Imagine a world without divorce.
Or at least one in which it would be more difficult to obtain and would be held in more disdain than it is today.
It sounds good to those who are justifiably worried about today’s children, half of whom can expect their parents to divorce before they leave home. The Council on Families in America, a nonpartisan group of scholars and analysts, has called on legislators, therapists, the media and others to actively promote stable, two-parent married families as a way to stem the tide of troubled children.
In the report “Marriage in America,” the council stated: “The most important causal factor of declining child well-being is the remarkable collapse of marriage, leading to growing family instability and decreasing parental investment in children.” It asked for a reconsideration of “no fault” divorce and legal supports for spouses who want to save the marriage.
So what are we to make of those people who swear that splitting up, despite the pain, was the best thing they ever did? To them, the stable two-parent family remains a noble ideal, but “Till death us do part” is a price too high to pay.
If she had been unable to get her divorce 10 years ago, one 47-year-old Los Angeles area woman said, “We would have ended up abusing each other physically. He would have beaten me, or I would have killed him. I don’t know which would have come first.
“He wouldn’t stay home. He wasn’t parenting. He called me names. There was screaming and yelling. I felt stifled.”
When she left after 15 years, she recalled, her parents said, “We wondered what took you so long.”
She went on to have the life she wanted: started a career, bought a $250,000 house, traveled the world. Her ex-husband remained a remote father.
Their son, now 20, has emerged scarred but hopeful.
“At first, he couldn’t even say the word “divorce.” He used to refer to it as the ‘D-word’ until he was 13 or 14.” Now, she said, “He wants to marry and have lots of children and be a father to his children.”
Researchers don’t understand why our original benign notions of divorce with civilized co-parenting went awry. But they do know that what happens to children is more complicated than marriage equals good, divorce equals bad.
Family historian Stephanie Coontz said studies comparing troubled couples who divorce with equally troubled couples who stay married show that the bad impact of divorce comes mostly from financial loss, school and home relocation, prior parental conflict or prior dysfunction.
One recent study found that adolescents who feel the worst about themselves are those in intact families where fathers are indifferent or withdrawn, she said.
No doubt everyone could use some lessons in common decency, common courtesy and common sense. Rather than stigmatize those who divorce and create self-fulfilling prophecies of doom, Coontz said, “What we have to teach people today is how to strengthen good marriages and how to allow people to exit bad marriages without leaving devastation in their wake.”