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Whitehead's thesis has been effectively countered by a number of writers, most notably journalist Caryl Rivers (in her recent book Slick Spins and Fractured Facts) and sociologist Judith Stacey (in The Nation). It turns out that Whitehead, a research associate at the conservative Institute for American Values in New York, deliberately chose data that supported her arguments. And the data she most favored, from a study by Judith Wallerstein, is by no means "scientific" because it lacks a comparison group. Indeed, as Rivers and Stacey explain using evidence from many other studies, it's poverty, not family structure, that is the culprit for nearly all of children's problems.
Case closed? Hardly. Now Whitehead has expanded the Atlantic article into a book, "The Divorce Culture," but she hasn't revised an iota of her original thesis. "For most of the nation's history," she writes, "concern for the well-being of children was a central reason for avoiding divorce." But today, she laments, there is a "greater emphasis on individual satisfaction in family relationships," and divorce has become "an event closely linked to the pursuit of individual satisfactions, opportunities, and growth." Whitehead blames many different social forces for the rising acceptance of divorce, but feminism particularly rankles her. She complains that feminists have "pointed to marriage as the source of women's stunted growth and personal unhappiness." Actually, feminists have pointed to inegalitarian marriage — not marriage per se — as the problem.
It's hard to take Whitehead seriously when she exhorts that we become a nation of "sacrifice" and "wholeness of self" through "service and commitment to others." After all, many of her best-known fellow family values pundits — Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh — are themselves divorced and have created "fragile and unstable family households." Next to them, even feminists don't seem so bad. --Salon
Social historian Whitehead (who first advanced her argument in an award-winning 1993 Atlantic Monthly piece) contends that under the prevailing ethic of "expressive individualism," divorce has become the psychologically approved response to marital dissatisfaction and, as such, morally neutralized ("no right or wrong reasons . . . only reasons") and socially sanctioned. It is, she contends, even applauded, by the likes of liberals, feminists, and psychotherapists, whose agendas conveniently blind them to consequences that have surfaced on reappraisal. If, as Whitehead maintains, the early supporters believed that "adults were emotionally fragile and need divorce, while children were emotionally resilient and could handle it," later studies bear out her own conclusion, felicitously articulated, that married parents have greater capacity to invest in their children both affectively and instrumentally and also "to recruit other sources of social and emotional capital." Whitehead weakens her fine case for "the norm of permanence" when she fails to tame her tendency to caricature and accuses straw men of "eroticizing" the "Love Family" that putatively supplants the broken nuclear unit. These traits betoken a decidedly selective vision, as does the metonymic representation of contemporary American culture by a privileged subculture (one fluent in Friedan and Freud and affluent enough to forsake economic mobility for "psychological entrepreneurialism"); ditto some idiosyncratic choices of historical reference points (Edith Wharton novels) and psycho- sociological citations.
Whitehead's ethical bias in favor of responsible parenting is unassailable, however: Marriage, she says, is "children's most basic form of social insurance," and marriages with children should be considered "a special kind of trust." Her confrontation with that tough reality merits attention and support.