Divorce

Divorce

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 21 1997 3:30 AM

Divorce

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(This dialogue grows out of the following article by Katha Pollitt, which appeared in the Feb. 17, 1997 issue of

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The Nation. It is reprinted here with permission. David Blankenhorn's first response is below.)

"Can This Marriage Be Saved?"
       In 1960, when about 16 percent of marriages ended in court, we had strict laws regulating divorce and the highest divorce rate in the West. Today, oceans of social and legal change later, with 40 percent of marriages ending in divorce, we're still number one. All fifty states permit couples to divorce by mutual consent (bilateral no-fault divorce); about 40 permit one partner to divorce without assigning blame even when the other wants to stay married (unilateral no-fault). In the mid-sixties, about half of Americans told pollsters they thought parents had an obligation to try to stay together for the children's sake; by 1994 only 20 percent held this view. Indeed, so unpopular is the view of marriage as a bond of steel that the Catholic Church itself has had to go into the divorce business, handing out some 60,000 annulments a year--three-quarters of all annulments worldwide.
       Given all this, it's beyond me how David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values can campaign to make divorce more difficult. Divorce is an American value. So is the mélange of beliefs and material conditions, good and bad, that have produced our high divorce rate--separation of church and state, ease of mobility, relative weakness of the extended family, urbanization, sexism, domestic violence, the rising self-esteem and economic independence of women and our deep-seated conviction that marriage is about two people and their love. You can give this mixture a positive spin--America is the land of fresh starts, self-determination, the pursuit of happiness--or a negative one--we're a hedonistic, irresponsible, throwaway society. Either way, divorce is us; just ask family values fans Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, George Will, Joe Klein, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Eugene Genovese, Amitai Etzioni, Midge Decter and Michael "Politics of Meaning" Lerner (twice).
       Undeterred by these considerations, Blankenhorn and other conservative "pro-family" ideologues have joined right-wing Christian groups to push state legislatures to make divorce more difficult to obtain. In Pennsylvania, supporters of a proposal to abolish unilateral no-fault divorce where children are involved argue that the unilateral system has hurt children by encouraging frivolous breakups. They also claim to champion women, particularly housewives in longstanding marriages, who have lost the ability to withhold consent and thereby win financial and custodial concessions from husbands eager to marry again.
       How to reform divorce laws to serve women and children is an important question, about which there is lively feminist debate. But the conservative attack on no-fault is not about helping women, even stereotypically "virtuous" homemakers (much less battered wives, who need to make a quick, clean break). The old "fault" system was also cruel to women: Long litigations penalized the poorer spouse, however blameless; alimony was, contrary to myth, rarely awarded and even more rarely collected; most shockingly, a mother could be denied custody of her children because of a single act of extramarital sex. There's nothing in the proposed reforms about insuring an equal division of property or adequate child support, or compensating wives for their unpaid labor, or allowing the custodial parent to stay in the home rather than sell it as part of the division of assets--although post-divorce moves are a major source of difficulty for children.
       But then, the fault-divorce campaign isn't really about helping children, either. Conservative reformers constantly cite Second Chances, Judith Wallerstein's study of children's divorce-related problems. But Wallerstein herself rejects the view that preserving a bad marriage helps kids, and she supports no-fault divorce. "A return to the old system would be disastrous for children," she told me. "The last thing they need is to hear their father call their mother a whore." Should kids learn to blame one parent?
       The real aim of conservative divorce reform is to enforce a narrow and moralistic vision of marriage by rendering divorce more painful and more punitive. But it's not hard to find empirical evidence that none of the reforms proposed by the divorce reformers would achieve their stated goal, which is to keep couples together. Court-ordered counseling? "We had mandatory conciliation here in New York in the sixties and early seventies," Timothy Tippins, chairman of the New York State Bar Association's family law committee, told me. "Do you know how many marriages it saved? Zero." Abolition of unilateral no-fault? New York doesn't have it. Is the divorce rate lower in New York than in New Jersey or Connecticut? No. Long waiting periods--three years, or even, as former White House domestic policy adviser William Galston proposes, five (!)--will hardly cause partners who hate each other to recommit. ("This never happens," said Wallerstein. "I told Bill that.") On the contrary, such strictures on starting over will have the perverse effect of discouraging people from marrying in the first place, and rendering illegitimate the second families separated partners are going to start anyway, regardless of the law, as they do in Ireland and other countries where divorce is hard to get.
       The anti-divorce campaign may be a nonstarter, legally and practically, but it has an ideological function. As more people are spun off into economic instability as the safety net is shredded, "family values" becomes a way of explaining downward mobility as an individual moral failing: The selfish quest for happiness is what makes women and children poor. (You'll notice the anti-divorce crowd never cites unemployment or poverty as a cause of breakup.) Similarly, the effects of economic dislocation on the young--depression, suicide, early pregnancy, high dropout rates--are attributed entirely to their parents' self-indulgence. "A change in attitude toward parenting and marriage would do children far more good than any government program," Time airily observed recently. Let them eat wedding rings.
       Pennsylvania retained no-fault divorce and it's likely other states will too, if only because state legislators want the freedom to dump their wives, if they haven't already. But the arguments have already entered the emerging bipartisan consensus: Your problems--and your children's problems--are your fault.

This dialogue grows out of an article by Katha Pollitt, which appeared in the Feb. 17, 1997 issue of The Nation. To read the article, click here.