

What has led to this divorce crisis in the United States? Moreover, what can we do to strengthen our relationship and prevent the crisis from getting worse?


With the divorce rate hovering around 40-50% in America, many people wonder what led to this divorce crisis and how do we prevent it from getting worse?

The divorce rate in America is around 40-50% (and even higher for second marriages and beyond). It is no secret divorce has become commonplace.

In the United States, we’ve been experiencing this divorce crisis since the 1970s. While the rate of divorce has largely leveled off, it still holds at a much higher rate than many other countries. Why is this? Is divorce really the answer?

The Myth of Pretty Woman Has Led to the Divorce Crisis

How many of us believe there is one person out there for us? We’ve seen it in all the romantic books, movies, and television shows out there. We all want the Jerry McGuire moment when someone looks deeply in our eyes and says, “You complete me.”

We were raised on Leave It to Beaver and other synthesized television and movies where people possess a deep yearning to be affirmed. One of the best ways to get affirmation is for someone else to commit their life to you. We may believe there’s a soulmate for us out there, someone who will change us and complete us. Look at any romantic comedy—Pretty Woman, for instance, where a prostitute meets Richard Gere and her life is transformed. What does the popularity of this myth say about our society? About women?

But what happens after the tape stops rolling? Once the person is swept off their feet and walked into the sunset, how does it all play out? Movies and TV don’t show us real relationships, they show us mythology. They show us a group of uber attractive men and women, like in the TV show Friends, hanging out in a coffee shop, looking for the one. What happens when they find “the one”? The show ends and nobody shows reality.

Years go by, jobs, kids, financial obligations. Suddenly, we may find the person we once held in high regard is no longer on the pedestal. We may feel irritated with the way they chew their food, the ways they don’t help around the house, or the little jabs and comments made at our expense.

All of this resentment and frustration builds, and we conclude that surely it means they weren’t “the one.” We must have chosen incorrectly, and our perfect person is still out there to discover. Maybe we even find our eye starting to wander towards other people. Could they be our “one”? The short answer is no.

The idea that there is only one person out there we could be happy with is a myth. After all, with 7 billion people on the planet, finding that one person is a literal needle in a haystack. We would never find our perfect person, ever.

Unfortunately, as romantic as we may initially imagine, the idea of “the one” is actually incredibly damaging to our relationships. We can, in fact, be happy with a wide number of different people. The truth of the matter is relationships require work, effort, and constant engagement. Relationships are partnerships.

The other piece of the myth is the belief that it’s our partner’s job to make us happy and if we aren’t happy, they’re failing. Each of us is 100% responsible for our own happiness. While it’s common to feel intrigued, exhilarated, and excited at the beginning of a relationship, it’s not because our partner makes us happy. It’s because novelty gives us an endorphin rush. We feel good because we’re exploring a new, exciting person. We’re learning about them and we’re learning about ourselves as well. It’s the learning that’s giving us the high, not the other person.

When someone new or interesting comes along, it’s again, a sense of novelty. We may find our head turns and our eye wanders, but ultimately, the other person won’t be capable of making us happy either. The answer to happiness is inside each of us.

Marriage is a Partnership

Years ago, Judith shared with me an article called the “Evolution of Man.” The article explained that when we start out, men believe women should be there to help them and meet their needs. As we grow in the relationship, we realize we need to communicate our needs and start to become aware of our partner’s needs as well. There are still expectations like, “Honey, will you do this for me?” but it’s conveyed rather than expected. Ultimately our goal as we evolve in our relationship is to reach the state of a true partnership.

When we’re truly in a partnership, each person is putting forth effort. This doesn’t mean one person needs to do 50% of each chore. It means that on Thanksgiving, the men aren’t vegging out in front of the TV watching sports while women are in the kitchen doing the dishes. Maybe you run errands, clear the table, or shovel the walk. The point is, each partner appreciates the effort their spouse puts in. It’s noticed and acknowledged.

Similarly, women don’t need to pretend to love sports, video games, or horror movies (unless they genuinely enjoy it). They don’t need to feign interest to coddle their partner. I’ve worked with couples who believe it’s wonderful they root for the same college team during March Madness. Yet, there’s no intimacy in their relationship. They’re not discussing raising their children. They’re not setting boundaries and expectations. They aren’t really connecting.

Many people buy into the myth that what we share in common is what binds us together. A great relationship doesn’t come from shared interests whether it’s movies, sports, politics, or fine dining. It doesn’t matter what interests you share; it still doesn’t guarantee a connection. It’s also not about masculine or feminine interests.

Our partnership comes from appreciation, engagement, and communication with our spouse. Learning how to communicate your needs, yearnings, and feelings is critical.

This doesn’t mean great partners don’t fight. In fact, just the opposite! Great partners are deeply invested and care passionately about the relationship. They fight fair and engage in productive conflict.

In our book The Heart of the Fight, we discuss the important Rules of Engagement. These rules are to help couples fight fairly and address the most common fights we see amongst couples, including passive-aggressive fights like “The Hidden Middle Finger,” or fights starting from statements like “You’re Just Like Your Dad…”

Strong partnerships are built over many years. They include ups and downs. It doesn’t mean your partner will never get under your skin. But when we let go of the fairytale myth of the “perfect relationship,” we can often see the ways our expectations cloud reality.

Raising Our Happiness Set Point

Each person has what’s called a happiness set point, what researchers refer to as the hedonic treadmill. Studies show after a major event, positive or negative, people eventually return to their regular levels of happiness. In studies of lottery winners, after a few years, they reported they were only as happy as they were before their windfall. In the same study, those who experienced a major accident resulting in the loss of a limb also reported that, within a few years, they returned to their same levels of happiness as before the accident.

Believe it or not, the same applies to relationships. While the beginning of a relationship may make us excited for a while, or we may believe ending a relationship will make us happier, the truth is happiness levels don’t usually change. If people divorced simply to become happier, the instance of divorce should go down with second marriages. The truth is, second marriages are even less likely to be successful and more likely to end in divorce.

So why is that? If we’re unhappy, are we doomed to be miserable in our marriage and outside of our marriage? Yes, and no.

The power to become happier is within each of us. It exists outside of our relationship and out of the control of our significant other.

As the American divorce crisis grows, we’re seeing more and more people dissatisfied, but not realizing the dissatisfaction (and power to turn it around) exists from within.

Now, in certain cases like abuse and infidelity, divorce may be the best choice. In other cases, like “irreconcilable differences,” where both parties are simply unhappy, there may be a path to find satisfaction and connection within the relationship rather than without.

The first step starts by looking inside ourselves. What do we need to work on to bring us more happiness? This doesn’t necessarily need to include our partner. It’s about looking at what we can do to rekindle our sense of novelty and wonder.

We get joy and happiness from new experiences and endeavors. Taking on challenges allows us to grow and experience new activities. As we grow, and our partner grows, we will start to feel more alive, engaged, and connected.

For more ways you can grow and strengthen your relationships please visit the Wright Foundation. Join us for an upcoming More Life Training, where you’ll connect with other people on their transformative journey.

The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.