Are Americans Polygamous?
Is marriage a failed institution in America? Is it polygamy that we're looking for?
Our divorce rate has increased 600 per cent since the Civil War. Its trend is still upward. Two marriages in five now end in divorce. (No one knows how many persons, unable to afford the luxury of divorce, simply "take up" with another mate.) Ten years hence, it is estimated, one marriage in two will conclude in the courts. Who says Americans are monogamous?
Business certainly could not endure as a stable system if two out of five business contracts reached the courts. What must be the effect upon marriage as the contracting parties enter upon it in a nation where so large a part of the contracts are broken? To what degree does the instability of American marriage breed instability?
The casualties of American marriage are higher than those of our wars, and more damaging to the country. You see the scars in the truncated spirit, the embittered heart, and the cynical mind. You see the wounds in the bewildered children of the divorced—displaced persons from the American home. Who shall calculate their pain and ingrowing misery?
The casualties of American marriage indicate our most unhappy national failure. For if a man fails in the central relationship of his life, if his family is shattered and the family security of his children is destroyed, his home is obviously worthless.
This is not to decry the uses of divorce. It is to say that however "right" divorce may be in a given case, it nonetheless marks a grave breakdown in man's most important relationship. And since divorce is an omnipresent fact in our national life, with its rate constantly increasing, American marriage, on the evidence, is a monumental failure. How did this come to be?
Forty years ago, a woman who indulged in extra-marital relations not only gravely endangered her marriage, but the penalty of discovery was often banishment from the society of so-called "nice" people. Forty years ago, a girl who indulged in pre-marital relations gravely endangered her chances of marriage. Today, as we know, effective prohibitions are no longer in force. The married woman who has a love affair may be the subject of gossip but, unless she uses a gun, is not an outcast within her own group. The premarital relations of girls, which have been stimulated by the war, are so common that young men, by their own testimony, no longer expect to marry a virgin. Thousands of girls' letters ask the same question of columnists for the lovelorn: "How can I be 'popular' and virginal?" There is no doubt that the change in our sexual morals over these forty years has had a direct effect upon our divorce rate.
I am not arguing that we are necessarily "worse" than our ancestors; I am simply looking certain facts in the face. Consider the car which enables couples to escape the eyes of the community; consider also the widespread knowledge of contraception which enables them to escape the biological consequences of their sexual acts. Who shall say how our elders might have behaved in the 1890's if these factors had been present?
With our departure from the old sexual standards and with promiscuity made inviting by both world wars, one can mark the growing irresponsibility toward marriage. Marriage has been made almost meaningless by many who marry with the reservation that if they do not like the marriage, they will quickly get out of it. Whenever the parties enter into the marriage contract with an escape clause in their minds, it is a marriage of the market place, as when one buys a stove upon thirty days' trial. Yet such marriages, which in many cases are merely the expression of an unconscious desire to have the law bless a fleeting experimental mood, are performed every day, and this with the general approbation of the community, for they could neither exist without that approbation nor be conceived in an atmosphere hostile to them.
No people can take marriage seriously who take divorce lightly, even jocularly. Picture magazines display pages of photographs of divorce court scenes as casually as if they were fashion shows. Gossip columns, read by the millions, gleefully speculate upon prospective divorces among the well-known. Metropolitan newspapers carry announcements of the multiple marriages and divorces of the fashionable, for Names Make News. These facts are significant in any appraisal of our manners, since in our allegedly classless society the masses tend to ape the classes.
This is the land where we mouth noble words about marriage, and set up profitable red-light districts of divorce. These districts are Nevada, Arkansas, Florida, California, Wyoming—and others are eager to enter the trade. This is the country, and these are the states, where the marriage contract, alone among contracts, may be broken at will—even though, nine times out ten, the breaking is a travesty of the law because it is an act of collusion between the parties.
In these districts no questions are asked. The test is simply that of a house of prostitution: ability and willingness to pay for the services demanded. Residence is established by hanging up your hat, and a hat for the hanging may be rented. Divorce is granted for good reason or no reason. The complainant's whim is the state's will. Divorce is big business. Competition is keen, and while the state, in its organized harlotry, does not send its girls to meet the train, the traveler is sure of a hearty welcome by the Madame masquerading as a judge in what—God help us—is known as a court of justice. Competitive pressure has reduced the required period of legal residence in Nevada from six months to six weeks.
Business magazines report divorce business as they report sales of sewer pipe. Business Week (July 14, 1945) says:—
Estimates of what the divorce business means to Reno run from $3,000,000 to $4,000,000 a year. It costs...$500 to $600 to get a divorce in Reno...Counsel fees vary widely. The basic fee is said to be $100 in Las Vegas, $150 in Reno. From there it ranges up to about $5,000 for the average wealthy client, a great deal more for the fabulously rich (Gloria Vanderbilt is said to have paid $25,000 for her freedom; Barbara Hutton $50,000).
Nevada, with 0.1 per cent of our population, grants more than 2 per cent of our divorces. But the greatest increase in the divorce traffic was recorded in 1945 in Los Angeles County, California, where 17.083 decrees were entered. This is almost double the Nevada trade, and three times the divorce sales of a rising competitor—Miami, Florida. We have, then, the revolting spectacle of several states scrambling for divorce business as they do for the tourist trade. Man's most significant personal relationship is sundered in an atmosphere of chicanery and buffoonery.
Why do our marriages fail so widely? The reasons are many and complex, but only a few can be touched upon here.
It may be that in this era of revaluation of values, we are slowly abandoning our ancient concepts of marriage and the family as we move toward new forms whose shapes are still inchoate. Man's relation to God, the state, the family, and marriage have all come under increasingly sharp scrutiny and have been subjected to various degrees of change since the French Revolution. Two hundred years ago there began the gradual dechristianization of the West, in the sense that man, not God, was enthroned at the center of the universe. The consequences are necessarily profound and all-pervasive. But mankind does not trust itself. The period since 1914 has been marked by wars, revolutions, crashings of empires, risings of dictators, and destruction unparalleled in history. Men yearn for a security which does not exist. They seek a faith which they do not find in their religions. Their moorings have been swept away. They scarcely know what to believe or where to turn.
Monogamous marriage, as we have known it, is challenged. For if repetitive divorces are permitted for capricious reasons—as in the notorious Tommy Manville case—we are tacitly establishing a legal halfway house between monogamy and polygamy. It is a polygamous relation accessible now only to the well-to-do. The ordinary man can no more afford the luxury of repetitive divorces than the ordinary Moslem, to whom polygamy is permitted by his faith, can afford four wives. But this is unimportant. What is important is that the law permits men to skip into and out of marriage at will, and the law is the expression of the will of the people. If we abandon monogamous marriage, it follows that we must also abandon our old concepts of the family and the relationship of parents to children.
It is too early to say precisely in what direction we are heading, but it is evident from the statistics of divorce that we are not heading in the direction of re-establishing monogamous marriage and the family in their once almost impregnable position. Marriage, as we know it, is an institution of relatively recent origin. Monogamous marriage is largely a product of the Western world. Cultures as great as ours, or greater, have long endured under other forms of marriage. And it may be that Americans, subconsciously believing that marriage and the family, as they have anciently existed, no longer suit their needs, are slowly changing them for other forms.
If we seek, however, specific reasons for our high divorce rate, we shall find them expressed in our attitudes and aspirations, in our character, in the manner in which we think and act. It is apparent, for example, that divorce lightly asked and lightly granted is individualism gone mad. It is an orgy of the ego. An anarchy within the law. It is an indulgence of the gratification of the immediate desires of man or wife without regard to family, children, or state. It is the case of my welfare and the rest be damned. Commenting upon our individual anarchy in another context, Frank W. Notestein wrote as follows in the Atlantic (June, 1946):—
The true causes of the declining birth rate lie [very deep]. They are to be found in the gradual shift from a society organized around the family and its perpetuation to one oriented toward the individual, his physical and material welfare, and opportunity for his advancement.
It is characteristic that, although the landscape of America is cluttered with the wreckage of marriage, we continue to foster a falsely romantic point of view toward it. Marriage is a difficult, if deeply rewarding, exercise in human relations. Perhaps it is even, as William Graham Sumner put it, "a state of antagonistic cooperation." Yet it is represented to the young by their elders, the movies, and slick magazine fiction, as a perpetual Christmas Eve with Tiny Tim passing double Martinis and saying "God bless you, every one." The deception is cruel and stupid. It is cruel because it is bound to bring about a mood of revulsion and disappointment in the mind of the deceived. It is stupid because it is no more a preparation for marriage than tree-sitting is a preparation for the ballet. And it is the expression of the dangerous mawkish romanticism of a people who refuse to subscribe to the first principle of becoming adult: to recognize that every blessing has its price.
We teach our young that to be married is automatically to be happy. We believe that everybody is, out to be, or can be made happy; that all are "entitled" to happiness as to fresh air. One must be happy all the time; slap-happy if possible. But simultaneously, in our anarchy of impermanence, we believe that if we are not happy in one marriage we shall surely be happy in another. This is the miracle wrought by a change of address and laundry marks. Few people pursue happiness with such demonaic energy as we, briefly pausing at one roadside stand of illusion before rushing to another.
We reject the austere truths that human life is tragic and its destiny dark; that frustration and pain are of the world as well as fruition and joy. So, too, in our passion for black and white, we reject the exquisite nuances that lie in what might be called informed patience—that profound patience and stillness of the spirit which tutors and restrains the impulsive mind as instinct restrains or impels the jungle-watching tiger.
Happiness in marriage eludes those who make a dogma of it, and so they become foes to compromise. Marriage is, among other things, the art of the possible. Love is not "pure," but exists in combination with other things. It is interwoven with heredity, family or class tradition, religion, prejudices, predilections, and an infinite number of other qualities in an infinite number of variations. It is certainly not a machine which gives the same response whenever a button is pushed.
The attitudes among us that destroy marriage are the result of our emotional and intellectual adolescence as a people. This, in my opinion, is the chief factor in our appalling divorce rate. The United States is the only country where the husband often is not—and does not want to be—a man, but a Boy. He wants, poor thing, not to be wived but to be mothered. Perhaps this is why he so often calls Maizie Mama, and Iwilla, his daughter, becomes Sister, and Joe, his son, becomes Brother. But Maizie dreamed of marrying a Man. Nobody told her that our men like to be giants in their offices and midgets in their homes. Yet all goes along well enough in the first years of marriage because Maizie finds it pleasant to mother her young boyish husband. But when the children come, she can far more satisfactorily discharge her maternal impulses through them. Then she begins to find it tiresome to baby her husband. She years to live with a Man, and since neither entered the marriage with mature attitudes toward it, while its contents made maturing impossible, Maizie soon is on her way to Reno. There she gets a divorce, and this time marries a man who wears knitted ties unlike the foulards affected by her first husband.
So, too, out of our immaturity, we have come to look upon marriage either as a relationship at will, or as a finality. In the first case we do not take it seriously. In the second case we see it murkily. Marriage is obviously not a finality but a beginning, since if it is to thrive, it must be constantly renewed. Marrying is a different thing from marriage, for the one implies something completed, while implicit in the other is the concept of becoming rather than being. Girls are brought up to look forward to marrying; then they may relax. Men marry to "settle down." But both may discover too late that a spiritual ferment, a search for a perfection never to be found, is the condition precedent to spiritual repose. We find such a concept tedious and emotionally tiring. It suggests the task never completed, the problem never solved. We want to do something and be done with it. We want today's car delivered yesterday. Life is a short story, not an epic; and before you begin to read it, the editor tells you precisely how many minutes it will take for the reading.
Yet the fact that there are no finalities in marriage, nor even in divorce, makes little difference to us in our search for marital happiness. We continue to get divorced, change wives, breed various sets of children, and applaud when the speaker of the day comes to his thundering peroration—"And this, ladies and gentlemen, we must do not only for our own sake but for the sake of our children's children." Nor does it matter that while we prepare diligently to become a lawyer, plumber, secretary, our philosophical preparation for marriage is at best sketchy and at worst hopelessly inadequate. God will lead the way for the innocents, it is presumed, or the divorce courts will. It is only in heaven that you can eat your cake and have it too. Marriage, for all the rich satisfactions it may yield, is less than a heavenly estate, and one must conduct oneself according to its ordinances.