Thursday, July 27, 2006

Divorce -- Preparing For Travels in Wingnuttia

Divorce, the breakup of a marriage. Images of abandoned children, selfish parents, the societal corruption created by me-first thinking and social causes such as feminism. Those are some of the flavors I taste when I dip my spoon into the divorce stew.

And a big stew it is, one that would take the rest of this blog's life to discuss properly. Hence my hesitancy in approaching the topic. What should I describe first? The fact that marriages in the past were not those happy ever-lasting affairs we somehow think they were? That the average marriage really didn't last that long, because of the much higher death rates in those olden-golden days? That if you study old embroidered family records from the 18th century America, for example, you find that many of them are about melded families, with more than one father or mother and with many step-siblings.

Or the fact that despite this, marriages these days do break up more often than in the past. Is this a bad thing? Here we come to the central question, which is about the welfare of the children. Most of us would argue that childless couples can do as they please about their marriages; it is the possibility that a divorce that helps parents may hurt their children that provokes the most questioning about our divorcing society.

Studies about divorce are rarely done well enough to determine the effects of a divorce on the children's well-being. This is because they often compare children whose parents have happy marriages to children whose parents have divorced, and we all know that this is not the proper comparison. The proper comparison is between children of divorced couples and children of couples who are unhappily married. Which of these causes the most harm to children? Then there is the further possibility that some people who divorce often may just have the kind of personality which leads to failed relationships and that they may pass this personality on to their children who then score poorly on all sorts of measures of life success.

Few would deem a marriage of hell better than a divorce, whatever its consequences, though. Most of the criticisms of divorce have to do with the fuzzy ideas that people get divorced too easily and that getting divorced is a selfish act if one has children. It's interesting that these criticisms have become common at the same time as the percentage of women initiating divorce has risen. In the past it was largely men who initiated divorce, and the stereotype was that they did this for a younger and sexier woman. The whole thing was deplorable, of course, but didn't attract much action or writing.

So is divorce a feminist question? Undoubtedly. Or at least an equal opportunity to divorce is. A woman without the ability to make an independent living is trapped in a bad marriage, and so are her children. Feminists have lobbied for better divorce laws, for better child maintenance and for alimony when it was necessary. An uneven arrangement of power in the nuclear family will always keep women down, and one way of keeping the power arrangement uneven is by making sure that women can't easily leave a bad marriage. Just think of the fundamentalist Islamic interpretation of divorce as something the man can do almost at will, whereas the woman must go to court and have very specific complaints before she can petition for a divorce. Even then she's likely to lose the custody of her children if the divorce is granted.

But that an equal opportunity to seek divorce and a fair distribution of assets after it are feminist issues does not mean that divorce itself would be something feminism desires. Or that the question of its influence on the children wouldn't be important to address. Or that the current system of child custody and alimony would somehow be optimal from a feminist or egalitarian angle. I'd even go as far to state that feminism would prefer all marriages to be blissfully happy, or as happy as would be humanly feasible in a world where future spouses are taught the skills of peaceful communication and where nobody expects marriage to be the equivalent of salvation in any sense.

These are my preparation statements about a later post on divorce in Wingnuttia. I found the unpacking-and-repacking stage to be necessary, to find out what I should take with me in addition to the toothbrush and the decontamination kit and such. For example, someone had snuck something into my suitcase, and I know that this is a no-no. That something was the idea that all feminists clamor for all marriages to fail, that they need the blood of divorced fathers to sustain them, that they take pleasure in the now-fatherless children of divorce. My ideas of divorce are much less exciting and more muddled, as you may have noticed.

One further thing to unpack: There is a widespread view of marriage in this country which sees "the family" as a sacred institution and expects real living people to mold themselves to fit this sacredness, even if it hurts like hell. If an alien read some of the rightwing blogs it/she/he would assume that the basic living unit on this planet is something called "the family", and that somehow wives and mothers don't count when the well-being of the family is measured. It/she/he would also learn that individuals must change their behavior to make "the family" thrive, but that "the family" itself can never change from a certain half-hidden ideal: a breadwinning father, a stay-at-home mother and several children, preferably homeschooled.

I'm going to leave this one behind, too. It's a good idea to make teenagers aware of the challenges of marriage and to train them to be better at compromising and communicating. But it's also a very good idea to ask marriage itself to behave better, to give its participants, all of them, as much of the things they need to thrive as is possible.