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Divorce: An Oral Portrait.

George Feifer The New Press, $25 By William A. Galston For years, many traditional liberals considered the phrase "family values" little more than code for right-wing intolerance. When Dan Quayle attacked Murphy Brown, they inferred that he was less interested in promoting stable homes for children than in inflaming the prejudices of conservative voters.

There are signs, however, that the issue of family stability is becoming less partisan and more national. President Clinton devoted portions of his last two State of the Union addresses to the issues of teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock birth. Both the President and the First Lady have expressed doubts about the ready availability of divorce, especially when young children are involved. As this review goes to press, legislators in Michigan and Iowa are pressing for significant changes in the no-fault divorce laws they enacted two decades ago--having rightly concluded that too-easy divorce hurts children and is unfair to many long-married women. Other states may well follow suit.

These are encouraging trends, because the family should be at the epicenter of public concern. These two books help explain why.

David Popenoe's thesis is that "life without father" is on the rise and that this hurts not just children, but adult women and men as well. First, he documents a trend of increasing fatherlessness. Thirty percent of all births are out-of-wedlock, six times the rate in 1960. And between 1960 and 1980, the rate of divorce rose nearly 250 percent before stabilizing at slightly below its peak. Today, about half of all marriages end in divorce (the rate for remarriages is even higher), and close to 40 percent of all children do not live with their biological fathers,

Popenoe links these trends to changes in public attitudes. Only 18 percent of Americans believe unhappy couples should stay together for the sake of their children, compared to about half of Americans in 1960.

Many parents who get divorced sincerely believe that they are doing the right thing for their children. In some cases they are right--specially in marriages involving high-intensity conflict (physical abuse or extreme emotional cruelty). For the most part, however, recent research suggests that they are mistaken. Following divorce, the economic well-being of children (and custodial parents) declines on average by 20 to 30 percent and remains depressed for years afterwards. Even after correcting for income and pre-divorce conflict, the children of divorce are on average worse off along numerous dimensions: educational performance, economic attainment, emotional stability, homicide, and suicide, to name just a few.

It is harder to generalize about the effects of divorce on adults. The human face of these broken unions emerges vividly in the interviews George Feifer has assembled in his oral portrait" of divorce. Divorced couples, psychotherapists and social workers, counselors and mediators, divorce lawyers and family court judges, policy experts and law professors--they're all in this book, speaking with often painful candor about their experiences. Some of the interlocutors believe their marriages might have endured in a culture less hospitable to divorce. Others are grateful for the opportunity to have escaped, with relative ease, stifling or abusive relationships. Some strike me as blindly self-centered, others as enormously unlucky. Is it possible to shape policies that restrain the former without entrapping the latter?

No doubt cultural attitudes are the most important factor in limiting divorce. In the 1950s, divorce carried a significant stigma; it dimmed the national political prospects of Adlai Stevenson and Nelson Rockefeller. The next generation, however, saw divorce as honest and liberating. California Governor Ronald Reagan, himself a divorced man, enthusiastically signed into law the nation's first no-fault divorce statute. A decade later, Reagan waged, without evident irony or political damage, a presidential campaign based largely on "traditional values."

Although culture is dominant, public policy is also relevant. (Recent research suggests that no-fault divorce laws have independently increased divorce rates.) Popenoe suggests a range of initiatives that could help stabilize families: increased economic support for childrearing families; welfare reform that focuses on family integrity, not just requiring welfare recipients to work; and legal/regulatory encouragement of family-friendly neighborhoods. He also suggests a two-tier system in which marriages without minor children could be easily dissolved: those involving minor children could be broken only by mutual consent, or pursuant to a showing of fault by one party, and only after a waiting period, education, counseling, and mediation.

We may argue about the details. But the overall thrust makes eminent sense. "Most parents divorce because of conflict between themselves that doesn't affect the kids that much," Gary Sandefur is quoted as saying in Feifer's book (Sandefur is the co-author, with Princeton's Sara McLanahan, of the best recent study of the effects of divorce on children.) "If the mothers and fathers stayed together, they might not particularly enjoy themselves, but the kids would be better off."

If Sandefur is right, and both evidence and common sense suggest he is, then we must discard conveniently harmonistic views of family life. In many cases there may be a tension, not only between husbands and wives, but also between adult gratification and the well-being of children. This tension poses a deep moral challenge: As a society, are we prepared to give the interests of children a higher priority, even if that means increased investments of material resources and greater limits on the freedom of adults? William A. Galston is a professor of political science at the University of Maryland.
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Author:Galston, William A.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1996
Words:903
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