Divorce

Divorce

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 7 1997 3:30 AM

Divorce

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Dear Katha,

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       Space limitations permit me to address each of the points you raise in your March 4 reply.
       This time, you refer to people like me who disagree with you on this issue as--let's see, how does it go this time?--"religious fanatics, abusers, controllers, revenge-seekers, and people out of touch with reality." And oh yes, people whose big ambition in life is to be "punitive." Last time, remember, it was right-wing, narrow, moralistic, etc., etc.
       Katha, you specialize in name-calling. It's as if you can't help yourself. And you justify this name-calling by accusing people like me of being motivated by bad faith. (They say one thing, but let me tell you what they really mean ...)
       Well, shame on you. Don't you see that the only disagreements that are honest are those that accurately clarify differences? Don't you realize that your vocabulary of suspicion and name-calling is the enemy of robust debate, the enemy of any effort to clarify differences?
       You say that "most couples" make "a mutual decision" to divorce. That is not true. In the great majority of cases (scholars say four out of five), one spouse wants the divorce, the other doesn't. Katha, that's precisely why (besides the fees from SLATE) we are having this debate. Most of the divorce-law reforms now being considered would still permit no-fault divorce by mutual consent. The whole question is whether, when spouses can't agree, the law should side completely with whoever wants out, thus disempowering the spouse who is being abandoned. I honestly thought you knew this.
       You say that unnamed people foolishly believe that people get divorced today "for no reason." Let's rewind the tape here. In real life, people do not get divorced "for no reason." I don't know anyone who holds such a belief. The point, however, is that legally, under no-fault, people do get divorced "for no reason"--that is, no-fault does not require or permit them to establish reasons for the divorce. That's the point at issue. Again, I thought you knew this.
       You assert that reforming no-fault would create "enormous obstacles" for abused women, but neither you nor others who make this argument offer any evidence to support it. Has no-fault divorce somehow reduced domestic violence? No. Think of Hedda Nussbaum, who was not even married, or Nicole Brown Simpson, who had already obtained a no-fault divorce. Or consult the current studies on the issue. There is simply no good reason to believe that weakening marriage as a legal commitment means less domestic violence, or that the crime of domestic violence rises or falls according to the fine print of our marriage laws.
       You dispute the idea that divorce is "always bad for children." So do I. No one is proposing to outlaw divorce. And there are certainly some cases--let's say, for example, that the husband is an ax-murderer--in which divorce is best for the children. But I must say, to me there is something obscene in suggesting our current 50 percent divorce rate, by far the highest in the world, is somehow good for children.
       You dispute my claim that single mothers with children will always be, in comparison with other families, economically disadvantaged. Well, I agree that some countries provide more economic supports for single mothers than we do in the United States, but I don't agree, and I don't think you can show, that any set of public policies does or ever could eliminate the comparative economic disadvantage of the single-parent home. And of course, having less money is only one kind of disadvantage.
       To me, Katha, here is our basic, underlying disagreement. You believe that all divorces today are the inevitable results of angry, miserable ("hell on earth," as you put it) marriages in which everyone, including the kids, is obviously better off as a result of the spouses having finally called it quits. To me, life is much more complicated than that. To put it differently, compared with you, I believe that life consists of far fewer inevitabilities and far more opportunities. Yes, sometimes divorce is a necessity. But sometimes it is a temptation. Marriages get into trouble for all kinds of reasons--boredom, depression, drugs, alcohol, extramarital affairs, and many others. Sometimes these problems cannot be fixed. But sometimes they can.
       Mostly, marriages finally end when people give up hope. And people are much more likely to give up hope when they believe, as you apparently do, that both law and culture should give up on marriage as a permanent commitment and that there is absolutely nothing that we as a society can do to strengthen marriage and help prevent divorce.
       I do not believe that I "caricature" or "invent" your argument when I say that you claim that nothing--not legal change, not counseling, not waiting periods, nothing--can ever change people's decisions about whether or not to stay together. You say it again in your March 4 reply. If the law makes people jump through hoops, you say, they'll jump through hoops, but the true dynamic of the relationship is immune from these influences. As you yourself seem to understand, this is clearly "a stupid thing" to assert, but it is precisely what you repeatedly assert.
       What strikes me most about this argument, apart from it obvious falseness, is its remarkable determinism. No marriage can ever be saved. All divorces are inevitable. No intervention can ever work. Are you this fatalistic about everything, or is it just marriage?

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.