Divided On Divorce


At the turn of the century, when America’s divorce rate hit a staggering three per 1,000 marriages annually, clergy and scholars rallied to head off the “epidemic.”

As a new century nears, the rate hangs around 20 per thousand. Almost half of all marriages will fail eventually, and almost 45% of all children will see their parents permanently split.

Society’s reaction?

Ceremonies in which wedding rings are sledgehammered into “freedom jewelry,” divorce Web sites that play “The Love Boat” theme, a line of Hallmark cards to soothe custodial kids and a new “ism” for anyone so reactionary as to utter the term “broken home”: divorcism.


Recently, though, a divorce resistance force of sorts has been gathering. And those guerrillas may have their unlikely Che in Barbara DaFoe Whitehead, whose book “The Divorce Culture” (Knopf, 1997) sounds an alarum against what she sees as the cultural market’s cheerful acceptance of the two-parent family’s decline.

Whitehead fully accepts that some divorces are necessary, and that blended, single-parent and other nonnuclear families deserve societal support.

But after sorting through heaps of studies, the social historian sees widespread and tragic consequences as family breakup “becomes a defining event of American childhood itself.”

Whitehead got her first bloodying in the culture wars after her 1993 Atlantic Monthly cover story, “Dan Quayle Was Right.” Many social thinkers have been gunning for her since.


“She’s trying to terrify parents about the effects of divorce on children,” says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family history at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “She correctly recognizes that there are some serious problems with divorce for kids, but she has elevated those into doomsday pronouncements that really aren’t very helpful.”

Neither have most reviewers been willing to greet “The Divorce Culture” with supportive hugs.

Newsday brushed off Whitehead’s vision of a culture “where sacrifice for the next generation guides adult ambitions and purposes, and where wholeness of self is found in service and commitment to others.”

That, the reviewer said, is “magical thinking”: “A more realistic analysis would accept the fact that the American divorce rate is not likely to drop significantly . . . and that we must develop new social mechanisms to foster continuing responsibility for children on the part of former spouses.”

Whitehead counters that such criticisms miss “Divorce Culture’s” central, common-sense point: that increasingly complex and coercive efforts to engineer better child rearing are rather obviously doomed to fail.

In fact, the issue of wishful thinking is at the heart of the divorce divide.

Critics charge Whitehead with conservative nostalgia for a simpler era, when men’s and women’s marital roles were more easily, if unequally, defined.

The author, on the other hand, argues that conservatives and liberals alike have been playing pretend about the consequences of divorce. It’s time, she says, to grow up and confront that societal self-deception.


Whitehead does not dispute that, in some ways, divorce is as American as the founding fathers’ desire for “a more perfect union.” Yet for the better part of 200 years, she argues, public opinion frowned on dissolving what was accepted as the institution best suited for the important task of rearing future citizens.

Marriage was the realm of self-sacrifice, divorce an abdication of adult responsibility--and, yes, it was other people’s business.

All that changed in the 1960s, as the psychological revolution blossomed and personal growth became the defining adult quest, Whitehead says.

The needs of the “unfettered self” trumped obligation, and society came to view divorce as a personal choice of “satisfactions, opportunities and growth” with little connection to the greater familial or societal good.


Falling in step with the times, California passed the nation’s first “no-fault” divorce law in 1969, and every other state eventually followed suit. Meanwhile, Whitehead says, the psychological revolution and feminist revolution intertwined, impacting each other’s course.

Whitehead blasts the political left and right for becoming infatuated with “expressive divorce.” But liberal feminists, she says, gave up the most moral high ground. Traditionally, activist women had been lonely stalwarts against capitalism’s easy dismissal of children’s needs. Then they, too, swooned for “self.”

Gradually, Whitehead argues, society came to see middle-class divorce as a “born-again experience,” a “psychological entitlement.” Sociological literature followed suit, dismissing marriage as patriarchal and possibly pathological. Whitehead cites, for instance, “The Future of Marriage” (World Publishing, 1972), in which author Jessie Bernard blamed that institution for giving wives trembling hands, nightmares, dizziness and heart palpitations.


Bernard asserted that to be happy with the impediments of traditional marriage, “a woman must be slightly ill mentally.”

What came next was inevitable, Whitehead says: suggestions that not only are children sufficiently resilient to shrug off the inconvenience of divorce, but that family breakup can actually liberate little spirits.

One guidebook, for instance, offers this mother’s upbeat announcement of a pending divorce: “Children, I have good news for all of us. There is going to be more happiness in this house from now on.”

With sociologists pooh-poohing the idea of salvaging a marriage “for the sake of the children,” shunting aside children’s interests after the divorce was a small step, Whitehead says.

Hence courts often act “as if the main goal in custody arrangements were to achieve an equitable distribution of time based on the competing claims of each parent.” Whitehead cites one divorce contract that actually defines how toys shall be distributed between post-marriage households--ignoring any psychological stake the kids might have in the fate of their Legos.

“No child would have designed today’s system of divorce,” Whitehead says. And as society spirals away from obligation and commitment, an increasingly childish adult population is increasingly ill-equipped to set things right.

So parents, who were once expected to make rules and provide structure, now count on the kids to pitch in and help them cope as that structure disintegrates. As an example, Whitehead points to the publishing niche that has cropped up to help children.

One volume, for instance, urges the children of divorcing parents to “try to forget how sad you are and do what you can to help them feel better.” Another describes a son who consoles his divorcing mother by reading her a story and tucking her into bed.

But contrary to needy adults’ neurotic hopes, assuming such responsibility does not help Johnny grow, Whitehead maintains. That fact, she says, is reflected in recent literature for children and young adults.

“Living in unstable families and with unreliable parents, the literary children of divorce have been robbed of their traditional prerogatives to push against and even subvert the rules and boundaries,” she writes. “Rascality now belongs to the grown-ups, depriving children’s literature of much of its high spirits, humor and spunk.”


If the impact of divorce were limited to storybooks, Whitehead says she might not have joined what her critics call “the family values crusade.”

But a growing body of research suggests that familial breakup has a devastating effect on real children as well, she says. Single-parent households and blended families, as a rule, are simply not as well-suited for child-rearing. Surveys show that single parents have less time to read to their children, share meals with them or control their schoolwork, television viewing or chores, Whitehead says.

And stepparents, according to at least one study Whitehead cites, are even less likely to be involved.

As “a devout, lifelong Democrat,” she is all for the liberal aim of “the village” pitching in to help raise children, Whitehead says. But that presents a twofold problem.

First, while society can order a deadbeat parent to pay child support and order the other parent to spend it on the kids rather than champagne, it cannot motivate someone to earn a decent living or to provide love--the two-parent family still does that best, she says.

Second, the sort of “extreme individualism” that the divorce culture engenders undermines the solutions both liberals and conservatives would shovel into the growing child welfare gap: taxation and charity.

Married 30 years and the mother of three grown children, Whitehead does not join her ideological allies’ clamor to repeal no-fault divorce laws. Nor, she says, does she wish to enforce some sitcom model of the family on America.

“I don’t live that kind of life myself, and I haven’t recommended it to my daughters,” she says. “In my perfect world, we’d have families where both parents work and get along, and they put a lot of time and effort into raising their children--and the government supports that.”


In fact, few of Whitehead’s critics dispute that a solid, cooperative, two-parent family is the ideal structure for raising kids. Still, Whitehead’s approach rankles.

Many sociologists accuse her, for instance, of separating the effects of divorce from the context of deeper societal stresses: job insecurity, poverty, social isolation.

Coontz, of Evergreen College, spotlights the essence of the split in the title of her own new book, “The Way We Are” (Basic Books).

“By denying the fact that 50% of American kids are already in single-parent or stepfamily situations, you are just spitting into the wind,” Coontz says. “Divorce is with us, and we’re better off confronting it realistically in a way that minimizes its impact on children.”

USC sociology professor Constance Ahrons, who coined the term “divorcism,” says Whitehead misreads and distorts research to support her efforts as self-appointed societal scold.

Few marriage partners split because of some gotta-be-me whim, Ahrons says. “People marry for love and expect to stay married for a lifetime.” But romance is fragile. People change. What studies show, she says, is that children fare far better with divorce than on the battlefield of truly bad marriages.

Contrary to the examples Whitehead offers, she says, responsible divorce literature teaches parents how to protect children and advises children how to avoid getting sucked into adult roles.

But Whitehead and others on the anti-divorce front “think everyone is going to run out and get divorced if it’s not stigmatized,” says Ahrons, who is helping to launch an organization--the Council on Contemporary Families--"to counter the family values crusaders.”

A couple years ago, Ahrons hit the road to publicize her own book, “The Good Divorce” (1994, HarperCollins). People swarmed to say how grateful they were that she was offering ways to make divorce less destructive and showing models who avoided the brutality so often portrayed in the media.

They praised her too, she says, for discussing Thanksgiving dinners at which successfully rearranged families break bread with warmth and affection and weddings at which sets of amicably divorced parents walk their daughter down the aisle.

Whitehead, now on a national book tour, says she, too, is often approached by people eager to discuss divorce. But, she says, “there is a huge generational difference.”

Baby boomers tend to respond to her blunt critique with “resistance or denial.” But younger people, particularly younger Generation X women, seek advice on creating and building strong marriages. “They say they remember what it was like when their parents divorced,” she says, “and they don’t want to do that to their own kids.”