Divorce Etiquette

On New Years’ Eve this year, in the spirit of ringing out the old and preparing for the new, I decided to clean out my home storage closet, before stashing the Christmas decorations for another year. The last time this project had taken place was never. I dug through boxes of old holiday decorations, Easter baskets, children’s toys, doll house paraphernalia, and a model train set, all the way to the back of the closet, where boxes of books sat, still taped up from our move into the house over 2 decades ago. Feeling compelled to open the boxes to be sure I was ready to give away these “treasures” that I had not seen or touched for over 20 years, I waded through the college text books, paperback novels and law school horn books. In doing so, I came across two books that caught my attention, distracting me from my closet cleaning mission. They were Emily Post’s Etiquette, Ninth Edition, published in 1955 and Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, published in 1954.

Emily Post’s Etiquette, 19th Edition

In the decades since I had boxed those two books, I spent my professional life puzzling over, educating myself on and working towards helping divorcing couples to move through that most difficult of transitions, with as much civility as possible. On more than one occasion, when a client inquired as to how to handle a difficult social situation, such as a school event, or family gathering which would involve the former spouse and perhaps a new third party, I have suggested “use your party manners”. Now finding these old books after 20+ years, I wondered if these paragons of manners had given any advice as to how to comport oneself through a divorce. While much has changed in the world and in our sensibilities since these books were written, I appreciated reading their entries on the topic of divorce, the wisdom of which has carried through the decades.

In addressing the “Problems of Divorce”, Emily Post states:

“… In the thousands of cases where children are involved, it is far, far better that the parents make every effort to remain on friendly terms. Nothing in all the world is so devastating in its destruction of character and of soul as living in an atmosphere infused with hatred. Anything is better for children than that!

The most bitterly unhappy situation that can come to a child is to be the victim of a court decree which condemns it to the continual shifting, like a human shuttlecock, between parents who hate each other, or – even worse in its emotional effect – to feel that one parent has inflicted unmerited cruelty on the other. Emotional disturbance such as this should not be the portion of any child.” (Emily Post’s Etiquette, The Blue Book of Social Usage, Ninth Edition, New York, Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1955, page 628)

Amy Vanderbilt recognizes the impact of the divorce not only on the couple and their family, but on their entire social circle, stating “… A sudden divorce may disturb long-standing business relations or remove from the neighborhood part or all of a family that had been friendly and congenial”.

Considering the need for calm heads before such life changing steps are taken, she counsels that divorce should never be entered into in the midst of a battle but should follow, only if reconciliation efforts fail, and after a separation period. She advises that it is in poor taste and foolhardy to air one’s domestic troubles in public. I can’t imagine what she would think of the Facebook postings that are so prevalent now. She notes that “… especially where there are children to consider, one or both of the partners should seek outside, objective help before deciding to part. The causes for separation and divorce are so twisted and complex, so involved with emotions rather than reason, that it takes a wise counselor to bring the problems into proper focus…” She wisely advises that, “…As it is important that those contemplating divorce seek objective help they should not take their troubles to their friends who, however well-meaning, often find themselves taking sides”.

Finally, she notes in the event the marriage is firmly over that “it is always poor taste for people to announce in a jubilant fashion that they are getting divorced. If they have no sensibilities themselves, they should consider the example they are setting for the young in treating divorce so lightly.”

Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, A Guide to Gracious Living, Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1954 pages 541-542.

Since these books were published, the topic has been researched and analyzed, and professions have been developed, including divorce mediation, co-parent counselling and parent coordination, to address the simple concepts spelled out so many years ago by Post and Vanderbilt:

  • It is better for children if parents remain on friendly terms;
  • It causes emotional damage to children that should be avoided, if parents hate each other or inflict cruelty on one another;
  • The impact of divorce extends beyond the nuclear family, to the entire community of the couple;
  • Divorce should not be entered into in the heat of a battle;
  • The difficulties of the marriage should not be aired in public;
  • It is important to seek objective help, not from friends and family, but from professionals who are trained to help you in as compassionate a way as possible;
  • A divorce should not be announced in a jubilant fashion, which is insensitive to the feelings of others and sets a bad example to children.

In our complex world, and in this time of incivility, imagine how things could have been and could still be better if we followed simple, mannerly guidance. I’m moving the books to the coffee table, though now I see perhaps I should order Post’s 19th edition!

Happy New Year!