Can U.S. Turn From Divorce Culture?

David Blankenhorn, Clarion Ledger, 1/25/1998

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... And yet, as our divorce revolution continues, a small but unmistakable counter-revolution is also beginning to emerge. Our national mood is changing. Three decades into this vast social experiment, Americans are discernibly becoming tired of divorce. Not outraged. Not yet confident of what to do next. But simply tired – tired of an idea, a way of thinking, that has obviously failed.

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Subjects: Marriage, Divorce

More by: David Blankenhorn

For three decades, Americans have had a love affair with divorce. The affair has been ambivalent, but also torrid, arising from our disenchantment with marriage as an institution and from our enthronement of personal freedom as our reigning cultural ideal. Yes, marriage was a blessing, but so was divorce. Yes, divorce was painful, but divorce was also a story of rebirth and renewal, an American birthright, a second chance at happiness. There is now 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. Actress Sally Field, recently divorced from her second husband, appears on the cover of People: Tree 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, 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." There's even a new magazine called, you guessed it, Divorce.

Or consider a recent ad from a company that wants to buy your jewels. Under a picture of a diamond ring, the ad reads: "Don't think of it as a reminder of your lousy ex-husband. Think of it as a down payment on a Porsche."

And yet, as our divorce revolution continues, a small but unmistakable counter-revolution is also beginning to emerge. Our national mood is changing. Three decades into this vast social experiment, Americans are discernibly becoming tired of divorce. Not outraged. Not yet confident of what to do next. But simply tired – tired of an idea, a way of thinking, that has obviously failed.

Politically, the liberal conservative split on this issue is getting narrower by the day. We are all pro family now.

For the first time since California adopted the world's first no-fault divorce law in 1969, policy makers and citizens in a number of states have mounted serious challenges to the system of quick, no-fault divorce. In Michigan, Iowa, and elsewhere, legislatures are considering 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. Louisiana recently adopted a "covenant marriage" law in which individual couples can choose to opt out of the no-fault system and enter into a legally more binding marriage. Two or three years ago, challenging no-fault divorce was a non-issue. No longer.

Even more importantly, in many churches across the country, a "marriage savers" movement is quietly being born. This important new effort strives for comprehensive pre-marriage education, better church-based marriage enrichment programs, and new community- wide church police aimed at strengthening marriage and reducing divorce. Call it spiritually based divorce-busting.

Organizations such as Mission Mississippi and the Mississippi Family Council, who recently helped to organize a Central Mississippi Community Marriage Covenant, have emerged as important leaders in this effort. In Mississippi, about 80 percent of all couples get married in churches. Thanks to this new initiative, many of those couples will now receive the practical help, moral guidance, and support that will make their marriages more likely to succeed.

There are other examples of a turning away from the divorce culture. Both the Million Man March and the Promise Keepers, a growing Christian men's movement, are efforts that seek to call men to higher standards of fatherhood and marital commitment. A number of recently formed fatherhood organizations, such as the National Fatherhood Initiative, are also 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 tor .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 job of an Institute employee is to "model excellence in marriage."

Judith Wallerstein, for years a leading scholar of divorce and divorce reform, recently 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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