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Books about divorce make for inherently unpleasant reading. Books about divorce that contain interviews with divorced or divorcing couples, including the arguments and mutual accusations that have led to their breakup, give you a feeling rather like being trapped in a room with a couple you’re not really friends with while they’re having an enormous blowup.
E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, an emerita professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a New York writer, respectively, present the long-term perspective on divorce’s discontents. Hetherington followed 1,400 families of married and divorced couples over a 30-year period, interviewing them from the early post-split years all the way through middle age and their children’s entry into adulthood—and marriage. Paul—a 31-year-old divorcee and editor at American Demographics whose own marriage, at age 27, fell apart in less than a year—interviewed 60 young people who had divorced more recently. She narrowed her field down to those who had what she’s calling “starter marriages”: marriages that collapsed in less than five years and before children came into the picture.
Reading these books—For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered and The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony—is like reading a primer on the 1,460 warning signs of a relationship gone sour—except that marriage elevates the collapse of a relationship from the realm of gossip to the realm of societal concern. And within the litany of individual complaints, the authors suggest, can be found some larger pattern of behaviors and beliefs that is shaping—or unshaping—our society.
If ever there were any doubt that divorce is a rotten, gut-wrenching process that rips families apart and takes individuals years to recover from, these two books—even though both are about as upbeat about divorce as possible, and Hetherington’s book explicitly positions itself as a kind and gentle primer for the newly divorced—lay it to rest. They paint an exceedingly nasty picture of the tangled mess of recriminations, self-doubt, guilt, shame, and anger that comes with the dissolution of a marriage.
And yet not one person interviewed in The Starter Marriage, according to Paul, said his or her own divorce had been a mistake. What gives?
The books reveal an interesting difference between divorce a generation ago and divorce today. Hetherington’s cohort got married and divorced before the massive changes in female education and work habits that came with the sexual revolution had become normalized; her male participants particularly seem steeped in a totally different culture from Paul’s. Indeed, the 3- and 5-year-olds fought over in custody battles in Hetherington’s book grew up to become the generation of divorced 20-somethings in Paul’s.
Hetherington’s men collapsed post-divorce. “Newly divorced men who lived alone led the most chaotic lives. They rarely prepared a meal, got enough sleep, or went to bed at a regular time. They also had more difficulty with routine tasks like shopping, laundry, cleaning, and cooking….One reason why newly divorced men often feel [lost] is a lack of domestic skills. Even today, many men rely on women—mothers, partners, or wives—to deal with the details of domestic life.”
Paul’s men got divorced in part, she suggests, because they didn’t need women, or the domestic skills women used to bring disproportionately to the table, as much as their fathers did. They already knew how to cook and clean and care for themselves. And the women, for their part, knew how to take care of themselves financially and had less need for the men—except from the perspective of romance and companionship. “Today, many…pragmatic motivations [for marriage] no longer apply,” writes Paul.
Paul chastises her cohort—educated in the “whatever makes you happy” school of human relations during their childhood and teen years—for neglecting to consider the nonromantic aspects of marriage. Yet she also points out that their marriages were undermined by an increasing lack of connections to traditional social supports—such as church and extended, geographically proximate family—that help keep what is ultimately a social institution, not just a personal choice, going.
The breakdown of young marriages can thus be seen as a consequence of the collapse of social institutions—be they professional, religious, or familial—more generally. As individuals become more mobile, notes Paul, they are torn in different directions by competing careers and competing values and expectations.
“[W]e’ve absorbed the fantasy of the 1950s family, even as we reject some of the social conventions that supported it,” Paul writes. Children of divorce themselves, many of her subjects had no models for what a successful, happy marriage should look like—or much of an understanding of the sort of work and ongoing negotiations involved in sharing mundane life with a partner. “With rare exception, the people interviewed for this book said their parents gave them no lessons about marriage, no guidance, no warnings, no encouragement, no words of wisdom,” writes Paul.
When Hetherington looks at the marriages of the children of her original cohort of divorced couples, she finds them struggling with this lack as well. Romantic love, she notes, is only “a temporary glue.” But she notes certain things that may help young people compensate for whatever marital education they missed growing up: “[T]he most important potential protective factor” for preventing divorce among children of divorce, she finds, “is selection of a mate. Marriage is a relationship, not a one-person show.” Furthermore, “[s]upportive friends with stable marriages also contribute to marital stability.”
Paul’s generation seems surprisingly cavalier about the pragmatics of marriage. “I just dated whoever liked me instead of trying to find the best person for who I am,” says one 29-year-old.
Thus, Paul’s early marriages seem to have faltered on the shoals of their own poor choices. Love is blind, but as time clears away the fog of romance, it casts young people back on their sometimes inadequate individual resources to cope with the forces that threaten to pull them apart. “We want the kind of marriages we’ve always fantasized about but have never actually seen,” writes Paul. Of her subjects, “[s]ome suffered from drug and alcohol problems, family crises, insufferable in-laws, or adultery,” but “most were plagued by less dramatic conflicts.”
Perhaps the impatient younger generation simply doesn’t want to put up with the imperfections of life lived with another imperfect being, says Paul. A 29-year-old from Texas told her: “My belief is that you marry for love and the long haul, but if things don’t go right, it’s better to be divorced than in a bad marriage. I believe in marriage, but if it’s not meant to be, better to get out sooner rather than later.” Or perhaps the younger couples seem to have less dramatic conflicts simply because more serious troubles have not yet had time to manifest themselves when they decide it’s time to get out.
In the end, though, these books suggest that the choice most people have is between an intact marriage that has imperfections, like the people who enter into it, or one that breaks up because of those imperfections. It’s not a very romantic vision, and it’s certainly not the kind of thing idealistic young unmarrieds want to hear. But, both books suggest, a solid dose of hardheaded, unromantic thinking about what marriage is for might stave off a lot of trouble. CP