Can This Marriage Be Saved?

By Pollitt, Katha | The Nation, February 17, 1997 | Go to article overview

Can This Marriage Be Saved?


Pollitt, Katha, The Nation


In 1960, when about 16 percent of marriages ended in court, we had strict laws regulating divorce and the highest divorce rate in the West. Today, oceans of social and legal change later, with 40 percent of marriages ending in divorce, we're still number one. All fifty states permit couples to divorce by mutual consent (bilateral no-fault divorce), about 40 permit one partner to divorce without assigning blame even when the other wants to stay married (unilateral no-fault). In the mid-sixties, about half of Americans told pollsters they thought parents had an obligation to try to stay together for the children's sake, by 1994 only 20 percent held this view. Indeed, so unpopular is the view of marriage as a bond of steel that the Catholic Church itself has had to go into the divorce business, handing out some 60,000 annulments a year-- three-quarters of all annulments worldwide.

Given all this, its beyond me how David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values can campaign to make divorce more difficult. Divorce is an American value. So is the melange of beliefs and material conditions, good and bad, that have produced our high divorce rate -- separation of church and state, ease of mobility, relative weakness of the extended family, urbanization, sexism, domestic violence, the rising self-esteem and economic independence of women and our deep-seated conviction that marriage is about two people and their love. You can give this mixture a positive spin -- America is the land of fresh starts, self-determination, the pursuit of happiness -- or a negative on -- were a hedonistic, irresponsible, throwaway society. Either way, divorce is us; just ask family values fans Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, George Will, Joe Klein, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Eugene Genovese, Amitai Etzioni, Midge Decter and Michael "Politics of Meaning" Lerner (twice).

Undeterred by these considerations, Blankenhorn and other conservative "pro-family ideologues have joined right-wing Christian groups to push state legislatures to make divorce more difficult to obtain. In Pennsylvania, supporters of a proposal to abolish unilateral no-fault divorce where children are involved argue that the unilateral system has hurt children by encouraging frivolous breakups. They also claim to champion women, particularly housewives in longstanding marriages, who have lost the ability to withhold consent and thereby win financial and custodial concessions from husbands eager to marry again.

How to reform divorce laws to serve women and children is an important question, about which there is lively feminist debate. But the conservative attack on no-fault is not about helping women, even stereotypically "virtuous" homemakers (much less battered wives, who need to make a quick, clean break). The old "fault" system was also cruel to women: Long litigations penalized the poorer spouse, however blameless, alimony was, contrary to myth, rarely awarded and even more rarely collected; most shockingly, a mother could be denied custody of her children because of a single act of extramarital sex. There's nothing in the proposed reforms about insuring an equal division of property or adequate child support, or compensating wives for their unpaid labor, or allowing the custodial parent to stay in the home rather than sell it as part of the division of assets -- although post-divorce moves are a major source of difficulty for children. …

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