Unease In The Culture of Divorce

David Blankenhorn, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 9/22/1996

In many ways, of course, we remain a divorce-oriented people. Although divorce rates have slackened a bit since the late 1980s, the United States remains by far the most divorcing society in the world. Current rates of divorce and unwed childbearing – never-married mothers now ac-count for one of every three childbirths – mean that only a minority of children today are likely to spend their entire childhood living with their two married parents. Surrounding these statistics of divorce is a continuing culture of divorce – a widely embraced set of ideas about the acceptability and even desirability of divorce. This culture is now ubiquitous enough to be taken for granted, like the air we breathe... In a sign of our era that is beyond parody, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the nation's premier association of marriage counselors, recently presented an "Excellence in the Media" award to journalist Susan Chollar for her article insisting that the married-couple home is much overrated because "it is the quality of the parent-child relationship rather than the number of parents in the home that determines the success of the family."

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Subjects: Marriage, Divorce

More by: David Blankenhorn

For three decades, Americans have had a love affair with divorce. The affair arose from our disenchantment with marriage and, more generally, from our enshrinement of personal freedom as our reigning cultural ideal, our last illusion. Yes, marriage was a blessing, but so was divorce. Yes, divorce was painful, but divorce was also a story of rebirth and renewal, an America birthright, a second chance at happiness.

There is partial but growing evidence that this entire way of thinking may be coming to an end.

In many ways, of course, we remain a divorce-oriented people. Although divorce rates have slackened a bit since the late 1980s, the United States remains by far the most divorcing society in the world. Current rates of divorce and unwed childbearing – never-married mothers now account for one of every three childbirths – mean that only a minority of children today are likely to spend their entire childhood living with their two married parents.

Surrounding these statistics of divorce is a continuing culture of divorce – a widely embraced set of ideas about the acceptability and even desirability of divorce. This culture is now ubiquitous enough to be taken for granted, like the air we breathe. The actress Sally Field, recently divorced from her second husband, appeared earlier this year on the cover of People magazine: "Free of the need to make a man happy, the newly confident single mom, 49, talks about her divorce, love life and the hard-won joys of living solo."

In Mirabella magazine, the author Jane Shapiro reflects on her two divorces and interviews a divorce lawyer who "makes the case for divorce as liberation – a lucky break, a fresh start." In a new children's book, "When We Married Gary," Anna Grossnickle Hines seeks to create a "portrait of a happy second marriage as seen through the eyes of a child."

In a sign of our era that is beyond parody, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the nation's premier association of marriage counselors, recently presented an "Excellence in the Media" award to journalist Susan Chollar for her article insisting that the married-couple home is much overrated because "it is the quality of the parent-child relationship rather than the number of parents in the home that determines the success of the family."

All of these examples are quite familiar: prosaic illustrations of our divorce culture. And yet, as this revolution continues/a small but unmistakable counterrevolution is also beginning to emerge. Our national mood is changing. Three decades into the divorce revolution, Americans are discernibly becoming tired of divorce. Not outraged. Not confident of what to do next. But simply tired – tired of an idea, a way of thinking, that has obviously failed.

Politically, the shift is easy to observe. During the 1992 presidential campaign, the two parties fought bitterly over "family values," most famously when Vice President Dan Quayle criticized a TV sitcom character, Murphy Brown, for having a child outside of marriage. Four years later, the phrase "Dan Quayle Was Right" has become a nonpartisan cliché, a piece of conventional wisdom. In general, the liberal-conservative split on this issue is getting narrower by the day; intellectually, the debate is all but over. We are all pro-family now.

For the first time since California adopted the world's first no-fault divorce law in 1969, policymakers and citizens in a number of states have mounted serious challenges to the system of quick, no-fault divorce.

In Michigan, Iowa, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, legislatures are considering basic reforms aimed at lowering the divorce rate, such as extending the waiting periods for divorce, requiring counseling for troubled marriages and, in cases of contested divorces, ending or restricting the unilateral right to divorce on demand.

A year ago, changing no-fault divorce was a non-issue beyond the realm of legislative possibility. No longer.

In many churches, a "marriage savers" movement is quietly being born. Frankly countercultural, and guided by the Biblical premise that "God hates divorce," this largely evangelical Christian movement strives for comprehensive premarital counseling, better church- based marital enrichment programs and new community-wide church policies aimed at strengthening marriage and reducing divorce.

Call it spiritually based divorce-busting. Over the next several years, it will be interesting to compare the results obtained by this new movement to, say, the results obtained by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

Both the Million Man March and the Promise Keepers, a rapidly growing Christian men's movement, are new efforts that seek, in large part, to call men to higher standards of fatherhood and marital commitment. Several recently formed fatherhood organizations, such as the National Fatherhood Initiative, are similarly concluding that recreating a marriage culture is the key to reversing the trend of fatherlessness.

Much of the best leadership is coming from African-Americans. Charles Ballard, whose National Institute for Responsible Fatherhood now serves young African-American fathers in six cities, says that the most important job of a father is to "love the mother of his child" and the most important job of an Institute employee is to "model excellence in marriage."

Last year, Judith Wallerstein, a leading scholar of divorce and divorce reform, published a book called "The Good Marriage." Explaining her decision to shift her focus from divorce to marriage, Wallerstein describes a "society that is tired to death of the war on marriage, escalating divorce rates, and the search for new partners in middle age. All of us want a different world for our children. When we're honest, we want it for ourselves."

That's the truth. Americans today are increasingly convinced that our divorce revolution has failed. The question is no longer whether we like the current trend. The question now is whether we are prepared to do something about it.

This article originally appeared here.

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