World Magazine, February 10, 2001 www.worldmag.com
Some on the left are joining forces with the cultural right to
divorce, but America's divorce culture remains very strong
By Lynn Vincent
In 1991, Diane Sollee suffered an epiphany. That's her word -
a highly placed executive at the American Association for Marriage
Family Therapy (AAMFT), Ms. Sollee supervised the professional
marriage therapists, staffed the group's marriage-and-family
committee, publicly promoted therapy as the best option for
considering divorce, and chatted up the media as a therapy
only had Ms. Sollee reached her career zenith, but she also felt
her calling, that she was doing a genuinely good work.
But during one of those media chats, the first rays of
pierced her brain. "I was bragging to a New York Times reporter
had just gotten another state licensed for marriage-family
remembered. "The reporter, who I had become friends with, said,
you're getting more and more states licensed, but the divorce rate
staying the same. Why is that?'"
The question prompted Ms. Sollee to start "looking with
different eyes" at
new research on marriage, and her epiphany dawned in full. "I
had all been working on these flawed premises, like that marriage
should remain neutral toward couples in crisis, that marriage
any difference, and that children would be fine after divorce."
And then the suffering: Diane Sollee suddenly realized she had
wrong - big time: Marriage does matter, and so does divorce.
Ms. Sollee isn't alone. From ivory towers to grassroots,
about divorce are swinging slowly away from the "I'm outta here"
the 1970s and '80s toward a fresh commitment to the institution of
The attitude shift is both vertical and horizontal, extending from
experts to regular folk, and also sweeping right to left across
The shift was three decades in coming. In the 1970s, Americans
proliferation of no-fault divorce laws as the end of marital
the dawn of personal liberation. By the 1980s, a picture had
emerged of the
ugly socioeconomic impact of divorce on women, children, and the
the picture was still fuzzy, and liberal academics obscured it
churning out divorce-affirming research. In the 1990s, though, an
number of divorce studies revealed the cumulative effects on
society of the disintegration of marriage: Increased crime rates,
and child abuse. Soaring numbers of never-married mothers. A
learning capacities and graduation rates among children of
Plummeting household incomes. Weakened parent-child relationships.
growing diagnoses of childhood emotional, behavioral, and
problems. Great for the therapy and social-services industries. Bad
Policy experts of all stripes took notice, and as the negative
swelled from trickle to deluge, a strange coalition formed.
Denver marriage researcher Scott Stanley calls the new anti-divorce
group of "disparate voices with a common concern."
"The reason we have a 'marriage movement' is that a substantial
liberal, well-thinking people got very alarmed about where the
going in terms of marriage and family," said Mr. Stanley, co-author
Fighting for Your Marriage, a well-regarded book on divorce
it were just evangelicals sounding the alarm, it would be easy to
But the research that's out there now cuts way across liberal
conservative lines, and has driven together a very interesting
The group Ms. Sollee founded after leaving AAMFT is a good
Sollee, who tags herself a "liberal feminist," in 1995 launched
Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education (CMFCE). With
marriage conferences and a 7,000-person mailing list, the group
communication-centered marriage education as the antidote for
"We're combining the moral and religious imperatives [for marriage]
understanding of how to make marriage work," Ms. Sollee explained.
change attitudes about divorce if we don't understand that marriage
is not a
game of chance. Once we show people that marriage is a
relationship, that's what changes the attitude about divorce."
While both liberal and conservative church leaders are active in
members also include liberal feminists, secular humanists,
conservatives, and what Ms. Sollee called "a whole spectrum of
leaders, divorce lawyers, and activists." For example, Theodora
senior policy analyst at the liberal Center for Law and Social
present a keynote address at CMFCE's upcoming summer conference in
Ms. Ooms says her group, which has historically centered its
"progressive" issues like poverty, is beginning to recognize that
of strengthening marriage meshes with its goal of helping the
Another key cause of changing attitudes toward divorce has been
Wallerstein's groundbreaking longitudinal study of children of
family and child psychologist, Ms. Wallerstein began her research
just as no-fault divorce hit its stride in California. Back then,
preached the status quo: If parents split without rancor, and
financial and co-parenting agreements, the kids would do all right.
research changed her mind. She interviewed 131 children one year
parents divorced, then at the two, five, 10, and 25-year marks.
findings: Divorce damages children not only during the tumult of
breakup, but also throughout adolescence. The damage crescendos in
and, in many cases, twists the way those adult children
relationships, marriage, sex, childbearing, even career.
"The delayed impact of divorce in adulthood is a revolutionary
finding and a
stunning surprise," said Ms. Wallerstein. "We thought that children
divorce would be able to work through issues related to divorce by
they reached late adolescence or left home." Instead Ms.
revealed that many adult children of divorce struggle mightily with
expectations of failure, as well as lifelong fear of loss, change,
betrayal, and loneliness.
Ms. Wallerstein emphasizes that she's not against divorce in
dysfunctional marriages involving violence or severe emotional
she does believe her research provides new impetus for parents who
about their children's long-term economic and emotional futures to
working things out. Last year, she released her findings about
children of divorce in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (Hyperion).
has thus far sold 125,000 copies and sparked fresh concern among
court workers, matrimonial lawyers, social workers, and mental
professionals about America's "divorce culture" - and the nascent
that divorce is not a short-term crisis. Even the chief justices of
states invited Ms. Wallerstein to address them on the subject.
But what academics and policy makers are just learning, plain
know. Paul Kemp didn't need a book to tell him that his parents'
still affects him today - or that he'd prefer not to repeat their
The 31-year-old San Diego salesman is engaged to be married in July
Valerie McCartney, 37, a national accounts manager for Pepsi. The
dated for five years, at one point breaking up before patching up
relationship and committing to wed. Ms. McCartney, the child of an
family, says she waited to marry "because I just didn't find the
person until now." Mr. Kemp, whose parents split when he was 8,
thinking he would probably marry young. Still, he told himself, if
were any possibility of divorce, he wouldn't marry. "When my
divorced it was pretty rough on me. Knowing what I went through as
a kid, it
wasn't something I wanted for myself," he said.
Mr. Kemp doesn't identify with a particular religion, but he
there is a God. And since divorce "breaks a promise you make before
believes divorce is morally wrong. Both he and Ms. McCartney
also too easy to get. "If it were harder to divorce, maybe people
think harder about getting married," Mr. Kemp said. The couple is
premarital classes at Torrey Pines Christian Church, where they
plan to tie
the knot before 150 guests. Such marriage education classes are
becoming a replacement for what young folks used to learn at their
knees: how to argue and live through it.
The Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education
training of lay trainers. Trainers then go into their communities
couples how to manage the simmering conflicts that can quietly kill
marriage. Scott Stanley's research on marriage and commitment has
into the PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program)
A new group of books - Borders bookstore displays them under a
reads "Eat, drink and stay married!" - also uphold marriage and
divorce. The Case for Marriage (Doubleday, 2000), by Linda Waite
Gallagher, argues that traditional marriage is superior to
other relationships that masquerade as its equal. Jeffry Larson's
Stay Together? (Jossey-Bass, 2000) helps couples troubleshoot
relationships before they say "I do."
But not everyone with an audience has hopped aboard the
Soldiers of the far left still bang the tired drum that marriage
women, and that self-actualization trumps commitment. When Ms.
study last year blew apart the notion that divorce is just an
pothole on the path to lasting happiness, feminist Katha Pollitt
belief that couples in troubled but nonabusive marriages should
stick it out
for their children's sake: "America doesn't need more 'good
marriages full of depressed and bitter people," Ms. Pollitt wrote
September column for Time. "Nor does it need more pundits blaming
destroying 'the family' with what are, after all, reasonable
equality and self-development.... The 'good enough' divorce - why
ever the cover story?"
Many marriage therapists have also been slow to change their
divorce. According to Diane Sollee, many therapists still assume a
flawed position of neutrality" when counseling couples, and do
nothing to discourage divorce. Ms. Wallerstein agrees. "There isn't
effort by professionals in mental health to say, 'Hey, let's look
implications of divorce ... let's look ahead,'" she explained.
therapists are willing to look at what you're getting out of, but
you're getting into."
"Neutral" therapists have slowed marriage-building efforts in
For example, when Michigan tried to toughen no-fault divorce laws,
members provided "expert testimony" that helped keep divorce as
obtain as a dog license.
Other states also have launched divorce prevention initiatives.
according to the Heritage Foundation's Pat Fagan, bureaucratic
has in some cases retarded real progress. In 1998, Florida
Lawton Chiles signed legislation (authored by Democrats) mandating
preparation courses for high-school students. But legal loopholes
easy for schools to circumvent the requirement, so the initiative
little fruit. Meanwhile, Louisiana passed the first "covenant
Couples in a covenant marriage who later seek divorce must agree to
years instead of the 180-day no-fault waiting period. But Louisiana
remain ill-informed about the law, Mr. Fagan reports, and
county clerks have failed to implement covenant marriage
Marriage-building ventures are also underway in Utah, Oklahoma,
Kansas, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Oklahoma and Wisconsin,
example, use surplus public assistance dollars (left unspent and
in the wake of welfare reform) to fund marriage-building programs,
fund the establishment of Community Marriage Policies (CMP). CMPs
coalition of church and civic leaders to prevent divorce through
education, mentoring, marital enrichment events, and
reconciliation for troubled couples.
Sadly, churches may be the missing link in divorce prevention.
critics, including Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of a famous 1993
"Dan Quayle Was Right," say Christians have focused on issues
homosexuality, and not enough on strengthening marriage. In a 1997
for First Things, Ms. Whitehead noted that while para-church groups
Focus on the Family have continued the work of marriage enrichment
preparation, "the retreat from preaching and teaching about
marriage ... has
been one of the more remarkable and unremarked-upon changes in
religious life." Many churches, she wrote, are simply afraid to
Scott Stanley of the University of Denver agrees, pointing out
varied configurations of today's American family - from
50/50 custody arrangements to Brady-style blended families and
completely estranged - make pastors cringe at preparing a Mother's
sermon. But Mr. Stanley argues that churches should return to the
of marriage building and divorce prevention. Rather than shrinking
commenting on the divorce culture, or worse, conforming to it, he
"churches ought to define the ideal, then be compassionate toward
The gradual cultural shift away from divorce may be starting to
show up in
statistics. From 1990 to 1998, the number of U.S. couples divorcing
year slid from 4.7 percent to 4.2 percent, according to the
for Health Statistics. The decline, coupled with the array of
forces now aligned against divorce, has given birth to guarded
respect to a renaissance for marriage. But cohabiting is still
much of that decline may simply mean that fewer divorces occurred
fewer couples officially married. It's certainly not yet time to
the divorce culture dead, or even badly wounded.
"The good news is that people 'get it' and there's a lot of
more [pro-marriage] action," Mr. Stanley said. "The bad news is
in a dive. There are more people trying to pull the plane up, but
sure it can be done."
Back to Articles page
Smart Marriages Home Page.