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What We Owe

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead discusses the urgent need to end America's "divorce culture"

February 1997

No article published by The Atlantic Monthly in recent years has generated as much debate as "Dan Quayle Was Right," Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's April, 1993, cover story. Whitehead contended that divorce and the dissolution of the traditional two-parent family, though perhaps beneficial to adults in the short term, is in a larger sense harmful to both children in particular and society in general. The story sparked a controversy on the effects of divorce that continues to this day.

Whitehead elaborates on her Atlantic cover story in her new book, The Divorce Culture (Knopf, 1997). Americans' propensity for divorce, Whitehead contends, has created a culture of low-commitment relationships in which the breaking of bonds is a defining element and in which the interests and needs of children are increasingly neglected. Drawing upon history, literature, economics, political theory, sociology, and psychology, Whitehead describes how the American conception of divorce has changed from one of last resort to one of entitlement and then argues that America needs to think deeply about divorce and marriage and the meaning of commitment.

Whitehead recently spoke with The Atlantic Monthly's Ryan Nally.

Excerpts from
The Divorce Culture:

  • The Making of a Divorce Culture

  • The Rise of Expressive Divorce

  • Divorce "for the Sake of the Children"

    Atlantic articles by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead:

  • Dan Quayle Was Right (April, 1993)

  • The Failure of Sex Education (October, 1994)

  • The Moral State of Marriage (September, 1995)

  • "Dan Quayle Was Right" clearly struck a nerve. Did you ever imagine that it would receive the amount of attention that it did?

    No, but I knew that the article would be controversial. Family structure has been a controversial topic ever since Daniel Patrick Moynihan published "The Negro Family" in 1965. I anticipated controversy just knowing the history of Moynihan's piece, but what I had not anticipated was the tremendous furor the title would cause. Many readers chose to debate the rightness or wrongness of the title rather than the merits of the argument -- even though Dan Quayle did not figure at all in the article. The other thing that I didn't anticipate was the assumptions people would make about where I was coming from politically, reasoning that anybody who would write a piece entitled "Dan Quayle Was Right" must share Quayle's political views. In fact I'm a registered Democrat who has never voted Republican in my life. The final thing that surprised me was that some people dismissed the article as utterly ridiculous because they claimed it conveyed only conventional wisdom. The question was, Why waste pages and pages of argumentation and discussion when it's obvious that children did better in two-parent families than in single-parent families?

    Did Dan Quayle himself respond?

    He never surfaced; although in the promotional materials for his book The American Family (1996) there was a Xerox of my cover story. He certainly used my title to promote his book.

    You write about Edith Wharton and Emily Post as women who have dealt with divorce in their writing as well as their lives. How have they shaped the discourse on divorce in America?

    There were some interesting similarities between Emily Post and Edith Wharton: both came from upper-class families, both had unhappy marriages that ended in divorce, both had divorces that were extremely painful, and both women in their respective works -- Wharton as the distinguished novelist and Post as the arbiter of American middle-class customs and manners -- devoted quite a bit of thought and attention to the impact of divorce on society and children.

    Emily Post introduced divorce to polite society. In the early part of the twentieth century, people either ostracized divorced couples or maintained a tight silence. Post argued that it was time to admit divorce into polite society and subject it to the rules that she delineated in her books -- one of which was that the presence of children was an important reason to try to avoid divorce. A second rule was that a divorced couple had an obligation to work hard to remain civil and cooperative with each other so as not to further damage the life of the children. In many ways the two rules were reciprocally reinforcing.

    Edith Wharton offered a brilliant commentary in her novels of what I call vulgar divorce -- divorce as a lifestyle choice among the rich and famous. Wharton's subject matter was old New York versus nouveau riche New York society. She saw divorce as an invasion of robber-baron capitalism into the realm of marriage and family life, and she portrayed it as a way for women to exercise entrepreneurial initiative by marrying and divorcing up.

    barb picture What are the reasons for divorce today, as opposed to those in the past?

    It's important to distinguish between the legal grounds for divorce and the true reasons for divorce. Depending on the legal grounds, in the past one might elect a ground that didn't fit the true reasons for the divorce but enabled a faster more face-saving divorce. With the advent of no-fault divorce in the 1970s, the trend in divorce moved away from divorces that cited hard legal grounds like alcoholism, imprisonment, and adultery to softer grounds like incompatibility and unhappiness. No-fault divorce was an important change in that it was simply enough that one person wanted to leave the marriage. The reasons for divorce today may be difficult to understand if you look at legal and demographic trends, but they're pretty much summed up in dissatisfaction with the marriage and an unwillingness to try and fix it.

    In The Divorce Culture you make a number of references to the problematic correlation between the values of the marketplace and the state of present-day relationships. Can you elaborate?

    In the nineteenth century there was an effort to use divorce as a form of economic development, especially in western states; divorce laws that were more permissive attracted people from the east where divorce was harder to get. There was quite a critical reaction to this because it treated family and marriage as if it were something that could be bought or sold. It wasn't only that divorce offended moral and religious values; it also created an attitude of buying and trading in the realm of family life.

    Divorce is indeed good for business. We know that because with the rise of no-fault divorce the divorce industry flourished. A second dimension to this relationship between the marketplace and divorce is the notion that psychological capital can be gained from not being committed to a permanent relationship. One of the ideas behind divorce is the ability to move in and out of relationships depending on whether or not they meet your needs. That's an entrepreneurial and capitalist notion that is extremely damaging to maintaining strong bonds. The divorce culture assumes that relationships are short-term, low-commitment, performance-based, and subject to abrupt unilateral termination that reflects -- rather than stands in opposition to -- marketplace values. That way of thinking about family relationships has certainly been detrimental to parent-child bonds.

    Beginning in the late 1950s, you argue, many Americans began to rethink the importance of their obligations to others and have thought increasingly in terms of greater obligations to themselves. What accounted for this momentous shift?

    The post-Second World War period began a time of sustained economic expansion for the American middle class. This sense of economic affluence in turn bred a sense of psychological affluence. People felt that they could take risks and make changes in their personal and family lives that would improve their individual sense of well-being. This was the basis for what some scholars have called the psychological revolution, which said that individuals had a right, and indeed an ethical obligation, to invest in themselves. The second profound change was that the individual had an obligation to put his or her own interests in getting out of the marriage before the claims of the children. These two shifts radically transformed the popular philosophy about the rationale for divorce. Once this shift took place -- given that marital unhappiness is something quite common to most marriages -- it was predictable that there would be staggering levels of divorce.

    Loss of connection with the father, a weakening of social bonds, limited financial resources, and a relaxation of sexual mores. It seems that children of divorce can't win. But do you entirely dismiss those who argue that divorce helps children?

    No. Let me make a distinction here. I am not a critic of divorce per se. Divorce has been legally available to people since colonial times and has often been necessary, especially in cases that protect the well-being of children and the mother. There are marriages that involve severe abuse, chronic alcoholism, drug addiction, and sustained levels of intense conflict. In these cases it is clearly better for the children to be outside the marriage. What I am a critic of is the idea of "expressive divorce," which suggests to unhappily married parents that they shouldn't be influenced by their children's needs or wishes in deciding what to do about their unhappy marriage. Nor should they even explore and work diligently toward fixing what's broken in the marriage. I further argue that a society that embraces an expressive theory of divorce cannot simultaneously have a public philosophy of sacrifice and service to children.

    Journalists Caryl Rivers and Judith Stacey contend that it's poverty, not family structure, that is at the root of many children's problems. How do you respond?

    Poverty is terrible for children, and it causes tremendous hardship. I share with Rivers and Stacey the view that when twenty-two percent of American children are in poverty, there is a serious problem that must be addressed. I don't dispute their contention that poverty is hard on kids and at the root of many children's problems. But it is not an either-or proposition. There is a well-worn debate that pits family structure changes against economic changes and says that one is the reason for children's problems. There's evidence that points in both directions. Family structure causes poverty in some cases and poverty causes families to break down. To me it's an unnecessarily polarized debate and one that I'm not going to enter. Moreover, bear in mind that the Rivers/Stacey argument does not explain why divorce has exploded in the middle class. It is affluence, not poverty, that has been behind the sharp rise in divorce in the last thirty years.

    How do you counteract the argument that easier access to divorce empowers women and thus also helps children?

    I had an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times recently that argued that easy access to divorce has a protective factor for women. I further argue that it would be more difficult for women to escape abusive marriages if we made divorce harder to get. I take that very seriously: anyone who values marriage as an institution for rearing children has got to be tough on the question of domestic violence. I argue also in the piece that children in marriages with high levels of conflict are worse off than children in single-parent households with low levels. On the other hand, you can't assume that divorce always ends the conflict; in some cases, it does not. In some ways the arguments for bringing fault back into divorce are quite appealing to me, but as a practical matter, I don't think a fault system will work to reduce the levels of divorce. It is more likely to escalate the conflict and acrimony between couples and further hurt the kids.

    The typical divorce is initiated by the wife because the marriage is unsalvageable; in many cases this decision empowers women but not their children. This divergence between what may be best for the mother and what is best for the child is the painful reality people find so difficult to acknowledge. The tough issue is what to do when the husband is deemed inadequate -- for perfectly legitimate reasons -- and the child wants a father.

    In The Divorce Culture you discuss the modern-day "Love Family" ideology, which emphasizes the quality and content of affectionate bonds over bonds of blood or marriage. How does this fall short when it comes to raising a family?

    The Love Family ideology has no theory of permanence or binding obligation. It is oriented to adults' interests and satisfactions because it emphasizes freedom of individual choice. You can pick the one you love and ditch the one you no longer love without a backward glance. That's great for adults, but children don't have the same freedom of choice or the same enthusiasm about moving on. From a child's standpoint the Love Family ideology is inadequate because it offers no basis for permanence in family bonds and commitments. When these bonds are lost, children suffer emotionally, especially in their ability to trust. We've set up a failure-to-commit factor for the next generation.

    You write in your conclusion that in order to strengthen marriage as the central institution for child-rearing, "It may be necessary to recover fluency in the language and ideas of another American tradition, one deriving from our civic and religious life and our identity as a nation of immigrants." How specifically can Americans "recover fluency" in the civic and religious traditions as well as in their "identity as a nation of immigrants?"

    To me this is the question. I argue in the book that there are two narratives of American life and experience. One is that of coming apart, of the individual moving beyond the traditional institutions that compromise individual freedom to become a self-actualized individual. The other is that of the city on the hill: the idea that we come together from diverse backgrounds and are drawn together in union. This union is the basis of our strength and the source of our ability to foster and sponsor a better life for the next generation. Ideally in the American experience these stories should be complementary and of equal force. I think today that the coming-apart story has gained ascendancy and the banding-together story is weakening on a daily basis. Without the banding-together ethic, the ideal of marriage -- the primary form of union in which two people from different backgrounds voluntarily elect each other without coercion, thereby creating a strong bond with which to support a family -- becomes difficult to sustain.

    Here's my idea, very simply and specifically: we have to stop being in denial about divorce and begin to have a serious public conversation. Not about why you or I got divorced or why divorce should be curtailed but rather about what we owe a generation of children who have been devastated by divorce. One of the things I've noted in the five years that I've been working on this topic is that not only is there an anger about bringing up the subject of divorce -- much more so than illegitimacy among the underclass, for example -- but also that it's an extremely sensitive subject for those who have been through it. There's a reticence about talking about divorce for fear that it will make people feel bad. But now there is an urgent need to get beyond this reticence. We have to get divorce out from under the carpet and onto the table. But our necessary and overdue discussion of divorce should not be about those who have divorced. They aren't the topic; it is our ideas about divorce that are the topic. We have to have this discussion, and we have to have it in a civil and productive way, because children and young adults need it. The next generation wants to have long-lasting, mutually satisfying relationships but many are clueless about how to achieve them. We have nothing to offer them right now. I would like to see this dialogue begin with people who deal day-to-day with the children of divorce: clergy -- particularly those in the liberal Protestant denominations who have been reticent on this subject -- political leaders, and ordinary citizens. I would like to see a serious discussion on divorce that isn't defensive.

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