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.

The Divorce Culture

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

A book having its genesis in Dan Quayle’s objection to a television situation comedy might not sound very promising. The former vice president had questioned the morality of Candace Bergen’s character on the television series Murphy Brown having a child out of wedlock. In so doing, he revealed not only unforgivably low-brow tastes but also the depths of his traditionalism and insensitivity to women. Thus, when the distinguished journalist and scholar of the American family Barbara Dafoe Whitehead published “Dan Quayle Was Right” in the April, 1993, issue of The Atlantic Monthly, she touched off a considerable media debate about the meaning of divorce, fatherhood, and remarriage.

In The Divorce Culture, Whitehead expands lucidly her analysis, viewing divorce in terms of political theory and cultural history. Her general conclusion is that when almost 50 percent of all children are likely to experience parental divorce, and when this fact does not engender a sense of profound national crisis, something is terribly wrong. While not inclined to argue 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 with showing just how many “stakeholders” have interests in each marriage. Hence, her main strategy is to detail the multiple losses and damages which divorce inflicts, especially on children but also on the society as a whole. This background in place, she can appeal 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.”

In Whitehead’s view, post-World War II affluence and “the psychological revolution” that accompanied it are what explain the stunning jump in the divorce rate in the United States. Between 1965 and 1975, that rate doubled, becoming the highest in the industrial West, and it has remained at these high levels ever since. Nor does the immediate future hold much hope for change: Whitehead accepts estimates that “half of all marriages made in the mid-1970’s will end in divorce.” Recent marriages are judged by demographers to be even more imperiled, with some experts predicting a 64 percent divorce rate. Affluence fosters a sense of economic invulnerability which in turn encourages “a more expansive outlook about individual opportunities in noneconomic spheres.” Thus, by the late 1950’s, happiness was beginning to undergo redefinition: Not economic security and external success but richness of emotional life, self-expression, and “fulfillment” became the hallmarks of satisfaction.

This maturing of “expressive individualism” gave rise to the therapeutic culture and “expressive divorce.” Social work, pastoral counseling, and family medicine were either displaced or co-opted by the new therapy professionals, who identified problems that had seldom been conceived of as “mental illness.” In such a milieu, “as the expectations for marital satisfaction increased, so too did the potential for deep disappointment and disaffection.” In the advice literature, marriage increasingly became described as a hindrance to growth, identity- formation, and maturity. Narratives of odyssey and release from enslavement began to dominate discussions of divorce. Uppermost were “themes of individual initiative, choice, and independence,” as women increasingly endured their marriages under protest. Inevitably, the idea of “the good divorce” would appear, a concept deeply at odds with older, more social ideals of marriage.

The arrival of the notion that divorce was a normal stage and “the working out of an inner life experience” meant seeing it in radically individualistic terms. Thus a new “divorce ethic” asserted itself, one that saw marital dissolution as “a personal decision, prompted by a set of needs and feelings that were not subject to external interests or claims.” But what about the kids—and the grandparents, cousins, neighbors, the local community? By picturing divorce as an “intensely private experience,” the new ethic promoted a strange obliviousness to the interests of these other “stakeholders” in the marriage contract. Yet since such a pretense could not long escape reality, there had to emerge an apologetic literature which tried to minimize the damages to these “external” parties.

The order was a tall one, for in the space of some thirty years “divorce went from being a relatively rare childhood event . . . to a collective childhood experience, involving a near- majority of children.” Nevertheless, Whitehead identifies a “first wave” (c. 1975-1985) of optimistic thinking about the impact of divorce on children: Divorce is to modern children what parental death was in earlier centuries; genuine psychological benefits (independence, flexibility, improved relationship with the father) can be observed; children are sturdy creatures who take divorce in stride; reduced income for children of “broken...

(The entire section is 2138 words.)