Chapter 3: How Should Society Address the Issues of Divorce and Child Custody?
Divorce and Child Custody: An Overview
The tragedy of Marc and Zitta Friedlander began in the 1960s at Columbia University, where they met and fell in love while getting their doctorates in physics. They married and had two sons, but after 17 years, in 1986, they separated. The boys, ages 6 and 8, stayed with their mother, while the Maryland couple embarked on an increasingly bitter fight over final custody.
Not long after the breakup, Marc picked up his sons at school—without permission— and spirited them off to Atlanta, Ga. He brought them back two months later, and his regular visits with the boys resumed. But tensions were building.
One summer day in 1988, with the custody battle now two years old, Marc took the boys aside and showed them a semiautomatic pistol he had bought. A few days later, he shot his estranged wife several times in a parking lot at her office in McLean, Va. The next day, Marc was charged with murder.
To William P. Turner, a domestic relations master for the Montgomery County, Md., Circuit Court, the Friedlanders had seemed caring and deeply committed to their sons.
Nonetheless, Turner called the Friedlander case “a troublesome one.” The children “had to endure the vindictiveness of both parents,” he said. “They were caught in a taffy pull.” Indeed Turner had learned of the gun, but because of all the previous squabbling, he had not been alarmed and did not notify the police.
The tragic incident fired off...
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Divorce Laws Should Be Reformed
Much has been written in the last twenty years about the state of marriage. These commentaries tend to fall into two opposite camps: those which advocate or celebrate the redefinition of matrimony and those which deplore its decline. Two decades ago, the former clearly predominated; the latter are more common today. To my knowledge, however, none of the commentators has stumbled upon the fact that marriage was abolished in the United States in the 1970s. That status which we call “being married” today is nothing of the kind; it is to real marriage what the Holy Roman Empire was to the real Roman Empire, something that borrows the name of a dead institution to give itself legitimacy.
According to Black’s Law Dictionary, in marriage “a man and woman . . . mutually engage with each other to live their whole lives together in the state of union which ought to exist between a husband and wife.” That quotation summarizes definitions set forth by precedents and authorities going as far back as such things are preserved. In simple terms, the essentials of a marriage are: 1) a man and woman 2) in a state of union 3) for life. There are variations from time to time and from society to society. In polygamous cultures, for instance, one man can have many marriages, but each is a one-man-and-one-woman contract.
The “for life” part of the definition has been more or less elastic since at least Roman times. But the promise to be married...
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Divorce Laws Should Not Be Reformed
Marriage stands condemned as a failed social institution in the eyes of many at the end of the 20th century. Increasingly, people are marrying later in life, while others choose not to marry at all. Meanwhile, the divorce rate hovers near 50 percent for all new marriages. Out-of-wedlock motherhood is on the rise, particularly among the well-educated, according to 1990 census data summarized by Amaru Bachu in the journal Current Population Reports. Furthermore, the historical assumption that the private, marital-based (or nuclear) family unit can comfortably accept primary responsibility for the care of children and other family members seems increasingly untenable. Marriage is not a realistic bedrock for social policy, although it seems a convenient panacea to politicians and pundits discussing the divorce rate, the shocking figures on child poverty or plans to promote so-called “family values.” And if marriage as a social institution is failing, harsh and punitive measures designed to make the status more rigid and inflexible are absurd.
Policymakers are reluctant to see that a social phenomenon such as a high divorce rate is merely one component in a panoply of indicators chronicling the widespread and irrevocable nature of the changes that have occurred in all areas of our collective lives. We stand in the midst of significant social change and it is important that we realize that there is no uncomplicated past, no lingering utopian vision...
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Editor’s note: The following viewpoint was originally delivered as a speech before the graduate students in the Graduate School of Business at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 18, 1993.
When my wife filed for divorce, her attorney told her to go home and negotiate the division of the personal property with me. He told her that it would save her money. So, she was willing to negotiate with me on the house, the cars, the rental property, the antiques, and other tangible things. When we finished, both of us were satisfied with the division because we had full, equal input into that decision.
However, when she filed, she also asked for custody of our four-year-old daughter. I responded by asking for custody of our daughter. Now, neither her attorney nor mine nor anyone else told us that this most crucial issue might also be worked out like the property issues were worked out. So, our divorce went on the court calendar as a contested divorce. This meant that, before the divorce was settled, a social worker would conduct an investigation, and the judge would decide who would have custody of our daughter. At the last moment, I realized that I couldn’t win. So, I told my attorney, “Tell her she can have custody; we won’t go through an investigation.” I certainly didn’t like what happened. As a matter of fact, resentment and antagonism lurked in the shadows of our lives for a long time.
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Joint Custody Should Be Encouraged
About the author: Barbara Dority is the president of Humanists of Washington, the executive director of the Washington Coalition Against Censorship, and cochair of the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce. Many people who are concerned about social justice for women and children seem to be morally blind when it comes to the rights—if not the humanity—of divorced and separated fathers.
In today’s social and political climate, it is not considered appropriate to speak in defense of divorcing and divorced men, or even of divorced fathers. This prevailing anti-male, anti-father attitude, employed in tandem with a lot of misinformation, flawed data, and sexist stereotypes, has succeeded in convincing most divorcing fathers that they are less than human. In the era of the “deadbeat dad,” most believe that they cannot continue to be a father to their children after divorce and that they certainly couldn’t perform adequately as a single parent. When contemplating the possibility of a separation or divorce, most involved fathers assume that they would forfeit their active parental role and become an every-other-weekend “visitor” in their children’s lives. Beginning very early in the divorce process, fathers begin to receive consistent confirmation of this assumption.
Certainly some fathers voluntarily abdicate their parental responsibilities even in the absence of the many extenuating circumstances discussed below. Here, I...
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Joint Custody Should Not Be Encouraged
My son began commuting between his two homes at age 4. He traveled with a Hello Kitty suitcase with a pretend lock and key until it embarrassed him, which was long before it wore out. He graduated to a canvas backpack filled with a revolving arsenal of essential stuff: books and journals, plastic vampire teeth, “Star Trek” Micro Machines, a Walkman, CDs, a teddy bear.
The commuter flights between San Francisco and Los Angeles were the only times a parent wasn’t lording over him, so he was able to order Coca-Cola, verboten at home; flight attendants didn’t care about cavities. But such benefits were insignificant when contrasted with his preflight nightmares about plane crashes.
One winter he was to fly not to Los Angeles but to New York, where his mother and stepfather were spending Christmas. During the preparations for the visit, he learned that he would have to change planes en route. Late at night, long after I had put him to bed, he crept into the living room and climbed onto my lap, trembling. When I asked him what the matter was, he said, “I don’t want to change planes.”
I told him not to worry, but he was unconvinced. Amid sobs, he asked, “What if I fall off the wing?”
“What will you be doing on the wing?”
“Changing planes,” he said. “I might fall off when I’m walking from one to the other.”
Like so many divorcing couples, we divided the china and art and...
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Sole-Custody Decisions Should Be Gender-Neutral
Divorce is a fact of modern life. A great number of people simply decide that they do not wish to stay married to their spouse. A divorce is not a tremendously difficult situation unless there are minor children born to the couple. If there are no minor children you simply divide the assets and debts. But you cannot divide a child. The child needs to be placed with the appropriate parent.
In my own case, my former wife chose not to remain married to me. That is her right and I do not fault her decision. My problem is that I do not believe it is her right to deny me the privilege of raising our children. Some fathers want to go to the parent/teacher conferences, school plays, carnivals and to help their kids with homework. I have always looked forward to participating on a daily basis in my children’s lives. I can no longer enjoy that privilege—the children live with their mother, who has moved to a northern Midwest state.
I tried so hard to gain custody of my children. I believe the evidence is uncontradicted as to what an excellent father (and more important, parent) I am. My ex-wife is a fairly good mother, but unbiased opinions unanimously agreed I was the better parent. Testimonials were videotaped from witnesses who could not attend the out-of-state custody hearing. I choose to be a father. When I was 3 years old, my own father left my family. While I’ve loved my father for many years, I did and still do reject his parental...
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