2021 is being called the year of the 'Great Resignation', as millions quit their jobs. It could also be the 'Great Separation' with millions quitting their unhappy marriages. That isn't a bad thing, writes Renee Bauer.

Too many people are stuck in unhappy, unhealthy and harmful marriages. They are held back by lengthy and costly divorce proceedings, and social attitudes that treat divorce as a failure, not the beginning of a new life stage that could (and most often is) beneficial both for them and their children.

This does not mean we should not treat marriage as a special commitment; it is. But grinding on through a loveless relationship can wreak havoc on your physical and emotional health, and can have an even larger impact on your children. In my experience, keeping them in a loveless, toxic home causes more damage to them than the divorce itself.

The Great Separation has been a long time coming. The world's first lockdown in Wuhan led to a spike in divorce. By April 2020, the number of people looking for divorces in the US had increased by 34 per cent. A leading British law firm's divorce enquiries more than doubled during the pandemic.

Record numbers of people are quitting their jobs because they have realised that they didn't really enjoy their work, but that lack of enjoyment was concealed behind a veneer of after-work socialising, business travel, shiny offices, and the idea that you have to stick it out because anything else would be irresponsible.

Similarly with our relationships, many of us are realising that our marriages only 'worked' because the actual time we were spending with our partner was sandwiched between our work, chores and the busyness of carting the kids around in between it all. The pandemic has us questioning it all; our jobs and our marriages.

Most of those stepping away are women, who make up 76 per cent of new divorce cases. Even though couples are spending equal time at home, a disproportionate share of the housework falls on women, especially during lockdowns.

Divorce usually increases after the summer months or after holidays. It's not surprising that stay at home orders had a similar effect.

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Yet, despite a spike in divorce enquiries in the past year, we are seeing pockets of statistics that are actually quite the opposite.

New research by the Marriage Foundation has found that divorce rates in the first 15 years of marriage are falling across Europe, with the UK leading the way. I believe that an unpredictable economy is keeping unhappy couples together, much like how divorces fell by approximately 20 per cent over the last recession, but spiked after the economy recovered.

So what is keeping millions in unhappy and destructive marriages? For many, there is a fear that 'the last however many years of our relationship have been a waste of time'. But investing time in a bad marriage is like investing money in a ponzi scheme: investing more means you lose more, not less.

Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemann has found that "the decision to invest additional resources into a losing account, when better investments are available, is known as the sunk cost fallacy, a costly mistake that is observed in decisions large and small."

This is why people are inclined to endure a relationship for 294 days past its sell-by-date if they have been with their partners for a decade or more. I see this played out every day when someone decides they need to stay stuck in unhappiness because there is just too much history to walk away.

This is a costly mistake not only for the individuals themselves, but for their children. Kids who grow up in high-conflict households are more likely to have a feeling of low self-esteem or unworthiness, largely because children often end up feeling responsible for their parent's happiness. Instead of staying together for the kids, we should be breaking up for them.

That stability and love that children need can be provided by one happy parent more effectively than two unhappy parents; children who grow up with at least one loving parent tend to go on to become well adjusted, healthy adults.

Often, the worst failure – especially for women – is staying in an unhappy marriage that hurts them, their partner and their children. Our personal and social attitudes are still coloured by a Judeo-Christian tradition that sees divorce as shameful or sinful. Growing up Catholic, the shame that clung to me during my own divorces was heavy and relentless. It is antiquated and it is time to stop shaming and blaming for those whose marriage has come to completion.

I believe marriage is special. Which is why when it is not working, we owe it to ourselves, our spouses and our kids to get out. Let's embrace the Great Separation and make sure that just as we 'build back better' in our economies, we do the same in our personal lives.

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