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Divorce Culture’

In response to:

The War Over the Family from the December 4, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

I recognize that review essays give authors scant time to explore books in depth, but Andrew Hacker’s treatment of The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families [NYR, December 4, 1997] leaves the impression that I romanticize single parenthood. My book never equates divorce with “liberation.” In fact, it points out that children of divorced parents, unwed mothers, and stepfamilies have, on average, more adjustment problems than children raised by continuously married couples. An effective parental alliance and respectful marriage offer children many advantages.

A healthy marriage, however, is not always what one gets, and a high-conflict marriage is usually harder on kids than divorce or nonmarriage. My book suggests we can save more marriages than we currently do by adjusting work policies, school hours, and the household division of labor to the reality that mothers are in the workforce to stay. But modern socioeconomic trends ensure that, like it or not, family diversity is also here to stay. Recognizing reality is not the same as romanticizing it, but it does mean rejecting the fantasy that we can reinstitute lifelong marriage as the main mechanism for organizing obligations between men and women, young and old.

The age of marriage for women is at an all-time high. For men it has tied the previous peak in 1890. Meanwhile, the average 60-year-old has another 25 years to live. Thus both young and old have more opportunities for a satisfying life outside marriage than ever before. And women’s economic independence gives them the option to leave a bad marriage or refuse a shotgun one.

We should distinguish between risks inherent in a particular family structure and risks that flow from other family dynamics or social factors. Researchers studying children who do poorly after divorce, for example, have found their behavior problems were often already evident years before the divorce took place, suggesting that both child maladjustment and divorce are frequently symptoms of more deep-rooted family dysfunctions. A mother’s parenting skills, income security, and educational status have more impact on her child’s outcome than her marital status.

I too am concerned when young women with poor job and education prospects have babies without being ready for parenthood. But the decline in real wages for poorly educated young men means that marriage is often not the best solution to a teen’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy. And pressuring young mothers into marriage is not necessarily best for their kids. One study of teens who gave birth while unmarried found that the reading scores of their children were higher when the mothers remained single than when they wed the father of their child, probably because such marriages tend to be especially conflicted. My book demonstrates that parental strife, poverty, social isolation, lead poisoning (still all too common in inner-city neighborhoods), and the corrupting effects of a winner-take-all, dependents-be-damned economy have measurably worse effects on children than a one-parent family per se.

Dr. Hacker takes exception to my report that single parents talk to their children and praise good grades more than adults in two-parent families. But I also noted that single parents are more likely to get angry when grades fall, a reaction that escalates parent-child hostility, and that they face difficulties in setting firm generational boundaries. My point was simply that every family form has typical vulnerabilities to avoid, while almost every family also has strengths it can cultivate.

Whatever their unease about family change in the abstract, most Americans agree that it makes more sense to teach all types of families how to build on their strengths and minimize their weaknesses than to issue pronouncements of doom for one-parent families while ignoring the stresses facing two-parent ones. That’s why I’m more optimistic than Dr. Hacker about the possibility that we can move past polarized debates over “the” family to help all our families meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Stephanie Coontz
The Evergreen State College
Olympia, Washington

To the Editors:

Andrew Hacker’s account of my book, The Divorce Culture [NYR, December 4, 1997], is largely at odds with what the book actually says. Let me correct his errors and then turn to his chief omission.

Hacker writes: “Whitehead generally blames liberal attitudes and policies for the rise of the ‘divorce culture.’ She fails to ask how and why the same ethos has pervaded conservative circles as well.” He then lists some notable Republicans who are divorced: Gingrich, Reagan, Dole, etc.

In fact, I don’t blame liberal policies. If he sees contrary evidence, let him cite it. As for attitudes, I argue that the divorce culture has been supported by a consensus that runs across ideology and party. In a section entitled “The Ideological Consensus,” I write: “Liberals were attracted by the psychological benefits as well as the political advantages expressive divorce seemed to hold for women. Liberals saw such traits as self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-determination as valuable assets for women. If divorce nurtured such traits and often required women to use them in the workforce, then divorce was fully compatible with the larger goal of economic independence for women…. For their part, conservatives found the ideology of expressive divorce compatible with their philosophical commitment to a deregulated environment that left the individual free to pursue opportunities and maximize profits. And on practical grounds as well, conservatives embraced the idea of divorce as an individual prerogative to be freely exercised by adults…. Leading conservative politicians had themselves exercised this prerogative, including…Phil Gramm and Bob Dole and…Newt Gingrich.” Thus, I do exactly what he criticizes me for failing to do.

Mr. Hacker also omits the central argument of the book: namely, that the divorce culture has contributed to the decline of child well-being over the past twenty-five years. To be sure, a number of conditions figure in this decline, but Ifocus on divorce for several reasons. First, it does damage to a substantial minority of the one million children a year who have experienced it over the course of more than two decades. Second, it is a middle-class phenomenon. Mainstream America clings to the easy illusion that the declining well-being of children has to do almost entirely with the behavior of unwed teen mothers or poor women on welfare rather than with the fragility of marital commitment within its own ranks. This has led to the scapegoating of some of the nation’s most vulnerable families. Three, the divorce culture undermines the foundation of our public commitment to children. A society cannot sustain a public ethic of obligation to children if it also embraces a private ethic that tells adults that they should put their own needs and interests before their children’s happiness and security.

Finally, Andrew Hacker characterizes my views as a call to a nineteenth-century code of self-abnegating duty. This misrepresents and caricatures what Isay. I call for a social ethic that treats children as the principal stakeholders in their parents’ marriages and places the needs and interests of children first in the dissolution of marriage. Moreover, Professor Hacker uncritically accepts the idea that self-restraint is antithetical to individual freedom. When it comes to divorce, that view runs contrary to the evidence. In a divorce culture, the state expands its role in the regulation and control of individual and family relationships. Self-restraint is replaced by restraint by the state and that often takes remarkably coercive forms. Now that New York has opened Family Court to the public, I suggest that Professor Hacker take a look at what goes on there. Perhaps then he might understand why the social ethic of family life that Iespouse is far less limiting of adult freedoms than the often oppres-sive legal consequences of quick and easy divorce.

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
Amherst, Massachusetts

Andrew Hacker replies:

True, Whitehead and I both cited conservative leaders—Gramm, Gingrich, Reagan, Dole—who discarded original wives for younger partners. She believes they were acting on their “philosophical commitment to a deregulated environment.” I was more prepared to put it down to hormones, which transcend ideological lines. And it may be that some liberals sought to ease divorce in hopes of aiding women. Even so, men of all persuasions have been the major beneficiaries. Whitehead also wants to deny that “self-restraint is antithetical to individual freedom.” That sounds a lot like Gramm and Gingrich. Choices must always be made between what we want to do and what we ought to do. The more we go one way, the less we’ll have of the other. Ask anyone who has stuck with a tiresome spouse for the sake of the children.

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