THE DIVORCE BACKLASH B Y  E L I S E  P E T T U S

from the Disney Family web site March, 1997 http://family.disney.com

IN AN EPISODE of the popular sitcom GRACE UNDER FIRE, Grace, a single mother, takes issue with the way outsiders characterize her household. "My home isn't broken," she says emphatically. "I fixed it when I got my divorce."

Grace isn't alone in the way she views divorce. Over the past two decades, Americans have adopted an increasingly tolerant view of the practice: While it may not play well at the beauty parlor, it's often the best thing for incompatible partners--and their children. But an army of anti-divorce activists, including marriage counselors and legislators, are out to change what they say are unacceptably casual attitudes toward marriage break-ups. The latest salvo in the battle: author Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's controversial new book THE DIVORCE CULTURE, which argues that parents who leave a marriage are selfishly disregarding their children's well-being. (Click here for further resources on divorce issues.)

At the root of the anti-divorce movement is the contention that divorce has become almost as easy as trading in the family car. Whitehead, who has worked for the Institute for American Values, a New York-based research organization, points to the 1960s and 1970s as watershed years when the social stigma attached to divorce began to melt away. In its place, she says, a new "divorce ethic" sprang up, fed by the woman's movement and a growing societal emphasis on individual happiness and fulfillment.

Whitehead is particularly critical of modern psychotherapy, which she blames for fostering what she calls "expressive divorce," or divorce as a means to greater satisfaction and self-realization without much thought for the other "stakeholders"--that is, the children.

MARRIAGE SKILLS CLASSES

Whitehead, who has traditionally viewed marriage therapists almost as vultures preying on a beached whale, has drawn allies from an unlikely camp: the family therapy profession. A small cadre of counselors have joined her in criticizing their peers for spending too much time discussing the individual and not enough time talking about marriage preservation. Michele Weiner-Davis, author of the book DIVORCE BUSTING, trains therapists in what she calls solution-oriented therapy, essentially counseling designed to help couples stay married--even if the personal cost is high. Too many marriage therapists are missing the boat, Weiner-Davis says, by encouraging "self-actualization to the point that the individual would self-actualize right out the marriage."

The anti-divorce movement has even produced a new genre of marriage counseling. The Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, a national consortium of pastoral counselors, social workers and psychologists, has begun a nationwide program of "marriage skills" classes designed to help put a lid on the nation's climbing divorce rate. Too often, couples seek marriage counseling when it is already too late to save the marriage, says Diane Sollee, who founded the coalition after becoming disillusioned with conventional marriage counseling. "What I realized was that the industry had gained over one million marriage therapists in the last ten years--but the divorce rate stayed the same."

Sollee and other coalition members believe that if couples learned a particular set of relationship skills either before marrying or early in their marriage, marriages would be far less likely to fail. "There are basic skills that are common to people in good marriages--our job is to study them and pass them on to everyone else out there," she says.

DIVORCE LAW REFORM

Anti-divorce activism has also spilled into the legislature. Over the past year, several state governments have considered legislation intended to curb the number of divorces--chiefly by making divorce more difficult. Michigan state representative Jessie Dalman is proposing a divorce-reform package that includes a measure reinstating the "fault" standard in divorces where one party does not readily consent to the break-up. If passed, it would mean that a spouse who wants a divorce would have to establish legal grounds against the other marriage partner or wait four years for a no-fault divorce.

But does making divorce more difficult really benefit society--and, more specifically, children? Critics of the anti-divorce measures question whether the government should play a role in family relations at all. They say that instead of making divorces less common, the proposed legislative measures would only make them more contentious--thereby increasing the suffering of children and making it more unlikely that spouses will be able to work together as co-parents.

LASTING SCARS?

Whitehead's newly released book, which is an expansion of a 1993 ATLANTIC MONTHLY article titled "Dan Quayle Was Right," is already drawing criticism for what some consider its specious interpretation of divorce data. In the book, Whitehead cites studies by The National Center for Health Statistics, social scientists Sarah Mclanahan and Gary Sandefur, and others. She says these studies indicate that children of divorced parents are more likely to do poorly in school, break the law and have children as teenagers. "Lack of strong family and social bonds is a common denominator in the background of many juvenile delinquents," she says.

But critics say none of the studies Whitehead cites establish a causal relationship between divorce and adult dysfunction. These critics point instead to research by Paul Amato, a social scientist who studies family issues, which indicates that most children ultimately get over their parents' divorce and go on to lead successful lives. Amato says that as divorce becomes less stigmatized, parents are no longer waiting until the home front becomes a battle zone to get divorced. At the same time, the children themselves are getting more support from their peers and teachers.

"There isn't a person in the world who wouldn't want more happy marriages that last a lifetime," says Constance Ahrons, a marriage counselor and author of THE GOOD DIVORCE . "But will it work to turn back the clock to the 1950s, when women had no economic independence and families stayed together despite serious dysfunction? I don't think so."

The divorce deliberations show no signs of receding. Eleven states are now considering divorce reforms, ranging from mandatory pre-divorce counseling and parenting agreements to discounted marriage licenses or tax deductions for couples who seek marital counseling. Studies have yet to show how effective these non-elective interventions might be. As Grace might attest, whether divorce makes for more broken homes or more "fixed" ones is a debate that could go on indefinitely.

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