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June 1, 1995

Split Personality

Why Aren't Conservatives Talking About Divorce


Buried deep within one of the many articles that sought to account for the tragic suicide of Kurt Cobain last year was a most surprising revelation. According to Village Voice writer Sarah Ferguson, the grunge-rock pioneer's favorite television shows included Leave It to Beaver and Mayberry, R.F.D.

That a cutting-edge cultural icon married to alternative rock's premier feminist (Courtney Love, of the band Hole) could have such retrograde, politically incorrect viewing tastes was, in Ferguson's mind, "odd." But it was also revealing. Grunge rock "is music for kids who grew up too fast," Ferguson says. "It engages in a kind of mournful nostalgia for a childhood without violation."

Cobain was certainly no stranger to violation. Every significant examination of his life regards the divorce of his parents as a major turning point. In fact, so painful were Cobain's memories of the divorce that he once held a gun to his head and told his wife, "I'd rather die than divorce."

Clearly, one does not have to regard Mayberry as nirvana in order to believe that Cobain and many members of his generation would have fared far better if they had grown up in something resembling Beaver Cleaver's neighborhood. Yet, few people today—even conservatives—are prepared to confront the problem that first sent Cobain's young life reeling. Indeed, when Dan Quayle returned last year to the San Francisco club where he gave his famous 1992 Murphy Brown speech, he was quick to point out that when he spoke of the problems surrounding single-parent families, he wasn't referring to "households where the father has died, or even where he is separated by divorce." Rather, Quayle said, he was referring to "those households that have never known a father."

Now, in fairness to Quayle, he also noted that "the ideal situation for our children is to be born and raised in an intact family." Nevertheless, by suggesting that divorce has more in common with death (which is almost always involuntary) than with illegitimacy (almost always voluntary), Quayle's remarks contribute to the trivialization of divorce at a time when social scientists are increasingly likely to agree that the impact of divorce on children is almost always negative and often devastating.

Indeed, as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead argued in her celebrated article on family break-up in the Atlantic Monthly, divorce—like illegitimacy—is strongly linked to a wide variety of negative outcomes for children, from child abuse and neglect to serious juvenile crime. A 1994 study of juveniles in the Wisconsin correction system found that 1 in 3 came from divorced or separated homes. Several studies show that unmarried girls whose parents divorce are much more likely to engage in premarital sex and get pregnant out of wedlock than girls from intact households. A 1994 study by researchers at Duke and North Carolina State University reported that family dissolution is a stronger predictor of suicide for young males than such factors as unemployment.

Despite the clear impact of family break-up on children, "some people aren't comfortable talking about divorce and adultery," former Education Secretary William Bennett told a Christian Coalition conference last year. "But it seems to me we have to talk about them. They are before us, and they have great consequences."

Great indeed. The number of children directly affected by divorce has more than doubled in a generation, from 463,000 in 1960 to 985,000 in 1991. Until political and cultural leaders give proper attention to the link between divorce and many of our nation's most serious social problems—crime, poverty, educational decline—we stand little chance of reversing these trends.

Too Close to Home

One of the obvious reasons there is less public handwringing about divorce than illegitimacy is because divorce hits closer to home in middle America. As Chester Finn of the Hudson Institute recently observed, "Whereas illegitimacy happens mostly among people who live on the other side of the tracks, much divorce and separation takes place in 'our' own neighborhoods, indeed among our friends and relations, and sometimes even ourselves." Divorce is subject to the phenomenon Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan calls "defining deviancy down," in which a society loses its capacity to define certain problems as problems because of their sheer prevalence. Illegitimacy, conversely, continues to be viewed as "deviant" because it is still fairly rare among the middle and upper classes.

It is frequently asserted that half of all marriages end in divorce. The number, derived by comparing the annual number of marriages to the annual number of divorces, overstates the likelihood of a failed first marriage. This is because the number is skewed upward by the experience of men and women who have gone through divorce many times. The truth is that about one quarter of all adults who have ever been married in America today have also experienced divorce.

Still, divorce is common enough that to raise concerns about it publicly is to risk being impolitic. As Bennett puts it, "The rules are broken down. If you leave your wife and get yourself a 'trophy wife,' you're not going to be greeted with condemnation or even a raised eye by most people, because it has become a convention."

Not only has this convention stifled debate, but it has helped create an expectation of marital failure that can be seen throughout our culture. A recent cartoon in a major publication depicted one young adult saying to another, "It's only marriage I'm proposing after all, not a lifetime commitment." Similarly, in a recent Newsweek story on divorce, one young woman explained why she limited the guest list at her wedding to 70 people, less than one third the size of her sister's wedding list: "I was afraid to make that much of an investment," she said. "What if it didn't work out? Then, I'd have to tell all those people."

Such apprehensions about marriage are especially common among those whose parents have split up. A study by Pamela Webster, a sociologist at Brown University, found that adults whose parents had divorced rated their own chances of divorcing to be considerably higher than did adults whose parents had not divorced. This finding held up even when comparing groups of couples who rated their marital happiness equally.

Sadly, expectations of marital failure have a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Psychologist Silvio Silvestri reports that adult children of divorced parents are four times more likely to get divorced than adult children of intact couples.

The Myth of the Good Divorce

Another hindrance to public discussion of marital dissolution is that many Americans still want to believe that divorce can lead to greater personal fulfillment and stronger relationships between men and women. In the closing scene of the hit movie Mrs. Doubtfire, the central character offers some grandmotherly advice to a young girl trying to come to terms with her parents' break-up. "Some parents, when they're angry, they get along much better when they don't live together," Mrs. Doubtfire says. "They don't fight all the time and they can become better people and much better mommies and daddies."

However much many would like to believe this view of divorce, it is increasingly at odds with the experiences of both children and adults. A study at the University of Oregon found that the impact of divorce on a woman's health and well-being is far more serious than the impact of being fired. Another study, from the University of Alberta, shows that divorced or separated individuals are roughly three times as likely to commit suicide as married people. The University of Texas reports that "divorced men exhibit substantially higher rates of psychological distress and alcohol consumption than do married men." And David Larson of the National Institute for Healthcare Research reports that "being divorced and a non-smoker is only slightly less dangerous than smoking a pack or more a day and staying married."

These and other research findings recently prompted an eclectic group of prominent scholars known as the Council on Families to issue a report decrying the state of marriage in America. The report observed, "In the domain of marriage and family life, our recent explosions of freedom have taken a terrible and largely unexpected toll. Relationships between men and women are not improving; they are becoming more difficult and more unhappy. Many women are experiencing chronic economic insecurity. Many men are isolated and estranged from their children. Many more people are lonely."

Rebuilding the Walls

Over the last three decades, the walls surrounding lifelong marriage have crumbled. The age-old social barriers to divorce, promiscuity, illegitimacy, and cohabitation have been removed in the name of promoting personal freedom and self-expression. A growing number of people—especially those in Cobain's generation—now know first-hand that the walls that were thought to entrap and restrict were really there to protect.

So how can the walls be rebuilt? How can confidence in the institution of marriage be restored? Although it would be a mistake to draw inspiration from the last three decades of welfare-state activism, there are some constructive models for addressing certain social problems. One such model is the anti-smoking movement.

At a time when virtually every other area of American life was becoming more and more permissive, the anti-smoking movement succeeded in convincing the American public to adopt less permissive attitudes about smoking. Not only did many Americans change their own behavior (the proportion of adult smokers fell from 42.4 percent in 1965 to 25.6 percent in 1991), but Americans supported efforts to modify the behavior of others.

The anti-smokers' success was due to many factors, including:

  • The careful collection and dissemination of compelling research on the health risks of smoking and inhaling second-hand smoke;
  • The effective use of media persuasion, including articles, op-eds, essays, reports, and public-service advertisements;
  • The tireless pursuit of incremental changes in public policy (limiting sales to minors, banning smoking on airplanes and in public buildings, etc.);
  • The periodic sponsorship of special events (like the Great American Smoke-Out) to raise public awareness and spur private action;
  • The ongoing provision of practical services (counseling, support groups, etc.) to people interested in behavioral change.

To restore confidence in marriage, we need a similar multidimensional strategy. This strategy should seek to repeat the anti-smokers' success, giving particular emphasis to the following four ideas:

Focus on the future. For many people, the subject of divorce is intensely personal and extremely painful. It evokes bad memories and bitter feelings. As such, no attempt to restore public confidence in the institution of marriage is likely to succeed unless it is forward-looking.

This means focusing public attention on lowering the divorce rate henceforth. And it means giving greater emphasis to the future choices of today's young people than to the choices made by their parents. "It may be unreasonable to expect a widespread change of heart about marriage among today's adults," states the Council on Families. "But young people can and often do strive to rebel, to be idealistic, and to do things differently than their elders."

Indeed, in one marriage-related area—sexuality—there is already evidence of a movement among today's young people to challenge norms ushered in by their parents' generation. In the last few years, hundreds of thousands of young people have joined public campaigns pledging to save sex for marriage, and the proportion of high schoolers who report that they have had sexual intercourse at least once has declined by at least 6 percentage points since 1990.

A youth-oriented campaign extolling the virtues of lifelong marriage is likely to win support from intact married couples. And it should win support as well from many who have experienced divorce, since most divorced parents want marital success for their children every bit as much as intact couples do.

Still, success will not come easily. While many children of divorce long for the strong, enduring marriages their parents never had, many are wary of commitment and fear repeating their parents' mistakes. This is one reason cohabitation is so prevalent among the young. Yet, far from increasing the likelihood of marital success, "trial marriages" actually are linked to higher divorce rates. Indeed, a 1991 study published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family found that 40 percent of cohabiting unions disintegrate before marriage, and that marital unions that begin as a cohabiting relationship have a 50 percent higher rate of divorce than those that do not.

Challenge the church. No cultural institution is more important to the restoration of marriage than the religious community. Churches and synagogues claim a time-honored, divinely-ordained role to help couples understand the moral and spiritual nature of their marriage vows. Religious institutions bear a unique responsibility for helping those embarking on and struggling to maintain marriage commitments. Similarly, only faith communities can offer redemptive hope to people who have experienced marital failure.

While religious leaders do not bear full responsibility for the absence of public discourse about divorce, they can hardly blame others for the failure of many marriages. Author Michael McManus notes that many churches have become "blessing machines" that wed interested couples but offer few marriage-related services, like counseling for engaged and married couples, practical advice on how to strengthen troubled marriages, and mentoring programs for younger couples.

Sermons that warn against divorce or condemn the casual termination of marriages are not popular among some ministers, McManus says. Sermons that acknowledge that the Bible prohibits remarriage in some cases (Matthew 5:32) are even less popular, even though unqualified acceptance of divorce and remarriage can only discourage marital perseverance.

The failure of the church (particularly the Protestant church) to significantly influence the surrounding culture can be seen in the fact that four of the six states with the worst divorce rates in the country (Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee) are found right in the heart of the Bible Belt.

When religious leaders take seriously their responsibility for strengthening marriage in their congregations and their communities, divorce does decline. For example, several years ago, ministers in Peoria, Illinois, adopted a community marriage policy that stated none of the city's churches would marry any couple that had not completed a premarital counseling program. In the three-year period after the pact was adopted, Peoria's divorce rate fell nearly 20 percent.

Elevate marriage in public policy. America's retreat from marriage is first and foremost a problem of the heart. It cannot be fixed by the issuance of a government decree or by the adoption of a new government policy.

This does not mean, however, that reform of public policy has no place in a larger strategy to restore confidence in marriage. The law is a teacher. America's casual attitudes about marital permanence are both reflected in and advanced by laws that permit "no-fault" divorce in cases where one spouse wishes to preserve the union, and by laws that require some married couples to pay dramatically higher taxes than cohabiting couples.

Reversing these misguided policies will not only help those directly affected by them, but will also teach others that lifelong marriage is the normative standard our society upholds. Thus, pro-marriage policy reform is both an end in itself, in that it corrects legal wrongs, and a means to an end, in that it stimulates a broader cultural appreciation of marital permanence.

How, then, do we solve these problems? Michigan's state legislature is considering a divorce-reform proposal that would require the establishment of "fault" in cases where one spouse wants to preserve the marriage. This change (and a similar provision requiring "fault" in cases where children are involved) would make family abandonment more difficult by offering greater legal protection to innocent parties in divorce cases.

In the tax front, three ideas deserve attention. Allan Carlson of the Rockford Institute advocates the resurrection of "income-splitting," a practice that allows married couples to divide their total earnings evenly between them before assessing their tax liability. This practice prevents a second income from kicking couples into a higher tax bracket—whether that second income comes from a wage-earning wife or a moonlighting husband.

Another tax option worth considering is a deduction that would adjust tax liability not just for marital status, but also for marital longevity. Tax benefits that modestly increase with each year that a couple stays together would allow a portion of the societal benefit associated with marital stability to be claimed by those who have been married the longest.

Certainly, one must guard against wildly skewing the tax code to promote social goals. But if divorce truly imposes economic costs on society (higher crime, greater need for remedial education, higher health-care costs, and the like), then it may be beneficial to allow lifelong married partners to pay slightly lower taxes than their contemporaries who are married for the second or third time.

Finally, we should consider eliminating "means-testing" in various government programs, since income-based limits on program eligibility tend to penalize marriage. Some married households with income above the threshold can qualify for benefits if they split up and form two separate households. Likewise, some cohabiting couples able to claim benefits as unmarried individuals would lose their benefits if they were to marry and combine their household income.

Valorize marital toughness. There is a common misconception that couples who have good, solid, enduring marriages are "lucky." Supposedly, happily married couples do not face any of the conflicts and struggles that other couples face. They do not go through rough times or encounter serious relational turbulence.

The truth is, every marriage faces trials and hardships and breakdowns in communication. Yes, some couples manage to limit conflict better than others, but every marriage faces difficulties. Ruth Bell Graham was once asked if she had ever contemplated divorcing her husband, evangelist Billy Graham. "No," she said, "but I have considered murder."

If every marriage faces challenges, why is it that some survive and others do not? According to John Gottman, of the University of Washington at Seattle, couples that succeed work hard at resolving conflict. In his recent book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Gottman argues that many of the theories about why some couples divorce—money problems, sexual disagreements, incompatibility, and so on—fail to explain why other equally dissatisfied couples confronting these very same issues do not split up. The real issue, Gottman concludes, is not money or sex or compatibility. The real issue, instead, is whether couples are willing and able to work out their marital differences.

Research by social scientists Nick Stinnett and John DeFrain shows that one of the seven characteristics commonly found in strong, healthy families is the ability to deal effectively with conflict and crisis. Like Gottman, Stinnett and DeFrain find that couples who have to work through difficult problems believe that experience strengthens their marriages. This is important, because most public discussion about divorce revolves around whether divorce would be better than a marriage in which spouses are fighting all the time. This framework assumes falsely that a marriage gone sour can never be made sweet again. It encourages many couples to throw in the towel prematurely.

David Blankenhorn, the president of the Institute for American Values, argues that a broad spectrum of marriages exists in America today. At one end are a small percentage of marriages that are almost effortlessly blissful; at the other, a small percentage that are headed for almost certain failure. Between these two extremes, Blankenhorn says, are the overwhelming majority of marriages: unions that can, with grit and perseverance, not only endure but prosper.

Encouraging lasting commitment in a society that seeks instant gratification is no small challenge. But if it is true that people tend to do those things that are most apt to earn them a good reputation, then it follows that deliberate efforts to valorize marital toughness and perseverance are needed in everything from high-school textbooks to Hollywood movie scripts. At the very least, such efforts could help counterbalance existing cultural messages that undercut marital permanence and stability.

Efforts to valorize enduring commitment should be particularly targeted at men, who historically have shown a greater propensity to neglect family responsibilities than have women. Turning the hearts of men to their families may do more to address divorce (and many other social problems) than any other proposed remedy. On this front, the most encouraging signs on the cultural landscape are the emergence of groups urging men to see that self-sacrifice is a defining characteristic of authentic masculinity. The National Fatherhood Initiative is devising strategies to restore the importance of fathers in society's thinking about family and community life. The National Center for Fathering helps provide dads with practical childrearing skills. The Promise Keepers movement challenges men to make and keep a set of pledges to their wives and families. This year, more than 600,000 men are expected to attend Promise Keepers conferences and seminars.

Given the tenuous state of marriage in America—and the tragic consequences of divorce on kids like Kurt Cobain—one should hope that these efforts succeed. America desperately needs more men to commit themselves to their wives in the way that Theodore Roosevelt once did. On the day that his wife accepted his marriage proposal, Roosevelt wrote in his journal: "The aim of my whole life shall be to make her happy and to shield her and guard her from trial, and, oh, how I shall cherish my sweet queen. How she, so pure and sweet and beautiful can think of marrying me, I cannot understand, but I praise and thank God it is so."