Most Americans believe that for the past generation, America has
been in a moral decline. And whenever conservatives describe this decline,
they include the high divorce rate, along with crime and out-of-wedlock
births, as a prime example.
I believe conservatives are wrong here.
By way of illustration, allow me a story:
Before having a daily radio show, I moderated for 10 years a
very popular show in Southern California called "Religion on the Line." Each
week for two hours my guests were a Protestant minister, Roman Catholic
priest and rabbi (different ones each week), as well as representatives of
virtually every other faith.
One night, the topic I chose was divorce -- what is your and
your religion's view of divorce? The Protestant minister spoke against
divorce and noted that "people get divorced too quickly." The priest then
said virtually the same thing, and the rabbi did, too (on virtually no issue
was there ever such uniformity of views and rhetoric).
After each spoke, I asked the minister if he knew anyone well
who had divorced. "Well," he said, "as it happens, my brother is getting a
divorce right now."
"And do you feel that he is getting divorced too quickly?" I
"No," the pastor responded. He explained that his brother and
sister-in-law had tried counseling for many years to no avail, and that
their home was a deeply troubled one.
I then asked the priest if he knew anyone well who had divorced.
He responded that his mother had divorced many years ago.
"Do you feel that she divorced too quickly?" I asked.
"Not at all," he said, adding that for all intents and purposes,
the divorce liberated her from a toxic man and relationship.
I then asked the rabbi if he knew anyone well who had divorced.
And, sure enough, his parents had divorced many years earlier,
and he was convinced that it enabled him and his mother to become happier
people because the home was so depressed.
This scenario is typical. Whenever people say, "People get
divorced too easily," I ask them about people they know well who divorced,
and I usually get the same response.
Now, of course, many divorced people should have stayed together
(just as there are couples who stay together who should get divorced). But
conservatives look foolish when they say that except for spousal beating no
one should get divorced and that the divorce rates necessarily exemplify a
society in moral decline.
First, a truly bad marriage is akin to life imprisonment, and
innocent people do not deserve such a punishment.
Second, it only takes one person to divorce. Assuming that all
divorced people sought their divorce is as untrue as it is unfair.
Third, when there are no children involved, a divorce's social
costs to society are minimal and therefore unworthy of our attention.
Furthermore, as a rule, it is far better for society to have people marry
and divorce than never to marry. When people marry, they begin to grow up,
and society needs grownups.
Fourth, regarding children and divorce, the effects of divorce
usually depend on what happens after a couple divorces. By far, the worst
consequence of divorce is the large number of fathers who voluntarily or
involuntarily (because of selfish ex-wives or feminized laws) leave the
lives of their children. When both parents stay thoroughly involved in their
children's lives, sharing physical as well as legal custody, the adverse
effects of divorce can be minimized, and depending on how bad things were
prior to the divorce, a child's life can actually improve.
Let me be as clear as language allows. I believe that most
marriages should never come apart; that every good marriage has periods of
alienation and anger; that people must ride these tough waves and try to
improve their marriage. I even believe that it is wrong to automatically
divorce when one's spouse has an extramarital affair.
But I would not lump divorce statistics with crime and
out-of-wedlock births as a barometer of social pathology. There are simply
too many exceptions to the rule that people get divorced too easily. Like
the clergy on my show, I feel that almost every divorced person I know
deserves sympathy more than contempt.
If conservatives want to enter the divorce arena, we should
change divorce laws to ensure joint physical custody whenever feasible and
that people first seek counseling with professionals committed to the
welfare of children rather than attorneys devoted to ruining the other
Divorce is a good example of where conservatives can show their
compassion. Let's vigorously promote marriage but have no more knee-jerk
condemnations of divorce. It is these condemnations, more than divorces,
that are made too easily.