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Divorce American Style

In response to:

Divorce American Style from the February 17, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

If one accepts Christopher Lasch’s tenet: “If anyone wishes to understand American divorce, let him begin by understanding American marriage” then one must dismiss entirely Mr. Lasch’s impressions of “Divorce American Style” (Feb. 17) because it is clear he understands little about marriage, American or otherwise…. It is not the “myth of domesticity” which causes the conflicts between marriage and careers for women but the deep desire to express patterns for becoming a wife and mother which conflict with the strongly felt need to express desexualized potentials. The value of this point of view is that it indicates the problem is not simply a sociocultural one which “the general devaluation of marriage” will solve, but a psychosexual one as well, for any enduring solution must consider this aspect as well.

Mr. Lasch is again totally disrespectful of the psychobiological basis of certain institutions, this time, the family (to say nothing of being historically inaccurate), when he attributes “the idea of the family as something set apart from the rest of society…” to “the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” and states that “the emergence of a distinguishable concept of childhood, in fact, was probably the decisive event…” in its evolution. The family, in all its myriad forms, is based on biologically determined groupings of mates and offspring. Its origins go back to the primal hordes, not Victorian mores. He exactly misinterprets the situation when he says childhood made possible the family, when it is indisputable that the family made possible childhood. And it is precisely the quality of that childhood which can powerfully shape the child’s capacity for mature love and work. To maximize these capacities requires a large measure of parental effort, devotion and, of course, sacrifice. When Mr. Lasch implies this sacrifice is inimical to the fulfillment of the adult parent he misses the point that only those adults who find some measure of fulfillment in child rearing can responsibly procreate. It is in so far as society does not develop adults who approximate the ideal of devotion to their mates and children, yet still being capable of independent, creative work, that the next generation bears a tragic toll of unfulfilled potential, desperate unhappiness and mental illness.

Herbert Meltzer, M.D.

Massachusetts Mental Health Center


Christopher Lasch replies:

Dr. Meltzer seems to be accusing me of taking the preposterous position that the family began in the eighteenth century. He might have assumed that even a historian, uninitiated though he may be into the mysteries of sex, knew better than that. What I said was not that “childhood made possible the family,” whatever that means, but that a new idea about childhood, dating, apparently, from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, helped to promote a new idea about the family. Even if one wants to postulate, with George Peter Murdock, the “universality of the nuclear family,” one must still allow for great variations, from culture to culture and from one historical period to another, in the way the nuclear family is defined. It has not always been defined, as it is in modern Western culture, as an alternative to “the world,” or for that matter, as an institution devoted above all to the nurture of the young. Dr. Meltzer’s solicitude for the “quality of childhood” would have been incomprehensible to Europeans a few centuries ago.

If the conflict between home and career were purely a feminine problem, we might be justified in regarding it as “psychosexual”—a function of women’s biological need to become mothers. But the cult of domesticity led to the same conflict in men, although it has not been conventionally regarded, in men, as a “problem.” The concept of home as a refuge from the brutal world of commerce, industry, and ambition is one of many influences which have produced, in men and women alike, the dissociation of personality that is so pronounced a feature of the modern temper. The “woman problem” is not a woman problem at all; it is a modern problem. What keeps us from seeing this important point is the biological determinism in which Dr. Meltzer takes such pride. Masking as science, these psycho-sexual profundities in reality consist of clichés and superstitions about woman’s “nature” which themselves derive from the domestic revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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