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The Divorce Culture – What Happened?

“If divorce has increased by one thousand percent, don’t blame the women’s movement. Blame the obsolete sex roles on which our marriages were based.” -Betty Friedan

Divorce is no longer a dirty word. Approximately half of all first-time boomer marriages will end in divorce. Check out the actual divorce stats at: www.divorcereform.org/rates.html. How have things changed so much since the dim memory of June and Ward Cleaver?

We lived through the 1960s-the time of great social revolution. We fought against racial discrimination, for women’s and gay rights, and the end of the war in Vietnam. These were amazing advancements in America, but we also saw some things fall by the wayside.

For instance, one of the casualties of the ’60s was the general social requirement to put up with the way things were, because, well, that’s the way they were. Staying married was something you used to do because you were expected to, regardless of how dead the marriage, or how abusive the spouse.

Or some people stayed married because they didn’t want to risk going into divorce court where a judge would hear evidence of cheating, or other bad behavior, and then make the guilty party pay as punishment for breaking the marriage contract. But this state of affairs would not last for long. The rules and the times, as we knew, were a-changin’, and changin’ fast.

Gestalt Prayer
I do my thing, and you do your thing;
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations
And you are not in this world to live up to mine;
You are you and I am I,
And if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.

-Frederick (“Fritz”) Perls, Psychologist

A great example of the shifting attitude of the times is the Gestalt Prayer. The man who wrote it-the psychologist Frederick (“Fritz”) Perls-was the world-famous “guru” at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.

In the 1960s, Esalen was the place where the avant-garde gathered to explore new ways of thinking and relating to each other. There, Dr. Perls conceived of “Gestalt therapy” where the focus was on a person’s awareness of the “here and now.”

Not only did this new way of thinking about human relationships derail the conventions of the past, at its very core was the message: to your own self be true. This approach put a premium on personal freedom and encouraged the individual to do “his (or her) thing”-another phrase used by Dr. Perls.

As the “Gestalt” school of thought swept California in the 1960s, people’s sense of good and bad depended upon their comfort level at any given time. If something made you feel bad, it was bad. Period.

From this point of “ethical relativism,” it wasn’t a far leap to the credo, “if it feels good, do it.” Or, as the Mamas and Papas sang, “Do what you wanna do, and go where you wanna go, with whoever you wanna do it with.” No matter who got hurt-or who did the hurting.

As this new focus on self-fulfillment and freedom took hold-old values like duty and loyalty fell out of favor. Along the way our expectations of ourselves-and of others-changed. Cultural leaders preached personal choice over domestic commitment.

Betty Friedan, author of the 1963 classic, The Feminine Mystique, and one of the founders of the twentieth century women’s movement, said that the traditional family unit was “a comfortable concentration camp” and, most strikingly, urged that women should be freed from it. Good-bye Leave it to Beaver and the 1950s!

Finding No Fault

So, you might be wondering, what’s this historical social-studies stuff have to do with your divorce? Everything! In 1969, California was the first state to enact “no-fault” divorce laws.

An avalanche of legal reforms followed throughout the country that allowed us to leave our marriage vows behind, almost effortlessly, without requiring a judge to find fault with the party leaving or being left.

Now, the majority of states have no-fault divorce laws, and the rest of them have at least one no-fault ground of divorce available, should someone be inclined to end a marriage, even though the other spouse is perfectly innocent of “fault.” New York, the remaining “fault only” state, is the notable exception. (For a more detailed discussion of fault and legal grounds for divorce, keep reading!)

So I guess you could say that the legacy of the “make-love-not-war” generation is the “easy” divorce. Well, sort of. Divorce is almost never easy, emotionally speaking; but in a “no-fault” state, you no longer have to prove inhuman treatment, or adultery, or drunkenness, or abandonment to part ways. In fact, even if you’re the one with the “fault” you can get out of your marriage.

Unlike the old days, the big legal battles are fought over money or kids, not over who did what to whom-or with whom-when and where. Today you just pay your money (a court fee of about $250), check a few boxes on the appropriate preprinted petition or complaint form, (or, if no form is available, prepare your own pleading, explaining that you and your spouse are incompatible), and that’s it. You’re now a plaintiff or petitioner in your very own divorce case.

The New “Extra Strength” Marriage

So it goes with most things, the pendulum swings far in one direction- say, toward the easy way out of marriage. Then, in response, it swings back in the opposite direction-toward nuptials that are more difficult to end. That’s what the recently enacted covenant marriages are all about.

Some say it’s a way of putting fault back into divorce laws. Others believe it’s just a way of giving a couple choice, a more committed way to say “I do.” Whatever. Just know that if you have a covenant marriage, you’ll be facing a higher hurdle to divorce than the rest of us.

In the meantime, though they haven’t adopted the covenant marriage option, many states are considering tougher divorce laws, making it more difficult to split. Still, there’s no denying that divorce is part of our culture: an inalienable right demanded by the American public and protected by the constitution. So it seems the right to leave a marriage is here to stay.

The Good Divorce

Let’s face it: No mature person gets married thinking it will end in divorce. I never met a client or person who thought divorce was a fun thing. It’s often dreadful, difficult, and demanding. But sometimes it’s simply necessary. In many circumstances, it’s the only way to save your sanity, and maybe, in the worst case, your safety.

But despite the horror stories you hear or read about, there are “good” divorces (I had one)- where you and your spouse (and children, if you have them) will fare better, with less household stress, once your parting is complete and your life begins a new chapter. Remember the old wisecrack, “Why is divorce so expensive? Because it’s worth it!” Well, it’s true, sometimes it is.

And there’s more good news to ease some of the guilt you might feel about divorce and its consequences on your kids. Recent studies suggest- contrary to what some have previously reported-that children of divorce are able to adjust just fine, in the long run, to their parents’ breakup. Not that it’s easy or fast. But, overall, the prognosis is good, so long as the kids don’t suffer poverty or abuse after their parents split.

So if you need to get out of a barren, or worse, abusive, unsafe marriage, don’t feel that you’re damning your kids to a life of emotional damage. Will your kids be upset at first? Probably. Stunned? Perhaps. But doomed to permanent psychological impairment? No, say the experts.

For a more detailed discussion of how divorce affects kids, from a study with a decent sample size, see the 2002 book by E. Mavis Hetherington (Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia) and John Kelly, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered.

For more information on the “good divorce,” check out The Good Divorce: Keeping Your Family Together When Your Marriage Comes Apart, a good, older book by Constance Ahrons, Ph.D., the director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Training Program at the University of Southern California. (Read more about the effects of divorce on kids in Chapter 26.)

Why Me?

Well, now you know, it’s probably not a matter of fault. More likely, a matter of choice, though it might not be your choice. Actually, after practicing family law since 1986, and working with countless therapists, clients, and clergy members, the consensus view I gathered is that most couples call it quits because of three basic reasons.

And, most professionals agree that the symptoms of a broken marriage, e.g., apathy, adultery, abandonment (emotional or physical), arise from these circumstances, not vice versa. (Does your marriage fit in any of these categories?)

* Too young when married. In this kind of marriage, the spouses married and didn’t form identities as individuals until long after the wedding. When they did, they found they just weren’t well matched as partners. Oops.

* Immaturity. In this marriage, when the proverbial honeymoon was over (scientists say this euphoria lasts, at most, three and a half years-coincidentally, the time it takes for a human infant to need less attention from both parents) the couple simply lacked the foundation for a lifelong relationship. In other words, they had a so-called “starter marriage.”

* No communication. Along with an inability-or unwillingness- to meet the needs of the other, in this type of marriage, the partners got, as Mick would say, “no satisfaction” from their union or each other.

Of course, no matter how interesting this divorce data might be, none of it will heal a broken heart as your marriage is ending. Even Betty Friedan, the most vocal divorce advocate for women in the 1960s, admitted that ending her own marriage in 1969 was the hardest thing she ever did.

While I understand that you might be walking wounded now, there are still definite things you should be doing, whether you’re the one contemplating the divorce, or fear you are-or are about to be-on the receiving end of a petition or complaint. Remember: “The first step in revolution is consciousness,” in 1960s-speak. So in that spirit, keep your eyes open, your seatbelt fastened, and read on!

Another factoid: Although more men leave the marital home, more women take the legal step to end the marriage.

© Marlene M. Browne

Excerpted by permission from Boomer’s Guide to Divorce (and a New Life), published July, 2004, by Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

About the Book: While boomers grew up watching solid marriages like those of the Ricardos, the Cleavers, and the Petries, they also learned that marriages sometimes don’t work out, and that the real-life effects-emotional and financial-are no laughing matter. For those who are ending marriages and starting over-while coping at the same time with teenaged children, aging parents, looming retirement, health and fitness concerns, and other midlife issues, this book offers valuable advice on:

  • Deciding whether you really want out
  • Setting yourself up for a “good” divorce, rather than a bitter one
  • Finding an attorney-and an accountant
  • Dealing with your family and friends-who gets custody of whom after a long-term marriage?
  • Getting through the minefields of the legal process (there are complications even in “no fault” divorce)
  • Starting over again-establishing credit, finding insurance coverage, and more

About the Author: Marlene Browne is a graduate of Boston College and Emory University School of Law, and has practiced family law since 1986. Ms. Browne lectures across the country on all topics related to family law and appears regularly on national radio and television. A divorced boomer herself, she lives on the East Coast with her divorced boomer husband, Chris, a captain for a major airline.