Is Divorce Good for America’s Women?

 
 

An article by sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox raises the question of how divorce hurts and helps women.

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Brad Wilcox should appear on Oprah. He really should. His appearance would benefit her TV audience, as they would all but earn a one-credit course about the state of marriage and divorce in America from a preeminent scholar on the topic. It would also benefit him, and not just financially. Oprah in her rough wisdom (very rough, no doubt) would likely force him to face a question that haunts his essay, “The Evolution of Divorce”: Has the loosening of divorce laws helped or hurt American women?

Wilcox neglects to answer that question. Which is odd, because his essay raises a related query: Has the loosening of our divorce laws helped or hurt Americans? His answer, a convincing one in my view, is that it hurts them. It hurts kids: Children of divorced parents are two to three times more likely than their peers with married parents to drop out of high school, get pregnant, go to prison, or get divorced. (In the words of one marriage scholar, this is a closer association than that between smoking and cancer). It hurts marital happiness: In the early 1970s, seven in ten men and two in three women reported being very happy in their marriages, compared to roughly three in five men and women today. It hurts the poor and working classes: To take the most alarming statistic, one scholar concludes that virtually all of the childhood poverty since the 1970s can be attributed to family breakdown. It hurts the institution of marriage: Couples, seeing marriages collapse all around them, shack up rather than walk up the altar. And it hurts men: Their health is likely to suffer most, as they don’t have a wife around to tell them to go to the doctor and if they have kids, have less time to exercise.

Yet whether women in particular are hurt by the loosening of our divorce laws is no more than broached. Wilcox mentions that in the immediate aftermath of divorce women are “stressed out.” However, he elaborates no further. In fact, a fair-minded reader of his essay might conclude that divorce reform has helped women in a few ways. Wilcox writes that although the bad effects of divorce on children are certain, those on adults are not:

Not surprisingly, the effects of divorce on adults are more ambiguous. From an emotional and social perspective, about 20% of divorced adults find their lives enhanced and another 50% seem to suffer no long-term ill effects, according to research by psychologist Mavis Hetherington. Adults who initiated a divorce are especially likely to report that they are flourishing afterward, or are at least doing just fine.

That last sentence is curious. Who, exactly, initiates most of the divorces? A paragraph later, Wilcox reveals the answer: In two-thirds of divorces, women legally initiated them. It is logical to conclude, therefore, that after a divorce it is not men but women who flourish or report being just fine.

Does Wilcox view the lives of post-divorce women in sanguine terms? I doubt it. He surely knows that for poor and working-class women, the loosening of our divorce laws has been harmful and, arguably, disastrous. Just consider the term the “feminization of poverty.” Is it not a shorthand definition for working-class and poor women who never married or are divorced with kids?

In addition, Wilcox is surely aware of Linda Waite’s latest research on the effects of divorce on adults. Waite, a University of Chicago sociologist, collected data from 8,652 people ages 51 to 61. They found that divorce hurts more than people’s hearts and souls; it damages their brains and bodies, to the point that remarriage might not heal them. Although the study did not focus on women, it found that divorce (and widowhood) harmed both sexes. Chronic health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes increased by 20 percent, and limitations on mobility, such as trouble climbing stairs or walking around the block, rose by 23 percent. In an interview with Newsweek, Waite used terms that suggest she believes divorce is a public health threat: "Anything we could do to help couples build strong marriages and avoid divorce would be like helping them avoid a terrible acute illness."

While not citing any of Waite’s research, he relies solely on that of Mavis Hetherington, who is a prominent scholar in the field of developmental psychology at the University of Virginia. Hetherington argues that divorce serves to help women and children in “contemptuous” marriages, which she defined in one interview as unions characterized by “sneering and subtle putdowns that erode the partner's self-esteem.” Her argument cannot be dismissed, as it describes a marriage that no adults would wish to find themselves and their children in. But her claim strikes me as fuzzy and subjective. Maybe I am showing the bias of someone who is married and whose background, like Waite’s, is from the University of Chicago, but I suspect that it was not the process of separation and divorce that made women in contemptuous marriages better off but the intervention of a church, civic group, or even government program. Alas, numerical data about contemptuous marriage is hard to come by, not least because married couples go through many phases of marriage.

By endorsing Hetherington’s research, Wilcox endorses her argument, at least tacitly. That strikes me as a contradiction of the central argument of his essay, against our new “soul-mate” model of marriage. As recently as 40 years ago, people thought that a man and a woman wed primarily to make love, enjoy intimacy, and bear and raise children together. Now we view marriage as a means to achieving and maintaining a high-quality emotional bond. Wilcox claims that this soul-mate model of marriage, by supplanting the older institutional model of marriage, has helped cause the “marriage gap” in the United States, a divide in which marriage is less attractive to the poor and working classes because they lack the emotional, social, and financial wherewithal to achieve the relationship beau ideal referred to in ads for eharmony.com.

Although I agree with Wilcox’s brief against the soul-mate model of marriage, his implied endorsement of Hetherington’s argument undermines his argument at least partly. Shouldn’t the couples in contemptuous marriages realize that marriage is not mainly about their personal self-esteem but rather their children and that they must seek every intervention possible to avoid divorce? I doubt Hetherington would answer yes to that question. But Wilcox, at least when not discussing divorce’s effects on women, surely would.

Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party and blogs at www.trueslant.com/markstricherz and www.newcatholicpolitics.com.

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