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October 16, 2000

(Too) great expectations

Patricia Pearson
National Post

Casting about for something suitably venal to place on their schedule next winter, Fox Entertainment has just acquired a game show called I Want a Divorce.

Contestants, apparently, will kvetch about their unravelling marriage and compete, in some baffling fashion, for cash prizes and a division of assets. "I think there will be a great deal of voyeuristic fun," enthused Peter Isacksen, an executive producer for the show, "because divorce is such a national phenomenon and people maybe don't take marriage as seriously as they used to."

Yay! My culture has become a self-parody! I feel so proud to be living in this time. The show does have one earnest stipulation for would-be contestants, however, which is that they not have children under 18.

What this fine-print stipulation shouts out loud is that marriage may be a lark, and divorce an entertainment, but only if you're not the one actually affected by it --which is to say the vulnerable, witnessing child.

Divorcing couples -- of whom there were 69,088 in Canada in 1998 -- have been known to argue that their children will be happy if they are happy. But that wisdom has seldom been put to the test, and is being vigorously challenged this month by two new books: The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, by Berkeley sociologist Judith Wallerstein, and The Case for Marriage, by sociologist Linda Waite of the University of Chicago and journalist Maggie Gallagher.

Ms. Wallerstein argues that divorce is not a short-term crisis for children, but a life-long sentence, creating insecurity, commitment phobia and impossibly high ideals for the perfect mate (i.e., a mate who won't be like their mother or father, since human imperfection led to catastrophe).

It is a melancholy picture that she paints, and she has predictably come under fire from more optimistic scholars in her field, but I see glimpses of her research around me: the friend who can't stay in love for more than a year, so shattered was he by his parents' split; the adolescent child of a blown-apart home who vows never to marry -- or even date, if she can help it. The preschooler I know who will never grow up to understand the dissolution of her family, because the reasons for it were so ephemeral and self-centred that all they teach her is that marriage is treacherous.

There is the opposite end of the spectrum too, of course, in which couples are struggling miserably to stay together for the children, and in the process producing an untenable atmosphere of misery and conflict. Ms. Wallerstein would say that, on balance, children still feel safer in a divided house than a broken home.

A recent review of research in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states otherwise. Children are more damaged by high-conflict marriage than amicable divorce, scholars concluded in that journal's August issue.

Nevertheless, it may depend upon what you define as damage. The most interesting research I've seen comes from Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's National Marriage Project, which has been studying the attitudes and expectations of Generation Xers. In The State of our Unions 2000, newly posted on the project's Web site, Ms. Dafoe Whitehead and her colleagues report on a generation that is "haunted by fears of divorce."

They don't expect relationships to last, and are shoring up their defences, engaging in noncommittal living arrangements that the authors characterize as "sex without strings, relationships without rings."

The only image these twentysomething Americans have of marriage is a negative one, and they have no conception of marriage "as an institution designed to hold a mother and father together in a family household." In the absence of that ideal, they see marriage as a passionate romance. And passion can only die.

Since I wended my own lonely way through this landscape of mistrust and casual heartbreak 10 years ago, I recognize perfectly what Ms. Dafoe Whitehead is talking about, and find it infinitely sad. This is a generation that wants a bright, constructive love, but is lost in the searching, and its own children will be consigned to the same wandering if we don't revitalize the purpose of marriage.

The other book published this month, The Case for Marriage, attempts some spry boosterism on marriage's behalf. Waite and Gallagher point out that married people are healthier, wealthier and more productive, their lives more peaceable, their children more self-confident, their values more certain and hopeful. (One stubborn myth they overturn is that violence is more prevalent in marriage: It isn't. Unmarried couples are more volatile.)

But is this recitation of practical benefits enough to prevent divorce? I shouldn't think so. Western culture has idealized marriage as the perfect, all-encompassing romantic union. That vision, exaggerated in the last half century by the craze for self-fulfillment, has blinded us to what marriage can offer.

Until we see marriage as not about us, but about our shared lives, we are bound to be broken and bruised.

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