Divorce Culture

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The major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence, it rises in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move center stage. When it comes time to choose a life mate…the effects of divorce crescendo. .

~ Judith Wallerstein

When children are involved, there is no such thing as divorce.

  ~ Carl Rogers

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Divorce is no longer the cure-all remedy to a dissatisfying life, as we once hoped it was in the 1970’s. But despite the lack of improvements we’ve seen as a result of divorces and remarriages and multiple stepfamilies, the divorce rate continues to rise, further fragmenting our culture. Today 50% of all marriages are estimated to end in divorce. I don’t believe we are using divorce as an escape consciously, but that we are confused about what to do with our new roles and freedoms, we are disconnected from what is meaningful, and we naively hope divorce will provide us with a fresh start, that it will heal us.

Divorce is similar to Western medicine in that it attempts to cut the disease out of the system, to amputate. It does not attempt to treat the symptoms, or the interconnected elements that are also contributing to the illness – as Eastern medicine does.

As Eastern medicine does, we have to look at the entire system. Divorce, like open-heart surgery or the amputation of a leg, should be a last resort, not a standard form of treatment. It would benefit us to look more seriously at the long-term effects of divorce – on our children, our families, and our society.

Part of the reason that our culture often finds it difficult to address the high divorce rate is due to the pervasive belief in postmodernism. Postmodernism claims that there is no universal truth. It posits that reality can only be interpreted individually. Therefore, people, cultures, traditions, religions and races each have their own understanding of the truth, and each understanding is as valid as the other. This can also be defined as pluralistic relativism – the belief that everything is relative. Pluralistic relativism does not believe in hierarchies, or that anything or way of being is better than any other. It levels the playing field.

Postmodernism was founded by philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and it continues to be a presence in our universities and culture today. It has been successful in forcing us to see and appreciate the experiences of other cultures around the world, breaking us away from a dominant western view of civilization. It has enriched the humanities and literary theory with the arts of Africa, Asia and South America. It has given a voice to minorities and women who had been previously muted. It has alerted us to environmentalism and to the importance of preservation. It has sensitized us to listen to the experiences of others, and to have compassion for their realities, struggles, beliefs and needs. Indeed, the contributions of postmodernism are significant, and have greatly improved our world. But as we have traveled round and round on this pluralistic, leveled playing field, where no way of being is better than any other, we now find ourselves in a postmodern cul de sac.

What I mean by a postmodern cul de sac is – because the current highest level of thinking in society still believes in the postmodernist theory – that is, that there are no hierarchies or universal truths, we are unable to begin implementing ideas regarding development, neuroscience and attachment, which are what I believe will in part help to lead us forward from our current social crisis rife with fragmentation, to a more  sustainable culture.

Postmodernism is partially to blame for this social fragmentation. One of the reasons we find ourselves here is because a large percentage of the population now believes that to march to the beat of our own drum is all there is. There are no collective drums to march with, because anything of the collective holds no value, and has no universal truth. We cannot hear a song being sung by the collective, by the community or nation. We instead march alone, directed by our own impulses, our own needs. We are told by popular culture that this is healthy. That to “follow your bliss”, even if it hurts or disrupts the lives of others, is wise. This can be more accurately described as narcissism. This narcissism is what actually leads us to the isolation, anxiety and confusion we see today, especially among our youth. This leads to a lack of unity, division, and social fragmentation, stress and loneliness. These are all marks of the postmodern era.

In order for us to exit the postmodern cul de sac, we have to be willing to see that universal truths and natural hierarchies do exist, as developmental, neuroscience and attachment research findings have shown us. The origins of the word hierarchy are Greek, and mean sacred order – hieros meaning sacred, and arche meaning order. We will have to acknowledge that to ignore this sacred order, and to exclusively hold on to postmodern ideas, to being politically correct – is to inadvertently hurt others and contribute to our social crisis.

Divorce, under the belief system of postmodernism, is an individual’s right, regardless of the circumstances. The No-Fault Divorce Act was signed in California by Ronald Reagan in 1969 and was initiated in 1970. Under the new law, neither party can be judged as at fault for the dissolution of the marriage. If the husband has an affair with the babysitter and abandons his family leaving them destitute, it’s not his fault. This is pluralistic relativism at its best.

But despite my questioning the fashionable rise in divorce, sometimes divorce is indeed necessary, especially if there is abuse or severe drug addiction, or other such severe circumstances. Most divorces, however, do not occur because of severe circumstances, certainly not 50% of them, but because people claim “we’ve grown apart”, or “I love my partner but I’m no longer in love with them”, or “I’m just not getting my needs met.”

If we are to move forward, we have to recognize that our individual needs are not always the primary concern. Instead, our needs take precedence – the needs of my children and family as a whole. Therefore, it would seem that our culture’s approach to divorce would become less egocentric, and more caring about the needs and perspectives of others in the family.  When acting from this wider  perspective, one is better able to sacrifice his own immediate happiness because he knows and feels it is the right thing to do. He doesn’t do it in response to a religious doctrine, or in order to conform to the law or some authoritative power, but because it comes from a moral integrity within him. In a way, the sacrifice actually becomes his happiness, because it comes from love, from taking the best interests of others, even future generations, into consideration. This is not the same form of sacrifice we read about in spiritual texts (though it has similarities), it is not martyrdom, it is not suppressing your true self in order to live up to an external form of oppression. So one would be able to sacrifice his own immediate desires for the good of his entire family if necessary, while still taking care of himself. One would then bring his energy to bear on finding ways to take better care of himself, to get his needs met, to make necessary shifts, as best he can. We are now challenged to hold more complexity, and to avoid simple black and white solutions.

New research has been found in a study conducted by Paul Amato of the Sociology Department at Penn State and fellow researcher Allan Booth. The studies found that “divorce in high conflict marriages often results in beneficial effects for the children, while the dissolution of a lower conflict marriage is more likely to have a negative impact.” As I previously wrote, sometimes divorce is necessary, especially when there are severe circumstances. But most divorces don’t occur due to severe circumstances, such as violence, abuse or drug addition, but occur because someone says she just doesn’t meet my needs. Michele Weiner-Davis, psychotherapist and author of Divorce Busting, states that only 12% of divorces are estimated to occur due to severe circumstances, or high conflict. That leaves a lot of room for improvement.

As we learn more about neuroscience and how healthy development occurs, we are challenged to honestly assess how divorce impacts the secure attachment of children, putting politics aside. Often, when parents divorce they have less time, energy and resources to offer their children. They are frequently preoccupied with their own grief due to the aftermath of the divorce, and must spend a significant amount of time and energy rebuilding their life. These factors obviously take away from the quality of emotional attunement, availability and presence they can provide for their children, which directly affects the children’s attachment style and development. Often parents experience a decrease in financial stability, as well as a disruption of continuity, structures and routines, thereby causing children to feel less safe and more anxious. When parents begin to date new partners, or if they eventually re-marry, there are a host of issues around attachment that arise around distrust, step-families, fear of abandonment, insecurity, grief over the lost biological parent in the home, etc. Then when the children grow-up and begin to have their own intimate relationships, oftentimes the old attachment issues and wounds rear their heads, and threaten to disrupt the relationship. The affects of divorce can be insidious and long-term, as they are woven into the very development of the child.

The long-term, generational affects of divorce may be, however, the most damaging. We now have a generation, often called generation X or Y, of which a large percentage have divorced parents, and even divorced grandparents. In addition, they may have divorced aunts and uncles and other family members, further fragmenting the family. It is this generation and the following generations that may be most vulnerable to feelings of isolation and hopelessness. They are more prone to a kind of existential crisis that brings with it a profound sense of disconnection, wherein they feel lost at sea in a world with no enduring relationships or attachments. These factors set the stage for psychological issues such as dissociation, anxiety, and depression. These issues would ensue from a larger, socio-cultural problem, and would not be purely personal. I believe we will see an increasing number of people in this and the next generation expressing these concerns.

Of course, despite the adversities, many parents absolutely must divorce and do a remarkable job raising their children. But most divorced parents will acknowledge that the challenges and lack of resources I cited above are true of their experience. This is in no way to put down these parents. To the contrary, these parents are often unsung heroes. When parents must divorce, the entire family deserves our deepest compassion and support. They work hard around the clock trying to meet the needs of their children. They are often stressed due to the financial strains of being a single parent in a society that now commonly requires two incomes to support a household. They rarely have time to care for themselves, and rarely have someone to care for them. They always seem to feel exhausted and depleted.

Where there is such a high percentage of exhaustion and depletion – can there be balance and stability? Now that divorce in America has reached such a high rate, does it not affect the vast interconnection of social webs of which we are all a part, even for generations to come? Regardless of what a superhuman being you are, can any parent, alone, consistently provide the quality of attunement, care and empathy that a child requires? Perhaps some can, but most don’t have the financial or emotional resources to do so. This is true now more than ever due to the fact that most parents no longer have extended family nearby or a reliable community to offer support.

Consider these statistics gathered by Judith Wallerstein, a psychotherapist and author of the book The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study:

  • Only 45% of children “do well” after divorce
  • 41% are “doing poorly, worried, underachieving, deprecating, and often angry”
  • 50% of the women and 30% of the men were still intensely angry with their former spouses
  • Divorced parents provide less time, less discipline, and are less sensitive to their children as they are caught up in their own divorce and its aftermath.
  • Most children felt the lack of a template, a working model, for a loving relationship between a man and a woman
  • Many parents are unable to separate their needs from their children’s needs and often share too much of their personal life with their children, placing the children in a precarious emotional state, vulnerable to grandiosity or to depression within what is left of their families
  • The majority of parents of divorce are chronically disorganized and unable to parent effectively
  • As diminished parenting continues, it permanently disrupts the child’s once normal emotional growth and functioning.

I would add that the effects of divorce don’t cease when the papers are signed, but continue to ripple throughout a lifetime. Each holiday, graduation, wedding and family event reminds everyone, especially the children, of their loss. Family gatherings become almost comical, when the children sit down at the dinner table with their mother and stepfather, their stepbrothers and sisters, their uncle with his third wife and her second cousin on her mother’s side, and their father’s ex-girlfriend’s stepdaughter and her half-brother from her mother’s second marriage. Children of divorce can be extremely resilient, however, and are often very good at practicing tolerance – perhaps too good.

Is the personal happiness of an adult, which is not even a guarantee after divorce, more important than the healthy development, secure attachment, wholeness, and happiness of a child? Should we gamble with our children’s development, wellbeing and future if it  isn’t of absolute necessity?  These are the tough questions we all must consider.

Yet, if after much evaluation, reflection and effort we find divorce to be the best option, we can then commit to regarding our situation with honesty – fully aware of the possible repercussions.  We can find strength in our integrity, and refrain from assuaging our anxiety by telling ourselves the kids will be just fine, as we already know too much to make such a naive assumption. We can make our decision knowing the grass isn’t always greener, that we’re trading one set of problems for another, and that our children will most certainly be effected to some degree.  We can make our decision knowing divorce is not an automatic ticket to paradise, but the best course of action under the present circumstances.

About the Author

Lisa Nave

Lisa Nave is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Mill Valley, California.

1 Comment

  1. Rebecca

    Great article! Very profound and insightful.

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