A society put asunder The woman who defended Dan Quayle is back. This time Barbara Dafoe Whitehead is lamenting that divorce, like marriage, is an American institution. Of course, not everyone agrees. By Murray Dubin
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead asks the 22 University of Pennsylvania students and faculty if anyone has not been touched by divorce. Anyone not close to a failed marriage? Fidgety silence, quick looks. No one raises a hand.
Which is one of her points.
Author of the newly published The Divorce Culture, Whitehead argues that divorce, like marriage, is now an institution, pervasive and very much an accepted cul de sac on America's cultural ride. It is a trip that she thinks Americans ought not be taking quite so often. A little less than half of all marriages end in divorce today.
The students, many of them in a writing class, ask her small questions and offer a divorce story or two about ``a friend'' they know who had been hurt by divorce. None challenges her premise.
No stranger to controversy, Whitehead wrote the much-discussed essay ``Dan Quayle Was Right'' in Atlantic Monthly in 1993. This book will surely be controversial as well. Its reviews have been mixed.
She posits that we live in a ``divorce culture'' because of a revolution that began just 30 years ago and that has at its root cause one overarching societal
Whitehead's analysis has not been embraced by all.
She's never been divorced. She is not the child of divorce. (She is, surprisingly, a grandchild of divorce.)
Whitehead, at 52, is a social critic; a wife of 30 years; possessor of a doctorate in American social history; a big sister to actor Willem Dafoe and a worrying mother of a high school senior applying to colleges; former vice president of a think tank, the Institute for American Values; a resident of Amherst, Mass., and a first-time author who was taken aback when a Today show producer said prior to her Feb. 4 appearance: ``Try and be perky.''
Shlepping a black suitcase as she trained to three cities in one day on a book tour this month, she stopped here to talk about divorce.
``Four years ago, when I wrote the Dan Quayle article, there was a hue and cry out there from people saying how dare I criticize single mothers and divorce.''
Coming after Quayle's public criticism of TV's Murphy Brown's having a baby outside of marriage, the article focused on the ill effects single parenthood had on children and society, and also whipped Madison Avenue and Hollywood for publishing, filming and televising unmarried parents in a narrow focus of glowing light.
``I got a huge volume of letters, and most were critical. They were not upset about what I said about out-of-wedlock child-bearing. It was divorce. The letters indicated that there was a sense of entitlement about divorce.''
They got her to thinking about attitudes surrounding divorce, about its
of stigma, about its effects on children and exactly what had happened to
make it feel so ordinary.
Here is what she says has happened and what we might want to do about it.
Men and women have been divorcing in this country for more than 300 years. ``America is built on themes of individual liberty, second chances, beginning again,'' she says. ``And breaking apart is also part of our identity, the Revolution, the Civil War.'' In 1900, the divorce rate was three married couples per 1,000, too high for clergy, who criticized the rising numbers, fearful of ``moral decadence and social disorder.'' Divorce was seen as a failure and described as both a natural disaster and an infectious disease.
``Public concerns were deepest when it came to divorces involving dependent children,'' she writes. For most of this century, ``both popular and social-scientific opinion emphasized the hardships of growing up in a broken home, including low income, delinquency, poor relationships with a father, and emotional adjustment problems.''
That view persisted until the mid-1960s. Before then, she says, unhappiness alone was not seen as a serious enough reason to divorce. Emily Post's etiquette books echoed the same thought.
The divorce rate dipped during the Depression, climbed during World War II and then dipped again until the early 1960s. It doubled from 1965 to 1975 and climbed to 22 divorces per 1,000 married women in 1979. In 1994, it was down to 20 divorces per 1,000 married women.
What happened in the mid-'60s, Whitehead says, was a sustained period of economic affluence, cutting the ties between ``economic well-being and personal happiness.'' People's ``sense of emotional well-being,'' she writes, ``became more dependent on the richness of their emotional lives . . . and the variety of opportunities for self-expression.''
People began talking about self-esteem and self-validation and finding oneself. A famous Gestalt prayer of the era began: ``I do my thing and you do your thing. . . .''
That rise in emotional expectations led to a ``growing sense of emotional That rise in emotional expectations led to a ``growing sense of emotional dissatisfaction and relentlessness in marriage.''
Even the presence of children did not stop it. ``The experts said that if parents get out of a miserable marriage,'' Whitehead says, ``the kids will benefit, the kids will be fine.''
Today, she laments that crisis is not a word often heard to describe the divorce rate. Mr. Rogers talks about it. Children's books are written about it. Even movies about divorce -- Mrs. Doubtfire, for one -- are marketed for children.
Adding to that acceptance is a marketplace culture that instructs the
populace not to expect to stay in the same job for a lifetime and to
phone companies whenever you wish, she says. Prudential no longer wants to
you to get a piece of the rock, says Whitehead, ``they want you to be your
Demie Kurz is not convinced by Whitehead's argument. ``It's seductive and too easy,'' says Kurz, a sociology and women's studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania who attended Whitehead's talk earlier this month at Writers House on the Penn campus.
``It's so much easier in society when everybody is the problem. It's too unspecified and too abstract,'' says Kurz, the author of the 1995 book For Richer, For Poorer: Mothers Confront Divorce. ``She says culture is the problem. She has this perception that Americans want instant gratification for everything.''
Kurz agrees that attitudes play a part in divorce, but so do poverty and domestic abuse and gender differences. ``Women only walk away from a marriage when it gets very bad or unsafe. It is counter-factual to say that women are infected by this drive-by culture. I think it's irresponsible.''
Kurz writes that while it is true that children do suffer in a number of ways following a divorce, social scientists do not agree that suffering is long-term. Whitehead tells the students and faculty at Writers House that she is not against all divorce. If there is ``high, unremitting conflict,'' divorce may be the best answer. Secondly, she does not want the no-fault laws changed, because ``the safety net'' it provides is needed.
She is most concerned with divorce involving dependent children. She calls for less legal conflict and more mediation, and a ``consciousness-raising about how fragile marriage is.''
On at least one point, Kurz and Whitehead agree: The nation needs more child- and marriage-friendly policies.
``We talk more about sex than we do about marriage,'' Whitehead says. ``Where is the conversation supporting marriage? We need a grass-roots movement, like the environmental or no-smoking movements.''
Four of Whitehead's seven brothers and sisters have been divorced. Her oldest daughter, 28, is divorced. The author passionately calls on the students to take a stand for marriage, to go against what she calls ``the cultural flow.'' ``We can't just wring our hands anymore.''
The applause is polite, and as they leave, the students are already
of other things.