There They Go, Bad-Mouthing Divorce Again
cmfce at his.com
Tue Sep 12 15:48:51 EDT 2000
subject: There They Go, Bad-Mouthing Divorce Again
from: Smart Marriages
I hope some of you will write to the NY Times. I'm going to be out of town
a few days - in Orlando - so it's up to you. -diane sollee
Editorial Desk; Section A There They Go, Bad-Mouthing Divorce Again By Jane
09/12/2000 The New York Times Page 27, Column 1
CARMEL VALLEY, Calif. -- Several years ago at a party, I asked a woman I had
just met how her Christmas had been. She said, ''First good Christmas in 25
''Why was that?''
''Oh, my father died.''
''And that made it good?''
''Well, every year for 25 years, he would gather us all around the Christmas
tree and tell us how terrible his life was and how disappointed he was in
''How did your mother feel, though?''
''Oh, she was relieved. He'd been telling her for 60 years that she wasn't
pretty or smart enough for him. Now she's planning to do some of the things
she's wanted to do all along.''
I thought this was an excellent example of a thank-God-for- divorce tale.
Here's another one: When the grandfather of a friend of mine died many years
ago, his last words to his wife of 50 years were, ''I'm sorry I married
I admit that I am susceptible to such tales. I am the poster child for the
recent study by Judith Wallerstein et al. of the long-term effects of
divorce on children -- the child of parents who parted before I was a year
old and divorced by the time I was 4. I have been divorced uncountable times
Bad habits? Bad choices? Perhaps it is time to subject myself to
Wallersteinian analysis. But when I do my own little survey, and come up
with the marital histories of my 32 closest friends and relatives, the
picture grows more complex. All of the 32 are baby boomers or a bit older --
oldest, 58, youngest, 40. Twenty-six are the offspring of long-term first
marriages that ended in the death of one spouse or the other; six of them
come from divorced families.
Of the 26 whose parents had long-term marriages, 17 have been divorced at
What does my mini-survey tell me? It tells me the same thing that any
cursory review of the last 50 years of married life in America tells us --
most baby boomers were born into intact families. On the surface nearly all
adhered to the ideal: Dad earned enough money so that Mom could stay home
and take care of the 3.2 children and the house. Marital roles were divided
by gender, and Mom was regularly advised by Ann Landers and Abigail Van
Buren, not to mention everyone else, to cater to Dad's sense of privileged
masculinity: Should she iron his shorts? If he didn't give her any money of
your own, was it permissible to take it out of his pockets while he was
sleeping? If, when she was doing the laundry, she found lipstick on his
collar, should she mention it?
And most baby boomers, learning how to be married, as Ms. Wallerstein
suggests, by witnessing the examples of marriage that they grew up with,
voted with their feet when the time came to endure or not in their own.
Twenty-six boomers from 26 intact marriages. Seventeen divorced. That's
about 65 percent.
The fact is, the goals of marriage have changed. In the first half of the
century people married to survive, reproduce, join properties, become a part
of the mainstream community of adults. Individual happiness might have been
foreseen and desired, but if as the marriage wore on happiness came to seem
elusive, other goals dominated. Some marriages did work on both levels:
several of my divorced peers had parents whose marriages I know to have been
happy, compatible and peaceful.
Whatever the reasons for their parents' marital longevity, though, the
children in my group did not learn from their example how to choose their
own partners wisely or how to stick with it, as Ms. Wallerstein would have
expected. Some who were divorced chose to try again, and have found
happiness. Others in second or third marriages have not. The person I know
whose parents had the longest, happiest marriage recently wrote me: ''We
plug along.'' A thank-God-for- divorce tale, midlife version.
Americans born since mid-century marry for the same reason they do anything
else -- to be happy. Yet literature of all periods tells us that marrying to
be happy is at best an iffy proposition. Historians of domestic life have
suggested that marriages in the premodern period were usually short -- death
did the work of divorce .
Marrying with the overriding goal of being happy for all your adult life
with a single other (since survival, reproduction, property joining and
being part of a community of adults can be achieved now without marriage) is
a new experiment. Divorce is its corollary. This is an experiment that our
children will engage in, whatever models we give them.
Divorce is a right that took many generations to gain. It is no more a
guarantor of happiness than marriage, but also no less. The rate of divorce
in our country tells us very little other than that our culture is in
transition to new ways of organizing itself. Given the social and
technological changes of the past century, this can hardly be surprising.
Personally, in spite of the testaments of the Wallersteinians, I'm glad my
parents divorced, and I have been since I first began to actually think
about it. I can't speak for my children, but I do hope they try more than
one way of being happy, rather than turning around at 84 and saying, ''Free
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