Written by Kevin Senich
The times in America that gave birth to no-fault divorce were characterized by a certain hubris that could not contemplate a failed social experiment on a massive scale. At the same time America was sending manned space flights to the moon, it would collectively decide to fix the problems of marriage by making divorce easy. All that had to be done was to make sure no one was responsible for marital problems and to provide easy access to divorce courts. Marital problems would disappear. Some say we were innocent and naïve. Maybe then. Not now. Today we cannot deny easy divorce devastates children. Yet, we persist. We are in denial.
The Greatest Generation bequeathed no-fault to the already over indulged Me Generation so they would never be legally responsible for a failed marriage, on condition that they would appreciate the gift and not abuse the freedom. The gift of no-fault, however, left its legacy. The divorce rate spiked to fifty percent and remained there while the marriage rate steadily declined. Now too many Americans believe in a simple, happy pipe dream — that they can share a permanent, life-long commitment with a spouse that they can also leave without consequence for any or no reason, at any time. The essence of commitment thus lies in its transiency.
Transient marriage has a big problem. Marriages tend to produce children. Children are not transient. As parents we know that our children will always be our children until our own mortality leaves them orphaned, hopefully as self-sufficient, independent adults with children of their own. The point is, children don’t go away. They don’t go away unless, of course, it is for weekend visitation.
Their presence reminds us that regardless of whether one or more of their parents is exonerated from blame, the easy remedy for their parents’ bad marriage has not made anything easier for them. Indeed, research proves divorce only makes things harder for children. From their perspective, they find themselves in the same torn circumstances that they found themselves in the era prior to no-fault. That many children somehow blame themselves for their parents’ divorce is a cruel irony.
Somehow their young minds get the impression that their existence and their parents’ marriage have something to do with one another. They take blame themselves while our justice system is busy exculpating their too willing participant parents, while that system proclaims “in the best interest of the child” that easy divorce is as good for children as it was for their parents. At best this proclamation has always been an illusion. At worst, a purposeful lie.
Nevertheless, it was the law. While the true “best interest of the child” is undeniably a single home with two parents, no fault unequivocally denied this, legally speaking, of course. The reasoning went like this. A child was better off growing up in separate homes of divorced parents than in a home of married parents characterized by contention and strife, even though no formal studies of the effect of divorce ever supported this conclusion.
Easy divorce, therefore, was actually good for children. People eager to believe that divorce fixed bad marriage were just as eager to believe it facilitated good parenting. Nobody asked any child either. By the time formal studies could be made a generation later, the benefits of easy divorce for the child-parent relationship proved nothing more than wishful thinking or self-serving rationalization.
The truth is as a society we cannot by easy divorce eliminate the character flaws that give rise to marital contention, strife, dysfunction and abuse. More likely, we can only exacerbate them. “Bad marriage” is not some contagion that exists in the air between otherwise caring and loving spouses that destroys their marriage against their combined wills and without fault of their own. “Bad marriage” is nothing less than personal and shared failure in the single most important relationship in life. When it ends in divorce, the failure is absolute.
Many behavioral experts and relationship professionals nevertheless still peddle the pabulum that individuals can be fully responsible parents without being fully responsible spouses. It defies logic, it defies biology, and, some would argue, it defies the wisdom of ages recorded in ancient religious texts. Children are one hundred percent both parents down to the last molecule of their beings.
Parents can be separated; children cannot be divided. Still arguments persist that parents ought not to force themselves to stay in a bad marriage merely for the sake of the children. Such a prospect is unnecessarily painful for any contentious parent. Many relationship experts would point out that children have a much better chance of learning to love if contentious parents separate.
In so doing, the experts invite parents to indulge themselves in guiltless separation because, after all, it really is better for the children. The concept of no-fault is deeply ingrained in our national psyche. But, the experts are right. Children do learn love from their parents. They also learn responsibility, accountability, duty, honor, and, not incidentally the benefits of shared commitment. They may or may not learn the former if their unloving, professionally enabled parents split. They will certainly not learn the latter.
Denial is not pleasant to confront, especially when the issue is personal. Yet, to the extent we believe easy divorce is a solution to marital problems, we will be in denial, and we will continue to deny our children that which is theirs by birthright. Unfortunately, America today is still characterized by a kind of denial that perpetuates the myth that facile divorce and good parenting can be part of the same process.
While we agree that we owe our children nothing less than our unconditional love in its purest and most selfless form, it is a debt we far too often fail to acknowledge in any meaningful way, a price we far too often simply do not pay. We cannot afford easy divorce at the expense of our children.
For too many children divorce defines childhood in America. For too many it is an experience shaping a horrific vision of marriage and parenting. For too many it is a nightmare from which they cannot awaken and for which their cries in the darkness go unheeded by their very own parents, parents whose denial, despite their love, compels them to ignore the cries of their own children. As parents, denial will not let us answer those cries of our children. One of us is not there; the other is not to blame. This can no longer pass for good parenting; no longer truly serve the best interest of our children.
Today we can no longer lay any claim whatsoever to innocence or naiveté. We can only change … or persist in our denial.