Thursday, June 28, 2012

Divorce Rates Slide, but Marriage Has a New Message

Dr. Judith Wallerstein
While reading the obituary for Judith S. Wallerstein, a psychologist who rankled feminists 20 years ago with her findings that divorce is permanently traumatic for children, I recalled her influence on my own work as a psychologist. I'd cited her longitudinal study that followed children of divorce for 25 years in my own book, The Case Against Divorce, as part of my argument that the consequences of a split are so dire that in most cases, it's far better to work to heal rifts and stay together. I called divorce "a cure far worse than the disease."

Since my book came out many years ago (and it's still selling in paperback), divorce rates have dropped considerably.  While it's been a pernicious myth that the divorce rate was ever 50% (even at its peak in 1981, the rate was about 25% for first marriages), Census Bureau statistics show that divorce per 1,000 population has steadily declined--plunging from a high of 5.3 in 1981, to 4.7 in 1990, 4.1 in 2000--and in the latest figures (2009), down to 3.1. That's a considerable drop, though the marriage rate has also declined, from 9.8 per 1,000 population in 1990 to 6.9 per 1,000 in 2009.  (Part of that is because older cohorts were larger and married younger.)

As divorce popularity declined, Judith Wallerstein shifted her stance, from warning about divorce impact to structuring the process to minimize damage to children.  I was a bit surprised at this, since I'd considered her an ally in a broader effort to strengthen marriage, imbuing it with a gravitas beyond its function as a love conduit for a couple. But she told the New York Times that when women credited her for their decisions to stay married, "I don't feel, 'Oh, my God, that's wonderul, one more marriage saved.' Maybe it was the wrong marriage."

In her 1989 book Second Chances, the 10-year follow-up of 60 divorced families (with 131 children) in her California Children of Divorce research project, Dr. Wallerstein wrote, "When people ask if they should stay married for the sake of the children, I have to say, 'Of course not.'"

That was a bit different from my response, which would be "Don't stay in your bad marriage for the sake of the children, but they're a great reason to work to make it good." My book talked about all the awful consequences of divorce--to the individuals, their families and friends, as well as the children--and also the flip side, the benefits and joys of restoring and improving a relationship that already has a foundation in time and experience.

Unfortunately, I fear that the institution of marriage has deteriorated, and now expresses the value "follow your heart"--as opposed to its traditional, more honorable but less feel-good counterpart, "do your duty," a dichotomy often noted by my husband.

Part of the gay-marriage mantra is that marriage is a declaration of love, a commitment of the heart. Those who are concerned about the future, however, also see it in a broader context, as the best place for two biological parents to offer their children models of marriage, for problem-solving and relating as a husband or a wife, in a secure, stable context.

Feelings constantly change; the message to children should be that behaving kindly, fairly and respectfully are paramount, no matter the situation or one's emotions. Ideals for behavior, unlike feelings, remain constant. (Remember the olden days, when baby girls were named "Constance" in hopes they'd emulate that virtue?) The importance of providing children with security that transcends fluctuating emotions is why marriage matters to society, and why government gets involved at all.  The fact two people fall in love is irrelevant to the unfeeling government.

Divorce (except in untenable situations like abuse and addiction), is a failure of one or both people to overcome division. Aside from all the emotional pain it causes everyone, it sends the message to children that conflicts may be resolved by running away. Or, that stubbornness, selfishness or rudeness prevail, and retaining one's position is of higher importance than harmony. Judith Wallerstein's findings confirm this.

I know from my experience as a psychologist that people escalate their arguments. That rehashing disputes only makes them grow. That partners can have overwhelming needs to be right. Or to control. Or to withdraw, and these cause anger, distance and disgust.

There's also always the option to accommodate, change and forgive.  People can avoid divorce if they internalize that their spouse is their soulmate, team-mate, source of support and best friend, and keep that as the underlying theme of every interaction, and ideally, every thought.

The other divorce-preventative is to understand that as much as your spouse is your alter-ego, the operative word is alter. Men and women are supposed to be opposites, innately different, and to expect the other to be your clone is not only wrong, but forfeits access to a second perspective--that can enhance and expand yours. A man and woman, hard-wired differently, combine in marriage for the same goals, forming a completed unit. Makes me wonder: How can two men, or two women together replicate those irreplaceable gender differences?

Answer: Marriage has been re-defined. It's now a declaration of love, a promise to care for the other. Companionate, not completionate.

So why has the divorce rate dropped since the early 80s? Is it because Judith Wallerstein taught us that children suffer permanently from divorce? Is it because fewer people marry? Probably both, but I would also speculate that divorce has become widely available and un-stigmatized, while at the same time the strident feminism and self-absorbtion of the past has relaxed, causing many to prefer the less-stressful path, which is to get along.

Don't misunderstand: Divorce remains a serious problem, and the work of Judith Wallerstein still holds. Some marriages are too punishing to continue, and children whose parents split will always agree with Dr. Wallerstein's finding that "for all [the children she followed], a significant part of their childhood or their adolescence had been a sad and frightening time" (Surviving the Breakup, p. 306).

And that might be the most significant deterrent to divorce of all--the memories held by so many now-grown children of their "sad and frightening time" as the collateral damage of divorce.

1 comment:

  1. For many couples, divorce is not foreseeable. Unfortunate things do happen and divorce becomes the only way out. Hiring a divorce attorney is recommended when going through a dissolution of marriage.

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