Most marriages begin with attraction, love, and commitment. Divorce can come as a surprise, even though the family may be ripe for the cataclysm. A marriage may be undermined when one partner spends too much time at work, away from family, or when job stress and overwhelming financial obligations—perhaps for the new car or the new home—come to the fore. Individuals caught in the fray of daily living are often unaware of the impact that such strains have on marriage and child rearing.
Marriage and divorce are two poles of the relationship spectrum. Marriage is a legal contract binding two people together in a matrimonial and property partnership initially based on professed love, obligation, and/or commitment. It is an American (Western) cultural trait for two people who desire to be with one another to do so in marriage.
The 1992 United States Census found that the median length of marriage for women aged twenty-five to twenty-nine was just under three and a half years. Ten years later, the number of both men and women postponing marriage until the age of twenty-eight had increased, perhaps because of their fear of marital failure. Most likely this fear is also directly related to the increase in cohabitation outside of marriage, a fast-growing cultural phenomenon in America. Today, Estimates are that 60 percent of couples are cohabiting and that cohabiting couples are less likely than married couples to stay together.
Emotional desires for one another, current and expected physical fulfillment, financial security, common interests, and sexual intimacy are among the reasons for marital unions. However, shared agendas for life partnerships change over time. Sometimes, ironically, the very reasons for the attraction between two people become the sources of discord and, ultimately, divorce. As Jeffrey Cottrell commented, “Perhaps the romantic notion we have of what married life should be like rather than what it is like is a key factor.”The number of divorced individuals grew from 3 percent in 1970 to 10 percent in 2002.
Admitting failure or breakdown in any relationship contributes to low self-esteem. One may feel victimized when one has embraced marriage as a serious commitment—“in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, as long as you both shall live.” When parents separate and marriages dissolve, one parent (or both) leaves the marital home; the partners often fight over the rights to parent the children, and they argue over the payment of child support. Braver finds that the top seven issues that most divorcing parents must settle include
physical or residential custody;
visitation or access;
additional child financial needs, i.e., education, medical insurance, travel expenses; and
property and debt division.
Resolving these issues is emotionally and financially draining. Considerable time is also required for court appearances. Pressures from work, neighbors, and friends can make matters worse.
Contrast divorce with marriage. Usually, the beginning of a marriage is marked by joy and fun with exciting moments of confident expectation for the future. On the other hand, divorce depletes energy and foments anger. It results in the depletion of personal savings and retirement funds to pay legal, psychological, and other divorce expenses. Parental anger may be expressed through subtly or overtly hostile behaviors, ranging from sly criticisms to nasty language, lies, and other abusive behaviors.
Divorce is the resulting contract which both enter into, sometimes with one or two feet dragging and usually with great anxiety due to the nature of public litigation. As the goal in litigation is for one to win or compromise less, fear of loss accompanies the process.
When a relationship breaks up, a partner may ask, “Why me?” The one surprised by a failed relationship, the “dumpee,” may place the onus on the “dumper.” But according to Fisher and Alberti, the emotionally healthy approach is to accept the loss. Letting go of such internalized questioning will permit an individual to focus on his or her own growth.
Divorce recovery is relationship recovery. Rather than blaming the other for being “a bad choice” and the reason for the failed marriage, one needs to find a more positive approach. Fisher’s method incorporates several stages, which include acknowledgement of the loss, coping with one’s grief, and becoming more knowledgeable about one’s personality, choices, strengths, and weaknesses. The goal for the parent should be twofold: first, through therapy or other means of self-examination, to accept what cannot be controlled and build on one’s self-preservation and self-esteem; and, second, to determine how to raise the children post-divorce through co-parenting.
Presently, there are few agencies which combine intervention and support for families that are breaking up. No lists of books or other resources are handed out to moms and dads when they leave the court. There are no professional referrals—only court orders. The courts are for litigation, which often is labored and festering. Family court litigants —including moms, dads, grandparents, and children—seek out new relationships or seek to preserve old ones through a process involving many judicial parties. New social dynamics parallel the court processes where parents become visitors, where schedules become more significant and formalized. New realities about family and one’s association with the changed family unit transition into the unexpected.
The divorce process can be seen as motions for different personal agendas and different priorities for the mother and for the father, for custody and for child access. Society’s values are still interpreted through legal arguments, which many family advocates suggest are biased.
Gender bias ought not to be a part of court decision-making. But, as you’ll see, it historically that has been the case. The philosophical “nature or nurture” argument calls into question a male’s ability to parent a child. Cannot either parent be taught skill sets? It is not enough to accept John Gray’s conclusion that “men are from Mars, women are from Venus.” Nor is it enough to believe, as an elderly black woman told Smith, that “black women come from the earth and black men come from the moon.” Smith argues that black women are not grounded when their men lack the skills to communicate with their women. Black men, he finds, have difficulty measuring themselves against still-existent discriminatory standards—thus, their continuing low self-esteem. For many, these attitudes are inherited from their own dysfunctional childhood and family life.
In speaking of the African American experience, Smith writes, “The pressures of day-to-day life, financial concerns, and opposing viewpoints must still be overcome throughout the relationship. This tends to overshadow the initial feelings, and children are helpless to assist their parents who are supposed to provide safety for them. Lack of expressed love in the relationship can cause a small child to painfully assume responsibility for his parents’ conflict. The social difficulties of surviving are particularly difficult for children in black families at a low socio-economic level. They may emulate their parents and, as adults, tend to experience the same painful series of events that occurred in their childhood. The cycle never seems to stop.”
Menninger’s belief that “what children see at home, they will do to society” should become a societal mantra. It is as universal as the need for food and water. The confusion for children may lie with their possible misunderstanding of their own parents’ behavior and the significance of that behavior. Parents don’t often speak of the feelings that motivate their actions.
It is clear that children need security and love in their home life and that the parenting roles of moms and dads should be protected by the courts, which should also take into account the upheaval that the parents themselves have been experiencing. Consequences of parents’ behavior need to be understood as well, for the behavior may be dictated by the parents’ culture. Behavior choices are limited and based upon cultural norms and self-perceptions. These choices may be at odds with the predominant American culture and those permitted by courts of law. It is so difficult to assimilate a new culture’s norms and more difficult to control one’s reactions when they are driven by emotional responses to threat or anger. Often, responses are based on one’s self-esteem.
How important is self-esteem? Therapists say that low self-esteem leads to codependence and to escape from responsibilities. The belief that one is incapable of achieving relationship harmony can lead to antipathy, jealousy, and hatred, which may be expressed in violence including assaults, murder, and suicide.
The choice for marriage or “partnership dissolution” (separation and divorce) are choices manifest in geography, economics, and expectations of the marriage partner. Similarly, one’s choices reflect changes in power and control, income, threat, or rate of violence. The causes of divorce are complicated, considering what is known about diverse cultural values and one’s individual inclination towards power, control, and expectation among different cultures.
Still, it may be that a major cause of family dysfunction including parent separations and marital breakdowns is “benign neglect.” Complacency about a relationship after the novelty of love has worn off can sometimes be blamed for parent separations. A sort of laziness often replaces the courteous, thoughtful, appreciative expressions of romantic love. Differing interests, priorities, even overwork, and value changes can also be factors.
In patriarchal America, men controlled marriages—at least until the last bra was burned in the mid-sixties and the new liberated woman shared a toke with her man. In recent decades, the women’s movement has prompted the formation of new public policies that encourage gender diversity in the workplace and equal opportunities for men and women. Still, given the recent Weinstein rap and celebrity admissions my men of sexual abuse and females of their long term and silent victimization, the overriding goal continues to be job promotion, respectful business relations and equal pay for the same job functions whether performed by a man or a woman.
In marriage and love relationships, nothing less should be expected. Nothing less should be accepted.
Originally Published: From Marriage to Divorce, The Emotional Perspective
An Abstract from Preserving Family Ties, An Authoritative Guide to Divorce and Child Custody for Parents and Family Professionals(WestBow Press, 2018)