Abstract Family


Seriousness of the Divorce Problem

How divorce is destroying America

Sad little girl

"Society should try to help more children grow up with their two biological, married parents in a reasonably healthy, stable relationship - not to pay homage to a Victorian notion of propriety, but because the overwhelming consensus of research shows that's the very best way to raise children." -- Theodora Ooms, Center for Law and Social Policy

By many measures, America is in decline. Rampant materialism, declining moral values, sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, and breakdown of our educational system are all factors that take their toll on the economy and international relations. A major root cause of all of these factors is breakdown of the family. The breakdown of the family is caused by divorce. The divorce epidemic is ripping apart the fabric of American society.

Divorce Rate Statistics:
In recent years, the scope of the divorce problem has been masked by a drop in divorce rates. This Huffington Post article discusses these statistics showing that there are is a lower percentage of divorces each year, and that if people get married, the marriages last for a longer number of years on average. However, as others have pointed out in the discussion in that same article, the main reason for this drop is that marriage rates are declining. The reason for the drop is not that families are staying together or have more consideration for their children, but that the mother and father were never married in the first place. As a New York Times article pointed out, unmarried families are increasing the norm. I don't want to expand this website to go into detail about this trend, except to say that children pay the price either way.

Even with the decline in official statistics, the divorce rate in the United States is still very high, depending the state and other factors. The divorce rate for first marriages is a less than for second and third marriages. According to the Nation Master website, the USA had the highest rate of the 34 countries listed.

Over 80% of divorces are unilateral (wanted by only one spouse) – though only a few of those 80% end up in court because usually the defendant realizes the inevitability. (One source for statistic of 80% is Furstenberg, Frank and Andrew Cherlin, Divided Families. Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press, 1991, p. 22). Today the divorcing spouse automatically succeeds in getting the divorce whereas 40 years ago a divorce still required a reason. (Much more about "No-Fault" is discussed in another section.)

Divorce Culture:
During the past few decades, divorce has become commonplace and accepted. This "culture of divorce" is so pervasive on TV and in movies that we just accept it as normal. People often want and get divorces for all kinds of trivial reasons such as “to find their own space”, avoid “incompatible personalities”, “pursuing different interests”, disagreement about sharing housework, etc.. As Maggie Gallagher pointed on in her book The Abolition of Marriage in 1996, we have a "therapeutic model" which "emphasizes the emotional quality of relationships", and she has this to say about it:
Because the therapeutic model focuses narrowly on the well-being of the particular individual client, therapists find it easy to view divorce in a positive light – as a means for an individual to end a bad relationship and get the life he or she wants. What is missing from this picture ... is the family itself, an ordering of persons that is more than merely the sum of the individuals in it. Even the spouse who wants to leave may not see what is being lost.

Because divorce is so common, few public figures will speak out against it and no politician will want to offend such a big part of his/her constituency. Because divorce is legal and accepted, many people just don't see anything wrong with divorce. Divorce is considered as just another lifestyle, no better or worse than staying married. Some consider it a matter of personal freedom. But it is not --- it an infringement on on the rights of the defendant and the children and others.

Victims of Divorce:
Several kinds of people are victimized by divorced in different ways:

  1. The person being divorced, who has a high risk of an unhappy life or even suicide. Vast numbers of men amd women are mired in endless debt paying child support for children whom they are not allowed to see, and paying alimony to former spouses who dumped them through no fault of their own. Aside from emotional issues, divorce usually places a great financial burden on the defendant. My section "Deterring unnessary divorce through a more just society” discusses this in more detail.
  2. The children of the divorced parents (more below)
  3. Extended families – grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. who might no longer be able to see the childen of the divorcing parents.
  4. Organized religion -- A free 2013 paper by Institute of Famly Values examines the effects of divorce on organized religion, which is yet another means by which it is damaging society.
  5. Society in general – due to the direct costs to taxpayers for family law, child support enforcement, etc and indirect costs due to the harm caused to the children.

Contagion Theories of Divorce:
Divorce spreads throughout society, similar to the way that a cancer spreads through a body. A fascinating paper by the Institute for American Values titled The Ethics of Bystanders to Divorce makes the case that even people who are “bystanders” to the divorce can still be affected. The authors call this "the contagion theory". This certainly was the case in my own experience: first our neighbors divorced, then my own wife, then my brother and sister-in-law, then other friends and neighbors, then my wife's sister – all in a short period of time after years of stable marriages. Further support for this idea comes from an extensive study by Rose McDermott, James H. Fowler, and Nicholas A. Christakis called "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else Is Doing it Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample Followed for 32 Years,” found that friends and relatives of divorced people were significantly more likely to divorce than the general populations.

Children of divorce:
About 3/5 of divorces in the United States involve children. Though some biased studies in the 1980s showed that children are fine if the parents have a “Good divorce” without fighting, this theory is discredited today. Elizabeth Marquardt, who conducted an important study of children of divorce as as speaking from her experience, has this to say about “Divorce Happy Talk”:
Happy talk misleads adults about the true nature of divorce. It portrays divorce as an orderly, perhaps even plannable event rather than a major upset that opens new, unexpected, and unwelcome doors. It minimizes the pain and chaos that often follow divorce and, in doing so, encourges parents who may be in troubled but salvagable marriages to split up.

Studies of the effects of divorce on children as well as the parents have been compiled into a publication Why Marriage Matters.

Some of the facts presented in Why Marraige Matters as well as elsewhere include:

  • Marriage increases the likelihood that fathers and mothers have good relationships with their children.
  • Growing up outside an intact marriage increases the likelihood that children will themselves divorce or become unwed parents.
  • Divorce and unmarried childbearing increase poverty for both children and mothers
  • Married couples seem to build more wealth on average than singles or cohabiting couples.
  • Marriage reduces poverty and material hardship for disadvantaged women and their children.
  • Married men earn more money than do single men with similar education and job histories
  • Parental divorce (or failure to marry) appears to increase children’s risk of school failure.
  • Parental divorce reduces the likelihood that children will graduate from college and achieve high-status jobs.
  • Children who live with their own two married parents enjoy better physical health than do children in other family forms.
  • Parental marriage is associated with a sharply lower risk of infant mortality.
  • Marriage is associated with reduced rates of drug and alcohol use for both adults and teens.
  • Children whose parents divorce have higher rates of psychological problems like depression and other mental illnesses.
  • Divorce is linked to higher suicide rates.
  • Married mothers have lower rates of depression than do single or cohabiting mothers.
  • Boys raised in single-parent families are more likely to engage in delinquent and criminal behavior.
  • A child who is not living with his or her own two married parents is at significantly greater risk for child abuse.

Another fact wasn't in Why Marriage Matters but was in Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, children of divorce were much more likely to be sexually promiscuous as teens than children of married parents.

According to the Longevity Project, children of divorce have shorter life expectancies than children of married parents.

According to statistics from the website of Fathers & Families, children from fatherless homes are:

  • 4.6 times more likely to commit suicide
  • 6.6 times to become teenaged mothers (if they are girls)
  • 24.3 times more likely to run away
  • 15.3 times more likely to have behavioral disorders
  • 6.3 times more likely to be in a state-operated institution
  • 10.8 times more likely to commit rape
  • 6.6 times more likely to drop out of school
  • 15.3 times more likely to end up in prison while a teenager

(The calculation of the relative risks shown in the preceding list is based on 27% of children being in the care of single mothers.)

AND — compared to children who are in the care of two biological, married parents — children who are in the care of single mothers are

  • 33 times more likely to be seriously abused (so that they will require medical attention)
  • 73 times more likely to be killed.["Marriage: The Safest Place for Women and Children", by Patrick F. Fagan and Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D. Backgrounder #1535.

"Children from fatherless homes" isn't quite the same thing as "children of divorce" since it also includes never-wed mothers. But mothers do get custody in over 80% of all divorces involving children.

Special attention should be paid to the fact that divorce greatly increases increased risk of child abuse. The vast majority of child abuse occurs at the hands of stepparents and boyfriends/girlfriends of the parents, not by biological mothers and fathers. Why Marriage Matters and National Parents Organization both cite many references for this.

Effects on Morality:
A major effect of divorce is the moral example it gives to our children. As Maggie Gallager explained in her book Abolution of Marriage: "If the primary lesson a child learns from his parents' divorce is that love is not reliable, its corollary is that the family is not a person's most important commitment. What you want, the divorce culture teaches, is more important than what is good for the people you are supposed to love and even the people for whom you are responsible. When parents demonstrate to their children that the family is not, after all, the most important thing, that individual desires are more important than the solemn commitments that form families, the family loses its power to hold the loyality of all its members."

This is the moral lesson which is shaping America's future.

My reviews of books about the effects of divorce:
Between Two Worlds: Inner Lives of the Children of Divorce, by Elizabeth Marquardt
Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, by Wallerstein, Lewis, and Blakeslee
Stolen Vows, by Judy Parejko
Taken Into Custody, by Stephen Baskerville