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Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
From The Divorce Culture
(Knopf, 1997)

From Chapter Four:
Divorce "for the Sake of the Children"

AFTER the mid-1960s, Americans viewed divorces involving children more permissively, and more American divorces involved children. Although it is notoriously tricky to pin down the precise causal relationship between attitudes and behavior, what can be asserted with confidence is that attitudes toward divorce with children and actual divorce involving children were moving in the same directions at roughly the same time.

For most of the nation's history, concern for the well-being of children was a central reason for avoiding divorce. Most Americans believed that divorce imposed such severe and sometimes lasting hardships on children that it should be avoided except in marriages torn by violence or other severe abuses. Consequently, parents were enjoined to work out their differences (or at least conceal them) so that they could hold the marriage together "for the sake of the children."

This injunction was rooted in a tradition of thought about the social and moral bases of child nurture and well-being. It recognized marriage as society's chief institution for child-rearing and the most important source of social insurance for children. Marriage provided the basis for sustained investment and nurture by two parents; as important, it attached fathers to their biological children and fostered regular, sustained paternal support and sponsorship. Marriage also fostered a child's attachments to the larger social world. "Remember that a child's greatest need is security . . . ," a 1947 book on divorce admonishes. "Will he have that after divorce? What about the associations he has made, the friends he has, his neighborhood groups and dubs, his schoolmates?"

The injunction that unhappily married parents should preserve the marriage for the sake of the children was also rooted in an ethical principle: the idea that parents have a duty and an obligation -- to their children, to each other, and to the larger society -- to place their children's needs above their own individual interests and even above their own individual interests and even above their satisfaction with the spousal relationship. This ethical principle also imposed an obligation on parents in a troubled marriage to work diligently to resolve their differences, not simply to "save" the marriage but to improve it, for the children's sake. Implicitly it saw parents as the emotionally resilient and resourceful members of the family and children as the emotionally and economically vulnerable family members. It assumed that parents would be able to work out their problems in marriage more readily than children could manage the problems that came with divorce.

After the mid-1960s, this injunction lost support and credibility, both as a statement about the sources of child well-being and as a statement about the obligations of parents to children. One clear sign of its waning influence was the change in women's opinion. In 1962, on the threshold of the divorce revolution, researchers asked women whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement that "when there are children in the family parents should stay together even if they don't get along." Opinion was roughly divided, with 51 percent of the women disagreeing. By 1977, when researchers posed the question again to the same sample of women, 80 percent disagreed. In the course of fifteen years this group of women had moved from divided opinion to an overwhelming consensus that unhappily married parents should not stay together for the children's sake.

Over an even earlier span of time, one of America's most popular advice-givers changed her mind on divorce with children as well. In 1957 Ann Landers defied readers to find "a single column in which I suggested divorce." By 1972, however, she was writing: "I no longer believe that marriage means forever no matter how lousy it is -- or 'for the sake of the children' [italics mine]."

Divorces involving children increased steadily after the mid-1960s. The rate of children involved in divorce doubled between the early sixties and the late eighties. The absolute number of children thus affected grew accordingly; beginning in 1974 and continuing in each successive year for the next sixteen years, more than one million children annually saw their parents divorce. Historically, couples with children were less likely to divorce than couples without children, but this gap now began to narrow. By 1990 approximately 60 percent of American divorces involved children, a percentage exceeded only in Britain, where one or more children were involved in 66 percent of all divorces.

The increase in divorce among couples with children profoundly changed the organization of children's family lives and the nature of parent-child relationships. Never before had so many American children had their families broken by divorce or had their lives divided between separate parental households. Since marriages dissolved, on average, around the seven-year mark, many children were quite young when their parents divorced. This meant that children would spend a substantial part of their childhood in a single- or cohabiting-parent household or in a stepfamily household. It also meant that such children were exposed to an increased risk of more than one family disruption during the course of childhood, since parents' partnerships after divorce were notably fragile and often fleeting.

Nothing in the history of American childhood rivaled the scale or speed of this change in children's families. In the space of little more than thirty years, divorce went from being a relatively rare childhood event, affecting only a small proportion of all American children, to a collective childhood experience, involving a near-majority of children. According to recent estimates, approximately 45 percent of children born to married parents are likely to experience parental divorce before age eighteen. This statistic does not capture the full impact of divorce, however. Divorce commonly initiates a string of disruptive events in children's family lives, which may include one or more of the following: life in a single-parent household or cohabiting-parent household combined with partial residency or visits to a nonresidential parent's household; entry into a stepfamily household and possible membership in a second; dissolution of one or both cohabiting or stepfamily arrangement; and so on. Changes in family household arrangements often involve residential moves, which in turn lead to changes in schools, neighborhoods, and playmates. Consequently, divorce on such a scale unleashes a host of destabilizing forces into children's family lives. Indeed, if recent social history were written through the eyes of children, 1974 might be described as the Great Crash, a moment when divorce became the leading cause of broken families and unexpectedly plunged children into a trough of family instability, increased economic vulnerability, and traumatic loss.

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

    Copyright © 1997 by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.