A Culture of Divorce

Statistics tell us that first marriages today stand a 45 percent chance of breaking up and second marriages a 60 percent chance. But those numbers just confirm what we already knew: Divorce has increased not only in frequency but also in acceptance. And even if we don’t focus on figures per se, we know that today far more marriages end in divorce than a couple of decades ago.

Is divorce so prevalent, so acceptable a thread in the social fabric of Western culture that perhaps we have missed some rather significant developments paralleling its increase? What does it mean to American society that 25 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 44 have parents who are divorced? In the 1990s only 26 percent of U.S. households consisted of married couples with children.

This represents a massive social change. It has taken place in the relatively short space of about 40 years and is reshaping the basic building block of society. Divorce is altering the institution of marriage and family in ways not yet fully comprehended. However, enough is understood to allow experts in the field to state that increased tolerance of divorce has produced profound changes in our attitudes toward what we think marriage and family to be.

It isn’t that marriages were perfect in the 18th and 19th centuries, and that toward the end of the 20th century we somehow wandered off the straight and narrow. But regardless of what the institution used to represent, it is well documented that the traditional roles of men and women changed greatly with industrialization and urbanization in the 20th century. Additionally, World War II drew women into the workplace to replace the men who had gone to the front; new birth control methods gave women control over fertility; and in general, women gained greater decision-making ability in family matters as they worked outside the home. The momentum was accelerated by various social movements with civil-rights, feminist and human-potential agendas.

These societal changes brought freedoms that previous generations did not have. The commitment to stay in a marriage in order to make it work gave way to an attitude of moving on if the marriage was in difficulty. Women working outside the home gained a measure of economic freedom. This in turn created less of an incentive to work out marital differences. The independence produced by increased household income also gave men a loophole to reduce their sense of responsibility and commitment to a marriage.

Enter the “me—now” generation. Why stay in a difficult or loveless relationship? Move on! Find whatever it is that will provide happiness. Under such conditions it is not surprising that in the 1970s the divorce rate doubled, with the younger generation being major contributors. That generation held views quite different from those of their parents, especially in respect of fidelity, chastity and commitment. Citing figures from Stanford University, syndicated columnist Kerby Anderson asserts that while men and women in their 20s comprised only about 20 percent of the population in the 1960s and early ’70s, they accounted for 60 percent of the increase in the divorce rate.

Solid Grounds

Another significant factor commonly overlooked in discussions about marital breakup is the “no-fault” divorce. According to Anderson, the laws governing marriage were “historically . . . based upon the traditional Judeo-Christian belief that marriage was for life. Marriage was intended to be a permanent institution. Thus, the desire for divorce was not held to be self-justifying. Legally the grounds for divorce had to be circumstances that justified making an exemption to the assumption of marital permanence. The spouse seeking a divorce had to prove that the other spouse had committed one of the ‘faults’ recognized as justifying the dissolution of the marriage. In most states, the classic grounds for divorce were cruelty, desertion, and adultery.”

In other words, the legal system acted as a brake. The basic premise in this fault-based system of divorce law was that marriage was a special institution and needed to be preserved. But this legal foundation was challenged as society shifted its outlook on marriage. In 1969 the State of California set a precedent when then-governor Ronald Reagan enacted a statute allowing no-fault divorce. Today this is the de facto legal principle in every state in the union. The legal system released the brake, and the resulting impact was deeply felt.

Of course, as with most sweeping societal changes, people assumed that this one was for the good. Those locked in loveless, miserable relationships now could end an unhappy marriage without the burden or unpleasantness of proving fault or apportioning blame.

Judith Wallerstein, senior lecturer emerita at the University of Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare, states in her 2000 book The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: “The prevailing climate of opinion was that divorce would allow adults to make better choices and happier marriages by letting them undo earlier mistakes. They would arrive at an honest, mutual decision to divorce, because if one person wanted out, surely it could not be much of a marriage. These attitudes were held by men and women of many political persuasions, by lawyers, judges, and mental health professionals alike.”

We made radical changes in the family without realizing how it would change the experience of growing up.”

Judith Wallerstein, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce

It all sounds so reasonable—except for one very important detail: Marriages tend to produce children. Wallerstein asks: “But what about the children? In our rush to improve the lives of adults, we assumed that their lives would improve as well. We made radical changes in the family without realizing how it would change the experience of growing up.”

Adults, in their eagerness to reduce difficult situations for themselves, convinced themselves that the children would be happier if the parents were happier. They also argued that divorce is a temporary crisis, with most of the harm being done around the time of the initial separation, and that with time children would adjust if the parents “worked things out” amicably.

Both suppositions, however, are being seriously challenged today. For example, UCLA sociologist Nicholas Wolfinger asserts that “cumulative stress as new parents move in and out of a child’s life seems to be affecting his marital history as an adult.” Wallerstein is even more forceful regarding the effects of divorce on children: “Divorce is a life-transforming experience. After divorce, childhood is different. Adolescence is different. Adulthood—with the decision to marry or not and have children or not—is different. Whether the final outcome is good or bad, the whole trajectory of an individual’s life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience.”

The whole trajectory of an individual’s life is profoundly altered by the divorce experience.”

Nicholas Wolfinger

An Old Problem

Consider for a moment that knowledge of the harmful effects of divorce on children was documented almost 400 years before Christ. The information is in the Book of books—the Bible. We know that divorce is rampant today and that children are at risk. Should we not therefore pay attention to such a source? Before dismissing what follows as irrelevant to contemporary life, let’s consider the account to see whether it’s reminiscent in any way of 2001.

In Malachi 2:16, we are told that God hates divorce. A natural question would be, Why?

The book of Malachi is a message for the nation of Israel and is both historic and prophetic. Both halves of the nation (the House of Israel and the House of Judah) had previously been taken captive because of their rejection of God’s way. A remnant of the tribe of Judah had been allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and the city walls. Initially they had engaged in these projects with great enthusiasm, but over time and in the face of obstacles and opposition, they had slipped into an attitude of laxness in their relationship with God. Malachi addresses this attitude.

Central to the discussion is the covenant that God made with Israel at Mt. Sinai, where the nation had agreed to the terms and conditions of what amounted to a marriage contract with God. They were now violating this contract, which was based on the law of God: “But you have departed from the way; you have caused many to stumble at the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi” (Malachi 2:8). There were many ways in which they had corrupted the covenant, but one area clearly defined by Malachi was marriage.

Marriage is a covenant. It is not independent of God. He is a witness to the agreement: “Because the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant” (verse 14, emphasis added throughout). A marriage embarked upon in youth is intended to remain into old age. This passage also says that the wife is not inferior but is a companion in whom the husband should take delight.

One Plus One Is Three

The question in the next verse, “Did He not make them one?” leads us to an important aspect of marriage that most don’t take into consideration when contemplating a divorce. Marriage assumes a sexual union, and this union is much more than just a physical experience; it is the union of mind and spirit. Something happens within the mind that causes two people to become “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5).

This relationship between husband and wife is essential to a healthy family relationship. “A central finding to my research,” says Wallerstein, “is that children identify not only with their mother and father as separate individuals but with the relationship between them. They carry the template of this relationship into adulthood and use it to seek the image of their new family.”

This fits exactly with the message of Malachi, where God’s hatred of divorce is connected to the effects on children: “He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce” (Malachi 2:15–16).

The marriage-covenant relationship is intended to produce children and to provide them with the physical-mental nurturing a young, developing mind requires.

Mary Hirschfeld, in her Adult Children of Divorce Workbook, states: “There is nothing that hurts more than the wound that is meted out by the most important people in our childhood, our mother and father, because it violates the promise, implicit to life itself, to provide continuous safety and care. I believe most human beings unconsciously believe that a mother and father, when they create a life, enter into a tacit agreement to continue the family as a unit and to be present to guide the children until they can claim the world as adults. When parents do this . . . it nourishes trust and allows the children to build a healthy foundation for all of life’s tasks.”

This is precisely the basis of God’s injunction against Israel. They were destroying the security of future generations by their dismantling of the marriage relationship—and so are we!

Reshaping Society

Wallerstein’s 25-year study has deeply convicted her of the long-term effects of divorce. “Moreover,” she says, “by following the life of one child of divorce, and then another and another, from early childhood through adolescence and into the challenges of adulthood, I can say without a doubt that they have worries apart from their peers raised in intact homes. These worries are reshaping our society in ways we never dreamt about.”

She is not suggesting that the reshaping is positive in its results. “The divorced family is not a truncated version of the two-parent family,” she says. “It is a different kind of family, in which children feel less protected and less certain about their future than children in reasonably good intact families. . . . Moreover, divorce brings radical changes to parent-child relationships that run counter to our current understanding. Parenting cut loose from its moorings in the marital contract is often less stable, more volatile, and less protective of children.” Divorce is weakening the basic building block of society. The children of divorce are affected (to greater or lesser degrees), and they carry the impact on into adulthood and in turn affect another generation.

Having spent the last thirty years of my life traveling here and abroad talking to professional, legal, and mental health groups plus working with thousands of parents and children in divorced families,” Wallerstein notes, “it’s clear that we’ve created a new kind of society never before seen in human culture. Silently and unconsciously, we have created a culture of divorce.”

It’s clear that we’ve created a new kind of society never before seen in human culture.”

Judith Wallerstein, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce

This new culture affects a wider range of people than we might realize. Writer Holly Preston points out, for instance, that “divorce is hard for adult children too.” Preston is 34, married, and a mother, and her parents recently divorced. Given the psychology generally accepted regarding the effects of divorce, this should not have been a major issue to a secure, happily married, 34-year-old woman. But she comments, “Contrary to popular belief, divorce isn’t any easier or less painful when you are an adult child. . . . The loss of that original family unit and the hope tied to it is often irreplaceable for a child. . . . I’ll never manage to fill the void that’s been created. It’s like mourning the death of someone I loved and now miss terribly” (Newsweek, September 4, 2000).

A Warning and a Promise

As noted earlier, Malachi spoke not only historically but also prophetically. His message concludes with a warning and a promise of hope. When the people of Israel did not heed the warning to change their ways, their society spiraled downward.

The same warning applies to us today. The fracturing and destabilizing of our society will continue as the “culture of divorce” exacts its toll. Divorce is changing the basic nature of marriage, and unless the trend is stopped and our hearts are turned to each other and to our children, this “new kind of society” is in danger as ancient Israel was.

What we must do is to reverse the trend family by family. Divorce has to become a rarity. Divorce is a choice between two people, just as marriage is a choice. But marriage is a choice based in love and commitment. Divorce is a choice that either or both partners demand in the absence of the will to live up to promises spoken and commitments made.

In the book of Malachi, God promises that before society comes apart socially He will send someone “in the spirit and power” of Elijah to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:5–6). He further promises that ultimately through the establishment of the kingdom of God, the sanctity of marriage will once again be elevated and this essential building block of a healthy society restored.