Psychiatric Annals

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MARITAL DISRUPTION AND DIVORCE

John H Houck, MD

Abstract

Most fairy tales end with the same sentence: "And so they were married and lived happily ever after." In real life, unfortunately, that ending does not always apply. This article is about people who are married but do not live happily ever after.

We should bear in mind that marital disruption and divorce are not the same thing. Marital disruption is the process by which married persons somehow break the emotional bond that held them together. Whether that rupture is permanent or only temporary, it remains the private affair of the persons concerned until they ask the State to endorse it and give it lawful status. Divorce is simply the seal of the State on what has already happened.

No one knows how many marriages are permanently disrupted in the United States, but the total is obviously greater than the number of divorces granted annually. In the first place, many couples live together in a continuous state of marital breakdown. Their feelings for each other may be as arid as if they were casual acquaintances, but they stay under the same roof because, for whatever reason, neither is inclined to change his or her status. If that condition changes, the disaffected partner becomes one of perhaps a million husbands or wives who simply leave home every year without notice - some permanently, some not. Finally, in this category are the married couples who live in permanent separation from each other but do not seek divorce.

Not everyone realizes that separation may be either formal or informal. If they wish, a married couple may solicit the court's endorsement of such an arrangement as though they sought a divorce. The difference is that neither can marry anybody else. Some couples make this choice because of religious scruples. Much more often, separation is an informal arrangement that is accepted as second best by someone too poor, ill informed, or apprehensive to invite the attention of the courts.

Massive tomes have been written on what makes a marriage come apart. There are lengthy discourses on sexual maladjustments, on financial irresponsibility, on the husband who leaves hair in the sink and the wife who does laundry in the bathroom. There are endless lists of those special qualities mat supposedly contribute to success or failure in marriage. Hartford attorney Donald Cantor, in his book Escape from Marriage,1 analyzes several such lists. From them, with tongue in cheek, he enumerates 19 kinds of people, ranging from the commuter to the scientist and to the "sexually unjoyous," who are said by one or another author to make poor spouses. If all this is really true. Cantor observes, marriage ought then to be reserved by law to the "stable, spartan teetotaller, blessed with a private income, born of atypically diplomatic parents, free from engineering or scientific taint, attached to his church, conservative in investments, possessed of 'true standards/ gleefully sexual and of Solomonic wisdom." Cantor comments that if indeed such an ideal spouse existed, he would surely be, except perhaps in the sexual sphere, too dull to live with.

Every marriage has a kind of prevailing climate that is difficult to describe but quite easy to recognize. There are periods of storm and days of calm; but the winds and the tides follow a fairly constant pattern, and it is that pattern, more than anything else, that finally determines the outcome. In the final analysis, two people do not separate from each other forever solely because of sex, money, or temperament. They separate because at least one of them has lost some essential feeling about the other. Thé problems…

Most fairy tales end with the same sentence: "And so they were married and lived happily ever after." In real life, unfortunately, that ending does not always apply. This article is about people who are married but do not live happily ever after.

We should bear in mind that marital disruption and divorce are not the same thing. Marital disruption is the process by which married persons somehow break the emotional bond that held them together. Whether that rupture is permanent or only temporary, it remains the private affair of the persons concerned until they ask the State to endorse it and give it lawful status. Divorce is simply the seal of the State on what has already happened.

No one knows how many marriages are permanently disrupted in the United States, but the total is obviously greater than the number of divorces granted annually. In the first place, many couples live together in a continuous state of marital breakdown. Their feelings for each other may be as arid as if they were casual acquaintances, but they stay under the same roof because, for whatever reason, neither is inclined to change his or her status. If that condition changes, the disaffected partner becomes one of perhaps a million husbands or wives who simply leave home every year without notice - some permanently, some not. Finally, in this category are the married couples who live in permanent separation from each other but do not seek divorce.

Not everyone realizes that separation may be either formal or informal. If they wish, a married couple may solicit the court's endorsement of such an arrangement as though they sought a divorce. The difference is that neither can marry anybody else. Some couples make this choice because of religious scruples. Much more often, separation is an informal arrangement that is accepted as second best by someone too poor, ill informed, or apprehensive to invite the attention of the courts.

Massive tomes have been written on what makes a marriage come apart. There are lengthy discourses on sexual maladjustments, on financial irresponsibility, on the husband who leaves hair in the sink and the wife who does laundry in the bathroom. There are endless lists of those special qualities mat supposedly contribute to success or failure in marriage. Hartford attorney Donald Cantor, in his book Escape from Marriage,1 analyzes several such lists. From them, with tongue in cheek, he enumerates 19 kinds of people, ranging from the commuter to the scientist and to the "sexually unjoyous," who are said by one or another author to make poor spouses. If all this is really true. Cantor observes, marriage ought then to be reserved by law to the "stable, spartan teetotaller, blessed with a private income, born of atypically diplomatic parents, free from engineering or scientific taint, attached to his church, conservative in investments, possessed of 'true standards/ gleefully sexual and of Solomonic wisdom." Cantor comments that if indeed such an ideal spouse existed, he would surely be, except perhaps in the sexual sphere, too dull to live with.

Every marriage has a kind of prevailing climate that is difficult to describe but quite easy to recognize. There are periods of storm and days of calm; but the winds and the tides follow a fairly constant pattern, and it is that pattern, more than anything else, that finally determines the outcome. In the final analysis, two people do not separate from each other forever solely because of sex, money, or temperament. They separate because at least one of them has lost some essential feeling about the other. Thé problems matter, of course, but the result depends on the current of affectionate respect or sour hostility that flows between them. When the essential climate is right, the most intense disagreement melts like snow in springtime. When the climate is wrong, a simple "good morning" becomes a mortal insult.

The practical difficulty is to decide what factors create the climate and how that climate can be changed once it has been established. Certainly, no single element of environment or personality does it alone. It is neither wealth nor poverty, sexual expertise nor good housekeeping. Probably those qualities that matter most in the long run are mutual tolerance and respect and, when disruption threatens, a fierce determination on both sides to repair it. This is the defect in many legal suggestions about compulsory efforts at reconciliation before divorce; the objective is laudable, but the "compulsory" element is ludicrous. If only one partner wants to be reconciled, while the other only goes through the motions, the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

There is no way to obtain statistics about marital disruption, because that is essentially a private affair. Divorce statistics, on the other hand, are clear and precise as far as they go. But, like all statistics, they are also misleading and distortable. We should look briefly at these figures, if only because they are so often cited in incomplete form.

The current facts are these: The yearly numDer of divorces in the United States has risen steadily since 1890, when we began to keep figures. But so has the number of marriages. We sometimes forget that marriages are disrupted not only by divorce but also by death. The divorce rate in 1900 was much lower; but the death rate was higher, and more people died younger. Had more of them lived longer, we may presume that some would have become part of the divorce statistics instead. That is what has happened in the past 80 years. While the death rate has fallen, the divorce rate has risen - but the total of the two, as reflected in the percentage of widowed and divorced persons combined, has, in fact, declined slightly. That is partly because as we have more divorces we also have more remarriages. But the overall marriage rate in the United States remains about three and a half times the divorce rate. In short, despite outcries to the contrary, there is really no convincing evidence of a massive public shift away from marriage.

The legal institution of divorce is the offspring of somewhat dubious parentage. Originally, only the Church had to sanction marriage, and only the Church could dissolve it. Even the Church had its problems in regulating the behavior of married people, as illustrated in a 17th-century account cited by Calhoun in A Social History of the American Family.2 It describes the problem of a certain Captain Underhill, who, as early as 1638, was "suspect of incontinency with a neighbor's wife. The woman being young and beautiful and withal of a jovial spirit and behavior, he did daily frequent her house, and was divers times found there alone with her, the door being locked on the inside. He said she was in trouble and in temptation and they were praying together."

When the State assumed control, it transplanted into the courts the religious view of divorce as sinful and morally degrading. But it added the broad concept of contract law, which holds that marriage is really a contract between two persons in which the husband agrees to provide and maintain for his wife a reasonable standard of living and support and she, for her part, agrees to perform a variety of wifely duties, presumably including having children and rearing them. If that marriage contract is breached by either party and if this can be clearly demonstrated in court, then, in effect, the party breaching the contract has to pay various penalties. The general idea is that divorce should be as difficult as possible to obtain, that it should be sufficiently time-consuming and expensive to deter all but the most persistent, and that the entire legal process should function as an instrument by which the allegedly wronged and innocent party can flay the allegedly guilty one.

Divorce is the public result of a long, private struggle between two people. We understand very little about what forces drive one couple to separate, hold another together, and force a third into the divorce court. Divorce rates reach a peak in this country somewhere around the seventh year of marriage, with a lesser peak coming somewhere around the 20th. The "seven-year itch" comes for most couples in their middle to late 20s, and one may guess that it represents for some a kind of marital turning point. If they have serious problems, they must either overcome them and settle in for the long haul or get out while they still have time to remarry, start a new career, or move to another part of the country. Probably the question of having children - or, at least, of having more children - is also a factor.

The marriage relationship does not stay the same over the years. It changes as children grow up, jobs and homes are altered, and values and standards are modified. The 20th year of marriage is about the time when the life pattern of most married couples changes most drastically. If major success in business or the professions is to be reached, this is about the time when it will occur. As it does, one partner has less time for the other. This is also when the children leave home. The "empty-nest syndrome" is often cited as a factor in depression, especially in women - but it is a factor in marriage, too. Not only does the children's departure force the wife, in particular, to reassess her way of life; it also deprives parents of one of the major interests they had in common over the years - the needs and progress of their children.

By the time they have been married for 20 years, most normal parents are not entirely devastated to have their children leave home, although they often think they ought to be. But when the children go, they leave a void that is not always easy to fill. For the first time since early marriage, the parents are thrown back upon each other for company and for interests. Each notes with some distress that the small, irritating habits of 20 years ago are still there and still irritating. But their owner has fixed them more firmly; they are more intrusive, and the partner (who notices no such faults in himself) is at least conscious that he is less tolerant than he used to be.

Parents also make a discovery about domestic disputes. A quarrel with children around is essentially what diplomats call a "limited police action," conducted under mutual restraints and generally without bombing or heavy artillery. A cease-fire is rapidly achieved without too much loss of face on either side, because the children function as a truce team. Neither participant wants to fight in front of the children, and by the time the parents have a chance to continue, they have lost their zest for it. When the children disappear, however, the constraints go with them and the fighting escalates because there are no diversions, no one watching from the sidelines, and no face-saving way to stop.

In any event, they elect to get a divorce. Most people approach the whole business with dread, and usually their worst fears are fully justified. Whatever disagreements may exist between litigants, lawyers, and judges, they are unanimous on one central fact. Emotionally, rationally, and legally, the process of divorce is chaotic and degrading.

In most cases the partners cooperate, however unhappily. Under these conditions, divorce is an exercise in legal hypocrisy in which one partner admits some kind of half-true offense against the other. But at its worst, if the partners do not agree, it is an incredible, searing ordeal probably unequaled in human experience. In such cases, in most states, the marital partners are obliged to assume towards each other what lawyers call an "adversary position." In other words, they have to fight each other in court. They have no choice. Each must compile for his attorney and the court a catalogue of those real and half-real offenses of the other - not in abstract, general terms but in minute, intimate detail. If she drinks to excess, he must say how much. If he struck her, she must detail when and where, how hard and how often. If she is extravagant, he must produce bills. If he lies, she must specify how it damaged her. It is an exercise in memory - and sometimes fantasy - never to be forgotten, and incidents that are forgotten by one will be recalled in lurid detail by the other.

The result is a depressing spectacle of anger, bitterness, and recrimination. Louis Nizer comments about this in his book My Life in Court:

"All litigations evoke intense feelings of animosity, revenge and retribution. Some of them may be fought ruthlessly. But none of them, even in their most aggravated form, can equal the sheer, unadulterated venom of a matrimonial contest."

When one surveys the sequence of events as we have done, the bitterness is easy to comprehend. If it were simple anger, that would be bad enough. But the bitterness attending divorce has its roots in much more than anger. There is pain, there is loss, there is fear and uncertainty, and there is monstrous loss of selfesteem. Capping it all is the absolute, devastating sense of failure in the most important enterprise of one's life.

It is difficult to outline the emotional impact of divorce. Its only near-parallel is bereavement, and that almost always easier. The widow has lost her husband, and she, too, must face life alone. But when he died, he was hers; if she was fortunate, he bequeathed to her a strong, sustaining sense of being loved and cherished and worthwhile. The divorced person has none of these. If she sought the divorce, she asks herself how she could have mismanaged her life so dismally. If she did not seek it, she is in worse straits. Until this moment, she canned a badge of love and esteem, however tarnished it might have become. When the divorce decree is signed, she dons another badge - one that marks her as rejected, unloved, unwanted. And the public knowledge of this is only the barest shadow of what she must face within herself.

We have alluded to the woman's share in this unhappy state because most authorities agree that, liberated or not, she bears the heavier burden in most divorces. It is not that men are unaffected or that they do not have many bad times. But on several counts, the man emerges from divorce with more weapons to meet life than does the woman. If there are children (and with most divorces there are), she usually takes them; that, of itself, sharply restricts her future alternatives. She must shape a whole new life under heavy constraints, often on a limited budget. And she must do it in a society that still restricts her social options, discriminates against her in many ways, and makes the "extra woman" a social liability.

Her emotional and social problems compound one another. At the one time in her life when she most needs security arid support, she has it least. Because she sees herself as an emotional amputee, she is doubly vulnerable to the very real changes she senses in her relationships with friends. When her sense of personal worth is at its lowest, she must repel the advances of would-be suitors who see her as sexually experienced and therefore available. And all the while, she must provide double rations of strength and support to children who are themselves confused and unhappy.

Divorces cost money, and some couples do not foresee that living apart will cost more than living together. The wife is obliged to make major long-term decisions about money matters when she is least emotionally or rationally capable of making them. After months or years of conflict and crisis, she finally reaches the point where she will agree to almost anything just to get the whole mess finished with. And sometimes, with a stroke of the pen, she impoverishes herself for the rest of her life. She assumes that her lawyers have scrutinized all aspects of her future, and sometimes they have. But lawyers cannot live their clients' lives, and often their admonitions and warnings fall on deaf ears because the client is still in emotional shock.

Divorced and widowed people, male or female, need much more practical advice than they receive. Even the housewife who is accustomed to handling family finances is often vague about real estate and taxes and insurance. And she is hard put to find an honest, knowledgeable adviser with no designs on either her purse or her person. The provision of this kind of advice is an activity to which some retired business executives might usefully give attention.

Every discussion about divorce comes sooner or later to the matter of children. Many couples stay together solely because they have children whom they cannot bear to distress. This is probably why the "20-year divorces" are statistically misleading. Many of them would undoubtedly have occurred much sooner had not the couple delayed for the sake of their children.

Some people contend that this reasoning is unsound. They say that if parents are at swords' points, children know it anyway and suffer from it. In such cases, divorce is said to be far better, on the theory that one parent and a peaceful house is preferable to two parents and constant warfare.

Some children are more vulnerable to family conflict than others, and some more at one age than at another. Some simply become more adept at defending themselves. They keep away physically, or they withdraw emotionally, or both. An angry household is a bad place to grow up. So is a broken one. Which is the lesser evil for a given child can only be decided individually.

This is an unhappy catalogue of unhappy events because there is no other way to describe it. It has its basis in the intricate fabric of human relationships, human frailty, and human error. No law in the world can change that or ever will. But neither should the law compound the sum of heartbreak and misery that is there already. A legal system that magnifies the worst of human emotions - anger, hatred, and deceit - weakens itself in the process.

The real tragedy of divorce is that it happens at all. But if it must happen, the law should, ideally, achieve its minimum objectives as cleanly and painlessly as possible. It is a kind of legal surgery in which, like real surgery, the crucial decision is not how to do it but whether and when. Any journeyman surgeon can remove an appendix or drain an abscess. But the real life-and-death question is whether it must be done in the first place. The law, as it now stands, concentrates only on the cutting - and it cuts most crudely and painfully. Instead of relieving pain and promoting healing, the divorce process, at its worst, is virtually guaranteed to prolong suffering and aggravate injury.

This state of affairs will not change readily or quickly. On the one hand, proponents of change in the divorce laws argue that current laws are antiquated and hypocritical. They advocate only one basis for a divorce - a finding that the marriage has "broken down irretrievably." This is the so-called no-fault divorce. No adversary action would be necessary, and there would be no assignment of blame to either party. Difficulties would occur in resolving child custody and finances, but at least the worst of current procedures would be ameliorated.

Many honest and sincere people oppose these changes. They worry mainly about making divorce too easy and thereby undermining still further the stability of the family. In particular, there are legitimate concerns about situations in which only one partner wants the divorce and the other's rights are inadequately protected.

It is difficult to sort out these arguments, because we are not really sure which factors strengthen and which weaken the family. Whatever those forces may be, they surely extend beyond the divorce process alone, and we should try to learn more about these matters than we know. We cannot judge all the merits or demerits of "easy" divorce, for example, unless we look longer and harder at what happens afterwards to the former partners and to their children. One sometimes thinks that we should pursue the same logic one step further and make marriage more difficult in the first place. We should remember, too, that we are not yet doing so well as we could about some of the elements that we know make for better marriages - - better educational and job opportunities, less discrimination, and a more stable social structure.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Cantor, D. J. Escape From Marriage: How to Solve the Problem of Divorce. New York: William Morrow and Company. 1971.

2. Calhoun, A. W. A Social History of the American Family From Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1960.

3. Nizer, L My life in Court. New York: Pyramid Publications, 1968.

4. Bureau of the United States Census. Statistical Abstract of the United States. 92nd Edition, Washington, D. C 1971.

10.3928/0048-5713-19750701-08

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