Writing this month for the New York Times, Megan Wood speaks of divorce as an opportunity for women to create a new identity — a trend that is, apparently, gaining some traction.
The idea of name reinvention after divorce was popularized by Cheryl Strayed in her riveting memoir, “Wild — From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail.” The author, born Cheryl Nyland, explains that she needed a meaningful new name after her divorce and, rather than opting to return to her birth name, chose one that fit her history. Cheryl had, she freely admits, strayed. While we question whether most women would find comfort in such a decision — query, can one be passive-agressive toward one’s self? — still the issue of what name to carry forward is one most divorcing women confront.
For most of us, the question is whether we are most comfortable identifying ourselves as we have throughout the years of our marriage, perhaps as the mother of our children — maybe from a prior marriage — or as our father’s daughter. The option of adopting a brand new name is a more radical notion.
The options are not quite as open for women divorcing in Connecticut as Wood reports them to be in New York. Outside of divorce, any Connecticut citizen may apply for a name change in Connecticut courts and, as long as there is no intent to defraud creditors or others, the application will ordinarily be granted. However the free no-fuss name-change option available in family court for divorcing women is limited. Under the family law statute on the subject, you may only elect to resume a birth name or other former name, not a new one.
I’d be remiss in not acknowledging that the name change statute applies to men as well. However, typically this means simply dropping the part of a hyphenated name that already included his birth name — hardly as traumatic a decision as that faced by women.
Writing recently for the New York Times, author Matt Richtel in an article entitled, ” Till Death, or 20 Years, Do Us Part”, mused about whether setting an expiration date for marriage might be the best way to address new attitudes about marriage — those that render it expendable depending on circumstances.
Richtel, who writes most often about technology, makes his case for a twenty-year contract with tongue in cheek but does make the serious point that no real mechanism exists, short of prenuptial contracts, to mitigate the drama and stress of divorces that happen at statistically predictable stages of marriage.
Richtel implies that making marriage contracts renewable might have the double advantage of lessening the stigma of divorce where it proves inevitable, and, conversely, of raising the consciousness of couples whose marriages will grow stronger if re-examined and effectively re-negotiated at intervals that coincide with marriages’ biggest stressors. Various experts cited in the article suggest that these milestones involve the birth of a child, a job change, the death of a family member, or when the couple finds themselves living in an empty nest. While most of these events are unpredictable, others are not. Generally, for example, empty-nest syndrome shows up at roughly the twenty-year mark. The president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Kenneth Altshuler, quoted in the article, noted that, in his own practice, divorces seem to cluster around the 7 and 20 year marks. As it turns out, the seven year itch may be more than a movie title.
None of this is to suggest seriously that renewable marriage contracts are really ripe for serious thought given the tenor current political dialogue on the overall issue of marriage. Instead, however, Richtel’s article makes us think more seriously about what should be done at the beginning of a marriage to lessen the trauma and bitter discord that so often characterizes the end.
True, prenuptial agreements do put a temporary crimp in the image of unsullied romance that we expect to survive from the first date to the end of the honeymoon. (Although anyone who has ever planned a large wedding knows that only a strong dose of denial can keep that illusion alive.)
On the other hand, at what other point in a relationship will a frank and, mercifully, hypothetical discussion about the practical issue of divorce take a lesser toll on a couple’s relationship? Balance this against the angst that the couple will suffer if their marriage is among the half that end in divorce and at a time when love and goodwill are no longer the most important underpinnings of the negotiations. Once that comparison is made, the only remaining question is what will better serve the couple and their future children — betting everything that they will beat the odds, or promising from the start to do the right thing in the unexpected event that they won’t?