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Gore Family Values

Table A

Table B

Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson and Albert Arnold Gore Jr. met at a prep school prom in 1964, when she was sixteen and he was a year older. They began dating steadily, and married soon after she finished college. They have been together ever since. By most measures theirs has been a conventional family. She took his name and stayed at home to raise four children, always adapting to the demands of his career. (In the 1980s, she launched a campaign against what she called “porn rock” music, which got her lots of headlines but had no evident effect.) After the 2000 election, the Gores essentially dropped from public view. It now appears that they were devoting much of their time to writing a long and amply documented book on the state of family life in today’s America.

They have chosen a sensitive subject, sensitive not least because it can prompt judgments about how millions of people are conducting their lives. Moreover, ideology almost always intrudes on any discussion of the family. Ideas and issues tend to divide along right-wing vs. liberal lines, largely reflecting the preemption by conservatives of the phrase “family values.” The conservative position has been elaborated in books by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (The Divorce Culture), Wendy Shalit (A Return to Modesty), Maggie Gallagher (The Abolition of Marriage), and Dana Mack (The Assault on Parenthood), most of which have been reviewed in these pages.1 Since the general perspective of such writers is well known, its precepts can be briefly summarized. First, all children should be born to parents who are married, and the parents should stay wed until one of them dies. Single persons should abstain from sex, and marriage must be confined to heterosexual partnerships. Today, few conservatives object to contraception, and many allow latitude for women taking jobs. (Indeed, they insist that single mothers work, rather than stay on the welfare rolls.) They are troubled by sex even among older unmarried adults, and even if they are faithfully living together in informal arrangements. One worry is that sex in the movies and television will embolden teenagers to have sex and bear children they can’t look after properly.

The liberal position is less sharply drawn, but on the whole, it is less inclined to censure the kinds of conduct that conservatives find distressing. One reason is that the numbers of people under scrutiny are no longer small. For example, one third of all women now becoming mothers are not married, and a large majority of them are having their babies by choice. While we no longer have precise figures, an informed estimate is that at least a quarter of Americans who have married have already been divorced, and the proportion is likely to be considerably higher among the coming generation. Moreover, given the later age of marriage—and the considerable numbers who forego it altogether—most single people are sexually active, and they are starting earlier. Liberals tend to feel that these are new realities, and not much can be done to change them. They also see nothing wrong with homosexual partnerships, and many support the idea of recognizing them as marriages.

But liberals are also ambivalent about much of what they see. They often find themselves uneasy about the rise in out-of-wedlock births, especially when the mothers are young. At the same time, they are reluctant to criticize these women, and instead point to conditions that influence their decisions. Similarly, they know that all too many divorces inflict suffering on children. Yet here too they are disinclined to call the parents selfish, perhaps because some of them are their friends. (And in this tactfulness, of course, they are joined by many conservatives.)

1.

All this is by way of setting the stage for the Gores, since they are trying to present their own distinctive version of “family values.” Just two years ago, they sought to become the nation’s first family, and there are signs that they are not averse to trying again. As with Earth in the Balance, his 1992 environmental manifesto, Joined at the Heart can be read as part of a platform that the Gores will be advocating in one form or another, proposing a different approach in the “family values” debate.

Unlike many laments over the deterioration of domestic ties, Joined at the Heart is relentlessly upbeat. Instead of deploring the ubiquity of divorce and part-time parenthood, the Gores applaud the “explosion of new family forms and novel solutions to age-old problems.” And instead of invoking traditional models, they have chosen a range of permutations and combinations that exemplify the new kinds of relationships. So we meet Mitch and Cindy, Pat and Todd, Josh and John, and Minh and Thanh, people they’ve talked to, and whose households, we are told, suggest the different kinds of family life that lie ahead. Indeed, the book opens with a visit to Susan and Dick and Dee and Caitlin, whose six children from serial marriages have coalesced in a “seamless, loving, blended family.” Apart from two newlyweds, a gay couple, and some immigrants, almost everyone cited in the book has divorced and remarried at least once. This, the Gores suggest, is becoming the norm, and they ask their readers to be open to new ideas about what can constitute a family.

To be sure, it would be inaccurate to say that the Gores are “pro-divorce.” No one is. Rather, people differ about what circumstances, if any, justify ending a marriage. But while the Gores cite several sides in this debate, their general position is that marital breakups deserve understanding rather than reproof or disapproval. Not only have most of the actual men and women they describe been divorced, some more than once, but all of them, we are told, have picked up the pieces and moved on in salutary ways. So it is not surprising that they quote Mavis Hetherington, a University of Virginia psychologist, who likes to point to people whose lives “were really enhanced after divorce.”2 However, even she admits that only one in four divorced women would make this claim. One wonders why the Gores didn’t talk with any of the other three whose lives didn’t improve or may have gotten worse. They also cite a study which found that “fifty percent of divorced adults were still angry at their ex-mates ten years later.” But signs of such rancor are nowhere in their book.

The Census Bureau estimates that half of current marriages will end in divorce. This figure, however, is not as dire as it may first appear, because divorces take two very different forms: those in which the couple has children and the rest where only the two adults are involved. Not only should these two types be considered separately; it would even help if they had different names. The most recent numbers we have go back to 1990, when national statistics were last collated. In that year, children were present in 53 percent of all divorces, and something close to that proportion probably could be found today. The other 47 percent, where children aren’t involved, might simply be called “dissolutions,” to convey that whatever their pain or disappointment, only adults have to bear the burden.3

When couples with children divorce, it is almost always a decision that the adults make by themselves. Hardly ever are the youngsters consulted, let alone allowed a veto. So it is the parents (one or both) who initiate the action because they feel they would be happier living apart or with someone else. This needs emphasis because only in a small fraction of divorces can it honestly be attested that continuing the marriage will be harmful to the children. True, we often hear that youngsters are unsettled by arguments and other signs of tension. Yet most learn to accept such situations as part of an imperfect world. Of course, it is frightful for them if their father assaults their mother; she should leave for their sake as well as her own. Even so, there are not many cases where one parent so degrades the children that a marriage should be ended principally in order to benefit them. Indeed, most youngsters want their parents to stick it out. The Gores cite a study of divorces that found that “while sixty percent of the adults involved said they had been in favor of it, only ten percent of the children were.”

However, they prefer to rely again on the views of Mavis Hetherington. “Most children of divorced families turn out to be no different than those who grew up in married families,” they write, echoing her opinion. But there is much evidence that this isn’t the case. Youngsters who live with divorced mothers almost always descend to a lower living standard. It may be said that money isn’t everything, although that view is largely held by those who have it. But it is questionable to contend that children who saw their mothers and fathers break apart end up with as happy a life as those whose parents stayed together. We know that the children of divorced parents themselves are more likely to get divorced; and boys from broken homes don’t perform as well at school, even when they are middle-class. Of course, there’s no scientific way to prove that youthful Americans taken together are unhappier, now that divorce is touching more of them. (At least they can be aware that more of their classmates are having the same experience.) Still, what won’t go away is the figure the Gores cite: nine out of ten affected youngsters wish it hadn’t happened.

However, the Gores are right in sensing that more people than ever want to end their marriages, or ultimately will. The best and most comprehensive research into these attitudes was conducted by Paul R. Amato and Alan Booth, who stayed in touch with a large sample of men and women over a twelve-year period.^4 During that time, many of them got divorced, and they were questioned about their decision to do so. The study’s primary finding was that “people are leaving marriages at lower thresholds of unhappiness now than in the past.” Between a quarter and 30 percent cited physical abuse, frequent quarrels, or even having serious disagreements with their partner as causes for divorce. The rest had less urgent reasons. While it may be too much to describe most of the divorces now taking place as “convenience,” we do know that in other times and places couples continued together even though their life together had lost what vitality it had.

Joined at the Heart repeats an often-heard report that in recent years the divorce rate has been declining. Unfortunately, this is another instance where the statistics do not tell the entire story. The rate most usually used compares the number of divorces in a year to the total population. During the last half-century, the lowest rate was 2.1 per 1,000 in 1958, and it reached a high of 5.3 per 1,000 in 1981. In 2001, the rate was 4.0 per 1,000 people, which at first glance seems a notable decline from twenty years earlier.

  1. 1

    See my articles in The New York Review, December 4, 1997, and October 21, 1999.

  2. 2

    E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (Norton, 2002).

  3. 3

    See Pamela Paul, The Starter Marriage (Villard, 2002), for signs that the parties in early childless divorces recuperate quite quickly.

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