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Divorce Culture

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Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's Atlantic Monthly article "Dan Quayle Was Right" ignited a media debate on the effects of divorce that rages still. In The Divorce Culture she expands her argument. She shows us how our high-divorce society is creating a low-commitment culture where the breaking of bonds becomes a defining fact and metaphor in our most vital human relations, and where the interests and needs of children are increasingly neglected. Using a variety of cultural sources - children's books, greeting cards, and...
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Overview

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's Atlantic Monthly article "Dan Quayle Was Right" ignited a media debate on the effects of divorce that rages still. In The Divorce Culture she expands her argument. She shows us how our high-divorce society is creating a low-commitment culture where the breaking of bonds becomes a defining fact and metaphor in our most vital human relations, and where the interests and needs of children are increasingly neglected. Using a variety of cultural sources - children's books, greeting cards, and the literature of self-help, etiquette, and advice - as well as psychological and sociological research, she provides historical perspective and shows how Americans who once viewed divorce as a last resort have come to see it as an entitlement. She traces the change most particularly to the mid-sixties, when a major, and troublesome, shift took place, leading to what she calls "expressive divorce" - divorce as an individual prerogative, and as a source of personal growth and new opportunity. Whitehead does not oppose divorce as such. She assumes that it is often the only possible remedy for an irretrievably broken or violence-ridden marriage. Rather, it is against casual divorce that she argues - divorce that focuses on one person's rights, needs, and desires without regard to the consequences for others, especially children. And she makes us see how little attention is paid to preparation for marriage, with the result that it all too frequently turns out to be short-term, contingent, and subject to abrupt termination.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Whitehead faults three strands in the development of a divorce culture: a shift in the ethic of obligation to an ethic of self, an all-American reconception of divorce as a right and woman-friendly socio-economic shifts. Her conservative defense of traditional marriage criticizes both capitalism and liberalism. She attributes the rise of what she terms "expressive" divorce to a "model of family relationships based on marketplace notions of unfettered choice, limited warranties and contingent obligations." Whitehead shows how all sides in the culture wars have accepted divorce as morally valid and how stressed fathers and mothers transmit the suffering of these choices to children, the conception of divorce as a "psychological entitlement" being adversarial to children. Her stories of children from divorced families are poignant, making this an important book for those with younger children considering divorce. The author's antidote is to stop thinking about marriage in terms of the marketplace and recommit ourselves to civic and religious traditions of obligation. Whitehead is a freelance writer who specializes on matters of family and child well-being. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Elaborating on her controversial Atlantic Monthly article, "Dan Quayle Was Right," Whitehead itemizes the deleterious effects of divorce on children and attributes many social pathologies to divorce. Her sources are an interesting mix of social science data and analyses, self-help and etiquette books, novels, children's literature, and even Hallmark cards. The conclusions she draws from social science data are not always supportable, and she takes a very narrow point of view compared with Judith Stacey's broader In the Name of the Family: Rethinking Family Values in a Postmodern Age (Beacon, 1996). The unique value of Whitehead's study is that while she traces the development of divorce from marginal to mainstream, she also shows that ideas about divorce are an almost inevitable working out of American political ideals. No prescriptions are offered, except that a rising change in public consciousness may still help both children and the body politic. For all social science collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/96.]-Janice Dunham, John Jay Coll. Lib., New York
Leora Tanenbaum
At the end of 1993, after Murphy Brown decided she wanted a child more than she wanted to wait around for a husband, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote an essay titled "Dan Quayle Was Right" for The Atlantic Monthly. Her argument was that, yes, the vice president was right to blame the decline of civilized life on the disintegration of the nuclear family. She trumpeted that the two-parents-with-kids family structure — long held in check by religious, social and legal sanctions, but eroding since the 1960s — is the best one for raising well-adjusted children. As evidence Whitehead cited a number of social science studies showing that, as compared to children from two-parent families, children living with divorced single mothers are more likely to be poor, disconnected from their fathers, school dropouts and teen parents.

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

Kirkus Reviews
An eloquent diatribe against divorce as an entitlement in which the interests of other "stakeholders," particularly children, are subordinated to the enhancement of self.

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780517361313
  • Publisher: Random House Value Publishing, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 2/28/1999

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