Slow Down That Divorce Parade

Posted: April 11, 1986

Over the last 30 years I have participated in the breakup of more marriages than I care to remember. I'm a divorce lawyer by profession - I wrote the divorce law for the state of Illinois - but I am a romantic at heart, so I suffer pangs of sympathy for both parties during the dissolution process. In fact, I make a strenuous effort to reconcile them before they take that final step, and I can tell you that it's become more difficult in the last 10 years.

Since 1960, about 40 million people have been divorced. A marriage counselor I know calls divorce "the death of a dream." She is convinced that had Romeo and Juliet lived today in her Chicago suburb it is likely they would have visited her office for help in preserving their marriage.

How does one explain the magnitude of marital destruction that has allowed us to label the '80s "the age of divorce"?

The statistics are shocking. According the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the rate of divorce today is a seemingly low 5 per 1,000 population. This is misleading because the population base includes everyone

from infancy to old age.

The discouraging truth is that - when one considers young married people who divorce - the rate rockets almost ninefold. Among women 20 to 24 it is 44.5 per 1,000, and among men 20 to 24 it is 47 per 1,000. This nation is awash in divorce.

Who is to blame for this wholesale rejection of what we still like to think of as holy matrimony? In my view television is the prime culprit. Consider the promiscuity, the infidelity, the hopping in and out of bed and wedlock that goes on in Dallas, Dynasty and All My Children. It's a fact that as television sets rose from 975,000 in 1948 to 172 million in 1982, divorces went from 408,000 per year to 1.2 mllion per year in the same period.

Secondary to television's pervasiveness are R- and X-rated movies, outrageously romantic novels, and the magazines and other publications that border on porn, degrade sexual relationships and mock marital fidelity.

Although many people are sufficiently mature to watch these programs as entertainment and a relaxing diversion, I don't believe mass audiences can handle it.

I'm a defender of the First Amendment, but I believe the American media may be out of control in this regard.

While I'm convinced the media play a major role in influencing divorce actions, I also believe divorce breeds divorce. It often runs in a family. It's a lot easier on the conscience of a son or daughter who is divorcing when mom or dad already have broken up their marriage.

There are other factors, going back to the deterioration of the family unit caused by World War II. "Rosie the Riveter" was building bombers while her husband fought the war, and any children of the marriage were often left to make their meals while mother worked the night shift. Love became a fragile commodity.

The women's movement has had its effect on divorce. With the liberation of the so-called weaker sex, more women entered the work force, gained varying degrees of independence and no longer relied solely on marriage for security.

The tidal wave of divorce also swept aside religion's influence on the preservation of marriage. No longer do priests, rabbis and ministers wield the authority they once did in repairing marital rifts.

Divorce is big business, by some estimates a "multibillion dollar industry." According to the Wall Street Journal there were 700 divorce lawyers practicing 10 years ago. Now there are 11,000.

I have seen the pain divorce causes - not only to the wife and to the children, but also to the husband. It has led me to believe that, in addition to marriage counseling, America is in need of divorce counseling.

Women especially are often emotionally destroyed by divorce. It is a myth that divorce makes everybody happy. Quite the contrary. I know divorced women who admit they were better off emotionally in their problem marriage. In fact they wish they were still married.

Unless properly represented, women are left financially handicapped by divorce. There are two reasons for this. The women's movement has led courts to award rehabilitative maintenance - often less than two year's worth - on the assumption that the woman can be trained in that period and will find herself work where she'll be paid a fair wage.

The second reason why women suffer in divorce actions is that most are unsophisticated when it comes to understanding the financial concepts involved. Women need better legal representation.

Most of all, women and men need better counseling before marriage. There is an urgent need for more students to attend courses in the senior year of high school on the social and economic implications of marriage and divorce.

Women especially need education in how divorce will alter their lives,

because, unfortunately, financial judgments may adversely affect them.

Educators must do their part. The clergy needs to take a stronger role in premarital counseling. The media need to police themselves, to elevate their standards.

Most important of all, the couples involved must understand that there are positives and negatives in every marriage and that it's human nature to magnify the negatives. They must reaffirm their commitment to each other and to making the marriage work.

It is a myth that divorce is the panacea for marital problems. I have seen the damage it can do. We are a nation surfeited with divorce. It's time to return to traditional marital values, time to slow the divorce parade.