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Joined at the Heart – The Consequences of Divorce

Now let’s slow the story down again and look at a crucial trend that began to emerge into public view during the 1960s: the rising incidence of divorce.

As usual, the various statistics available can be interpreted in different ways, but it’s probably accurate to say that the divorce rate is now about twice as high as it was forty years ago. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, the divorce rate didn’t begin rising in the 1960s: in fact, the rate began rising slowly but steadily in the second half of the nineteenth century, and continued through the first half of the twentieth century. It then stabilized in the 1950s.

Then, in the early 1960s, the rates began accelerating. Hernandez dates the acceleration to 1964, when the baby boom ended: “Once the baby boom was over, people no longer felt that they had to stay at home with the children. [That’s when] we see this increase in divorces.”

As women entered the labor force in even greater numbers, their increasing economic freedom gave them more options, including leaving the marriage if they wanted to. Women working also increased the independence of men, who began treating their incomes as their own and came to believe they could leave without destroying the family financially, Hernandez observed.

In 1960, there were about twenty-six divorces for every one hundred marriages. The divorce rate rose steadily for the next twenty years and peaked around 1980, when there were about fifty divorces for every hundred marriages; since then, it has dropped to forty-eight per hundred.

Currently, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three first marriages ends in separation or divorce within ten years, and 43 percent end within fifteen years. Each year an estimated one million children are involved in a divorce.

According to Hernandez, however, divorce has now reached a kind of saturation point. “The fundamental reason is that for the past twenty years or so it’s been necessary to have two incomes in order to support a middle-class style of living.”

Susan Fadley, of course, knows divorce firsthand: her parents divorced, she has been divorced once herself, and now she’s raising stepchildren who have been through the breakup of a marriage. She feels that it’s hard to judge someone else’s decision on divorce, because it all depends on the situation.

Her mother’s parents, for instance, stayed in an unhappy marriage for years. As she put it, “They stuck it out but didn’t pursue any ideal. They didn’t work at it.” She feels they definitely should have gotten a divorce, in part because of the harmful effect of their constant and bitter conflict on their children.

But Susan acknowledged that for a younger generation — hers —  which considered divorce much more acceptable, the effects were turning out to be harder to deal with than they’d expected. Indeed, many of the single-parent households that were created found a great deal of economic hardship.

Copyright © 2002 Al and Tipper Gore

Book Excerpt: Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family by Al and Tipper Gore.