Tuesday, September 19, 2006

How Did They Forget About Children in the No-Fault Divorce Debate? Today's "Privatize Marriage" Arguments Show How.

Judith Wallerstein, author of the benchmark study of the long-term effects of divorce on children, often points out with exasperation that the debate on no-fault divorce in the 1960s and '70s simply ignored the effects on children. Today, when we have the largest generation of divorced-upon children ever and the sad effects of no-fault are to be seen every day, it seems incredible that people could talk about marriage and divorce as if only the married couple mattered.

No-fault effectively privatized divorce. Today a couple can divorce for pretty much any reason and no reason. In fact, one person can just leave another and easily legalize it through divorce, and there is not much the other person can do about it. The children can do even less.

Today we are in the midst of a debate about whether we should privatize marriage the way we privatized divorce. The proponents of this view say that if marriage were just another contract that individuals could choose to make, then the whole messy debate about gay marriage, and the potential debate about polygamy, and a hundred other combinations, would disappear as a governmental issue. People could make contracts with whom they want, for how long they want, with whatever boring or kinky provisions they want.

A good example is the argument by Slate economist David Boaz helpfully titled "Privatize Marriage." This is an old argument, but the main points haven't changed lately. He makes the straightforward case that it would be more rational for the state to get out of the marriage business. Any bond you want to make, of any duration, in any combination and number, and with whatever internal division of power turns your crank should be just another contract. Not a word, not a hint of children. No suggestion that the reason the church, and then, under much prodding, the state got involved in regulating marriage in the first place was to protect children and women from abuse by the more powerful.

The arguments of economists are usually quite rational. But they sometimes miss some essential human factors. When thinking about any aspect of marriage, we have to think about the kids.


Mark Smith said...

Has anyone done stories on whether or not children are better off after a no-fault divorce, vs. living through a bad marriage?

Mark Smith said...

Er, replace "stories" with "studies".

SPorcupine said...


The studies on divorce consequence distinguish between low-conflict and high-conflict marriages. They conclude that children are better off in low-conflict marriages than with divorce--and two-thirds of the divorces studied involve those low-conflict situations.

Rebecca Bush said...

And to add to what sporcupine said, studies also show that children are far less concerned with their parents' marriage conflicts than adults think. While the divorce may be a sort of resolution for the parents it is likely the beginning of a lifelong internal conflict for their children.

That's why these new debates are so disturbing. While making marriage just another contract might be a sort of "resolution" to the political debate, it dumps the psycholigical and moral conflict into the unsuspecting lives of the children who are involved.

Gruntled said...

The X factor is how many people would work on making their marriages better if no fault divorce were not an option.

Edith OSB said...

So many don't see marriage as related, in any way, to the common good, or even the good of their children. We have somehow elevated Freud's pleasure principle into a primary moral imperative. If the marriage - or the child - doesn't make a person happy, well, they have to go.

The British Health Service were quite surprised to find out that many babies aborted late (after 20 weeks) under a provision for "serious handicaps" in fact had treatable conditions such as clubfoot, cleft palate, webbed fingers. Even when the parents were told that successful treatment was available - and paid for by universal health coverage - some chose to abort the baby so as not to have an imperfect child or be bothered with the treatment.

The economic model does not fit - not for marriage, not for children.