THE DIVORCE CULTURE, Rethinking Our Commitments to Marriage and Family
by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. Hardcover by Knopf, 1997, and softcover by Vintage Books, 1998. 195 pages, Notes and Index.

This book derives from Whithead's bold 1993 article in Atlantic Monthly, "Dan Quayle Was Right", in which the author defended Quayle's ground-breaking criticism of the TV show, Murphy Brown, as an example of Hollywood's destructive role models for family values.

Tracing the history of shifting cultural attitudes toward divorce from the last century to today, Whitehead makes a strong case that the current radical concept of divorce as an opportunity for "personal growth" needs serious rethinking. Whereas previously society had strongly discouraged divorce because of the harmful effects on children, and as a bulwark of social stability, after the 1960s these sensible values had been abandoned in favor of a "psychotherapy" vision of divorce fueled primarily by self-centered aspirations of women for fulfillment outside the home.

While acknowledging the validity of these aspirations for fulfilment, Whitehead concludes that we may have neglected the second half of the "for better, for worse" marriage vow, particularly where children are involved. Whitehead believes that society now needs to encourage marriage values of "solidarity, loyalty, and binding obligation", to balance free market concepts of planned disposability and political concepts of term limits. While endorsing advances of feminism for women in the workplace, Whitehead proposes that an alternate path to a more mature personal growth for both men and women may lie in a marriage concept incorporating traditional values of duty, responsibility, and sacrifice for the next generation. Unfortunately, these noble sentiments appear unlikely to this reviewer to have much impact in slowing the momentum of the divorce culture.

Although Whitehead deserves commendation for her defense of the institution of marriage, the book is notably weak in its account of the divorce culture from the male perspective, as might be expected from a female writer, however well intentioned. Whitehead seems to assume that most men support the self-centered aspirations for personal growth of the divorce culture, out of what might be called a Playboy/Esquire philosophy of liberation from responsibility. While this may be true for many men, it ignores the fact that 85% of divorces are filed by women, and that women's aspirations undoubtedly fueled the explosion of divorce rates that Whitehead quite rightly deplores.

Although Whitehead makes no reference to the now discredited "study" of Lenore Weitzman, who cooked her data to falsely claim that "men's lifetyle increases 43% after divorce, while women's lifestyle declines by 73%", this myth of feminism still appears to infuse Whitehead's thinking. Whitehead appears unaware of the alarming increase of health risks for men after divorce, including a 20% increase in suicide. The fact is that most men are well aware that death is hardly an increase in "lifestyle", and men resist divorce far more than women.

This book was written before the biggest gathering in history on the Mall of the Promise Keepers Rally affirming the desire of millions of fathers to accept the responsibilities of marriage, and has not yet incorporated the lessons of that Rally. Although Promise Keepers focused on the desire of men to save still intact marriages, this impulse has yet to find expression in a similar movement for divorced men, but if present trends of the divorce culture continue, that appears inevitable.

At the turn of the last century longevity was equal for men and women, but women now outlive men by seven years, and this gap continues to increase. Men are still accultured to sacrifice, not to complain, and to suffer adversity in silence, paradoxically the same issues that "liberation" freed women from. Until men learn to speak up for themselves on these issues as women have done, Whitehead could be forgiven for failing to notice. But the fact remains that the divorce culture has been overwhelmingly fueled by "women's issues", and there is a case to be made that fathers may have suffered from it even worse than children. As often noted, children are amazingly resilent, and at least boys and girls survive to adulthood in roughly equal numbers.

Like most of society today, Whitehead does not seriously question the "tender years" assumption of women getting custody 90% of the time in divorce as a factor driving the divorce explosion and fueling the gender wars. In her outlook, equality for women in the workplace need not translate into equality for men in the home. Although she notes that, "even for the most committed and determined fathers, nonresidential fatherhood remains a struggle", and that "for those less heroic and resolute, ... fatherhood becomes close to impossible", Whitehead doesn't even consider the solutions of shared parenting plans or joint custody urged by responsible fatherhood groups.

Instead she merely notes that ever tougher government efforts to enforce child support are unlikely to be of much benefit to divorced women, no matter how stringently enforced. Whitehead expects divorced women to continue to "bear the double responsibility of breadwinning and child-rearing ... alone." Only equality of custody can defuse the gender war aspect of the divorce culture, and allow us instead to re-focus on the true best interests of children.

If custody were equalized between mothers and fathers, radical feminist groups would have less motivation to push for financial incentives for divorce, as this would affect men and women equally. The same dynamic would defuse the slighting of visitation rights for non-custodial parents, who also would be equally men and women. By insisting that divorce must be made more like intact family life, and that children's right to equal access to both of their parents must be respected, the illusion that divorce could solve their problems would disappear for many of the 85% of women who now file for divorce. True equality under law for mothers, fathers, and children would solve many problems that are otherwise unsolvable.

The ideal feminist goal of partnership with a "hands-on nurturant fatherhood" premains elusive for Whitehead, because she is not yet ready to grant full equality in the home, as well as in the workplace. Perhaps if Whitehead spent some time with divorced fathers support groups, which seldom convene without a father at or near tears because of denial of access to his children, she would begin to understand what the mass culture still denies, that fathers have feelings for their children as deep as mothers, even if differently expressed. The radical feminist myth that the divorce problem is "fathers who just don't care" is utter nonsense that must be banished from the public mind before the divorce culture can be reversed.

Until advocates of matriarchal thinking that currently dominates America engage in serious dialogue with the fatherhood movement, instead of speaking for us and telling us what we think, the catastrophe of the divorce culture is unlikely to change. Perhaps with the courage, thoughtfulness and conviction Barbara Dafoe Whitehead has demonstrated in writing this book, she would like to begin that much needed dialogue.

Reviewed by David A. Roberts


Return to CPF home page