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
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