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Separation Anxiety

It's a National Epidemic, So Why Do Couples Continue to Divorce?

by Hunter Baker

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 6

One of the most intense programs on television is A&E's Intervention, which features documentary stories of individuals struggling with severe addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex, anorexia, or bulimia. The climax of each episode is a counselor-guided intervention in which friends and family confront the addict and try to force a treatment decision. Before the intervention begins, however, we experience several days in the life of the addict. Unless you know a person with a severe addiction, you have never seen someone sink so low. These people's lives and relationships are in ruins. They lie to everyone around them. They steal. They lose their minds and health in devastating chunks. But the worst part isn't watching them fall apart; rather, it's the lucid moment when they realize just how far they've fallen.

Having watched all four seasons of Intervention, I find myself fascinated by the common denominators among addicts. In most cases, the addict has suffered a severe trauma sometime in his life, and three such traumas surface more than the rest. The first two are sexual molestation and close proximity to a killing. Several of the addicts on the program were molested by a relative, a neighbor, or a babysitter. Others witnessed the sudden, violent death of a loved one.

But perhaps the most common trauma experienced by the show's addicts is divorce. Almost every one of these individuals is a child of parents who are either divorced or estranged. Indeed, based solely on watching Intervention, you would have to conclude that divorce is one of the worst things that a person may ever have to endure.

Divorce and the Psyche

Documentary evidence does not establish the truth of a notion. I regularly correspond by email with a group of political writers who frequently remind me that "anecdote is not the plural of data." But unfortunately, the evidence for the incredible damage done by divorce is not limited to what a television viewer can find on Intervention. Empirical support is also sadly abundant.

I've heard it said that the debate over man-made global warming is almost over. I'm not sure about that, but I do know that the debate surrounding man-made divorce was settled a long time ago. Even the liberal US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Hillary Clinton's predecessor in New York), a highly distinguished sociologist before becoming a politician, argues that the principal object of American government at every level should be to see that children are born into intact families—and that these families then remain intact.

What do we know about divorce? First off, it devastates children. According to the Heritage Foundation, which compiled numerous studies on the topic in a 2000 report, divorce permanently weakens the relationship between a child and his parents. It can also lead to an inability to handle conflict and a negative self-image. Moreover, children of divorce "demonstrate an earlier loss of virginity, more cohabitation, higher expectations of divorce, higher divorce rates later in life, and less desire to have children."

What this means, of course, is that the negative psychological effects of divorce extend well into adulthood—and beyond. For example, a longitudinal study conducted by the Australian House of Representatives kept tabs on children whose parents divorced in 1946. What the researchers found was that the reverberations of the divorce were still present thirty years later, manifesting themselves "in the income, health, and behavior of many of the grown offspring." A concurrent British study established a strong link between parental divorce during childhood and lower mental health in adulthood, citing a 39 percent increase in the risk of psychopathology. And a Finnish study, published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, discovered "that at age 22, children of divorced parents experienced more frequent loss of jobs, more conflict with their bosses, and more separation and divorce; they also had more abortions."

Divorce and Society

We also know that divorce has a number of socioeconomic effects, perhaps the most significant of which is poverty. According to the US Department of Commerce, divorce has a greater impact on the income of the custodial parent than the Great Depression had on the American economy. Steven Nock of the University of Virginia recently reported in The New York Times that "for every three divorces, one family ends up below the poverty line." And the journal Review of Social Economy reports that nearly 50 percent of households with children become impoverished after a divorce.

What about other social pathologies stemming from divorce? How does the breakdown of the two-parent family affect education, for example? The Heritage Foundation has argued that "divorce impedes learning by disrupting productive study patterns as children are forced to move between domiciles, and by increasing anxiety and depression in both parents and children." Hence the findings of the "Impact of Divorce Project," a national survey of 699 elementary students conducted by Kent State University: Children of divorce do worse in reading, spelling, and math than children from intact two-parent families; they also repeat a grade more frequently. "By age 13, there is an average difference of half a year in reading abilities between children of divorced parents and those who have intact families," write Jim Stevenson and Glenda Fredman in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, a gap that cannot be overcome even with the most rigorous remedial measures.

And then there's crime. In a paper presented to the American Sociological Association, Cynthia Harper and Sara McLanahan demonstrate that boys raised outside of an intact nuclear family are more than twice as likely as other boys to end up in prison. This finding remained valid even when the researchers controlled for a range of social and economic factors. Other researchers have concluded that kids from intact families are substantially less likely to commit crimes, including violent crimes. For example, a recent US longitudinal study that tracked over 6,400 boys for a period of twenty years "found that children without biological fathers in the home are roughly three times more likely to commit a crime that leads to incarceration than are children from intact families."

Finally, as the show Intervention has made abundantly clear, divorce is one of the leading predictors of a child's later dependence on alcohol or drugs. Children who eventually self-medicate in this fashion almost invariably hail from family backgrounds marked by parental conflict or rejection. Divorce increases the likelihood of these factors and thus contributes to a higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse. Indeed, as John P. Hoffman and Robert A. Johnson write in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, "comparing all family structures, drug use in children is lowest in the intact married family."

Such research dates as far back as the early 1970s and has been corroborated by subsequent studies up to and through the current year. Even so, the divorce rate continues to rise, with 51 percent of all marriages now falling apart. What this means is that one million American children will experience parental divorce this year, while 8 million already reside with a divorced single parent. Clearly, the proven catastrophic effects of divorce have done nothing to prevent couples from calling it quits.

How Did We Get Here?

Throughout most of the history of the civilized West, devotion to marital and family commitments served as an integral part of our understanding of what it meant to be human and live well. Marriage was for life. Even husbands and wives in difficult marriages were determined to stay together long enough to see their children into adulthood. In some cases, those marriages grew stronger in the unity of sacrifice for a child.

Today, however, we live in a culture so commitment-free that our forebears would scarcely recognize it. What would have shocked them is now the order of the day. Somehow, we have become accustomed to the sad spectacle of our family courts sorting their way through a massive docket of broken promises, requests to divide property, and custody disputes over children. How has a decision that at times seems calculated to destroy lives become so common and acceptable in our culture?

One theory is that changes in the law have made it far too easy to get a divorce. Beginning in the 1970s, the "no-fault" divorce, as it would later be called, forever altered the landscape of American marriages. Where once a divorce could only be obtained through a showing of fault on the part of one of the spouses in a marriage (due to infidelity, abuse, or abandonment), now mere "irreconcilable differences" can be cited as sufficient justification for splitting up. Justices used to refuse to dissolve marriages all the time, forcing couples to work through their problems, but after Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Family Law Act of 1970, many were prohibited from doing so. By 1985, every state but New York had passed similar legislation, and the divorce rate would climb by 10 percent as a result.

Those who defend no-fault divorce argue that it is difficult to draw conclusions about it when the benchmarks for comparison (marriage and divorce rates) have varied so much over the last fifty years. They propose that another cultural phenomenon may be to blame: feminism. Citing the statistics that 69 percent of all divorce cases are initiated by women, and that in 52 percent of these, the grounds for divorce were the husband's behavior, such individuals contend that women who challenge traditional patriarchal norms are the ones who have contributed the most to our divorce culture.

Perhaps the most compelling explanation for the rising divorce rates, however, comes from religious quarters. According to this viewpoint, it is the increasing secularization of American society that accounts for so many divorces. The quest for personal satisfaction and gratification is no longer considered egocentric, and self-sacrifice is increasingly seen as an anachronism, along with the religious beliefs that once informed it. Countless studies show that religious practice strengthens marital stability, while others indicate that a loss of religious belief can weaken marriage beyond repair. Moreover, a team of sociologists at Nassau Community College found that children are more likely to lose their faith following a divorce than they were before, which means that divorce itself can be the cause of the unbelief that leads to further divorce.

Whatever the cause, in the space of a single human lifetime, we have moved from being a family-and-marriage culture to a divorce-and-cohabitation culture. Instead of living out the adage that children are born to push us finally and fully into adulthood, we have opted for a prolonged adolescence. We talk about "starter marriages" just as we do "starter homes." For many, "until death do us part" is a pleasant ceremonial accessory, a tradition without much meaning. I can recall a news story about how Japanese couples want "Western" weddings because they like the style. I wonder whether we are similar in our desires. We like the form of the Western wedding, but not the substance. We speak vows, but who takes them seriously? And do any of us really care about the lives being ruined by our inability to make lasting commitments?

Confronting the Problem

Talking about the problems associated with divorce is the equivalent of bad table manners in a four-star restaurant. Remember the Murphy Brown fiasco of 1992? Vice President Dan Quayle was pilloried for suggesting that the fictitious Murphy set a bad example for women by choosing single motherhood. His position was mischaracterized as an attack on single mothers, who needed support rather than condemnation. Here was the perfect example of cultural elites being perturbed by an appeal to real-life consequences that interrupted their march toward social progress.

Though the Murphy Brown incident may have helped lead to the defeat of the Bush-Quayle presidential ticket, the ideological tide began to turn shortly thereafter. For example, the George W. Bush administration announced plans in early 2001 to direct $1 billion over five years into the "welfare-to-work" budget to promote marriages among low-income people. And welfare reform, so successful in bringing many chronically unemployed people back into the workforce and off the welfare rolls, was beginning to move to the next level, with the reinvigoration of the family as a goal. People were finally recognizing that marriage was important—not only to the economy, but also to social stability and our country's overall mental health. But then came September 11th, and with it a national preoccupation that distracted attention away from any problem not immediately related to terrorism or Iraq.

In Need of Intervention

Yes, the empirical data on divorce is extraordinarily unsettling, and the historical analysis reveals a progressive tendency toward certain kinds of reform without adequate consideration of the consequences. Out of a desire to destigmatize divorce, we have severely undermined the willingness of mothers and fathers to persevere for the sake of their children.

More important than statistics and analysis, however, is how divorce affects us personally. Fourteen years ago, I made a cross-country trip with a friend. We saw every inch of I-10. One night, we drove across the near desert of West Texas. Our talk grew serious, and we began to reveal things about ourselves. With tears creeping into the corners of my eyes, I shared the secret pain of my life. I was worried that my parents no longer loved each other and would soon divorce. I feared the dissolution of everything that was the basis of my existence. The home I had always known appeared to be on the brink of destruction.

Fortunately, my parents ended up staying together and today are happier and more united than ever before. But having looked at the divorce rates and talked to friends, I know that my experience is rare. Divorce brings pain—and not the pain of inoculation, which is fleeting. It hurts adult children just as it does the very young.

What America needs is an intervention like that found on A&E's hit television series—something (or someone) to help us see precisely how far our noncommittal culture has fallen, as well as what we can do to reestablish marriage as a sacred institution whose permanence equates with the wellbeing of our nation. The people who worked so assiduously to make divorce a normal affair may have believed that children and adults would come to see divorce as no big deal—that divorce itself was a liberating and altogether positive cultural development. But looking back from this side of the divorce revolution, we now know for certain that they were very, very wrong. •

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