u_topn picture
Books & Authors
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
From The Divorce Culture
(Knopf, 1997)

From Chapter Two:
The Rise of Expressive Divorce

LIKE the era of vulgar divorce, the new divorce era began in a period of economic ebullience and restlessness and at a time when women were gaining new freedoms and opportunities in the world of work and public life. Both factors figured prominently in the growing disposition to divorce. But two features defined this new era of divorce as truly revolutionary. The first was that the nation's most dramatic and sustained divorce "high" was unaccompanied by any sense of crisis. Earlier in the nation's history, even when the rate of divorce was negligible by contemporary standards, Americans fretted over the problem of broken homes; after the mid-1960s, as divorce swept across the social landscape, Americans showed remarkably little concern about its impact or spread. The old fears about the social havoc caused by unchecked divorce, the concerns about the damaging impact of divorce on children, the anxieties about freedom tipping into license, all but vanished. After the mid-1960s, divorce ceased to be defined as a problem.

Second, in the last third of the century divorce was harnessed to new ambitions and purposes. Underlying the growing disposition to divorce was an entirely new conception of the nature and purpose of divorce itself. The transformation in the idea of divorce occurred as the result of an inner revolution that took place among postwar Americans. This revolution created a new way of thinking and talking about divorce. It also created a new rationale for divorce as an expressive as well as a legal freedom.

In the postwar period, the nation experienced two decades of steady and widespread economic growth. The rise in the standard of living was unparalleled in American experience, as breadwinners' rising wages sustained homemakers' spiraling consumption. For postwar American families it was a sweetheart deal. Earning and spending advanced hand in hand, creating what seemed like an economically ordained union between the separate spheres of work and family life.

The experience of sustained material affluence served to unleash a sense of psychological affluence. Americans began to feel economically invulnerable, and the widespread optimism about economic prospects encouraged a more expansive outlook about individual opportunities in noneconomic spheres of life. The social analyst Daniel Yankelovich observes that the experience of affluence began to cut into the American psyche in the late 1960s; it was then that people began to believe that the economic good times would continue indefinitely and that they could begin to "live for today and for their own self-satisfaction."

According to the authors of The Inner American, a social-scientific study of the emotional well-being of postwar Americans, this shift represented nothing less than a "psychological revolution." In the period between 1957 and 1976 Americans began to look at the world and themselves in a new way. They turned their attention toward the inner world of self. The link between economic well-being and personal happiness weakened; people were less likely to cite economic reasons as the cause of unhappiness than they had been twenty years earlier. Instead, their sense of individual well-being became more dependent on the richness of their emotional lives, the depth and quality of feelings, and the variety of opportunities for self-expression.

The psychological revolution contributed to a change in conceptions of what made for a good and successful life. Middle-class ambitions shifted from climbing the economic ladder to moving up the happiness scale. It was psychological mobility -- a boost in emotional and expressive satisfactions, a chance to be a more fulfilled person -- rather than economic mobility that engaged American energies and appetites from the 1970s on.

Increasingly Americans tended to view happiness as a subjective feeling rather than a set of objective economic or social conditions. Similarly, they displayed a growing readiness to define "unhappiness" as psychological rather than situational in nature, caused by a decline in personal satisfaction rather than a shift in personal or social fortunes. Americans were also more willing to talk about their personal problems and to seek help from mental health professionals rather than from doctors and clergy, the professional help givers whose advice had been most commonly sought in the 1950s. And as interest in the inner life increased, so too did its apparent richness. The geography of the inner life turned out to be far more complex, intricate, and differentiated than once imagined. Upon closer investigation, it also turned out to be more difficult to negotiate solo, without the assistance of an expert guide.

  • Return to What We Owe: An Interview with Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.

    Copyright © 1997 by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.