Commentary Magazine

Splitting Up

During the whole of my childhood I knew only two youngsters whose families were not intact. One was a boy in my neighborhood, quiet and almost unbearably shy, whose father had died and who was being raised by his mother. The other was my classmate for part of a year in junior high school. This boy would not talk much about himself, but we were somehow able to learn that he was being raised by his grandparents, following his own parents’ divorce.

This was the only divorce I and my friends had ever heard about. The boy himself was different from most of us—impulsive, hyperactive, and, though bright, unable to focus his attention on work. He became so disruptive that he was suspended from school, an event unique for that time and place. In my own family circle, his circumstances were felt to be the height of misfortune, and his fate was discussed in the most sorrowful terms. “What will happen to the poor child? What other troubles lie in wait for him?”

Within my family, indeed, broken marriage was in general viewed as an alien and catastrophic event. A second cousin, who had had a hard time establishing a career, was married in his middle thirties to a woman of the same age who had been divorced. Consternation followed. A divorcee was a fallen woman, or close to it. One of my aunts even raised the question of whether the bride was really Jewish, or had simply pretended to be in order to get a new husband. In time, that marriage settled into a most ordinary one, but suspicions persisted, and for some years the hapless woman continued to be referred to as “the divorcee.”

When I grew up and looked back, none of this seemed surprising to me, given my family and milieu. In my neighborhood we were almost all working-class, immigrant, religious, Jewish, and those who were not were working-class, immigrant, religious, Irish or Italian Catholic. In these cultures, marriages, however wretched they might be, were permanent. A bad marriage was a sad but unalterable fact of life. You would no more think of exchanging your spouse for another than you would think of trading in your ailing cardiovascular system for a better one.

And so in later years I always assumed that the stern view of marriage and divorce with which I was familiar as a child reflected the provincialism of my background. Americans at large, I reasoned, although they may not have approved of marital break-up, surely took it in stride and, unlike my family, did not treat it as an unspeakable tragedy. And I therefore also assumed, when I used to read about rises in rates of divorce and unmarried motherhood among Americans, that we were seeing not a dramatic nationwide acceleration but just steady increases in already well-established trends. True, more marriages were ending, and more illegitimate children were being born; but these changes marked an evolution, I thought, not a revolution.



I could not have been more mistaken. In fact, in recent decades we have been witnessing extraordinary changes in the nature and function of the family—in marriage, child-rearing, and divorce. And these changes have not crept up on us in gradual increments: within a single generation, in some instances within a decade, we have seen doublings, triplings, and quadruplings in the incidence of very troubling behaviors. The statistics have become well-enough known, especially those concerning illegitimacy: within about a quarter-century—1970 to 1992—the proportion of children born out of wedlock increased from 11 percent to 30 percent; among blacks, the current rate is an astonishing 70 percent. Similarly, where 8 percent of white children born in the 1950’s spent their childhood with one parent, for those born in 1980 the figure is 31 percent, and among black children the proportions jumped in the same period from 22 percent to 59 percent. And the figures for divorce are more arresting still: among white women marrying in the 1940’s, 14 percent eventually divorced; of those married in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, half are already divorced, and today there is a 60-40 chance that a marriage will end in divorce.

Commenting on these and many similar findings, Lawrence Stone, the eminent historian of the family, has written:

The scale of marital breakdown in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent, and seems unique. There has been nothing like it for the last 2,000 years, and probably longer.

Like most good historians, Stone is not given to excess, and that statement is itself as startling as the findings he and others are addressing. Yet most of us, while noting the emergence of a “divorce problem,” have somehow found ways to avoid confronting either its extent or its potential gravity. As the sociologist David Popenoe has pointed out, we have here an example of what Daniel P. Moynihan has called “defining deviancy down,” a kind of mental trick whereby we ignore what will not fit into our wishes or assumptions by reclassifying behavior as normal that once would have been universally regarded as abnormal and undesirable.

In the case of divorce, Popenoe suggests, one reason we have tended to ignore or shy away from the magnitude of the problem is that so many of us are already divorced, and we do not like to think of our individual experiences as symptomatic of a troublesome social phenomenon. Another reason is undoubtedly the sense that to begin thinking of divorce in this way would in any event be an exercise in futility; the practice has by now become just too deeply woven into the fabric of our social life.

Yet precisely because things have gone so far, the topic of family life in general, and of divorce in particular, has actually become a little easier to discuss soberly than was the case even a few years ago. Take the derision that initially greeted Vice President Dan Quayle’s 1992 venture into defending “family values.” The phrase itself quickly became a Schimpfwort, a term of derogation and contempt, employed to signal one’s distance from the sort of simpleminded sanctimony to be expected from a blockhead like Quayle. Yet as early as 1993 that judgment began to reverse itself, at least in some circles, with the appearance of Barbara DaFoe Whitehead’s now-famous Atlantic article, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” and its powerful documentation of the hazards of the fatherless home.



Today, three years later, although the “family-values debate” (to borrow the title of a seminal article by James Q. Wilson in the April 1993 COMMENTARY) continues to be driven by sentiment and in some cases by theology, opinions are also more likely to be supported by evidence from history and the social sciences. Only recently, the results of research and scholarship on the subject have been drawn together in several important books and articles by authors dismayed at what has become of us. They include David Popenoe’s Life Without Father1; Maggie Gallagher’s The Abolition of Marriage2; David Blankenhorn’s Fatherless America3; and William Galston’s essay in the summer 1996 Public Interest, “Divorce American Style.” Though these works differ in the scope of their inquiry and in their style, all take a roughly similar position on what the authors see as the main culprit: a relent less, decades-long disestablishment of marriage as the central cementing institution of society and its replacement by the ideals of individual gratification and “fulfillment.”

In one particularly useful chapter in The Abolition of Marriage, Maggie Gallagher examines what American courts have done to encourage conformity to those ideals. Customs and rules that grew up over centuries, she writes, have been worn away by court-imposed “rules and regulations weakening the privileged status of marriage as a child-rearing institution.” As the courts have come to see marriage in the context of “equal rights,” they no longer favor a married partnership over others, lest that connote an unfair preference. The push for legalizing homosexual marriage draws on this new “understanding,” but it is hardly the only such effort: the New Jersey Supreme Court, for example, recently declared that ten college students who live together are the “functional equivalent” of a family. In these and other statements, as Gallagher puts it, marriage becomes simply another “close relationship situation.”

What is worse, in Gallagher’s view, the triumph of radical individualism has meant that the “fierce protectiveness once directed toward the institution of marriage” has been transferred, ironically, to divorce itself. Once considered an event to be avoided unless absolutely necessary, marital separation has come to be seen as morally neutral or even as a praiseworthy goal, even when children are present—and certainly easier to accomplish than the goal of saving an unhappy marriage. By 1985, over 80 percent of those surveyed in a sample of the general population felt that a couple should not stay together for the sake of the children; one suspects that among marriage “experts,” the figure would have been closer to 100 percent.

Both Popenoe and Gallagher seem to feel that our country has moved toward a divorce culture without fully wanting to, and without a full recognition of its consequences, especially for children. Some of this society-wide suspension of normal moral reflexes has been due to the upbeat manner in which celebrity divorce and remarriage have come to be treated by the media. Some of it reflects the skill and persistence with which the legal and mental-health professions have publicized the virtues of no-fault divorce. The advocates of easier divorce have been able to persuade legislators that the public desperately wants change (in fact, until fairly late in the game, survey statistics apparently showed no such wish). Some of it stems from the belief that children are damaged by conflict-ridden families and would actually be better off if the source of the conflict were removed. And social scientists have done their part by interpreting provisional or enigmatic findings as support for a better alternative for children in such situations: namely, a single-parent home, free of tension.

The climate of opinion produced by this regnant ideological atmosphere still persists. Here, for instance, is the columnist Clarence Page, asking the now-clichéd question, “Which is worse for the child, a single, loving, and caring parent or two disgruntled parents whose tension is palpable and sometimes violently loud . . . ?” A somewhat more sophisticated presentation of the same idea can be seen throughout current expert writing on divorce, which typically portrays a beleaguered but “loving and caring” mother who has rescued her children from a hate-filled and often violent marriage.

But why should we assume that divorce is always preceded by open conflict? Some marriages die a quiet death, preceded by boredom, silent contempt, or sheer inanition. It is not uncommon for the grown children of such divorces to report how amazed they were when they first heard of their parents’ coming separation, since to them the family atmosphere had been quite ordinary, or no more troubled than that of other families they knew. And why should we assume the presence of a loving, caring mother? Why not an indifferent mother, or a narcissist, or an alcoholic? Yet such mothers, though they are to be found often enough in the real world, rarely appear in the standard social-science literature.



On the subject of what is better or worse for children, the new studies, based as they are on very recent research findings, have much to tell us. Without exception, when one compares children from intact families with children from one-parent families where a divorce has taken place, the data offer cause for deep alarm:

  • Children in such situations are twice as likely to drop out of high school, and are much more likely to do poorly in reading, spelling, and mathematics.
  • Such children are two to three times more likely to have emotional or behavior problems. They rate higher on dependency, anxiety, and aggressiveness, and lower on self-control. They rate low in peer popularity.
  • They also score low in physical health and well-being.
  • They show substantially higher crime rates. According to one study reported by Popenoe, “60 percent of rapists, 72 percent of adolescent murderers, and 70 percent of long-term prison inmates come from fatherless homes.”
  • They suffer much higher rates of both physical and sexual abuse, in the latter case most often carried out by the mother’s boyfriend. Single mothers report being much more violent toward their children than do mothers in intact families.
  • Finally, their problems persist. A study by Judith Wallerstein found that five, ten, and fifteen years after their parents’ divorce, many children remain depressed, cannot achieve normally, and experience difficulties in love and attachment. The girls in particular are more often sexually active, likelier to contract venereal disease, to have children out of wedlock, and to enter into marriages which fail.

Almost all these studies involve American samples, but European research discloses similar patterns. One impressive study in Sweden has found significant mental-health problems among adolescents who experienced family disruption. As other countries begin to approach American levels of marital break-up—and so they seem to be doing—we may expect a correlative rise in their rates of social pathology.



Of course, such studies do not—cannot—demonstrate definitive causal relations. That, indeed, is the major point made by those who play down their importance. How, they ask, do we know it is the divorce itself that produces the problems, rather than the emotional turmoil which led to the divorce in the first place? How do we know it is the loss of family that leads to poor physical and emotional health, rather than the economic hardship often entailed by divorce?

Understanding when and why divorce does or does not bring serious psychological harm to children, or when and why sustaining a bad marriage may be more harmful than breaking up, is no easy matter. Questions like these are rather beyond the practical reach of social science. (By contrast, we do know that economic privation is responsible for some, but by no means all, of the problems attendant upon the dissolution of a marriage.) What is really troubling, however, is the collective diffidence which led us until very recently to avoid the very topic.

Whether we will now somehow overcome that diffidence remains to be seen. The good news is the simultaneous appearance of works, including those I have cited, calling attention to the unprecedented crisis in which we find ourselves. Indeed, one can detect signs of a general shift in the culture at large; people are not quite so quick as they once were to take an optimistic view of marital separation, particularly as it affects children. But whether this will lead to a widespread change in behavior is, so far, doubtful. The dolorous statistics on the long-term harmfulness of divorce are not fully accepted, even by many specialists.

And why should they be? After all, they run counter to our persistent belief in renewal, in the limitless possibilities of the self. And they suggest something that many Americans still show no signs of wanting to hear: namely, that there is often a very high price to be paid for the individualism that is so central to the American ethos.


1 Martin Kessler Books, 275 pp., $25.00

2 Regnery, 288 pp., $24.95

3 Basic Books, 352 pp., $23.00, reviewed in COMMENTARY by Chester E Finn, Jr., April 1995.

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