Divorce is not a Speedbump
It may have started with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.
Decades ago they starred in a movie called The Philadelphia Story, a charming but melancholy tale of a divorced couple who spar and bicker right up until the day she is set to marry another man. At the last minute they decide that they are still in love with each other after all. Hepburn's character throws over her fiance and remarries Grant instead.
Since then, Hollywood has used the divorced-but-still-in-love theme ad nauseum. A tornado may have been the main threat in Twister but the real conflict of that movie centered around two people who couldn't bring themselves to sign their divorce papers, even when one of them was set to marry someone else. Outbreak was supposed to be about an epidemic of a highly contagious disease, but was more about a doctor trying to reconcile with his ex-wife before they all died. Even Independence Day, a film about an alien invasion and the end of the world, still took time to show us how Jeff Goldblum's character still wore his wedding ring years after his divorce.
In every one of these movies, the couples reunite at the end, just and Kate and Cary did. In every one, the unmistakable premise is that these people are actually still crazy about each other. They had a pesky little divorce, but everything's okay now.
There are two reasons writers resort to these I-love-you-so-much-I-divorced-you storylines. First, they're lazy. Since audiences can relate to love, and the loss of it, it's easy to build richness and complexity into a character by simply saying she was married but no longer is. The writer need say nothing more about her, or develop any real character for her. Story possibilities are endless, the emotional stakes are high, drama will likely ensue, and best of all, it can all be accomplished without putting in any real work.
The other reason is that writers, like everyone else, tend to think this kind of thing is romantic. The old heartstrings are pulled, the wayward lovers are drawn back to each other in spite of the problems that pulled them apart, and true love conquers all. Writers know we would all love to believe that our hearts are safe with the person we marry, that we really are fated to our soulmate no matter what happens, and that marriage is the romantic, unbreakable bond we always hoped it would be.
They know that most audiences believe love is a magical, unknowable force compelling us together, caused by nothing and therefore destroyed by nothing, not even divorce. Audiences want the couple to get back together at the end and ride off into the sunset together, ripping up their divorce decree as they go. They want to believe that you don't love anyone for a reason, you're just tethered to them for life by some fairy-like golden thread and therefore nothing, no amount of just or reasonable cause, can ever put you asunder.
The problem is, it isn't romantic at all. It's the opposite of romantic.
Writers imbue divorced characters - people who, in real life, are usually relieved not to have to wake up next to their spouse anymore - with the passion and love and longing they should give to married characters, to people who are happy and in love and delighted with each other. Something so clearly inverted, something that so clearly contradicts reality, can never be romantic.
Divorce is not a speedbump in an otherwise passionate and lasting marriage. It is not a way to spice up your love life or restore the excitement of your courting days. It is a very real event, a public and personal declaration that you and your spouse are no longer willing to live your lives as husband and wife. It is not a trifling thing, or a glitch in your relationship. It means that you are no longer in love, and that whatever affection or fondness you feel for each other is not enough to warrant remaining in each other's lives.
It is not something you run off and do, like eloping, something you might regret in the morning. Anyone who has been through a divorce knows what a lengthy and involved process it is, with plenty of time for reconciliation in between. By the time most people get those final papers, their love for each other is long, long gone. Some divorced couples do get back together, but the vast majority don't. Most people who divorce don't hate their former partners but they don't love them either. They separate from each other completely, marry other people, start new lives, and have no desire to pine for someone they divorced.
Movie characters ring false when they turn dewy eyes to former spouses and put their lives on hold hoping to win them back. It's even less realistic and more contrived when these characters do reunite, and forget completely about the things that led to such a drastic and final measure as divorce, especially when their total change of heart and ultimate reunion takes place the space of a couple days or hours as it does it most movie plots. These implausible storylines do nothing but put a glamorous slant on divorce while eschewing marriage, and try to convince us that we're silly to think our relationships are over just because a court has decreed it is.
We need to see more movie and television examples of happy marriages that stay in tact. We need to see being married as the ideal, not winning your ex-wife back. We need to see couples who face obstacles in their marriage and survive, and we need to see divorced couples stay that way because it teaches us a real truth about life - love can end, if we don't understand and appreciate why we have it in the first place. We need to see that being married is much better than being divorced, and that divorce is not an act of love.
There are some good examples out there; digging through all the crap to find them is the hard part. As charming as Kate and Cary are, in that movie they don't represent anything but the refusal to understand that as much as marriage means something, divorce means something too.