then I will have to tell you this
Though I grieve (and I believe
I feel it truly)
But I knew that ship was empty
by the time it hit the rocks,
we could not hold on
when fate became unruly".--Suzanne Vega
Lately I've been following the travails and rhetoric in our neighboring state, Oklahoma, which is concerned about its divorce rate. Like the other "Bible Belt" states of Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas, folks get divorced a good bit more than the national average. Once upon a time, Arkansas was the "little Nevada", a divorce haven which required very little fault to obtain a divorce, at a time when other states required elaborate showings of cruelty or infidelity. Nowadays, though, most states require little fault, and the Bible Belt states' high divorce rate rivals only the one true "divorce of convenience" state, Nevada. It's a legitimate social concern.
The reasons why divorce is a bit higher in these states is no real surprise. Kids marry too young, and kids don't have enough money when they marry. It's not a shock that building a home with someone requires at least rent money. It's not a shock that people are more mature about what they want in a relationship at 28 than at 17.
Social critics, who imagine that life worked much better back when women did not have rights and when, if people were miserable in their relationships, society expected them to "stick it out", call for strenuous reforms in the marriage laws.
But I consider liberal divorce laws a hard-won freedom, particularly for women oppressed under an earlier system. I do not want to see divorce less available.
Similarly, I'm not particularly interested in making divorce stigmatized again,
although I see some virtue to the argument that social stigma is a behavior management tool. I think we have enough stigmas applying to people in day to day life already, without importing some nineteenth century ones.
A lower divorce rate benefits society, because kids do better in two parent households than in one parent households. Although our society is a "serial marriage" society rather than one with masses of lifelong single parents,
many single family households nonetheless face economic challenges that two parent households do not face even yet. Although child support enforcement is slowly on the rise, the failure of many non-custodial parents, mostly men, to pay their legal obligations in support has been a huge causative factor.
I like to separate the "moral" issue of divorce from the "legal" issue. It's all well and good if one wishes to argue for consensual behavior by adults to reduce the divorce rate. One might start by encouraging those in the Bible Belt to adopt the national trend of marrying in their late 20s rather than so much earlier.
But I get concerned when I hear calls to "reform divorce laws". The reason divorce laws were liberalized and improved was not because of some vast anti-family conspiracy, but to permit people the basic freedom to leave a situation in which they were miserable.
There is probably a grain of truth that the "redemption-oriented" protestant faiths popular in the Bible Belt tolerate divorce among parishioners more readily than does Roman Catholicism, which, along with differences in socio-economic factors, may explain why the divorce rate in the northeast is much lower than the average. Of course, I'm pretty glib about statistics, so that it may also be the astounding cost of a New York matrimonial lawyer coupled with the impossibility of affording a cool apartment in Boston without a roommate that makes the difference.
In Oklahoma, they spend government money to hold seminars on how to stay married.
Sometimes I wonder if they should instead spend government money on improving the local economy for working people, as people in the lower economic tiers tend, in my limited understanding, to divorce more often. But government is better at telling people what they ought to do than at doing something itself.
I am intrigued but not particularly impressed by the states which offer "covenant marriage", in which the couple binds itself to a form of marriage that requires much more time and effort and counseling and hassle legally to break. I have no problem with "voluntary alternatives" to liberalized marriage. I do not think this will lower the divorce rate, however.
I think in this, as in so many other things, I think if people just covenanted to be decent to one another, then we'd have less discord of every kind. If I have a social criticism, it's of the "kid in a candy store" phenomenon that folks have--that idea that there's so much pleasure to experience, and one can have it all now.
The problem seems to be that even on the metaphoric level, candy rots teeth.
I am a huge believer in marriage, as an entirely workable social institution. I am happily married, have been for 14 years, and think that the institution is all well and good. I would extend it--or its cousin civil union--to virtually anyone. I'm troubled that the State of Virginia imagines that the way to "defend" marriage is to take away the non-marital right of people to enter into civil contracts to legally standardize their living relationships. I do not see how society benefits from this kind of limitation of freedom of contract.
Should society be concerned that people have workable day to day lives? Certainly.
Should kids grow up in economically and emotionally stable places? Of course.
But is there a "societal profit margin" in making people who are miserable with one another stay together? I don't think so. I think that's emotional deficit spending.
I do sometimes wonder if the "grass is greener" syndrome does not afflict marriage.
I notice that people visit their dysfunctions into their relationships, rather than the relationships visiting dysfunctions on people. I am always slightly,if disapprovingly, amused by men who leave their wives, for example, for women nearly identical in behavior but slightly younger in age. I am particularly amused when the younger inamorata proves actually more difficult than the abandoned old friend spouse. I get amused with spouses of either gender who pronounce themselves "bored", as if boredom were a form of spouse abuse. Sometimes I think that what people need is not a marriage seminar and new legislation, but instead a good library book to read while bored.
Lately, too, I think that in life, even the most polyamorous have only a limited number of romantic entanglements, on the "so many lovers, so little time" theory, while one can have a pleasing number of lifelong friends with whom one has never been so entangled. I try to cultivate platonic friendships these days, because I think they matter a great deal.
I think that on some level, it's just hard to be a grown up. It's not surprising that kids who marry too young with no money find it even harder and divorce.
I do favor long-standing marriages and civil arrangements (and I don't tend to worry too much about "married v. living together", as it usually amounts to nearly the same thing. I suppose that for me "marriage" was the only way to go, but life is too short for so much snap judgment).
But people should have the complete right to change their marital situations when they wish, and divorce laws should be easy, no fault, and quick to apply. Only child custody and child support should give much pause, and the latter is less about amount (use a percentage formula) than ensuring collection.
I think that divorce has a solution, but I do not think it's in the seminars or in the government hiearchy for marriage dissolution. I think it's a matter of people nurturing marriage, and just being more kind.
But that's the problem with kindness--you can't check a box or pass a law and make it so. If all the people who evangelized about sin and damnation instead just said "love one another", my guess is that marital love would strengthen a bit, too.
It's not that Hell is such a bad metaphor. It's just that Heaven is a bit better.
But both Hell and Heaven seem to me to miss the point that if we all just took a deep breath and worked things out with a little gentleness, we might all breathe just a bit easier, regardless of the things that make living so very mechanized and stressful today.