Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The “Adults First” Divorce Culture Lives On

Yesterday I posted “Divorce Divides Children” from San Antonio, where I was attending a conference. Later that morning I opened the San Antonio Express-News, and found a story typical of the problem the I have been writing about: the divorce culture that thinks divorce is about the adults’ happiness, without even asking about the children.

An amicable divorce can benefit everyone,” by Express-News staff writer Jeanie Tavitas-Williams, reported on The Unofficial Guide to Getting a Divorce, by Russell and Susan Wild. The paper reports that “with 22 years of marriage behind them, two children, a decent portfolio, property and all kinds of other personal, financial and emotional entanglements, both acknowledge they had ‘all the ingredients that could have made for a ….’” How would you expect that sentence to end? Good marriage? Effective partnership? Secure home? No, to the Wilds, those are the ingredients of a “nasty divorce."

The Wilds did divorce. Yet the tone of the story is congratulatory. The story continues, “Yet today, fewer than two years after their union was legally dissolved, the Pennsylvania residents are good friends. They live about three blocks away from each other, have dinner together (kids included) most every Tuesday, even have keys to each other's homes.” If they had all that going for them, and still do, why did they divorce? Because, Russell Wild says, they “had exhausted all of their efforts to regain the spark before finally ‘throwing in the towel.’"

My gripe is not with the Wilds. To me, it would seem that two people who are capable of such an amicable divorce, are also capable of an amicable marriage. But I don’t know all the facts from a newspaper story, and won’t judge the Wilds.

My gripe is with the reporter, the newspaper, and the dozens of other stories like this one that you can find any month in newspapers, women’s magazines, men’s magazines, and, especially, “relationship” television and radio shows.

No one asked about the children. The reporter does not tell us what the parents think their divorce did to their children. She did not report on the growing body of expert evidence, such as Elizabeth Marquardt’s or Judith Wallerstein’s work, which details the enduring legacy of divorce on children. She did not, evidently, think to ask the children themselves what they thought of this “amicable” relationship.

With other kinds of stories, reporters have a normal routine: first report what the more powerful parties in a conflict are doing, then investigate the effects on the less powerful. If they were reporting, say, a school strike, they would interview the administration, interview the teachers, and then talk to parents and kids, or at least to some sort of experts about the effect on parents and kids. Our current divorce culture, though, treats divorce as something that adults do. The effects on kids are not a normal part of the story, are not in the reporters’ and editors’ standard calculation of affected parties.

So this is my plea: when anyone reports on a divorce, either a particular divorce or on divorce as an institution, always ask “what about the children?” Ask, and tell.


Anonymous said...

Would you say this style of reporting mirrors the fundamental conflict between the "pro-life" and "pro-choice" crowds? The latter viewing the issue as one of how it impacts the mother and the former regarding it as an issue that also affects someone else?

Gruntled said...

Well, my first reaction is that divorce is sort of sideways to abortion. I think much of pro-life thinking is as concerned with how it affects adults as it is with children. My guess is that adults for whom divorce is an option believe the "divorce happy talk" that kids resiliently adjust, because they want to believe it. If we put the enduring scars of divorce for kids front and center in the divorce debate, that consciousness would change. With abortion, by contrast, the suffering of the aborted is already front and center; the issue is whether they are kids or not.

Anonymous said...

I saw Marquardt on Anderson Cooper last night--she seemed very astute, and basically told off another researcher that was a big fan of the 'good' divorce for the same reasons you mentioned above. Fascinating research, and from my own experiences, she's right.

Gruntled said...

I am glad that Elizabeth Marquardt and the book are getting all this attention. My wife says that for children of divorce this book has something of the effect of The Feminine Mystique in giving a handle on "the problem that has no name."

Anonymous said...

Several recent movies (including recently released Noah Baumbach's independent film, see The Squid and the Whale: Divorce at the Cinema, ) do a much better job reporting on the impact of divorce on children than most of these "journalism-lite" pieces.

As a full-time divorce mediator, I am often amazed at adult parents discussing parenting time solely in terms of their personal schedules, preferences, and concerns — with precious little focus on their children's needs.

Gruntled said...

Thanks for bringing "The Squid and the Whale" to our attention. Television does a pretty bad job on the downside of divorce for kids, but I hadn't thought of movies as a potentially richer source.

WI Catholic said...

As long as someone has mentioned pro-life/pro-choice, would it amaze you that both Roe v Wade (Jan 22, 1973) and approval of the final version of the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act (Aug 2, 1973) took place?

They use the same tactics to 'sell' both, and it is all 'me' oriented.

See and her sister site

Judy is also a former Court Mediator from Wisconsin. That is where she had HER eyes opened about no fault unilateral forced divorce. I had mine opened when I watched my in law divorce in 75 and saw the effects on their four children, ages approx 25 to 11. They ALSO fit Elizabeth's observations, though three were 17 or older. I had my eyes widely opened ten years later when I became a forced participant in the system with no defense.

Elizabeth is my children's voice. God bless her. It is time my generation begins to listen to both the survivors of Roe and Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act.... they can teach us a few things that we need to hear!

Gruntled said...

Judith Wallerstein remarks that it is just amazing, in retrospect, that the '70s family law reforms were made with almost no thought about the effects on children.