Divorce

Divorce

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 29 1997 3:30 AM

Divorce

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Dear David,

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       You may not remember it, but you did appear on public radio's "Bridges: A Liberal/Conservative Dialogue," hosted by Larry Josephson, on May 28, 1995. Arguing that aid to families with dependent children was responsible for "fatherlessness," you said, "Paying people money on the sole condition that they be an unmarried mother is a bad idea and we should stop it tomorrow, not just for the teen-agers and not just for the second child, but in toto." (I never accused you of "hat[ing] welfare mothers." It's worth noting, though, that your position on welfare--abolish it for never-married women--is that of the most hard-line conservatives such as Charles Murray, Robert Rector, and Newt Gingrich in his orphanage days.) I must say, it bothers me that you keep categorically denying things that are part of the easily discoverable public record.
       Did I seek to show that your political allies, funding, and views are tied to the larger tide of political conservatism, including the Promise Keepers (who are indeed male supremacist, advocating the Christian-fundamentalist idea of "headship"--husband is head of family as Christ is head of the church)? I do not point that out to discredit your position on divorce-law reform--I think I deal with that on its merits--but to explore that position's connection with, as I would see it, a larger constellation of ideas that I would call authoritarian, anti-modern, anti-secular, and opposed to women's equality. I don't mind at all if you do the same to me: By all means, call me a left-wing socialist, since that is what I am. My views on divorce, like yours, are connected with ideas about the family, gender equality, religion, the state, and so forth that you are welcome to take issue with. (I'm kind of surprised you haven't, actually, except for making fun of feminist concerns with domestic violence and incest.) As for a "personal ax"--I'm sure we both come to this subject with plenty of baggage!
       We can all wring our hands about divorce--but it takes a particular mentality to propose preventing it by bringing back adversarial proceedings, forcing people into marital therapy, and making people wait for three or five or even seven years. It's true, as you point out, that many European countries have long waiting periods and generally tougher divorce laws. Europeans also have a very different, and perhaps more realistic, mind-set about a lot of sexual and family issues. If we Americans took the continental attitude toward adultery, we could probably have a lower divorce rate, too. But I don't think you're suggesting that American couples preserve their marriages by permitting each other to take lovers!
       I note that you still haven't offered any reason to believe that these legal reforms will achieve the end you seek: marriage preservation. And listening to your radio interview reminded me that your position used to be that what counted was not law, not the economy, but the cultural climate (too permissive, hedonistic, narcissistic, gender-bent, etc.). As you've said, "The only thing we need to change is our minds." Now it turns out we need to write some new laws, too. Not to ensure that divorce settlements are fair, children supported, and so forth--things laws might conceivably accomplish--but to keep one spouse from leaving the other.
       You seem to have a hard time responding to the actual things I say, as opposed to some garbled version of them. So I'll just reiterate, in case anyone is actually still reading this. As Frank Furstenberg and Andrew Cherlin, whom I have indeed read, point out, for most couples, divorce is the last step in a long and painful process. It is not a whim. The reforms you advocate will not "save" these marriages, but drag their dissolution out longer, and enable the wealthier, better-connected, and socially more powerful partner (usually the man, but not always) to make life extremely difficult for the other spouse, with all sorts of bad consequences for the children.
       In my view, couples are welcome to put any emotional content they like into their marriages. There's a lot of variation in why people marry and what they mean by it--even on their wedding day, not to mention years later. You seem to think that if the state does not make divorce difficult, it is not "letting" partners make a serious commitment. But surely people are free to make all sorts of profound commitments to each other--you might even say that the only true and profound commitment possible is one uncoerced by the law. At least, I'd say that. I would not like to think that the reason a man shared his life and his body with me was that divorce was so legally onerous he'd resigned himself to me! Nor would I like to have the power to keep an ex-mate from remarrying, even if he behaved like a total rat.
       You seem to think that a marriage with an "easy exit"--i.e., according to you, all American marriages today--is not really a marriage, but merely a live-together arrangement. But surely you think your marriage is real, even though you and your wife are living under the same laws as everyone else? Maybe marriage understood as a personal commitment with what you rather misleadingly call an "easy exit" is just what marriage is at the end of the 20th century.

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.