Being more compassionate on divorce
Most Americans believe that for the past generation, America has been in a moral decline. And whenever conservatives describe this decline, they include the high divorce rate, along with crime and out-of-wedlock births, as a prime example. I believe conservatives are wrong here. By way of illustration, allow me a story: Before having a daily radio show, I moderated for 10 years a very popular show in Southern California called “Religion on the Line.” Each week for two hours my guests were a Protestant minister, Roman Catholic priest and rabbi (different ones each week), as well as representatives of virtually every other faith. One night, the topic I chose was divorce — what is your and your religion’s view of divorce? The Protestant minister spoke against divorce and noted that “people get divorced too quickly.” The priest then said virtually the same thing, and the rabbi did, too (on virtually no issue was there ever such uniformity of views and rhetoric). After each spoke, I asked the minister if he knew anyone well who had divorced. “Well,” he said, “as it happens, my brother is getting a divorce right now.” “And do you feel that he is getting divorced too quickly?” I asked. “No,” the pastor responded. He explained that his brother and sister-in-law had tried counseling for many years to no avail, and that their home was a deeply troubled one. I then asked the priest if he knew anyone well who had divorced. He responded that his mother had divorced many years ago. “Do you feel that she divorced too quickly?” I asked. “Not at all,” he said, adding that for all intents and purposes, the divorce liberated her from a toxic man and relationship. I then asked the rabbi if he knew anyone well who had divorced. And, sure enough, his parents had divorced many years earlier, and he was convinced that it enabled him and his mother to become happier people because the home was so depressed. This scenario is typical. Whenever people say, “People get divorced too easily,” I ask them about people they know well who divorced, and I usually get the same response. Now, of course, many divorced people should have stayed together (just as there are couples who stay together who should get divorced). But conservatives look foolish when they say that except for spousal beating no one should get divorced and that the divorce rates necessarily exemplify a society in moral decline. First, a truly bad marriage is akin to life imprisonment, and innocent people do not deserve such a punishment. Second, it only takes one person to divorce. Assuming that all divorced people sought their divorce is as untrue as it is unfair. Third, when there are no children involved, a divorce’s social costs to society are minimal and therefore unworthy of our attention. Furthermore, as a rule, it is far better for society to have people marry and divorce than never to marry. When people marry, they begin to grow up, and society needs grownups. Fourth, regarding children and divorce, the effects of divorce usually depend on what happens after a couple divorces. By far, the worst consequence of divorce is the large number of fathers who voluntarily or involuntarily (because of selfish ex-wives or feminized laws) leave the lives of their children. When both parents stay thoroughly involved in their children’s lives, sharing physical as well as legal custody, the adverse effects of divorce can be minimized, and depending on how bad things were prior to the divorce, a child’s life can actually improve. Let me be as clear as language allows. I believe that most marriages should never come apart; that every good marriage has periods of alienation and anger; that people must ride these tough waves and try to improve their marriage. I even believe that it is wrong to automatically divorce when one’s spouse has an extramarital affair. But I would not lump divorce statistics with crime and out-of-wedlock births as a barometer of social pathology. There are simply too many exceptions to the rule that people get divorced too easily. Like the clergy on my show, I feel that almost every divorced person I know deserves sympathy more than contempt. If conservatives want to enter the divorce arena, we should change divorce laws to ensure joint physical custody whenever feasible and that people first seek counseling with professionals committed to the welfare of children rather than attorneys devoted to ruining the other spouse’s life. Divorce is a good example of where conservatives can show their compassion. Let’s vigorously promote marriage but have no more knee-jerk condemnations of divorce. It is these condemnations, more than divorces, that are made too easily.
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