Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The American Myth of Divorce

"Don't stay together just for the sake of the children." "If divorce is better for you, it will be better for your kids."

By William C. Spohn

For the past 30 years, Americans have used these ideas to justify their increasing recourse to divorce. Recently, however, mounting empirical evidence indicates that these justifications are illusions. The widespread practice of divorce in this culture has been based on the wishful thinking of adults while its tragic cost has been borne by children.

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's The Divorce Culture analyzes the history and social significance of divorce. More importantly, she raises troubling ethical questions about the practice.

First, the factual profile: From 1965 to 1975, the rate of divorce doubled in the United States. It peaked in 1979 at 22 per thousand married women and then stabilized at the 1994 rate of 20 per thousand. Since 1974, 1 million children a year have seen their parents divorce, and 45 percent of all American children can expect their families to break up before they reach the age of 18.

This historic increase in divorce evoked minimal public anxiety or debate, unlike previous eras when the divorce rate rose, as it did between 1910 and 1920, and after World War II. Dafoe charges that this change in attitude resulted from a change in the ethical frame of reference applied to divorce.

Instead of looking at marital breakup in terms of an ethic of obligation to others, Americans began to see it in terms of an ethic of obligation to the self. In other words, no longer were the parents' interests presumed to be subordinate to their children's; instead, individual happiness became the new standard by which a marriage was judged.

According to Dafoe, this shift was a result of the psychological revolution of the 1960s and '70s, which changed "the locus of divorce from the outer social world to the inner world of the self." In this view, "the family, once the realm of the fettered and obligated self, [became] a fertile realm for exploring the potential of the self, unfettered by roles and obligations."

The first wave of literature on the new divorce culture, largely written by relatively affluent and recently divorced women, celebrated these trends as liberating for women and children. After the mid-1980s, however, popular advice books began to challenge some of the earlier assumptions.

A more troubling picture emerged from studies of larger populations and from tracing the effects on children over time. It turned out there was no trickle down of psychological benefits from mothers to their children. Even though 80 percent of men and 50 percent of women felt their lives were better after divorce, the effects on children were disastrous. By almost every measure, children in divorced families fared worse: emotional problems, early sexual experimenting, dropping out of school, delinquency, teen pregnancy, and drug use.

Remarriage was no solution; children in stepfamilies were two to three times more likely than their counterparts to suffer emotional and behavioral problems and twice as likely to have learning problems.

Long-term studies by Judith Wallerstein and others argue that the impact of divorce on children is cumulative. Even 15 years after their parents' divorce, many children are emotionally troubled, occupationally aimless, and unable to sustain a relationship with someone of the opposite sex. Their parents' inability to sustain the relationship that counted most to them and the subsequent loss of connection to their fathers seem to have eroded these young peoples' sense of identity and ability to trust others and commit themselves.

In the ethos of expressive individualism, where self-fulfillment is the central moral norm, the parents are the only stakeholders in the marriage. But once we pay attention to the children, it becomes impossible to pretend that divorce is primarily an individual's choice rather than a profoundly social event.

Dafoe questions whether our reluctance to blame individuals who divorce has stifled ethical criticisms of the divorce revolution. She writes, "The truth is that divorce involves a radical redistribution of hardship, from adults to children, and therefore cannot be viewed as a morally neutral act."

So, should we stay together for the sake of the children? Dafoe argues that in most cases the answer is yes. Divorce makes sense in the 10 percent to 15 percent of troubled marriages that involve high-level and persistent conflict with severe abuse and physical violence.

But the case is not so clear in marriages marked by marital dissatisfaction, emotional estrangement, boredom, or another romantic interest. In these instances, adults, who are more resilient than children, can be expected to sacrifice some of their own interests in order to preserve the stable and caring home necessary for their offspring to flourish. Traditionally, spouses were obligated not merely to stay in a troubled marriage for the sake of the children but to improve it.

Society also has a stake in parents' remaining committed: "It is the experience of dependable and durable family bonds that shapes a child's sense of trust and fosters development of such traits as initiative, independence, and even risk-taking," Dafoe writes. "Without these traits, it is extremely difficult to cultivate other personal characteristics such as resourcefulness, responsibility, and resilience, which are essential in a pluralistic society and a demanding global economy."

The American discussion of divorce seems to be moving back to the conviction that divorce has ethical and social dimensions. There are calls to retrieve some traditional standards: Children have moral priority; the social cost of divorce has to be counted even more than the benefit to the individual spouse; society has a stake in keeping marriages together; fathers are not dispensable. Such appeals may be able to counter the ethos of expressive individualism that has redefined marriage as an institution for the self-fulfillment of adults.

William C. Spohn is Presidential Professor of Ethics and the Common Good at Santa Clara University.