Divorce can, with some justification, be viewed as either a problem, a symptom, or a solution. Which of these is or should be the prevailing view depends on who is looking at the subject. Different stakeholders are concerned with the quality of family life and the effects that divorce might have on individuals and the culture as a whole. Among the groups with a vested interest in divorce are politicians, religious groups, counselors, educators, and families themselves.
II. Brief History of Divorce
III. Divorce Statistics
IV. Divorce as Problem
V. Divorce as Symptom
VI. Divorce as Solution
Persons viewing divorce as a problem tend to focus on statistics indicating a high likelihood of divorces for first marriages and direct much of their concern toward the effects of post-divorce circumstances on children. These stakeholders have been very successful at getting their message to a wide audience. Among those viewing divorce as a problem are clinical psychologist Judith Wallerstein, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, and the Institute for American Values.
Persons who indicate that divorce is a symptom, express the sentiment that modern society is too quick to seek easy solutions to problems and suggest that couples’ expectations of marriage are too idealistic. Additionally, those who see divorce as a symptom of a larger problem argue that the moral standards and values of society as a whole are in decline. They also tend to focus on individualism, secularization, and instant gratification as responsible for the increases in divorce. Advocates for this approach include the Institute for American Values, Maggie Gallagher, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.
Persons who emphasize the solution elements of divorce often point to decreases in violence and anger between the former partners as the biggest benefit to divorce. Likewise they would suggest that divorce is a solution for persons who entered a marriage unwisely or who were unprepared to assume the responsibilities of a lifetime commitment. Divorce is seen as a solution when the environment at home is one of constant tension and anger. Persons coming from this perspective tend to emphasize constructing a meaningful life after the divorce for both the couple and any children and include Constance Ahrons, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and Mavis Hetherington.
Brief History of Divorce
It seems that persons of all recent societies place value on a marriage-like or lasting union between a man and woman. As a result, most societies historically and presently have frowned upon the ending of such unions and have generally put barriers in the way of dissolving the relationships, although surviving documents indicate that divorces occurred at least as far in the past as ancient Mesopotamia. While the process is formal and legal in the United States and other westernized societies, at other historic periods and places the mechanism has been quite different. Ancient Greeks were unlikely to place a high premium on marriages for other than the legitimating of heirs, and divorce was available provided the reasons a person was requesting a divorce were approved by a governmental official. In the later years of the Roman Empire, a couple could simply agree to divorce and it would be done. In other societies, the husband was the only party who could petition for and receive a divorce.
For the most part, the widespread acceptance of Christianity in the Middle Ages served to decrease the availability of divorce and to enact stringent limitations on the rare instances when it would be permitted. This pattern reflects the fact that marriage at the time was a religious sacrament and under the control of the Church rather than the civil authority. Annulment was the more available path to marital dissolution. In an annulment granted by the Church, the marriage was declared null, as if it had never occurred. This stance regarding divorce remains a hallmark of Roman Catholicism. Even today, devout Catholics and clergy chastise Catholic lawyers who facilitate divorce proceedings. Annulment is also a legal term that is used when a condition existed prior to the marriage that would have prevented the marriage from being legally permitted or recognized. Thus, in the eyes of the law, the marriage never existed.
Divorce has always been available in some capacity in the United States, although the ease with which one could attain divorce and the likelihood of social rejection for doing so has varied over time. The United States has a more liberal history of divorce than does Great Britain and other Western European countries, despite the reliance on English Common Law as the basis for U.S. civil authority. The first recorded divorce in what is now the United States was granted in the Plymouth Colony in 1639 to a woman whose husband had committed bigamy (was married to two women simultaneously). Divorces were rare, however, in the colonial period. This is likely due to the influence of religious beliefs, but also to the economic necessity of partners working together to survive the sometimes harsh conditions of colonial life. A wife was sometimes referred to as a “helpmeet” in colonial literature, reinforcing the role that she assumed in the success of the farm or family business.
While the United States was more liberal than many European countries regarding divorce, grounds for divorce had to be established before a divorce would be permitted. Traditional grounds for divorce included adultery, cruelty, nonsupport, desertion, and incarceration. It was not until 1970 that any state statutes permitted divorce simply because the partners were incompatible. The bold move by California of instituting the first no-fault divorce laws paved the way for partners to divorce for other than traditional grounds. By 1985, when South Dakota became the last state to permit no-fault divorce, all states had some provisions for these divorces, although a few states (such as New York) required a mandatory waiting period before such a divorce could occur. No-fault divorce meant that neither partner had committed a crime against the other; thus, the traditional grounds for divorce had not been met. Under no-fault divorce, couples agreed that they could no longer be married and would like to have their legal marital contract dissolved.
Divorce is measured by using several different statistics. One of the most widely used is the crude divorce rate. This tells the number of divorces in a given year per 1,000 population. This rate was 4.2 for the year 1998. This statistic makes divorce look fairly uncommon and is not very useful because it includes all persons in society, whether married or not. Another measure of divorce, which academics feel is more accurate, is known as the refined divorce rate. It considers the number of divorces in a given year divided by the number of married women in the population. By focusing on married couples (women), it includes only those persons who are eligible to divorce. In the United States for the year 2004, the refined divorce rate was 17.7. This statistic allows for more comparisons between countries and periods to determine meaningful differences in divorce.
A statistic often quoted in the discussions of divorce is that 50 percent of marriages will end in divorce. This statistic is rather misleading, if not wholly inaccurate, because it is very difficult to predict what will happen over the duration of a marriage. In an average year in the United States, there are about 2.4 million marriages and 1.2 million divorces. It is from these data that the 50 percent figure is derived. However, experts who take into account the factors that lead to divorce for given social groups and historical eras put the likelihood of marriages beginning today and subsequently ending in divorce at around 40 percent.
For women who are college educated and have family incomes over $30,000, the likelihood of divorce decreases to around 25 percent. Race and ethnicity play a part in the likelihood of getting a divorce as well. After 10 years of marriage, 32 percent of non- Hispanic white women’s first marriages end in divorce, compared with 34 percent of Hispanic women’s first marriages, approximately 50 percent of black women’s first marriages, and 20 percent of Asian women’s first marriages. Current dissolution rates for first marriages indicate that approximately 20 percent of first marriages end within five years.
For the past 100 years, there has been a generally upward trend in divorce in the United States. A slight decrease in divorce occurred during the early years of the 1930s. The economic troubles of the Great Depression likely influenced the divorce rate, but economic recessions since that time have not showed the same pattern regarding divorce. While divorce declined in the 1930s, it spiked dramatically in the second half of the 1940s. This change has been attributed to the effects of World War II. It seems reasonable that some partners found others during the time they were apart, women discovered independence through their work in the war effort, or persons were changed by the separation so that they were no longer compatible. Another probable explanation for the spike was that marriages contracted hastily before or during the war were no longer appealing to the partners when the war was over.
Despite the changes brought about in the era immediately following World War II, the time of most rapid increase in divorce was from the early 1960s to 1980, when the divorce rate more than doubled. Factors that have been proposed to account for the increase in divorce include the second wave of feminism (also known as the modern women’s movement), an increase in women attending college and perceiving options outside of married life, increases in the accessibility and effectiveness of birth control, increases in opportunities for cohabitation (living together without being married), and the introduction of no-fault divorce statutes. During the last 20 years, the divorce rate has declined from its all-time high but continues to be high when compared with the rates of divorce in other countries. Among the factors related to the recent decrease in divorce is that persons are waiting until later to marry for the first time. Early marriages, particularly among those younger than age 20, have a much higher chance of ending in divorce.
Divorce as Problem
While divorce rates in the United States have been stable or declining for 20 years, Americans express an overwhelming anxiety about the state of marriage. The rate of divorce peaked around 1980, but persons from all across the political spectrum propose that divorce is a serious problem in the United States today. Persons who see divorce as a problem come from the perspective that current divorce rates are unnaturally high and that society should work to reduce them. There is a long history stemming from religious prohibitions and middle-class morality suggesting that divorce is a problem.
Divorce is defined as a problem because of the trauma of the breakup as well as the aftereffects for both the partners who divorce and any children that are involved. Divorce is a problem for couples through both psychological and financial costs. Divorce is seen by many, including the divorcing partners, as a failure of the couple. They experience guilt, loss of self-esteem, and anger. Divorced people are more likely to commit suicide than are married people.
Additionally, divorce has financial consequences for couples. Many times they sell their jointly held assets to divide the results equally. Because men provide, on average, more than 60 percent of household income, women may face a difficult decline in standard of living following divorce. Research suggests that more than 25 percent of divorced women experience at least some time in poverty during the five years following a divorce. Financial concerns are perhaps heightened for women, because they are more likely to receive custody of and be caring for children than are their former husbands. This situation leads to an increase in the numbers of single-parent families in society.
Society’s concern with the effects of divorce on children has been a recent phenomenon but a politically useful tack. The presence of children does little to prevent parents from divorcing; it only seems to delay it. Each year, more than 1 million children are involved in the divorce of their parents. For those advocates who see a two-parent home as essential for rearing well-adjusted children, divorce creates additional problems by creating single-parent families.
Divorce decreases the economic and social resources available to children. In terms of economics, children reared by one parent are far more likely to live in poverty than those reared in a two-parent home. There is less disposable income available to splurge on leisure activities or academic endeavors. Among the potential social consequences of divorce are problems in school, marrying at a young age or never marrying, and abusing alcohol or drugs. Children may experience depression and have less chance to be equally bonded with both parents. Usually it is the father who misses out on the experiences of the child’s life. Some older studies of the consequences of divorce for children pointed to divorce as a factor in children’s delinquency, truancy, and difficulty with peer relations. Judith Wallerstein (2000) has been particularly vocal about the long-term consequences of divorce for children, including the increased chance that their marriages are more likely to end in divorce than those of children whose parents did not divorce.
Those most likely to view divorce as a problem in society are groups that desire to strengthen marriage as an institution. Marriage is viewed by many as the only acceptable way to live an adult life and the only situation in which to rear children. It is in the context of a nuclear family that children learn the skills that will enable them to be successful and productive members of society. One of the primary concerns of those who oppose divorce is that the option of divorce weakens the institution of marriage. In other words, as more couples divorce, the decision to get a divorce is more acceptable.
Religious organizations such as Focus on the Family have been critical of divorce for not only the negative consequences for adults, children, and society, but for issues of morality as well. Given Christian ideals that marriage is a sacrament before God lasting a lifetime, the only reasonable ending for a marriage is the death of one of the partners. There are, therefore, moral or religious consequences for the violation of holy law by divorcing. One of the most intriguing questions researchers are currently exploring with regard to divorce is how persons who hold some of the most conservative views on divorce have divorce rates higher than the national average. Born-again Christians and Baptists had divorce rates of 27 and 29 percent, respectively, in a study by the religion-motivated Barna Research Group. The conservative religious right opposes divorce, but the Southern Bible belt states have the highest rates. The Catholic Church has been a harsh critic of divorce and lobbied hard to keep divorce options out of countries around the world.
Divorce as Symptom
Divorce is a symptom of the pressure that Americans put on the marital relationship to be all things to the partners. The romantic notion of marriage—that one perfect person will make all of your dreams come true—may be partly responsible for the high rates of divorce. Asking one person to be your everything is putting a lot of faith in and pressure on that individual. While partners are expected to marry for life, they are given very little preparation, other than what they have witnessed in the marriages of their parents and other adults, about how to make a marriage work. Divorce is a symptom of the inadequate preparation for marriage that exists in U.S. society. To combat this, clergy and counselors have developed programs for persons contemplating marriage in attempts to strengthen marriages. One popular program is known by the acronym PREPARE.
Pamela Paul (2002) has suggested that, because cultural notions of marriage have changed very little over time while society has changed a great deal, Americans are particularly likely to find that marriage is not meeting their needs. She suggests that several trends in society today are largely responsible for why marriages are likely to end in divorce: (1) people are living twice as long as they did 100 years ago; (2) the most intensive active parenting takes only about 20 years, so the couple likely has 40 or more years without children in the home; (3) persons are likely to have multiple careers over their lifetimes, so change becomes normative; (4) persons who marry today have grown up in a time in which the stigma of divorce has decreased, and they may have personally experienced divorce as a young person; and (5) the increased likelihood that both spouses are employed frees women to explore nonfamilial roles and to experience economic independence from their husbands. Given these changing circumstances of social life, Paul suggests that it may be unrealistic for spouses chosen while people are in their 20s to be appropriate partners at other life stages.
The Family Research Council has argued that divorce occurs because people are misguided about the purpose of marriage. Marriage is the institution in which children are to be reared, and that is the primary function of marriage. It is not for the fulfillment of the couple but rather for the fulfillment of procreation that marriage is intended to provide.
The phrase “divorce culture” reflects the notion that, in today’s world, divorce might be seen as a rather common, even expected, occurrence. The cavalier attitude Americans display toward divorce, argue the critics, makes the harmful effects of divorce seem small. Thus, divorce might be chosen even when a couple has not seriously tried to resolve any difficulties. This choice locates the desire of the individual above the good of the family group. This is particularly criticized when children are involved. Divorce, then, is a sign of selfishness and individuality. Others would argue that it is the no-fault divorce provisions that make divorce quick and easy and thus permit Americans to have a selfish attitude toward marriage. If no-fault divorces were not an option and couples had to go through the court system to end their marriages, they would work harder to keep them together and resolve the difficulties.
Organizations such as the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project routinely suggest that the increases in divorce and continuing high divorce rates are the result of a loosening of the moral code in the United States and an increase in individuality. The freedoms that Americans have to conduct personal relationships today have consequences for the individuals and the whole society. One area of concern is the prevalence of media images that depict divorce positively and marriage negatively. Additionally, a more secular society, one that is less apt to follow all aspects of religious teachings, has been blamed for an increase in divorce. Likewise, they suggest that removing the stigma from divorce has meant there is less social pressure to stay in a marriage.
One of the behaviors related to an increase in divorce and a questioning of morality is cohabitation. Cohabitation, living with a partner in a marriage-like relationship without being married, has increased dramatically in the last 30 years. There are now around 5.5 million households of heterosexual cohabitors in the United States. In some communities, as many as 60 percent of couples marrying in a given year are currently cohabiting at the time they apply for the marriage license. Research suggests that, despite the common rationale for cohabitation—that the couple is testing the relationship for compatibility—persons who cohabit before marriage are more likely to divorce than those who do not live together first.
Divorce as Solution
For partners who do not grow together in terms of interests and expectations, married life can be stifling. Divorce permits couples in unhappy unions to end their relationships and start anew. While ending a marriage is a difficult, even traumatic, life transition, it does permit persons to make meaningful life changes and experience a renewal in their lives. This notion of being renewed after severing ties from an unsatisfactory relationship is particularly likely to be mentioned by women after a divorce. In some communities, a woman’s female friends might even throw her a liberation party to celebrate her newly single status.
Despite the potential for some women to experience financial difficulties after divorce, when dealing with their children, divorced women are often calmer and more effective parents than when they were in the conflicted marriage. Women also tend to have decreased tension and fewer bouts of depression when they are single. Clearly for women (and children) who were victims of abuse during a marriage, divorce is a solution to the daily threat to their safety.
Children who experience high levels of conflict or even violence in their families enjoy an increase in well-being after a divorce has occurred. Most children from divorced families, even those without a violent past, live good lives after overcoming some initial difficulties. Staying together for the sake of the children, while a politically provocative idea, does not seem to have the desired outcomes. In fact, Constance Ahrons (1994) has indicated that a good divorce is much better for kids than a bad marriage, because they see a healthier way to interact that validates the feelings of the partners and permits them to strive for greater happiness in their lives. Divorce may even lead to better parenting, because the time with the children is coordinated and special. Partners no longer have to disagree about the problems of the marriage but can work on the most effective way to parent the children that they share. Positive outcomes are particularly likely when parents and children attend special classes on how to build their skills in dealing with family issues.
Persons who view divorce as a solution tend to point to studies that argue that, not only can children be reared successfully in arrangements other than a traditional two-parent family, but adults can also find fulfillment in situations other than marriage. Those taking this view would not suggest that divorce or its consequences are easy; it is a highly stressful transition. However, it does permit adults a second chance at happiness and permits children to escape from a dysfunctional home life. In fact, Stephanie Coontz (1992) argues that we have made the traditional two-parent family look so good in our nostalgic yearning for the past that even the most functional of families would have difficulty living up to the expectations.
Perhaps it is the unrealistic expectations of married life that push some people to marry in the first place. While there are no overt penalties for singlehood nor current laws in the United States that indicate that one must be married by a certain age, there may be social pressure to demonstrate adult status by marrying. For these persons, marriage may not meet with their expectations, they may have married the wrong person, or they may have married too early. Research consistently shows that persons who are teenagers when they marry have far higher rates of divorce than do persons who wait until they are slightly older to marry. For these persons divorce may be a solution to a decision made when they were not yet mature. Likewise, persons who marry due to a premarital conception have higher rates of divorce than those whose children are conceived after the wedding.
Divorce may be characterized as a problem, symptom, or solution. At the present time, popular conceptions of divorce give more support to the notion of divorce as a problem to be solved. It is a problem of both long-term and short-term consequences. It is a problem of individuals as well as society. It is also a symptom of how much we might value personal relationships. We value them so highly that we want them to be all things to all persons, and we feel betrayed when they are not. Perhaps it is a symptom of the freedoms that U.S. society permits its citizens. Divorce is also a solution for those situations and times in which no other options seem to work or when staying in the marriage might have devastating emotional or physical consequences for the participants.
Kimberly P. Brackett and Donald Woolley
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