Divorce: Social Ill or Social Progression?

By Jill

Growing up in the '80s (I was born in 1979), divorce among my friends' parents was common; as were blended families and single parent households. Despite its prevalence, divorce was still a scandalous affair to my parents; they had children later than most (between 30 and 40) and both came from conservative backgrounds where divorce simply wasn't an option. When my parents married in 1967, the divorce wave had yet to engulf them, but for most couples raising kids in the ‘80s and ‘90s divorce was already a routine fact of life.

One morning, around the age of seven or so, sprawled across my mom's side of the bed while my parents dressed for work, I recall asking if they were going to get divorced. After a few moments of reflection, my mom turned and asked "Don't you think if we were going to get divorced, we would have already?"

In my young mind they were two people who would never change and had been married forever already, but for me to have such a solid memory of that morning, something about it must have rung false. Over the years I've continually gone back to that moment; more and more I understand why my mom didn't have a reassuring answer. For the record my parents are not divorced, but they have had a quietly tense marriage for the last 40 years. In my extended family, marital problems were never acknowledged. On the rare occasions that my mom broke her silence on their married life, it felt like a dam was breaking, one of loneliness and despair. It has provided my siblings and I mere glimpses of a relationship wrought with anxiety and festering emotional wounds.

It doesn't sound very uncommon does it? Yet their strained relationship was emotionally draining for the whole family, and contributed to some very restless adolescent years for me. Don't get me wrong, I don't hold my parents accountable for my issues (they were all-around wonderful parents), but it did lead me to view divorce or I should say the freedom to divorce as a positive aspect of our lives as modern Americans.

In a recent Newsweek cover story entitled The Divorce Generation Grows Up, David J. Jefferson describes the statistics surrounding divorce:

Researchers have churned out all sorts of depressing statistics about the impact of divorce. Each year, about 1 million children watch their parents split, triple the number in the '50s. These children are twice as likely as their peers to get divorced themselves and more likely to have mental-health problems, studies show. While divorce rates have been dropping—off from their 1981 peak to just 3.6 per 1,000 people in 2006—marriage has also declined sharply, falling to 7.3 per 1,000 people in 2006 from 10.6 in 1970. Sociologists decry a growing "marriage gap" in which the well educated and better paid are staying married, while the poor are still getting divorced (people with college degrees are half as likely to be divorced or separated as their less-educated peers). And the younger you marry, the more likely you are to get divorced.

While the “marriage gap” between rich and poor is certainly troubling, there is one equally telling statistic that he leaves out: Even though women suffer the most financially from separation and in many cases shoulder the primary parenting responsibilities, 2/3 of individuals (on average) who seek divorce are women who largely report being happier post-divorce.

In regards to statistics about children from divorced families being twice as likely to divorce themselves and having a greater instance of mental-health problems; I believe these children, having already faced social disfavor in childhood through their parents' experiences, are more likely to give themselves permission to leave unhealthy relationships and probably feel more comfortable seeking help for mental-health issues, inevitably increasing the number of reports.

I'm not a psychologist, however I know that my cautiousness about marriage relates to my belief that if my mom felt she could divorce, she may have led a happier life, whether through the act itself or merely leveraging the option. I have spent a good part of my adult life ensuring that I’m independent enough to leave a dysfunctional relationship, and I’ve apologetically asserted my right to a happy, equal partnership. If I do marry one day, I’ll also protect my right to a divorce, even if I hope to never exercise that right.

Not to negate the serious affects from divorce, but a bad marriage is a bad marriage - whether you stay together or not. Perhaps the best way to strengthen American families is not to cast divorce in a negative light, but to concentrate on accepting the diverse journeys we all make in pursuit of individual happiness. Maybe American latch-key kids and broken-home survivors are a necessary growing pain on our path to a society where all people, young, old, rich, poor, hetero- and homosexual are able to discover loving partnerships free from social stigma.

1 comment:

Nora said...

The statistic you highlight about women seeking, shouldering and being happier as a result of divorce is both chilling and telling. In a way, I wonder if all the nagging statistics about the potential effects of divorce aren't thinly-veiled admonishments for women to stay put and shut up.

My own parents stayed in a tense (read: occasionally dangerous) marriage for 27 years, before they finally realized that there are worse things than having to tell both their parents that their marriage had failed. I can assure you, after watching that, I would not make the same mistake.

There IS a space between the concept of disposable marriage and the notion that 'divorce isn't an option' (the marital mantra in my family). I hope I've found it. I hope we as a culture find it.