On February 12, the London Sunday Telegraph used a survey by Gwynn Davis and Mervyn Murch of Bristol University as the basis for a discussion on the consequences of divorce. The paper’s account opened with a description of a “sad little ritual” conducted by court welfare officers, in which a man and a woman stand formally and struggle to find words to say that they are putting the past behind them and for what reasons. “It’s not done often,” says a welfare officer. “We have to be careful a couple isn’t swayed into thoughts of reconciliation. There are usually tears. It can be terribly emotional.”
Divorce in England is a booming business. One in three marriages are projected to end in divorce. One in five children will have divorced parents by the age of 18. But does easy and quick divorce bring happiness for either parents or children?
a) Staying married
Some of the Davis-Murch statistics throw striking light on such questions. Fifty-one percent of divorced men and women wish they had stayed married. Of those who have remarried, a large percentage of both men and women wish they had stayed with their previous partners. In fact, the average length of a first marriage of divorced people is ten years, of a second marriage, only seven.
The assumption that divorce is often in the children’s interest has been upset by new and extensive research into its long-term effects on them. Evidence shows that even those who seem to be unaffected emotionally by their parents’ break-up are storing up trouble for later. English society now accepts hooliganism and delinquency as part of daily life.
Many studies have linked such behavior with broken, fatherless homes and mothers who have to go out to work to supplement their maintenance payments. California psychologist Judy Wallerstein described half the children who were followed for a decade after their parents’ divorces as becoming “worried, underachieving, self-deprecating and sometimes angry young men and women.” We may well ask, “Why wouldn’t they engage in promiscuity, why wouldn’t the girls among them have abortions?”
England now has a society of stepmothers and stepfathers, unhappy children faced with the tearful goodbyes of weekend visits, and families split in two, trying to make finances sufficient for one household do double duty, the Telegraph says. And couples embark on another “lifelong” commitment all over again. But this time they are on an obstacle course which puts all sorts of problems in their way (especially financial ones) and offers them an even higher risk of failure.
Church of England
Before 1969, the main ground for divorce in England – as in Canada – was adultery. As Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust shows, this often involved farcical proceedings: two private detectives would discover the husband in a motel room with a young lady hired for the occasion, and the court would accept their evidence as indicating the man and the woman had spent the night together, when they had done nothing of the sort. Curiously, it was the (Anglican) Church of England which led the way in advocating wider grounds; it recommended a radical move away from the old notion of a guilty party to a new concept of marriage breakdown. This was the suggestion made in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 1966 report entitled Putting Asunder. It was soon endorsed by the newly formed Law Commission, and reform quickly gathered speed. Two new ideas came to the fore: divorce by consent after two years’ separation, and divorce without consent after five years’ separation.
Does it work?
How well does the system work? Davis and Murch argue that any goodwill which might lead the partners to a reconciliation is quickly crushed by the system. Asked what behavior in a partner makes it impossible for them to live together, the petitioner may not be able to say anything more serious than “He forgets my birthday.” But once the lawyers become involved, the parties are on a conveyor belt: they are swept along by the system. Davis and Murch found that only one in out of every five cases did the lawyers encourage their clients to consider the possibility of a reconciliation. According to one unhappy spouse asking the Citizens’ Advice Bureau for advice after 26 years of marriage, the Bureau simply expressed surprise that the marriage had lasted so long.
“So are we better off with our End of Marriage rituals, our divorce on easy terms,” the Telegraph asks, “or have we simply created a new set of problems?” The answer is fairly obvious. The paradox of easy divorce, Phyllis Rose wrote in her study of five Victorian marriages, Parallel Lives, is that easy divorce, far from making the undertaking of marriage a lighter burden, makes it a heavier one: “Bad enough to choose once in a lifetime whom to live with; to go on choosing, to reaffirm one’s choice day after day, as one must when it is culturally possible to divorce, is really asking a lot.” Divorce reflects, but also contributes greatly to the instability of our society.