Here’s to Bad Divorces?

Now that I have your attention (or not), this subject has been on my mind of late. If divorce is going to happen—and I’m not crazy about the passive tone but they do happen out there—just how “good” should a divorce be? Is amicable an aim? I have a friend—and no, that’s not code for me—who appears to be facing one soon, against his will and despite his willingness to work at his marriage. My late UT colleague Norval Glenn was quoted several years back as saying that “good” divorces can have surprisingly negative consequences, over and above the simple fact that divorcing can cause problems. He noted, “If the parents whose marriage failed are obviously good people who could cooperate and avoid destructive behaviors after the divorce, their offspring may be more inclined to lose confidence in the institution of marriage itself.” In other words, a good divorce can be confusing to children, who are more apt to thereafter wonder if marriage is a feasible thing at all, apart from some spectacular soul-mate connection that few ever realize. There are, of course, lots of other variables to consider when evaluating the consequences of divorce on the participants themselves and their children. This one—the children’s own perceptions about marriage and sense of the institution—is only one of them.

But it reminded me of a piece of data I share with my Intro-to-Sociology course: the probability of getting a divorce in the year after you married is already doubled for those whose own parents had split. Granted, it’s not high: about four percent of those with parental (divorce) exemplars split within a year, while about two percent of those whose parents are still together had similarly split within the year. (The data for that statistic is from the National Survey of Family Growth, Series 6, if I recall). Another notable thing about that data is that—despite the fact that everyone just knows that half of all marriages end in divorce—if your own parents never split your baseline probability of ever divorcing doesn’t appear to ever reach 50 percent (and of course, it diminishes over time, with marital experience, children, education, wealth, and other “investments” in the marriage.). Objective “risk” of divorce—the idea of which I dislike because it makes divorce sound more passive than it typically is—is actually calculable in a fairly simplistic form by various algorithms. Some Americans’ objective risk of divorcing will always be well over 50 percent (over the lifetime of the marriage, not just the immediate future), while others’ risk will never approach that figure. (By the way, the “half of all marriages…” claim is typically lifted from the fact that the divorce rate is about half of the marriage rate in any given year, despite the fact that all but a few of the divorces that comprise any given year’s rate did not originate as marriages in the same year).

On the other hand, many of us recognize that we are (or aren’t) subject to additional risks or protections that the calculators cannot account for. My wife and I long ago agreed to lock the back door and throw away the key. Some suggest that approach can allow festering resentments to go unchecked, since there’s no “fear-of-divorce” motivation that would ever prompt a couple to address them. I have heard anecdotes about such, and that is unfortunate. In our case, at least, it works a bit differently: if nobody’s going anywhere, then we might as well make up quickly, because being antagonistic toward each other gets old real fast. But it takes two to hold that position—to want to improve.

In the end, the individual can still completely screw over their spouse by leaving them against their will. Moreover, my friend informed me that to contest his divorce—which would strike me as the moral thing to do if one doesn’t wish to be complicit in it—is to invite a far more expensive and protracted legal battle over the marriage, its assets, custody of children, etc.

Since this blog is about religion, it’s noteworthy that most Christians—and their congregations—recognize the legitimacy of the state’s claims about divorce, even though many of the same might argue that the state is untrustworthy these days in regulating and safeguarding marriage. This seems a bit intellectually dishonest. Many Christians pursue the blessing of the Almighty on the front end of the marriage, but are content with the secular state’s authority for any decisions on the back end. The Catholic Church, of course, has only modest regard for the latter. That, at least, seems more honest, if also more aggravating for those experiencing the divorce (especially if it’s against their will).

I digress. Be all that as it may. Here’s to divorce reform legislation. It won’t be perfect. Heck, it probably won’t even be realized. But I think shifting from a simple no-fault to consensual divorce could be a positive step.


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