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Divorce Dilemma

The biggest threat to marriage today is fear of its dissolution.

If America has endured a “divorce revolution” since California passed no-fault divorce in 1969, we’ve now entered the counterrevolutionary phase. Divorce rates have fallen from their peak in the early ’80s, the deep pain often felt by children of divorce is openly acknowledged, and young Americans typically express both fear and a moral horror at divorce. They are determined not to repeat the mistakes of previous generations; avoiding divorce is a constant anxiety, even obsession.

But as with most purely reactionary cultural movements, the revolt against divorce has been much better at targeting what it rejects than figuring out what it’s for. In a strange, sad twist, the divorce counterrevolution has only weakened our marriage culture more.

Here are three things we’ve ignored as we make divorce (and divorced people) the scapegoat for broader problems of family breakdown.


Presence of Marriage, Not Absence of Divorce

Kids, you tried your best, and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.
—Homer Simpson

The divorce rate hasn’t fallen because Americans are better able to make and keep strong marriages. It’s fallen because many Americans, especially those in the middle class and lower, have given up on marriage entirely. The National Marriage Project’s 2010 “State of Our Unions” report found that while only 6 percent of highly educated mothers had their children out of wedlock, 44 percent of children of “moderately educated” women and 54 percent of children of the least educated women were born outside marriage. The “marriage gap” has made marriage a luxury good, the Ivy League of social institutions.

Fear of divorce is one major factor in the decline of marriage. A 2011 study by researchers at Cornell University surveyed 122 young cohabiting men and women and found that two-thirds cited worries about divorce as factors in their decision not to marry yet:

Most frequently mentioned was a desire to ‘do it right’ and marry only once, to the ideal partner, leading some to view cohabitation as a ‘test-drive’ before making ‘the ultimate commitment.’ The belief that marriage was difficult to exit was mentioned nearly as frequently, with examples of how divorce caused emotional pain, social embarrassment, child custody concerns, and legal and financial problems.

As this study suggests, terror at the thought of divorce has produced a strong cultural script for how to make a good marriage. Attempts to suggest that cohabitation or premarital sex are problems (rather than solutions), or that marrying when you’re in your early twenties lets you start your real life of love and family-making when you’re at the peak of your fertility, are met with cries of, “Oh, sure, do you want me to get divorced?”

The script requires a long waiting period before marriage. Twenty-seven is typical, as Rachel Jacoby wrote in a starkly judgmental December 29 piece at the Huffington Post; thirtysomething is better. Unsurprisingly, this long wait makes premarital chastity extraordinarily difficult. Perhaps less obviously, premarital chastity is actively discouraged. Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, in their recent Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, And Think About Marrying, quote psychologist Jeffrey Arnett: “Those who do not experiment with different partners are warned that they will eventually wonder what they are missing, to the detriment of their marriage.”

Cohabitation is also strongly encouraged. How can you marry someone if you don’t know what it’s like to live with her? There’s a sense that cohabitation allows the relationship to be tested and to build slowly over time—as you learn to care for her when she’s sick, or resolve arguments rather than going to bed angry—that you learn the skills of marriage before you reach the altar.

There’s one other way in which fear of divorce makes marriage an endlessly receding goal: the cost of weddings. The average wedding costs between $26,000 and $27,000—and that’s after a recession-driven drop. It’s easy to judge people who, say, release 50 Persian cats to eat the imported doves who eat the organic birdseed they throw instead of rice. But even a “normal” wedding these days requires an enormous outlay of cash. Or consider the standard formula for determining a reasonable price for an engagement ring: anywhere from one to three months of salary. Expensive, splashy weddings are about a lot more than princess fantasies. They’re a way of signaling the seriousness of the couple’s commitment. They make the wedding—and therefore, one hopes, the marriage—a major investment.

In their excellent 2005 study “Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage,” Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas found that even desperately poor women wanted a wedding they considered “elaborate” and “big.” This might mean spending a few thousand dollars, rather than more than $20,000, but it’s still money they generally don’t have. Why? “Having the wherewithal to throw a ‘big’ wedding is a vivid display that the couple has achieved enough financial security to do more than live from paycheck to paycheck, a stressful situation that most believe leads almost inevitably to divorce. Hosting a ‘proper’ wedding is a sign that the couple only plans to do it once, given the obvious financial sacrifice.” An expensive wedding is evidence of the strength of the couple’s commitment—yet it’s obvious how raising the cost of weddings raises the barriers to marriage.

Possibly in response to divorce scripts like “We just fell out of love” or “It just happened,” which emphasize powerlessness, the contemporary delayed-marriage script attempts to crack the code, figure out the formula, and do it right. Anxiety is managed through attempts at control. The fact that marriage, like parenting, is mostly about acceptance, forgiveness, and flexibility in the face of change and trauma gets suppressed.

But that might not matter if the script itself worked most of the time. If premarital sex and cohabitation were really the most practical paths to lasting love, our culture would look very different. Instead, these actions—valorized by young people, and often by their parents because they’re thought to prevent divorce—are divorce risk factors. Cohabitation with one partner is no longer correlated with increased risk of divorce, as it used to be, but serial cohabitation still is. In other words, if the only romantic partner you move in with ends up marrying you, your statistical prognosis is rosy; otherwise, not so much. In other words, “test-driving” the relationship only works—or rather, remains statistically neutral in terms of later divorce risk—if the relationship is already strong enough for marriage.

The picture with delayed marriage is somewhat different, but even there, as Regnerus and Uecker write, “the most significant leap in avoiding divorce occurs by simply waiting to marry until you’re 21. … In a meta-analysis of five different surveys that explored marriage outcomes, researchers note that respondents who marry between ages 22 and 25 express greater marital satisfaction than do those who marry later than that.”


“Mommy and Daddy Love You Very Much, But…”

Don’t you know that when you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise—whether you do or not?
—“Vanilla Sky,” 2001

Delaying marriage has one other major cost: the pain of children who experience the breakup of their unmarried parents. While avoiding marriage may shelter adults from the stigma of being divorced and children from the legal wrangling of custody battles, children whose unmarried parents break up still experience deep loss. They typically lose their fathers over time, and they learn the same painful lessons as children of divorce about the fragility of love. They, too, have to grow up too soon, negotiate relationships with half-siblings or blended families, manage the emotions and pain of the adults in their lives, and experience the loss of the father’s extended family.

Most people today understand that while people are resilient and can overcome childhood pain and difficulties, being a “child of divorce” is rough. Movies like “The Squid and the Whale” focus on the experience; it comes up often in pop culture as a shorthand explanation for a character’s challenges with commitment or relationships. By contrast, being a “child of an unmarried breakup” isn’t even a thing, culturally. When someone talks about his experiences, people can recognize and acknowledge them, but the idea that marriage produces children who suffer when the marriage breaks up is much more deeply culturally embedded, more vivid and persistently available than the idea that cohabitation or unmarried relationships produce children who suffer when the relationship dissolves.


The New Judgmentalism

But with the inevitable forward march of progress come new ways of hiding things, and new things to hide.
—Chris Ware,
Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth

Finally, moral horror at divorce can easily slide into moral horror toward other people. If there’s a plan that can prevent divorce, then making the “wrong” choices allows everyone to I-told-you-so as they feel better about themselves and their own decisions. People have a deep-seated thirst for self-righteousness, and in a culture where most of the old expressions of moral distaste are themselves stigmatized, we find new outlets for our crueler needs for self-comfort.

This self-comfort is exercised partly at the expense of the divorced. A friend of mine recently spent a great deal of time talking online with a group of older women, most of whom are widowed or divorced, and the contrast between how those two groups are treated socially is hard to exaggerate. The generosity and gentleness we rightly extend to the bereaved are matched by a ferocious stigma applied to the divorced. It’s all too easy for the anti-divorce culture to become uncharitable, unforgiving, and ridden with unkind assumptions about who gets divorced and why.

We also comfort ourselves at the expense of people planning marriages that don’t fit the rules. Couples who refuse to cohabit or who marry young are scolded, warned that they’re setting themselves up for divorce, and held up as bad examples.

A culture of love can’t be built on a foundation of rejection. The path forward doesn’t include further stigmatizing divorce, or bringing back stigma against unmarried childbearing. Lack of charity in these areas will only lead to less marriage (in the case of stigma against divorce) and more abortions (in the case of stigma against unmarried childbearing). What young people need is hope: a sense that marriages can last, not because the spouses were smart enough on the front end but because they were gentle and flexible enough during the long years after the wedding. Cultural storytellers can focus on telling stories about how marriage happens and how it works. One of the best descriptions I’ve seen of the damage done to our marriage culture by fear of divorce ran on Cracked.com, the foul-mouthed humor website. “John Cheese’s” January 5 piece, “The 5 Reasons Marriage Scares Men (Aren’t What You Think),” drew on his experience of parental divorce, the breakup of his marriage, and the long road he took to propose to his fiancee. It’s possible to discuss even these most personal dreams and anxieties with bluntness, compassion, and indeed crude jokes.

Four decades after the divorce revolution, we know how to fear. What we need to learn is how to hope.

Eve Tushnet blogs at eve-tushnet.blogspot.com