Review of Judith Wallerstein’s The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce : The 25 Year Landmark Study – BrothersJudd.com

In Alienation of Affection, Best Interest of the Child, Child Custody, Child Support, child trafficking, children criminals, children legal status, children's behaviour, Childrens Rights, Civil Rights, CPS, cps fraud, custody, deadbeat dads, Divorce, Domestic Relations, Domestic Violence, due process rights, family court, Family Court Reform, Family Rights, fatherlessness, fathers rights, Feminism, Freedom, Homeschool, kidnapped children, Marriage, motherlessness, mothers rights, National Parents Day, Non-custodial fathers, Non-custodial mothers, parental alienation, Parental Alienation Syndrome, Parental Kidnapping, Parental Relocation, parental rights, Parental Rights Amendment, Parentectomy, Parents rights, Restraining Orders on June 28, 2009 at 12:14 am

The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce : The 25 Year Landmark Study (2000)

If we give them the benefit of the doubt, we can assume that the folks who reformed divorce laws, beginning about forty years ago, honestly believed that children would benefit from having happier parents more than they would suffer from the process itself.  But we are four decades along in this social experiment and, as Judith Wallerstein and her colleagues capably demonstrate, it’s time to acknowledge that the reformers were catastrophically wrong and that their error has dire and continuing consequences for our society.  It’s important to note that the authors are not saying that divorce is bad per se, they well understand that some family situations are so unhealthy that it is better for all concerned that the marriage end, but they do provide important insights into the long term effects that even relatively amicable divorces have on the children of divorce, effects which endure into adulthood.

One of the most important contributions of their study is a point that should be obvious : children don’t particularly care that their parents might be happier if they could get out of their marriages, they want them to stay together.  This is a simple function of the fact that children are even more monstrously selfish than the rest of us.  Less obvious, but still commonsensical, is the idea that the divorce of one’s parents is likely to permanently shape your own personality, your emotional well being, and your capacity and willingness to trust and love others.  Progressives may not like it, but it is nonetheless true that the nuclear family is the most ancient, powerful, and important social arrangement of humankind.  To imagine that children, the most vulnerable and impressionable members of that unit, would be able to just shrug of its breakdown is absurd on its face.  Divorce quite naturally terrifies children, calling into question the general stability of family and love.  Little wonder then that adult children of divorce experience great anxiety and difficulty when they try to establish relationships and form families of their own.

The authors illustrate these points and many others with examples from actual cases they have studied.  This is very effective as a way of personalizing their arguments, but has left them open to legitimate criticism that their work does not meet rigorous scientific standards.  In the end, you are likely to judge their work by whether it confirms or contradicts your own political viewpoint.  But it’s awfully hard to just dismiss their findings.

In the conclusion to the book, they offer some very moderate and tentative proposals for policy changes that would reduce the negative impact of divorce on children.  As they note, we have created a culture of divorce, one in which 45% of all first marriages end in divorce, and 65% of second marriages.  This should be intolerable to us, because it essentially defeats the purposes for which the institution was created and calls into the question the benefits that we extend to married couples.  Personally, I would incorporate some of the authors’ suggestions but add several, much harsher ones, of my own :

(1)    As they suggest, children should be given a strong voice in custody and visitation matters.  It should be less important to us as a society what the divorcing parents desire and more important what their children wish.

(2)    Instructing school age kids in good marriage and parenting skills seems harmless enough, though unlikely to do much good.

(3)    Likewise, encouraging businesses to adopt more family-friendly policies–flextime and the like–is certainly worthwhile, but doesn’t seem likely to have a major impact.

(4)    Mandatory counseling prior to divorce is also unobjectionable.  Though I’d have it done through churches, rather than under government auspices.

(5)    In addition, just as we extend tax and other benefits to married couples, there should be tax penalties associated with divorce, particularly in cases where children are involved.  The authors note that people like the current ease of divorce because it provides them with great freedom.  But freedom must carry with it certain responsibilities and obligations.

(6)    Similarly, you should only be allowed one bite at the apple.  Divorced persons should, if they are allowed to remarry, not be granted the same benefits as they were the first time.  In law, they should be treated as singles.

(7)    Tax benefits, student loan provisions, school vouchers, mortgage breaks, etc. should all be greatly expanded for married couples.  A society has no more important task than the raising of its next generation, and anything government can do to make parents task easier should be done.  The best way to do this is not through new programs but by making it more affordable to have and to raise children.

(8)    All of these provisions should be waived in cases where there has been physical or sexual abuse of either spouse or children or where one spouse has committed adultery.  Divorce should be made an unattractive option for couples who are merely unhappy, but must remain a viable option where people are genuinely endangered or are sinned against.  At the same time courts should punish such behaviors, including adultery, much more severely than they historically have.

These reforms, and given time we can probably come up with more, will raise obvious objections.  People don’t much care to be forced to accept responsibilities; they much prefer being given freedoms.  Tough.  Marriage is not a right; it is a privilege.  Marriage is a civic institution which exists to fulfill certain set purposes–chief among them are procreation and child-rearing.  It would be great if all married couples were happy, but as a society this is only a secondary concern.  The stability of the institution is more important than the happiness of the participants and their happiness is actually unimportant when it has a negative impact on their children.

Of course, I’m a child of divorced parents, so all of the forgoing may just be sour grapes and the product of my own damaged psyche…


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