The Divorce Culture
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead reasons that when almost 50 percent of all children are likely to experience parental divorce and this does not engender a profound national crisis, something is terribly wrong. While not arguing for stricter divorce laws, she urges an exploration of what an “obligated self”—as opposed to an “expressive self”—might look like in the context of marriage. She is particularly concerned to show how many “stakeholders” have interests in each marriage. Her main strategy is to detail the multiple losses divorce inflicts, especially on children but also on the entire society. She appeals for a recovery of “fluency in the language and ideas of another American tradition, one that . . . recognizes the entirety of a “for better, for worse” commitment in our lives as family members, neighbors, and citizens, summoning us together in bad as well as good times.”
The divorce culture arose because of the demands postwar economic affluence had on life expectations. It inflamed a pre-existing tendency in the American character to seek grandiose levels of individual expansiveness and fulfillment. This strain of “expressive individualism” found confirmation in the “psychological revolution” which made therapy a normal activity for many Americans.
Whitehead calls for a “dismantling of the divorce culture” through a radical readjustment of “consciousness” akin to what happened in the environmental movement, in which minds were awakened to the implications of pollution. Similarly, a movement against divorce should begin, and include: a sober confronting of the new empirical data on the impact of divorce on children and the state; a re-awakening of older religious and republican traditions which celebrate the obligated self; a promotion of virtues necessary for marital stability: “fidelity, kindness, forgiveness, gratitude, loyalty, patience, generosity, and selflessness;” and a de-emphasis on such venerable but limited virtues as independence, initiative, and self-reliance.
Sources for Further Study
Chicago Tribune. February 9, 1997, XIV, p. 6.
The Christian Century. CXIV, July 30, 1997, p. 690.
Family and Conciliation Courts Review. XXXV, July, 1997, p. 366.
National Review. XLIX, March 24, 1997, p. 52.
The New Republic. CCXVI, April 14, 1997, p. 30.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, January 26, 1997, p. 21.
Public Interest. Spring, 1997, p. 115.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, December 2, 1996, p. 48.
The Times Literary Supplement. June 6, 1997, p. 12.
The Wall Street Journal. January 21, 1997, p. A16.