Divorce

Divorce

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

Divorce

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Dear Katha,

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       Oh my. This is getting worse and worse.
       You now want to raise the subject of which foundations support the organization for which I work. Katha, you know next to nothing about who supports our work. And more importantly, what bearing do you think this has on the truth or falseness of my views? I am really sorry that you have stooped to this.
       Your description of the Promise Keepers--"explicitly male supremacist," funded by the scary religious right, etc., etc.--is just more of the same name-calling. It also tells me that you know very little about these people.
       You report that somewhere ("[i]f memory serves") you think you remember me saying something on a radio program generally along the lines of, I'm a conservative and I hate welfare mothers. Oh my. I'm pretty sure, if memory serves, that I never appeared on the program you cite, and I'm absolutely certain that I do not believe what you say I said. Do you really feel that floating this type of accusation is a good use of your time?
       In defending your penchant for name-calling, you point out that, in a number of instances, either a) you didn't mean me personally; or b) if you did mean me, I deserve it and therefore ought not to object to it. This explanation ignores the point I tried to make, which is that your brand of mudslinging thwarts honest argument.
       Here's why. If I can demonstrate that David Blankenhorn is a scary right-winger--or that (watch how easy this is!) Katha Pollitt is a left-wing socialist with a personal ax to grind about why all divorces are inevitable--then I can avoid the work of actually engaging my opponent's ideas. The whole exercise becomes not serious. Again, I'm sorry you've stooped to this.
       By the way, for patient readers who might understandably be confused, here are the actual questions Katha Pollitt and I are supposed to be debating. First, is the divorce rate too high? And second, can reforming our divorce laws do anything to lower the divorce rate and strengthen marriage? I believe the answers are "yes" and "yes."
       I wrote, trying in part to narrow our differences on at least one point, that I don't believe that people get divorced "for no reason." You reply that I do too believe it. ("Admit it," you say.) Well, again, Katha, this is simply not serious. I suppose we'll have to agree to disagree about what I believe.
       You dispute the scholarly finding that, in most cases, only one spouse wants the divorce. (Too much "wiggle room" in that conclusion, you say, and who are these "scholars" anyway?) Well, if you want a reference, you could look it up in Andrew J. Cherlin and Frank F. Furstenberg, Divided Families: "[W]e might expect that both partners would be ready to end the relationship by the time one leaves. But the data suggest otherwise. Four of five marriages ended unilaterally." On the other hand, Katha, these guys are probably just two more wife-beating religious fanatics who don't know nearly as much about this subject as you do.
       You dismiss or ignore the data on domestic violence, widely known and collected annually by the Department of Justice, which clearly suggest that divorce law, regardless of whether it is fault-based or no-fault, has little measurable affect on rates of domestic violence. The two issues are largely unrelated. You can assert the contrary until the cows come home, but I search in vain for any research findings that you offer in support of your opinions.
       But for a moment, let's accept your premise that divorce laws markedly affect rates of domestic violence. Isn't it at least possible that new laws explicitly recognizing domestic violence as a marital "fault" would be more helpful to potential victims of abuse than our current laws, which pretend that there is "no fault" involved when husbands beat wives? If the law explicitly told battered wives, "it's not your fault" that this marriage is ending, perhaps more would find the support and courage to leave their abusers.
       I admit that this is largely speculation on my part. But as long as you insist on speculating, with no evidence, that no-fault divorce laws are good for battered women--despite the fact, for example, that no-fault divorce has coincided with an overall increase in domestic violence--why not at least consider another possibility? It seems at least as plausible as yours. For example, most European countries have much tighter divorce laws than we do. Is it your belief, following your logic, that these countries have more domestic abuse than we do, or that the domestic violence that does occur in these countries is somehow linked to their divorce laws? That would certainly be a hard case to make.
       You continue to insist that nothing, absolutely nothing, in the law could ever help troubled marriages or ever affect people's private decisions about whether or not to stay together. You now demand that I prove that you are wrong. Well, I have previously cited research findings showing that no-fault divorce laws, by themselves, have increased the divorce rate. In general, I have tried to argue that when law makes divorce easier and quicker--when it redefines divorce as a unilateral right--more people will get divorced. To me, this borders on self-evident. I have also tried to argue in our exchanges that modest reforms of our no-fault divorce laws would likely have a small but still-welcome impact in lowering the divorce rate and in saving some marriages.
       Your final and ultimate point is that government has no business telling anyone whether, or under what circumstances, he or she can leave a spouse. It's a private, intimate matter, you say. Keep the government out of it. Katha, what you are describing as your ideal is an increasingly common type of relationship, usually called cohabitation or "living together." It's perfectly legal. Anyone can do it. I'm sure it has many advantages, including, as seems so important to you, the advantage of easy exit, such that either partner can leave at any time for any reason. The only thing I object to is legally defining this type of relationship as marriage.
       Here, as briefly as I can sum it up, is why I object. I believe that most people get married because they want to make more than a private, disposable commitment to another human being. I believe that, as a matter of law, we ought to let them.

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.