Alberta Report

Monday, January 11, 1999

Look Who Doesn't Want A Divorce

New Studies Indicate Women Are First To File,
But That Joint Custody Keeps Families Together

Candis Mclean
Alberta Report

We ought to stop kidding ourselves about men," wrote Winnipeg talk-show host John Collison in the National Post last month. "Whether it be biology or the legacy of Bob Guccione [publisher of Penthouse magazine], when it comes to a troubled marriage, the male is more ready, willing and able to bail." Mr. Collison epitomizes the popular view that it is the man who usually breaks up a family in hot-blooded pursuit of a "trophy wife" or casual affairs. In reality, says a wave of new research, throughout most of North American history wives have filed for divorce twice as often as husbands. For good or ill, the news comes just in time to reinforce Parliament's joint Commons-Senate committee conclusion that Canada's divorce laws should no longer assume the wife is the morally superior parent who should automatically assume custody of the children.

The proportion of divorces initiated by women ranged around 60% for most of the 20th century, and climbed to more than 70% in the late 1960s when no-fault divorce was introduced: so says a just-released study by law professor Margaret Brinig of George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia and Douglas Allen, economist at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University. The researchers undertook one of the largest studies ever on divorce, using 46,000 cases from the four American states that keep statistics on which partner initiates the action. In addition to women filing twice as often, the researchers found, they are more likely to instigate separations and marriage break ups.

The Brinig-Allen study also explodes the myth of the brutish husband, finding, for instance, that cruelty is cited in only 6% of divorce applications in Virginia, one of the few states that still uses fault grounds for divorce. More women than men obtain desertion-based divorces in Virginia, but adultery cases are evenly split between men and women.

Arizona State University psychologist Sanford Braver provides backup for the Brinig-Allen study. In his new book, Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths, Mr. Braver surveyed 400 divorcing couples seeking causes for the breakdown of their marriages. He found "violence or abuse strikingly absent." Instead, less dramatic factors prevailed, such as "growing apart" or "spouse not able or willing to meet my needs." In Canada, adds economist Allen, where one divorce occurs in every three marriages, the findings are similar.

Theories abound as to why it is so often women who file. Janis Magnusson, a Calgary divorce mediator, says she frequently sees women with unreal expectations of marriage and their partners. "Women expect a Prince Charming, while men just want a wife, sex, food and a job," she says. One of her clients left her husband for a younger man she found more exciting. But to her "great chagrin," the woman discovered after five years of marriage and two children that her new husband was a fake.

"His home was filled with easels holding half-finished paintings," recalls the woman. "He seemed so cultured. But once we married, I never once saw him paint a picture." Now back with her first husband (who had also remarried and separated), the woman says, "I joke that we originally divorced because he left wet towels on the bed. Seriously, he wasn't much help. But did I ever say, 'Could you put in a load of laundry?' No, I was busy being the martyr. I just fumed, stomped and slammed. Now we talk."

"I did avoid conflict," her husband admits. "I'm a police officer and I treat words as bullets. I know you don't get them back. However, both my wives also had unrealistic ideas. I wasn't playing the husband role the way they perceived it in the fairy tale world. But men are different. They don't believe in gift horses or fairy tales."

"Leslie," a Calgary psychologist, reports a similar experience. After leaving her husband in 1976, she remarried. Then, 20 years later, she returned to husband number one. "I had such huge expectations that no husband could have met them," she says. "Now I have comfort, security and companionship. But I wish I hadn't had to subject all of us to such trouble." Leslie believes she was a product of the age: "I wanted this perfect thing; I was very disappointed. He probably was, too, but I was the one leaving."

"In informal surveys in my classes," reports Prof. Brinig, "women say they thought marriage and courtship were alike. Men seem to feel that when they're married they can be themselves because they have succeeded in the battle." She is not sure whether that means women are unrealistic, or that the courtship ritual just means different things to each. In 25% of marriage breakdowns, she adds, men have "no clue" there is a problem until the woman tells them they want out. She also notes that women are more likely to file if the divorce rate is high in their area or if their friends and families are doing it. "Where the divorce rate is low so there's a lot of stigma attached," she says, "they won't leave."

"The woman is more willing to take risks because she has more of an emotional support network," asserts Calgary engineer Mahedi Meghani, dismayed that the wives of three close friends have left in the past two years. "She feels better equipped to cope with post-divorce trauma, while he realizes he hasn't even phoned his sister in three years. A woman who is alone is seen to be lonely, so people phone her. A man is supposed to look after himself."

Some men experience an increase in material well-being following divorce. But clinical studies suggest that thanks to better support networks, divorced women undergo less depression than do divorced men. Studies indicate that men tend to get more health, sexual and economic (wage) benefits from marriage than do women, regardless of the quality of the marriage.

"The rights of women in society have been pushed to such an extent that they now feel if they're not happy, it's their partner's fault," says marriage researcher Walter Schneider, who hails from Bruderheim, 20 miles northeast of Edmonton. "That perception is heightened by the social conditioning of men to be chivalrous. Men have to be protectors of women and children, so they are reluctant to become involved in an adversarial process against a woman. They're also less likely to seek divorce because that would destroy their self-image as providers and protectors of the family. It would destroy their world; all they've sacrificed for would go down the drain."

Mr. Schneider points to an Australian study indicating that of four marital categories divorced persons have the highest suicide rate, with divorced males suffering 54 deaths per 100,000 and divorced females one-third that number. By comparison, people who had never married had the next highest rate of suicide with 32 per 100,000 for men and one-quarter that number for women.

Notwithstanding the new studies, the perception that men are pigs still finds abundant anecdotal support. Marney Hollingshead of Edmonton, a 28-year-old mother of two, says she is the classic example of a single mom who tried to maintain a relationship with her husband, but was totally abandoned. "I've got a maintenance order back-dated to '93, but right from the get-go he never bothered to pay maintenance," she reports. "I've involved the police, but for years he

hasn't worked enough to file income tax, so there's not much they can do. They took away his licence and he got one in his brother's name."

Ms. Hollingshead, who returned to university and now commands a good salary, is repaying $17,000 in student loans. She says the effect on her children of growing up in poverty "truly, deeply affects them." But growing up without a father is even worse. "My son was four when he last saw his dad," she says. "He went from being happy and easy-going to angry and disrespectful. For the longest time he didn't trust men. 'They'll just leave anyway,' he'd say."

Ms. Hollingshead doesn't believe the proposed amendments to the Divorce Act will have much effect on a man like her husband. "I know a lot of men who have put up with a lot of stuff to see their kids," she says. "But rather than pay maintenance, my husband gave up his kids. What can you do unless you're dealing with someone of character?"

But according to Professors Brinig and Allen, Ms. Hollingshead's custody of the children may be the very reason her husband provides so little support. There are three basic reasons people file for divorce they say: (1) to stop being exploited within the marriage, (2) to exploit the other spouse by running off with marital investments, or (3) to establish custody over children. They believe that determining which of the three predominates could assist divorce law reformers.

If divorces result mostly from bad (or exploitive) marriages, the Brinig-Allen study suggests, then divorce should be made (or kept) easier; if divorces result mostly from a desire to exploit the partner, then it should be made more difficult or expensive; and if it is custody outcomes which most influence divorce filings, a presumption of joint custody, except where one parent can demonstrate the other is unfit, would "mitigate the incentive for one party filing for the purpose of gaining unilateral control over the children and therefore the other spouse."

After analyzing 21 wide-ranging variables, the Brinig-Allen study concludes that the person who anticipates gaining custody of the children is the one most likely to file for divorce. Therefore, Prof. Brinig speculates, if joint custody were the norm, there would likely be fewer divorces, not more. Her conclusion directly contradicts critics of the proposed changes to Canada's divorce laws, who argue that if men no longer fear losing custody of their children they will have one less incentive to stay married.

In fact, however, divorce rates are plunging in states where courts typically award custody of children to both parents. A study headed by Richard Kuhn of the Children's Rights Council based in Washington, D.C., found that states with higher levels of joint custody awards in 1989 and 1990 "have shown significantly greater declines in divorces in the following years through 1995, compared with other states." Overall divorce rates declined nearly four times faster in high joint-custody states compared with states where joint custody is relatively rare. A large factor, the researchers believe, is that joint custody "removes the capacity for one spouse to hurt the other by denying participation in raising the children."

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