Rethinking Divorce

Posted: November 28, 2005

WE AMERICANS aren't very good at being hard on ourselves. A glance at the cover of popular (mostly women's) magazines would lead you to believe that the average person is wracked with guilt about (1) sub-par job performance, (2) less-than-stellar parenting skills, (3) inadequacy in intimate relationships and (4) poor body image.

The casual observer would be forced to conclude that we hardy descendants of immigrant stock are dissatisfied with failure and willing to make sacrifices in the name of an honorable (but ambiguous) ideal. The casual observer would be gravely mistaken.

And the reason is (envelope please) . . . the '60s generation with its feel-good philosophy and affinity for pleasure.

Most sociologists blame the decline of personal responsibility squarely with the boomer demographic, which isn't entirely fair since that group is so diverse as to defy all-encompassing description.

Still, it's indisputable that the post-war generation had an unprecedented willingness to test the boundaries of sexual, political and spiritual freedom. In the process, they ended up abandoning, or at least ridiculing, many of the principles held dear by their parents and grandparents.

Like fidelity. And sobriety. And marriage itself. Of course, some boomers said that they were simply rejecting the hypocrisy of their elders and living openly and honestly. (Ironically, it was about this time that the concept of "privacy" gained a foothold in American jurisprudence. People who embraced the idea of living without subterfuge suddenly got quite secretive when it came to their bodies, and what they put in, or did to, them.)

So an entire generation promoted a new reality, where morality became an ambiguous concept. This was much more convenient for people who wanted to tune in, turn on and never say they were sorry.

Not surprisingly, the divorce rate has skyrocketed over the last 40 years, due in part to the advent of no-fault splits and the fact that there was a larger pool of marriageable people.

But some very sharp observers believe that the most important factor in the increase has a direct relation to the feel-good philosophy and its boomer acolytes: the notion that people should be "happy" and "satisfied." Even if this has a negative impact on innocent third parties, also known as their children.

For quite some time, until recently, it wasn't considered appropriate or politically correct to suggest that parents might want to stay together for the benefit of their offspring. Conventional wisdom held that happy parents made for happy children, and that a fractured family was better than a feuding one. This line of thinking derived from the "me-me-me" philosophy of the boomers. The mantra became: Look inward, angel.

But some scholars are now bucking the trend, bravely announcing that divorce is not necessarily the answer.

Recent studies indicate that children who live in "low-conflict" families with married parents who fall somewhere between the extremes of blissful and homicidal may turn out to be better-adjusted than the children of amicable divorces.

A surprising aspect of this finding is the implication that an intact family is always better than a broken one. In other words, it doesn't matter how friendly the divorcing partners may be; what


nts is that a child has the physical presence of both parents in the home. How revolutionary: the nuclear (family) option.

Of course, not everyone will agree that keeping the family together is a valuable goal. I have dealt with battered immigrant women who remained in their abusive marital relationships because it was either that, or face deportation and permanent separation from their children.

It would be cruel to suggest that they remain with their husbands. Fortunately, the Department of Homeland Security agrees and the law provides specific protections for these women.

Any woman who finds herself in an abusive relationship should get out of it immediately, because nothing could outweigh the harm to parent and child.

But let's be honest.

Most divorces are not motivated by violence. In many cases, the worst that happens is that the couple experiences those dreaded irreconcilable differences, and the grass on the other side starts looking like a pasture in Ireland.

If they don't have any children, society shouldn't have much of a say in whether they stick it out.

But when they've created new lives together, human beings who are dependent on them for comfort and a sense that the world has meaning, it is incumbent upon parents to put the needs of their children before their own selfish proclivities.

How groovy would that be? *

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.


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