Divorce and the Family in America

A social critic argues that divorce poses no threat to the institution of marriage

Current concern about divorce springs from two different kinds of considerations. On the one hand, the prevalence of divorce seems to reflect a ''breakdown" of marriage. Traditionalists demand, in the face of this condition, a tightening of the divorce laws; reformers, a more "mature" approach to marriage. On the other hand, a second group of reformers is alarmed not by the breakdown of marriage but by the hypocrisy surrounding divorce. They would make marriage a completely private matter, terminable, in effect, by mutual consent—a change which might or might not accelerate the "decline of the family," but which, they argue, would better accord with our pretensions to humanity than the present laws.

The plea for more stringent legislation encounters the objection that laws governing morals tend to break down in the face of large-scale noncompliance. In New York, the old divorce law did not prevent people from getting divorces elsewhere or from obtaining annulments on the slightest suspicion of "fraud." The argument that there would be fewer divorces if there were fewer romantic illusions about marriage expresses an undoubted truth; but it is not clear, as the argument seems to assume, that there is something intrinsically undesirable about a high rate of divorce. Most reformers, when confronted with particular cases, admit that divorce is better than trying to save a bad marriage. Yet many of them shy away from the conclusion toward which these sentiments seem to point, that one way of promoting more mature marriages might be to make marriage as voluntary an arrangement, both as to its inception and as to its termination, as possible. The definition of marriage as a contract, enforceable at law, probably helps to promote the conception of marriage as a combat, a tangle of debts and obligations, which figures so prominently in American folklore. Revision of the law, particularly the divorce law, would not by itself change popular ideas of marriage, but it would at least deprive them of legal sanction.

Even now, living apart is grounds for divorce in eighteen states and in Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, the period of time varying from eighteen months in Maryland to ten years in Rhode Island. Barring a general wave of reaction, a possibility which should not by any means be discounted, other states can be expected to follow their example. In every case, reform will be accompanied by dire predictions of the disintegration of domestic values, but the family has outlived such predictions before. Far from being a survival of some earlier historical period, the idea of the family as sacred and inviolate, the cornerstore of society and the seat of virtue, is a characteristically modern idea bound up with the "privatization" of experience and with the tendency of the middle class, in Aries's words, "to organize itself separately, in a homogeneous environment, among its families, in homes designed for privacy, in new districts kept free from all lower-class contamination." This self segregation of the middle class may have been, in the long run, a disaster; on the other hand, it may turn out to have been, precisely because it fostered a new respect for the family, an important countervailing influence to the growth of the state. In either case, the family, desirable or deplorable, is hardly threatened by the increase in divorce.

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