28 September, 2008

Why We Divorce

Salvo Mag started up a conversation between me and my son. The magazine is excellent for that. If any of you need such fodder, I HIGHLY recommend it. I even agree with it quite often.

Anyway, Salvo blamed the rising and already astronomical divorce rate on something. I'll let you read it for yourself to find out what. I'm going to give you the rant I went on over it. The conversation was pretty awkward, because I'm one of those statistics, but I never let a little awkwardness stop me. I argued that everyone's wrong about the reasons behind the crazy divorce rates.

The Left Wing often says the divorce rates went up as soon as women were no longer forced by economic necessity to survive in empty, unfulfilling and even abusive marriages. They have a fascinating data point, and one for which I have respect. The divorce rate in any society increases and decreases in lockstep with the degree to which women are treated like chattel. As women become freer, the divorce rate increases. With this data, they point out the essential inequality of the deal women get in marriage. Women, they assert, immediately realize how much better off they are alone when the option becomes viable for them.

The Right Wing usually says all us divorcees just lacked commitment. The romantic excitement went away, and things got hard, and we all caved and ran away looking for greener pastures. They point to the hippy generation's free love mindset and the Boomer's self-obsession and find all the explanation they could possibly want. The "Greatest Generation" died and left America in the hands of a bunch of selfish cowards. When the marital going got tough, we walked away.

Bzzzt.

It seems to me both arguments are paper thin on the surface. The lefties cannot possibly imagine women are better off alone. Raising kids is the most fulfilling experience life offers us in our 30's and 40's, but doing it as a single parent is devastating. There's still good and joy in it, but the workload kills you a little bit every day. And financially, the single life is stupid. To be single financially is to have no backup plan, and to pay double for most of the resources in your life. (Housing, food, utilities, etc. could all be split with a spouse.) The idea that women are freer just because there's not anyone committed to facing life with them is silly.

The righties could possibly be more insulting, but I don't know how. Everyone who says divorcees lack commitment has simply tattooed on their forehead that they've never been divorced. Again, I don't know any Christian who got bored and decided to spice things up by starting over fresh with a new face. Pretty much when your "answer" on any subject is that everyone's lazy, you're missing something key. I just wish evangelical Christians wouldn't miss this one from the rooftops with their bibles held high over their heads, because millions of broken souls have no way to take their self-righteous accusations helpfully. They just turn away, every bit as lost and broken as they were before Jesus' self-appointed representative stepped in to "help."

Still, we all need an explanation for the hockey stick that describes divorce rates from 1960 until the present.

The explanation is simple. None of us knows how to stay married any more.

It's a skills thing. Our parents used to be involved in helping us judge the quality of our prospective spouses, and after we'd chosen someone to wear our ring, they were "present" enough in our lives to help us navigate a course through those critical first rollercoaster humps.

Who's involved now?

Our parents used to live a couple blocks away from their Mom and Dad. Now we live a couple states away. The extended family used to be the only family there was. Now, it's almost weird to stay in touch with Mom and Dad, much less to lean on them for help and advice. Moms and Dads used to watch "that son-in-law of theirs" and if things got iffy, they got mad. Not any more. These days we keep everything to ourselves, and our parents never hear about our problems, even if they can see them.

And we are hopelessly awkward at fighting. Spouses used to know how to have a good fight and a good forgive. These days the fights are too intense and the forgiveness is too shallow. Consequently, we don't know how to complain to each other. If you cannot complain without starting a too-strong, too-permanent fight, then you won't complain. And if you don't complain, things that could be changed fester. We panic at every conflict.

And that's caused because we don't know about the rhythms of relationship.

We're told that the emotion in a marriage follows a steep downward curve and bottoms out by about year 10 of marriage. If you ask many kids today to draw the trajectory of romantic love in marriage, you'll get something that looks like the current housing market - it starts high and spends the next 50 years in the toilet.

But that picture is not true. Instead, romantic love starts high, dips low, bounces back a little less high, dips a little less low, and through this process eventually settles somewhere in the middle of the scale. No one taught us that. No one taught us it was so simple, so when the first huge dip came we poured heart and soul into getting the fight resolved and the love restored. And when we "won" and everything was back where it should be, we relaxed - only to find ourselves speeding into another dip. We wore ourselves out trying to fight every dip and depression, when all we had to do was trust each other and exercise courtesy, honesty, and forgiveness.

Our generation KNOWS that you need a personal trainer to lose weight or learn tennis. Anything that requires actual skill requires meaningful training. No one tries to become a good tennis player without finding a good coach to give them the basics.

So what do we think? Marriage is easy?!?!

Marriage requires no skill?

Anyone can have a successful marriage if they are willing to be enslaved and if they have enough commitment?

When my wife and I were struggling through those first years of marriage, we had no training and no support. I don't think we were unique in that. We had another couple going through the same stuff we were, but we couldn't really talk to them. Church leadership didn't care to be involved, and our families were so distant as to be no influence at all.

We were guessing!

The real question is how we guessed right for 16 years given all the ballast we were carrying. But we were Americans, and we were smart, and we were successful at so many things. And it looked like things were working for so long, and we made it through so many high waters together. We sweated out days and months and years of low times, and we made it. Up until the last year of our marriage, we were proud of how we'd faced everything together.

But every struggle took its toll.

Go ahead and lecture me about not being committed. What? Do you think I haven't played that mp3 in my head? You can be as committed to tennis as you want. If you lack training, you'll injure yourself while learning nothing so much as to hate the game.

All our successes taught us to hate the marriage.

It takes a village to make a marriage. Look back on history, and you're fooling yourself if you think you see greater commitment in 1950. You're fooling yourself if you think you see women who wanted to be free, but couldn't find a way out. Look back on a world that lacked the isolating entertainment of the television, though, and I think you're onto something. Those kids HAD to play with each other, and they learned profitable conflict. There was nothing else. Look back on a world that expected parents to be involved in their adult children's lives. You can see the last vestiges of that world played out in the sitcoms that made the mother-in-law a villain. Mother-in-law jokes aren't funny any more, because there's no more friction there. The mother-in-law is half a state away, and the young couple has her visitation rights carefully controlled.

Nobody meddles any more, and it's costing us dearly.

We need help.

9 comments:

Kansas Bob said...

Great insights Kevin.. thank you for sharing in such a vulnerble way.

In pastoral counseling situations I often saw the underbelly of marriage and divorce on several occasions. Here area few observations from those experiences:

1) People wait until 5 past midnight to get help. Several times a couple's first visit was precipitated by the wife's desire to ask for a divorce in a safe place (my office).

2) People are highly independent and go to a counselor as a last resort. I think that this is an issue of humility. Most people don't think they need others (like the parents you mention) to be successful in their marriage.

3) Couples are deficient in communication and conflict resolution skills. Neil Clark Warren says that until a couple learns how to fight they are not prepared for marriage.

4) Unconditional love and unconditional respect are alien concepts to most church goers. Mutual submission is another alien concept.. many find it almost impossible to cede control to their spouse.

5) Early on in marriage bad habits emerge.. patterns of manipulation.. episodes of abuse.. and all sorts of bad stuff. These things are allowed to fester until the damage is too great.. until one partner rebels in some fashion.. often with devastating results.

6) Immorality is usually a deal-breaker. Sometimes couples can reconcile after adultery and stay together for years but often the experience resurfaces when troubles come.

7) Money and financial security will exacerbate other problems. When life is good small problems stay small but small problems become huge ones when financial trouble come.

Sorry to hijack your post Kevin.. of course these observations are specific to my experiences and not meant to be a generalization in any way.

This issue is a dear one to me. I think it is why I enjoyed pre-marital counseling so much. Helping young couples confront some of these issues before marriage was so rewarding.

Blessings, Bob

Kansas Bob said...

One last issue that I thought of after I published that last comment was the issue of family history. Some people enter marriage so broken from dysfunctional family history that it is a miracle that they can even survive the challenges of marriage much less flourish in it.

Milly said...

As a woman walking away from an abusive relationship I can say that I will be better off alone for awhile. I need to learn to handle some things without a man telling e how to handle it then telling me how wrong I was for the way I did it. That’s another post though.
I know that things are going to be hard very hard. I know that at the end of the night my head will hit the pillow with worries of the day and I will not have anyone to share it with.

I want a helpmate eventually and I want him to meet my list of needs. And there it is my list of needs. I’ll need to not be self self self and learn to let down my guard. Yes I do think I will have one for awhile.
I think the problem in my marriage was that married a man who presented himself as someone else and I was the daughter of two people who had a great marriage. They loved each other. I never heard them fight so I had no clue of how to fight. My mother gave in to many of my father’s whims so I thought that that’s what I was to do.

We are in a disposable world these days and that doesn’t help. Don’t like that phone get a new one. Shoes look worn get new ones. We toss our relationship in the trash if they get to be too much for us. And that is the problem in my marriage it got to be too hard for him. We purchased a house so he had an affair because he felt it was too much. We never recovered. I got pregnant. If a wife working a full time job in a low level management, having a car payment, and a house payment was too much a baby on the way was sending him over the edge. He cared very little for the fact that I was being hurt, a baby on the way and he is involved in an affair. I sucked it up and worked even harder to make a good life. He couldn’t do it and ended up in another relationship. I took it and kept working he seemed to grow up things weren’t great but we seemed ok.

We were both making big mistakes. I am aware of my mistakes. I spend a huge amount of time looking at my mistakes. I want another relationship and I want it to last till God takes me home.

Why do I think that marriages fail? Yes I do agree that it takes a village and having family around is helpful but in our American history past many couples came without family. They survived. It’s not as bad as it was to be divorced, we gossip far less about it now. as someone in a church high profile divorce I’m thankful.
Self we think of only of ourselves and it shows. He thinks of himself and it has killed our marriage.
My parents didn’t teach me about marriage so I failed to stand up for myself when needed.

We toss what we don’t want too easily.

Most of all we don’t invite God into our lives and our marriages. I tried and failed because it was just me.

>Nobody meddles any more, and it's costing us dearly.

My church did it was just too late.

Still it's a good move for me. I will be free. And in time I'll seek a man to hold hands with me.

I think I have a bit to say on this subject. :-}

Weekend Fisher said...

I dunno -- I don't think the Leftie or Rightie talking points on divorce capture the whole picture; they mostly just reinforce their own worldviews. Still, I've personally known people who fit both of those: a woman whose divorce was basically an escape from an abusive marriage; a couple who broke up because one of them had no commitment whatsoever and traded in the spouse for a younger one ... and then left the younger one after that one was no longer so young. Most stereotypes have enough samples that fit to keep them alive and kicking.

Though it's awfully unfair to be crammed into a stereotype that doesn't fit.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Missy said...

I have a lot of opinions about this, but my strongest opinion is that you will continue to see both a rise in those choosing not to get married, and a decrease in those divorcing.

Did you know that the rate of divorce has slowly been decreasing since about 1979-1980? The rate of those getting married has been decreasing by similiar numbers (% of population).

From 1960 to 1980, there was an uphill surge in divorce, and more than 75% of those were petitioned by the wife. In divorces with children involved, women still petition at a higher rate than men, but that has also been decreasing since 1980. However, in marriages without children, statistics indicate the numbers are more balanced between men/women petitioners.

I think women with children being able to survive without a husband led to that surge. And it began to stabilize when women stopped getting married just TO survive.

All that being said, I think I agree with you - especially about the lack of play and the increase in isolation. But I do think commitment is key - not that one cannot commit - rather they never knew that it would be quite so difficult. Parents try too hard to protect sometimes. I regularly have civil disagreements with Mr. Right - and sometimes heated disagreements - and we rarely make a conscious decision to hide them from the kids. It's just life, and we're living it out loud.

I am hoping our lack of indiscretion makes a difference. But I won't really know until they've been married 10 years or so. :)

Lynne said...

I find it hard to comment on this, since I've been married for over 31 years. But, and this is about as much as I'm free to say on a public forum, I don't know whether we should be.

Relationships are complex, and can sometimes leave us very ambivalent.Yes, there have been painful issues, we tried counselling, but ..(if I say too much here I'll sound very self-righteous). The church was no help (in fact at one point it was part of the problem) and our families, living nearby, are both dysfunctional and disengaged. I have wrestled with some hard questions, and still don't know the answers. But I know that God does, and the biggest part of all is to keep walking one day at a time and try to keep the spirit of my marriage vows, as well as the letter.

Kansas Bob said...

"walking one day at a time and try to keep the spirit of my marriage vows"

Great perpective and advice Lynne.

codepoke said...

Guys, I've been working way too hard these last few days. Your comments are much better than my post, and I am so sorry to take so long to acknowledge them. As they each arrived in my inbox, I was humbled and thankful.

KB - I could not agree more. Keep on preaching it.

Milly - Keep on wearing your heart proudly.

Anne - As I wrote, I too thought of exceptions who would not identify with this post. Their stories are precious.

Missy - That's good data enriched with great insights. Thank you for stretching my thought a little further in this area.

Lynne - My son often references Mucius, the Left Handed. Thank you for sharing your story.

Milly said...

Missy,
Living out loud is a hard decision to make. My husband and I didn’t really argue until the divorce started. He would yell or slam stuff around and I would sit quietly. My parents chose to keep their disagreements from us. My mom did begin to talk with me when I was in high school about stuff that was troubling her and once threatened to leave my dad when I was in college. They made up, or most likely she gave in. Life is a hard mess at times. I can tell you that it will harm a child who never hears a parent stand up for themselves. I could go toe to toe with Cowboy as long as we weren’t in a relationship other then friendship-for now. But I’m learning and I’m working on it and someday I will stand up for myself within the relationship with a man. I do it now with the almost ex and with each time I gain a bit of myself back.

We won’t know the good things and bad things that we taught our children until they are in a relationship. We can just pray for them.