Deconstructing the Culture of Divorce

by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is professor of psychology and philosophy at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and resident scholar at it Center for Christian Women in Leadership.

This article appeared in The Christian Century magazine, July 30 – August 6, 1997, pp. 690 – 693. For information about The Christian Century see This article was prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell.


The author believes that the church’s greatest contribution to marital stability and growth will come from living a conviction that flies in the face of American individualism — namely (in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism) “that we are not our own, but belong body and soul, in life and death to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

Divorce is much on my mind these days. In the past couple of years, two of my close friends have been unilaterally divorced by their high-powered professional husbands of some 20 years. One, left fairly secure materially was traded in for a woman 20 years her junior. The other, through the exigencies of no-fault divorce laws and the principle of (so called) equal division of marital assets, became a classic example of the feminization of poverty Fortunately, the children in both cases were nearly grown and thus less likely to be seriously affected by the fallout of divorce.

I also have two male colleagues, each with young children, who have been left by their wives. One of these separations ended in a unilateral divorce and the predictable shuffling of children between households. The other couple eventually reconciled -- in part because they lived in an atypical jurisdiction where nonconsensual divorces require a longer time to become final than ones mutually agreed upon. That mandated extra year, along with church and professional counseling, helped the wife to reconsider.

In each of these four scenarios I was struck by something that researchers regularly point out: divorce is almost never neat and clean. It seldom ends the conflicts that preceded the divorce, especially if minor children are involved. And even when custody and economic support for children are not an issue, the pauperization of women often is. Since the no-fault divorce revolution began in California in 1970 and spread to all 50 states, divorce decrees have generally mandated an equal division only of the couple's present assets and liabilities. Rarely do courts distribute future benefits (such as pensions and insurance policies), let alone future earnings.

Usually the husband has a greater future earning potential than the wife. The failure to assign a portion of those earnings to homemaking women displaced from long-term marriages can be disastrous. Not only do such women lose the pension the couple had planned on for their joint retirement; they are also, by virtue of their many years as unpaid nurturers, poorly equipped to re-enter the job market. Add the fact that mothers are almost always assigned primary custody of minor children and that child support is not mandated in almost 40 percent of all settlements and in any case is often irregularly or never paid, and you have a recipe for all kinds of trouble.

Female-headed households are scarce not only on cash but on time, since no second adult is available to supervise the children and since many mothers must work long hours for low pay. Moves to lower-cost housing can also add to the social disruption children experience in the wake of divorce. Even if a divorced father does support his minor children, he is rarely required to do so during the financially demanding college years. Not surprisingly, teenagers growing up with only one parent are at greater risk of dropping out of school, of having a child of their own during the teen years, and of being neither in school nor in the work-force during young adulthood.

These outcomes have been well documented, particularly in Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee's Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce (1989) and Sara MeLanahan and Gary Sandefur's Growing Up with a Single Parent (1994). Some people see these problems as cause for national moral alarm; others, merely as reason for minor tinkering with the legal system. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead leans toward alarm.

Though Whitehead sees the church as one of several civil institutions that could strengthen families, she is not much interested in the church's potential role as a source of ethical reflection and public-policy recommendations. This should not surprise us, since churches themselves have all too often abandoned this calling. David Blankenhorn noted in Fatherless America (1995) that over the past three decades "many religious leaders -- especially in the mainline Protestant denominations -- have largely abandoned marriage as a vital area of religious attention, essentially handing the entire matter over to opinion leaders and divorce lawyers in secular society." Don Browning, director of the Religion, Culture and Family Project at the University of Chicago Divinity School, has observed that in the 1970s and '80s most mainline Protestant denominations severely cut back their funding of family ministries programs while continuing to fund government lobbying efforts. Church leaders apparently concluded that rising levels of teenage sexual activity, divorce, single parenthood and the feminization of poverty were inevitable and irreversible, and so they focused on lobbying for governmental and therapeutic programs to cushion the worst effects of these trends.

Efforts like the Religion, Culture and Family Project, supported by the Lilly Endowment, are aimed at questioning such assumptions and getting mainline churches to engage in theological, ethical and practical reflection on family matters. Evangelicals of a social-justice bent have mounted like-minded projects on a smaller scale, such as the Crossroads Program sponsored by Evangelicals for Social Action (seeded by Pew Trust money in 1992) and its ongoing series of publications on faith and public policy.

Whitehead's book is an expansion of her much-quoted 1993 Atlantic Monthly article "Dan Quayle Was Right." She again documents the steep rise in divorce rates after the 1950s and quotes studies showing that, contrary to the assumptions of many therapists and liberal feminists, divorce has long-term effects on women's material welfare and on their children's social, educational, emotional and economic prospects. But the book differs from her earlier piece in not trying to analyze the effects of divorce and out-of-wedlock birth as a single phenomenon. This is methodologically wise, for the situation of middle-class divorced parents is significantly different from'that of the average never-married young mother.

As her title implies, Whitehead's primary concern is to show that ideas have consequences. Partly because of the growing acceptance, individualization and even romanticization of a "divorce culture" in America, approximately half of all first marriages -- and at least as many second ones -- do not endure. Taking a leaf from Robert Bellab and colleagues in Habits of the Head, which discusses American "instrumental" versus "expressive" individualism, she examines the rise of "instrumental" -- or what was once called "vulgar" -- divorce in the earlier part of this century, and then the development of "expressive" divorce over the past 30 years.

Instrumental divorce was originally limited to wealthy socialites, business magnates and Hollywood stars. It was seen as a cynical means of upward social or economic mobility. "Apparently," notes Whitehead, "the rich dealt in spouses as brashly as they traded in stocks and bonds." But most people, despite a voyeuristic interest in the coupling and decoupling of the rich and famous, viewed such behavior as anything hut admirable. From church pulpits to women's magazines to leftist publications such as the Natwo, instrumental divorce was decried as self-indulgent behavior that brought market values into an area of life meant to transcend such considerations.

The guardians of public morality fretted about the spread of vulgar divorce to the middle and working classes. And spread it did. In Francis Ford Coppola's 1986 movie Peggy Sue Got Married, one character -- a twice-divorced, middle-class real estate broker -- sums up the notion that husbands are commodities, like houses: "You should always trade up.

Certain structural forces contributed to this change. Women have become steadily more independent in terms of earning capacity, making it more possible for them to leave miserable marriages and survive economically, even if not to live lavishly. And compared to Europeans, Americans from colonial times on have regarded marriage as an institution based more on mutual affection than on economic or political convenience. Consequently, divorce has been relatively accessible in America -- at least for Protestants -- on the grounds that it protects the true purpose of marriage: mutual affection. Still, marriage was regarded as the institutional norm, with occasional divorce a regrettable necessity, to be used as a last resort and with due regard for the welfare of exspouses and children.

The cult of expressive divorce, as mediated by therapists, self-help books and other vehicles of popular culture, changed all this, Whitehead argues. She sees the culture of expressive divorce as a major force behind the doubling of divorce rates between the 1950s and 1980s. It shifted the normative image of marriage from that of an enduring covenant to that of a limited contract -- and later, under no-fault divorce, to a contract that could be dissolved by either partner for any (or even no) reason whatever.

Expressive divorce also recast divorce in a positive light, as a growth experience for everyone involved. Women would learn to be their own persons, and children would benefit from lessened conflict and a relational network expanded through stepfamilies. Whitehead thoroughly analyzes the popular (and empirically quite unsubstantiated) rhetoric of expressive divorce, and points out how lawyers, therapists and real estate brokers benefited financially from the steady increase in divorcing couples.

In the past decade a series of studies, especially on outcomes for children, have stripped the cult of expressive divorce of some of its triumphalism. While the culture still regards divorce as an inalienable right for adults, it focuses now on helping kids cope with the admittedly difficult aftermath of divorce. These efforts range from writing divorce-centered children's novels to producing greeting cards that absent parents can send their offspring (more brave new market opportunities) to advising children to become patient parent figures to adults preoccupied by their divorces and by new romantic relationships. The ironic upshot is that "as adults enjoy more freedom in the pursuit of a satisfying intimate life, children's family lives become increasingly subject to arrangement, regulation and control. A culture of divorce soothes children with antidepressants, consoles them with storybooks on divorce, and watches over their lives from family court."

Although Whitebead is good at documenting the rise of the divorce culture, she is surprisingly thin on policy recommendations. She concludes that "because marriage and parenthood are part of our affectional and private lives," reversing the divorce culture is "largely a matter for civil society rather than for government." Since "the breakdown of marriage was not caused by changes in the tax code or divorce laws," it is unlikely to be resolved by them. Commitment to marriage can be strengthened "only through a change of heart and mind, a new consciousness about the meaning of commitment itself, and a turning away from the contemporary model of relationships offered by Madison Avenue, Wall Street, or Hollywood."

Reviewing Whiteheads book in the New Republic (April 14), Margaret Talbot retorts that such moral exhortations for commitment will simply fall flat since they fly in the face of the American ideal of marriage as an enduringly affectional relationship. The expectation that marriage will be based on affection is not one that Americans are likely to give up, Talbot says, and she doesn't think they should. Inevitably, she believes, "the higher the expectations of marriage the greater the number of divorces. Idealize marriage, and the real complications of love and sex and companionship and family will bite back." For Talbot, Whitehead's call to preserve less-than-perfect marriages for the sake of social and child stability (a common view in Japan, for example) verges on being un-American.

But surely some middle ground can be found between Talbot's blithe acceptance of revolving-door intimacy and Whitehead's simplistic call for marital moral rearmament. At the very least, as Amy Black points out in "For the Sake of the Children" (a 1995 contribution to the Crossroads Monograph Series on Faith and Public Policy), there are public-justice issues involved. While legislation is not a panacea for the divorce epidemic, it can be part of the solution both in its restrictive and its educative functions.

Black makes some essential distinctions: childless marriages being terminated by young couples are different from long-term marriages in which one spouse has been a homemaker, and both are different from divorces in which minor children are present. For the first of these, the standard legal division of present assets and liabilities is usually fair, since both parties are young, unencumbered by children, and able to acquire jobs and education. In the second case, even if no children are involved, justice requires that not only present but some future assets be jointly distributed, to prevent the impoverishment of the spouse who has not held a job outside the home.

In the case of divorces involving minor children, however, we need a national policy that places children's welfare first. This should include guaranteed child-support payments, tax breaks for custodial parents, and an expanded definition of marital property to include pensions, insurance, cost of education and reimbursement for economic sacrifices made by one or the other spouse during the marriage. Black also recommends the reinstatement of mutual consent laws in order to slow down the process of divorce and give the reluctant partner (who is often also the custodial parent) more bargaining power in a process often driven not by justice but by whoever can afford the more skillful lawyer. At the very least, she adds, the period between the filing and granting of a no-fault divorce should be lengthened: two to five years is the range in many West European nations.

The U.S. does not have a national divorce policy; hence, although a few states have implemented some of the above reforms, they are easily avoided by what Black calls "migratory divorce" -- that is, establishing residence in a state with more lenient laws prior to filing for divorce. That such states are still the norm is due, some researchers suspect, to the fact that many legislators are themselves divorced men. The first no-fault divorce statute was drafted in California by a legislator who had ended a 25-year marriage to wed a younger woman; of the 14 assemblymen who testified for the law, ten were divorced.

In addition to mounting a bully pulpit on behalf of changed family policies, political leaders could push for revisions to the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, a set of national guidelines that states usually follow. The goal should be to provide greater public justice for everyone affected, especially children. Mainline denominations need to lobby for such ends. They should also demand accountability of their members, disciplining those who neglect child support and alimony payments. If secular state governments can shame deadbeat parents by publicizing their names and photos, should churches do less?

Since prevention is at least as important as cure, churches must rediscover ways to help families negotiate the "real complications of love, sex and companionship." Counselors should assume that marriages are more salvageable than one or both spouses believe. Individual and group premarital counseling, community marriage policies, and mentoring programs for couples at various stages of the life cycle should be seriously expanded.

In the end, I suspect that the church's greatest contribution to marital stability and growth will come from living a conviction that flies in the face of American individualism -- namely (in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism) "that we are not our own, but belong body and soul, in life and death to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ." Understood properly, this means that marriage is a creational good -- a wonder, at its best -- that is part of a wider cosmic drama of human fallenness and redemption. By living out hope in a community that breaks down barriers of age, class, sex and ethnicity, the church can model a love ethic from which families can draw strength. The American idolatry of romantic love has disconnected couples from living communities of discipline and love -- communities which marriages need.

Churches cannot single-handedly reverse the ethic of romantic narcissism. Government has a God-given role in promoting the public-justice aspects of marriage and family, as Amy Black contends. But churches have durable traditions on which to draw, and they can do much to make good families and communities a living reality as well as an eschatological hope.