072 The Divorce Culture


The Atlantic Monthly‘s cover story in the April 1993 declared “Dan Quayle Was Right” and almost instantly altered the “family values” debate with its proof that children need both moms and dads. The article’s author, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, now amplifies that thesis–and explores its revolutionary implications–in The Divorce Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). For 30 years we have engaged in a vast social experiment which now provides sufficient data to evaluate. “And this body of evidence tells us that the cultural case for divorce has been based on misleading claims, false promises, and bankrupt ideas” (p. 183). Her stance is unrelenting: divorce destroys families and endangers children.

For decades before 1960, the divorce rate in America remained rather constant–nine per 1,000 married couples. In 25 years, it skyrocketed to 22 per 1,000 as a new ethos prevailed–a shift from an “ethic of obligation to others” to “an obligation to self” (p. 4). This ethic, Whitehead believes, is a latter-day manifestation of the revolutionary beginnings of this nation. To Thomas Paine, for example, marriage could be dissolved as readily as the colonies’ ties to England. Only voluntary unions bound together by authentic affection deserve to endure.

For nearly two centuries, so long as religious commitments remained strong, most Americans confined Paine’s radical rhetoric to politics. If nothing else, folks stayed married for the sake of the children. But as the power of faith dissipated the drive for self-satisfaction took charge, aided and abetted by allegedly “scientific” data defending the propriety of divorce. What Whitehead calls “expressive divorce” became broadly approved. “Personal happiness” justified almost anything, and psychotherapeutically-oriented ministers joined professional counselors in approving divorce whenever “growth” and “self-realization” beckoned. “Psychologist Fritz Perls captured the new expressive ethic in his famous Gestalt Prayer:

I do my thing, and you do your thing, I am not in the world to live up to your expectations And you are not in this world to live up to mine, You are you and I am I, And if by chance, we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped” (pp. 49-50).

With such benedictions by the culture’s elite, increasing numbers of marriages dissolved. Alluring book titles promised positive relief from the restraints of spouses and vows: Divorce and New Beginnings; Divorced Women, New Lives; The Best Is Yet to Come. Young women, especially, tuned in to the new views. Misled by the romance surrounding marriage, she could come to her senses through “reading feminist literature or by taking a women’s studies course,” walk away from bondage to the freedom of discovering her “true self” (p. 60).

Such “freedom” has manifestly failed to help the sexes form healthy relationships, however. Obviously men and women go to school and work together. They’re more comfortable as colleagues. Yet “despite these more comradely relationships in work and learning, the intimate partnerships between women and men have become increasingly fragile, conflict-ridden, and subject to breakdown. Perhaps never before in the nation’s history has there been such pessimism, even cynicism, and about the ability of men and women to live together in lasting marriages and to share a common life” (p. 191). We’re more “equal” and less able to live together! We talk more about doing things for the “children,” energetically pursue villains such as second-hand smoke, and do less about the main thing which harms them.

The “expressive individualism” which marks modern relationships underlies the unraveling of American society. Shedding the sense of responsibility to others which typified earlier generations, no-fault divorce promised to ease the malady of personal discomfort. Thus, though it takes two to make a marriage only one is needed to end it. The cultural shift in this direction, Whitehead shows, informs popular books such as Emily Post’s Etiquette and the articles featured in women’s magazines. Divorce is now portrayed as a positive first step to liberation rather than a tragedy to be avoided at all costs. Not even children’s welfare, it seems, should deter one from self-realization. In Quality Time: Easing Children Through Divorce, a psychiatrist declared: “‘All the comments about the needs of children for intact families should not cause any divorcing parent to consider reconciliation for the sake of the children'” (p. 72).

Instead, divorce “for the sake of the children” became something of a mantra for folks determined to divorce. Before 1960, roughly 50 percent of the nation’s women thought parents should stay married “for the sake of the children.” a stance taken by only 20 percent of the women fifteen years later. “Consequently, by 1990 approximately 60 percent of American divorces involved children, a percentage exceeded only in Britain , where one or more children were involved in 66 percent of all divorces” (p. 83). In Whitehead’s judgment, “Nothing in the history of American childhood rivaled the scale or speed of this change in children’s families. In the space of little more than thirty years, divorce went from being a relatively rare childhood event, affecting only a small proportion of all American children, to a collective childhood experience, involving a near-majority of children” (p. 83).

Yet such divorces, it was argued, helped the children! Scores of happy stories, reams of “expert” articles, standard university courses, celebrated the joys children discovered when freed from the homes distressed by unhappy parents. Unfortunately for the advocates of expressive divorce, the hard empirical data has come rolling in. Adults, not children, benefit from divorce! Kids without dads swiftly plunge into poverty. Boys tend to turn violent and anti-social. Girls tend to turn promiscuous. The statistics are overwhelming and persuasive. On all counts, children suffer from their parents’ divorce.

This is poignantly evident when one listens to the children themselves. The books they read, and the letters they write, amply demonstrate their anguish. It’s a “literature of loss,” filed with “anger, fear, sadness, and loss” (p. 124) which includes titles such as Where is Daddy?; Daddy Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; and Will Dad Ever Move Back Home? “During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, while the experts were confidently predicting that children would benefit from the divorce experience, children themselves were furiously scribbling letters to their favorite authors, seeking information, advice, and solace about what was happening to their families” (p. 108).

In part, Whitehead thinks, the divorce culture testifies in the tentative commitments evident in modern weddings. Marriage must be mutually satisfying, at all times, to endure. Rather than reciting traditional wedding vows, “for better for worse . . . till death us to part,” many couples now design their own. Thus couples promise to stay together “as long as we both shall love” or–as one sourcebook suggests– “as long as we both shall like” (p. 142). A Princeton Theological Seminary professor actually proposes that “‘The marriage vow is a sign, seal, and vehicle of self-investment; it is not a ‘promise’ that could be kept on the same order of promising to do this or that; it is a commitment to work in relationship'” (p. 143). All decisions are tentative, all promises are revocable! If you weary at the task, give it up and try something else! With such beginnings, it’s no wonder many marriages fail to finish well!

More than any other issue rooted in failing marriages, the decline of fatherhood should concern us. It amounts to “the social equivalent of an economic crash” (p. 154). Fathers who never marry their children’s mothers, fathers who walk away from marriages, fathers who are pushed away by irate wives, fathers who detach themselves from responsibility for children, are the source of many of today’s problems. Sadly enough, “Ten years after a marriage breaks up, nearly two-thirds of the children report not having seen their fathers for a year” (p. 156).

Nor do mothers fare much better. “Mothers may believe that getting out of an unhappy marriage will make them better mothers, but for many mothers, say Wallerstein and Blakeslee, that may be wishful thinking. ‘In only a few families did the mother-child relationship in the postdivorce family surpass the quality of the relationship in the failing marriage . . . at the ten-year mark, over a third of the good mother-child relationships have deteriorated, with mothers emotionally or physically less available to their children'” (p. 160). Single mothers, quite simply, just don’t have enough time and money and energy to do all their kids need–especially the disciplining, mentoring, time-demanding tasks which need two rather than one parent.

“When the child’s father is not present, maternal authority and discipline can be compromised. In both divorced and intact families, studies show, children comply more readily with fathers’ than with mothers’ demands. Mothers are better able to control teenage sons when they can invoke the support and authority of the father, but even in disciplining much younger children, al father’s authority is important. One study showed that mothers were more effective in controlling two-year-olds when the father was present” (p. 164).

Then, for the single dad trying to raise kids, the bad news is: “If a mother’s disciplinary authority is compromised by the absence of the child’s father, his competence as a nurturer is even less reliable without her supervisory presence” (p. 164). Worse yet are homes where moms and dads remarry! Children just don’t thrive with step-parents! The fairy tales tell the truth here! Stepfathers, tragically, often abuse stepdaughters. One Canadian study shows kids in stepfamilies suffer 40 times the abuse suffered by children in intact families!

Is there any hope? Not in Whitehead’s treatise! She urges the restoration of strong familles, healthy homes. But her picture is mainly a bleak one without much hope. Social science, it seems, can take us only so far. It points out the problems and tries to explain them, but the solutions are left up to us!

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Whitehead’s treatise gains journalistic reinforcement in Maggie Gallagher’s The Abolition of Marriage: How We Destroy Lasting Love (Washington: Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 1996). She writes to detail the “collapse of marriage” and the “culture of divorce,” but she concludes with some words concerning the “future of marriage,” setting forth suggestions as to how to resolve the crisis. Not only have divorce rates climbed, but the proportion of Americans who claim to be happily married has slipped “from more than half of Americans in 1973 to less than two-fifths today” (p. 107). Consequently, whereas a majority of kids in 1973 lived in happy homes “today less than 40 percent do” (p. 107).

With justification Gallagher underscores the fact that virtually “all of the gravest problems facing America–crime, poverty, welfare dependence, homelessness, educational stagnation, even child abuse” stem from the breakdown of the family (p. 4). More and more folks realize this, but few are willing to admit her “radical thesis: Not only is marriage in danger of disappearing, but though we do not fully recognize it yet, it already has” (p. 7). And it has been deliberately destroyed by an educated elite–professors and politicians, journalists and jurists–who championed sexual freedom and divorce as vehicles of personal autonomy. Though most Americans (96%) want to marry and stay married, the legal and cultural supports which support that endeavor have been dismantled.

“Over the past thirty years, quietly, and largely unremarked outside a narrow group of specialists, American family law has been rewritten to dilute both the rights and obligations of marriage, while at the same time placing other relationships, from adulterous liaisons to homosexual partnerships, on a legal par with marriage in some respects. To put it another way, by expanding the definition of marriage to the point of meaninglessness, courts are gradually redefining marriage out of existence” (p. 131).

We’re now struggling to pay the debts incurred by the ’60’s generation! Unwed mothers cost all of us. Single mothers are most likely to physically abuse a child, and an unmarried woman’s boyfriend or second husband is most likely to sexually abuse her children. “The child born outside of marriage is thirty times more likely to live in persistent poverty than is the child whose parents got married and stayed married. Sixty percent of children whose mothers never married will be poor for most of their childhoods, compared to just 2 percent of children whose parents got married and stayed married” (p. 32). Adolescent males perpetrate most of the violent crimes in America, for careful studies show “that neither poor people nor African Americans have any special taste for rape, assault, and murder. The bad news is that fatherless boys–and boys living amid fatherless boys–do” (p. 49). Amazingly, “Even under slavery, a black child was more likely to grow up living with his mother and father than he is today” (p. 117).

And the damage is evident in deeply scarred hearts as well as bloody streets. The main losers in the past several decades are “younger married women” who constantly dread the possibility of divorce” (p. 108). Then there are the kids! When parents divorce, children “learn that giving your heart involves not just the chance, but the likelihood, of great pain. No wonder these children of divorce are, as researchers find, especially hungry for love, fiercely conservative in their views of f marriage and family life, firmly committed in theory to lifelong marriage, so much more anxious to attain it–and yet so much more like to fail to get what they long for” (p. 79).

What they need, of they are to attain their heart’s desire, is a society structured to encourage the permanence of marriage. This means discarding the “no fault” divorce laws which have been adopted almost everywhere. If only the courts of this nation took the marriage contract as seriously as they do business contracts! If only there were solid legal strictures imposed on those who violate marriage vows! The “unilateral divorce” laws, which all one party to abandon the other for any reason, will never encourage strong marriages and healthy homes. “What makes marriage the ultimate declaration of love is that it is risky: We pledge our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to another human being. Thanks to no-fault divorce we can now do so safely, with two fingers crossed behind our backs” (p. 151).

To save marriage, we must also note the welfare state’s negative influence. A sociologist, David Popenoe, says that Sweden should give us guidance in avoidance! In the most generous welfare state in Europe, “Sweden now finds itself with ‘a high family dissolution rate, perhaps the highest in the Western world, and a high percentage of single-parent, female-headed families.’ Sweden also has ‘the lowest marriage rate and the oldest average age at first marriage, and the largest percentage of households in which unmarried persons of the opposite sex cohabit. In addition . . . almost half of all Swedish children are now born to unmarried mothers” (p. 241). The very political system designed to “strengthen the family has undone it!

To legal changes, Gallagher would add a challenge to America’s moms: stay at home if possible! It’s not fashionable, and it may be frustrating. But if your ultimate desire is to keep the family knot together and rear healthy kids, it’s wise to stay home. “Families in which both spouses work full time are far less likely to be poor, but also far more prone to divorce than families where mothers do not work or work part time” (p. 174). In fact, as Andrew Cherlin “predicted, ‘The increased labor force participation of young married women ultimately will be seen as the most important stimulus to the . . . [rise] of divorce after 1960′” (p. 175.

To Gallagher, the greatest satisfaction in life comes not from career success. What she believes most women hunger for is a “stable marriage” and t he “opportunity to throw themselves with abandon into loving and raising their children. The loss of this greatest gift of marriage for women–the giving of which has always been for most men the deepest psychological and spiritual reward of marriage–is devastating not just to individual mothers but to the entire society, for when marriage can no longer provide the rewards for which it is most prized, they will begin to collapse across society” (p. 186).