My mother’s older sister Sadie and her husband Roy spent a lifetime concealing a secret: both had been in earlier marriages that ended in divorce. My aunt wanted no one of the younger generation— not even her children—to know about this source of embarrassment and only told me about her first marriage when I was in my 50s and she in her 90s. Likewise, her husband only revealed his divorce to me when his daughter got married to someone who had undergone the same experience. His manner in disclosing this to me suggested that it was a highly confidential matter.
I have no clear idea why these previous unions were dissolved, although from all accounts, my aunt, who had been a bit of a flapper in the 1920s, grew tired of her first husband, an overweight Hungarian immigrant who spoke fractured English. If that received account is true, I don’t know why my aunt married that corpulent immigrant in the first place (sexual attraction could not have been a reason), but I do know that their relationship ended badly.
Back then, dissolving a marriage in my aunt’s home state of New York required charges of adultery, which in this case had to be manufactured by witnesses (whoever they were). One can understand the sense of shame that would beset the participants in this procedure and why they would never want to divulge the details. Two unsympathetic, progressive commentators in the Pace Law Review in 2007, writing “Addicted to Fault: Why Divorce Reform Has Lagged in New York,” look back at the embarrassment of long having such restrictive divorce laws, with these scornful words:
From 1787 until the latter half of the 20th century, New Yorkers chafed, strained and schemed against the most restrictive of this country’s divorce laws. Alone among the fifty states, New York permitted divorce on the sole ground of adultery. Characterized as an ‘absurd anachronism,’ this stance was particularly puzzling in light of New York’s acknowledged leadership in social reform legislation.
Curiously, my aunt seemed less concerned with the way her marriage was dissolved than with having the black mark of divorce held against her. Both she and my uncle persisted in this negative view long after divorce had evolved from being a “no fault” inconvenience to an utterly trivial occurrence in the minds of younger people.
Alexander Riley writes on divorce in this issue, noting that the Roman Catholic Church—to its credit—banned it as a socially harmful practice. This contributed to the stability of the family, and according to the French counterrevolutionary Louis de Bonald, greatly enhanced the status of women. Unlike other societies, Christian ones did not permit husbands to cast aside women when they grew tired of their company or favors.
The prohibition against divorce remained almost as strong in Protestant societies as it did in Catholic ones. In Anglican England, the older canon law inherited from the medieval Church long remained in effect regarding the thorny question of divorce. For a long time, the only grounds for divorce in Protestant countries was adultery. When John Milton challenged this view in 1643, publishing tracts favoring the dissolution of marriage on grounds of incompatibility, most Protestant clergy denounced his views vehemently. These strict Anglo-Protestant divorce laws overflowed to many American states in the early 20th century, and were also largely approved of by Catholic clergy.
Divorce evoked the same negative feelings among the Jews I knew in my youth as it did among Christians, although rabbinic laws made divorce less problematic than it was in Christian traditions. Jews adopted and enshrined the prevalent Christian attitudes about divorce, and may have ended their marriages even less often than their Christian neighbors.
Without necessarily defending the divorce laws of the 1930s in all their details, I would say that they erred on the side of virtue. Their intention was to make divorce as rare as humanly possible; and unlike those advocates who use that phrase about making something as rare as possible to defend abortions, anti-divorce politicians and judges (many of whom were Democrats) were serious about maintaining stable homes and enduring families.
Pre-World War II America was also the age of the single-family wage, in which reformers (who are now condemned as socialists), were able to push through in the teeth of capitalist opposition a law that prioritized the providing of jobs for the male heads of families. This would allow mothers and wives to stay at home and raise their children.
I have no illusion that we can return to such arrangements, but it may be high time to recognize that, as with other social and political changes, we have been on a disastrous course in the matter of divorce. This is especially true when children are involved, often becoming collateral damage in legal battles between feuding parents. As our book editor Mark Brennan points out later in this issue, live-in sexual partners of divorced parents often commit violence against these hapless offspring, even to the point of death. As a legal scholar, Brennan knows all too well the appalling effects of easy divorces and even easier hook-ups on the young victims of these “liberating” fashions.
Offspring also become weapons or pawns in custody battles, a tragic situation further addressed in this issue. One attempt to disguise such problems has been the creation of “blended families” in which divorced couples merge their offspring from earlier unions. This arrangement should be strenuously distinguished from widowed spouses marrying and trying to integrate children into a new family situation. In the latter case there are no aggrieved parents from earlier marriages hanging around and trying to participate in the raising of their children or using them as leverage in dealing with remarried former partners. Previously widowed couples are also more clearly trying to restore a lost family structure in altered circumstances. They are therefore not likely to be dragging the kids along as they go from one sexual partner to another.
Divorce also furthers the ominous consequences of boys growing up without fathers, an issue which scholars David Blankenhorn and Warren Farrell have documented in numerous studies. While all fatherless homes—which may include blended families in which the substitute father is purely incidental—correlate with a wide range of social problems including juvenile delinquency, divorced fathers living apart from their offspring create serious psychological difficulty for young boys. These male victims of divorce can cope emotionally with a deceased father. Far more upsetting for them is a biological father who has separated himself from his wife and children.
In his provocative essay in this issue, Stephen Baskerville argues that the enthusiastic acceptance of divorce in contemporary Western societies has led to other social “reforms” that have torn apart the nuclear family even more dramatically. If marriage retained its onetime permanence, then we would not have moved on to other more radical experiments such as gay marriage or fluid gender identities.
Although I don’t doubt that such a connection exists between less and more radical assaults on traditional institutions and once fixed identities, the divorce culture is pernicious in and by itself. It trivializes marital relations, no matter how loudly the partisans of easy divorce would deny this observation. The fact that between a third and half of marriages in the “democratic” West are now ending in dissolution suggests that this institution is no longer taken very seriously.
As mentioned in the online blog article I wrote for Chronicles and Intellectual Takeout, I am strangely fixated on “Marriage at First Sight,” a reality TV program in which “experts” match couples who first meet their conjugal partners at the altar. The couples are expected to stay together for 60 days following a ceremony in which they “exchange their own vows,” which often sound like platitudes served up for episodes of an endless soap opera.
At the end of the 60-day trial, the couples are given the option of staying married or getting a divorce. Only 27 percent of the couples have remained married after the show’s run of about 10 years. The show’s “experts” assure those who split up that they have benefitted experientially from their divorces. Indeed, some of the divorcees even describe the process as an “enriching experience.” Since most of the participants have been in and out of relationships for years, there is no reason they would treat these matchups any differently.
The Australian version of “Marriage at First Sight” also provided a marriage ceremony for two lesbians who, as fate would have it, bickered incessantly. The program’s producers seemed particularly upset that this experiment in diversity and matchmaking concocted by the experts did not end in a happy, permanent relationship.
As with many other legal and cultural innovations that have taken place since the 1960s, it is hard not to notice the baneful results of making divorce easy and apparently painless. Perhaps those now scorned, uptight New Yorkers who made their critics “chafe” under “restrictive” divorce laws for almost 200 years, were more socially responsible than the wrecking ball of the nofault divorce culture that came after them.
This criticism is not intended to suggest that we can go back to the divorce laws that were in place at an earlier time. The media and the rest of the political class would never allow that to happen, fanning a predictable outcry in this country and throughout the Western world that we are trying to restore “fascism,” or something even worse, by reconsidering past reforms.
But if we can judge where the politics of divorce have carried us socially and culturally, the consequences have been, to say the least, problematic. We therefore have the right to view a fate that is no longer in our hands to alter, no matter how catastrophically it affects us, with profound concern.