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DISMANTLING THE DIVORCE CULTURE

By Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

Excerpt from Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's "The Divorce Culture" -- Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, 1997. Divorce-Online wishes to thank the author for sharing her compelling insights on the historical, sociological, and psychological factors that, in her view, have contributed to the high divorce rate. Her book intelligently examines the direct impact on the family, especially children, from the perspective of these broader trends.

Rethinking Marriage

It is futile to call for better and stronger marriages without addressing the fundamental problem of a growing separatism between men and women. In recent decades, men and women have moved toward greater equality in education and occupation, greater flexibility in work roles, and greater androgyny in general. In the daily commerce between the sexes, there is less deference and conscious division than in the past.

Yet despite these more comradely relationships in work and learning, the intimate partnerships between women and men have become increasingly fragile, conflict-ridden, and subject to breakdown. Perhaps never before in the nation's history has there been such pessimism, even cynicism, about the ability of men and women to live together in lasting marriages and to share a common life.

This pervasive decline in the ideal and expectation for long-lastingmarriage was perhaps predictable. In every other domain of life, Americans are moving away from lasting relationships and toward limited and contingent commitments. The world of work offers little hope of permanent ties; the entire ethos of the American workplace has shifted toward a short-term, performance-based, limited-benefits, ten-career-changes-in-a-lifetime model. Increasingly too, the workplace rewards individuals who are mobile, unattached, unrestricted by family commitments. The public commitment to both our oldest and our youngest citizens is also becoming more limited and contingent, as is the public commitment to public servants themselves. We live in an age of term limits. And of course, the marketplace thrives in an environment where there are few fetters to the free flow of capital. For years the Prudential Insurance Company asked Americans to seek an affiliation with a durable and dependable company, to buy a "piece of the Rock." Now, in a new advertising campaign, Prudential tells its customers: "Be Your Own Rock."

In a society swiftly applying the principle of term limits to every other dimension of life, therefore, it is not surprising that this notion should pervade family relationships as well. More to the point, it is only to be expected that the values exalted and rewarded in the marketplace should become those in family life as well. Yet precisely because other social bonds are becoming more undependable and impermanent, the need for strong and lasting family bonds increases, even as the environment that would support strong family bonds weakens. This means that there must be a sustained effort to strengthen marriage bonds and to create a social and cultural environment supportive of the commitment to marriage.

Because marriage and parenthood are part of our affectional and private lives, this effort is largely a matter for the civil society rather than for government. To be sure, public policy and the bully pulpit can be used to support and encourage an effort toward strengthening marriages with children. But the breakdown of marriage was not caused by changes in the tax code or divorce laws, and it is unlikely to be resolved by the legislative actions of Congress or the states. If men and women are to find a way to share the tasks of parenthood in marriage, that way can come about only through a change of heart and mind, a new consciousness about the meaning of commitment itself, and a turning away from the contemporary model of relationships offered by Madison Avenue, Wall Street, or Hollywood.

A Society of the Uncommitted

How many divorces over how many years can a nation sustain without serious damage to its social fabric? There is no precise way to answer that question, but it does not require sophisticated statistical projections to make the argument that Americans have already experienced too much divorce over the past twenty-five years and that the current trends cannot be sustained for another twenty-five years without profound loss and damage to children, families, and the society. If we do not act with deliberate speed to reduce divorces involving children, we will surely become a nation with a diminished capacity to sponsor the next generation into successful lives as citizens, workers, and family members. More alarmingly, we will lose the capacity to foster strong and lasting bonds between fathers and children, between older and younger generations, and between children and the larger society. A sense of permanence and trust will continue to erode, and with it, the commitment to invest in others. Self-investment will be the safer and saner bet.

For the past three decades American children have attended the school of divorce and learned its lessons. The main lesson is that families break up, relationships end, and love is not forever. One psychiatrist, studying the attitudes of young adults toward committed relationships, noted that they displayed a comparison shoppers mentality which introduces the kind of calculation and guardedness that works against commitment and even against the ability to fall in love. As one young adult from a divorced family explained: My own opinion is that if a man and a woman get along for five or ten years, that is as much as can be expected. People change and they stop sharing. It is much more sensible to plan on a series of relationships, perhaps three or four. This view is widespread among younger Americans; it suggests that divorce not only erodes the social bases of commitment but also extinguishes the very idea of lasting commitment.

Posted on Saturday, April 7, 2007 at 02:24PM by Registered CommenterSite Administrator in | Comments Off

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