Talking It Over
While I was traveling recently to promote my new book about children, a lot of people asked me about the Whitewater controversy, which I wrote about last week. But many more men and women were interested in discussing the issues of real life. They wanted to talk about family concerns — from affordable health care to job lay-offs to how we can raise standards in our schools.
In particular, my position on one subject — divorce — seems to have taken people by surprise. As I say in my book, I think getting a divorce should be much harder when children are involved.
For much of the 1970s and 1980s, many believed that a bad marriage was worse than a good divorce. Now, however, we know that children bear the brunt of failed marriages.
Children living with one parent or in stepfamilies, for example, are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems. Kids who grow up in single-parent families are also more likely to drop out of high school, become pregnant as teen-agers, abuse drugs, behave violently and become entangled with the law. Even if a parent marries again, it doesn't necessarily improve a child's odds.
Apart from the emotional trauma that divorce inflicts on children, there are also financial considerations. Usually, children live with their mother after divorce, and women tend to make lower wages, particularly if they are also caring for children. Child support contributions often can be woefully insufficient, and as we saw recently in the case of the New York investment adviser who owed more than $500,000 in child support, even some wealthy fathers fail to support their children after getting divorced.
As a lawyer, I handled more than my share of divorce cases. I witnessed otherwise rational men and women, overwhelmed by jealousy and an urge for revenge, force their own children to choose sides. Many times, I saw children used as bargaining chips to obtain better divorce settlements.
Most married couples know that living happily ever after is not always an easy, or painless, proposition. My own marriage has become stronger, I believe, because Bill and I have worked hard at it, even when times were rough. As I told Barbara Walters in a recent interview, we have learned to compromise and bite our tongues when we need to.
I'm not saying that divorce should never happen. I know of cases, as I'm sure you do, where divorce was the best option for all family members involved. No one should have to endure the physical and emotional abuse that my own late mother-in-law, Virginia Kelley, recounted in her witty and touching autobiography, "Leading With the Heart."
Virginia was married to an alcoholic who sometimes became abusive during drinking binges. She finally divorced him but re-married him three months later — against Bill's advice — because she felt sorry for him and believed he would change his ways. In later years, she told me she regretted not having stuck to her decision for the sake of her children.
Most marriages dissolve because of far less desperate circumstances. Divorce has become too easy because of our permissive laws and attitudes. Just look at our culture today: Good marriages are seldom celebrated, while every tiff or spat in a celebrity marriage becomes tabloid fodder.
For too many people, "Till death do us part" means "Till the going gets rough." With so many marriages failing — nearly half end in divorce in our country — we need to do more to encourage parents to work out their problems, stay together and strengthen their families. In cases where problems can't be reconciled, parents ought to put the needs of their children first in working out the terms of divorce. They must understand that their parental responsibilities continue even after a marriage splits up.
The good news is that attitudes about marriage and divorce seem to be changing. Some states are beginning to examine whether their divorce laws are too lax. Grass-roots campaigns to help preserve marriage are flourishing around the country.
More churches are offering marital counseling, and ministers are using sermons to educate parents about the responsibilities of marriage and family life. Some courts now require that divorcing parents attend classes to learn about the potential effects of divorce on their children. These and other efforts are welcome braking mechanisms that can slow down the process of divorce when children are involved.
Children are the issue here, as a 15-year-old boy from Louisiana noted in a letter he wrote me not long ago. "It is not fair to me or my mom that she has to be both mother and father to me and my little brother," said the boy, who went on to describe how his parents' divorce had affected his whole family. "It makes no sense to me."
It should make no sense to any of us.
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