By Jennifer Graham
DIVORCE IS not yet a sacrament, but in the past half-century it’s become the next-best thing: a blessed event to be celebrated at parties replete with champagne toasts and “freedom cakes.”
This is why, in The Washington Post recently, writer Scott Keyes could call conservative efforts to stem divorce a “fringe idea” without provoking a peep of outrage. In a culture in which half of all marriages end, divorce is a sacred cow with poison teats; critics tiptoe around it, mindful of insulting a friend, coworker, or relative. If they themselves are divorced, they’re pronounced bitter. If not, they’re misogynistic antiques hawking the values of a freedom-wary ayatollah.
Yet even the most vehement argument put forth by liberty lovers is enfeebled when a liberty does harm to innocent others, as divorce clearly does. Rare is the child whose reaction to his parents’ divorce is “Woo-hoo, let’s party!”
How then should conservatives joust at a grinning beast that makes families poorer and children susceptible to assorted other stresses, disorders, and delinquency, and to their own divorces? Current efforts focus on waiting periods, forcing a cooling-down period for combusting couples, and these may help. But there’s another option that’s free and accessible to all: divorce court. Real ones, not the TV show.
Queen Victoria famously said that no girl would go to the altar if she knew all. The same could be said of divorce court. On any given weekday across the Commonwealth, family court judges endure a gloomy parade of grievances. Once, waiting for my own sorry proceeding, I watched a couple, accompanied by a pair of pricey attorneys, argue for 10 minutes over jewelry. Not who would get it, but who would appraise it.
In deciding to part, the pair forsook the better and embraced the worst, not realizing that, for many, divorce doesn’t end problems, but creates new ones. If people were privy to real divorce hearings — the downward, embarrassed faces at dissolution, the furious chill of repeated child-support hearings — they might rethink the severity of their own troubles. The slogan of The Huffington Post’s divorce section says it all: “Marriages come and go, but divorce is forever.”
Can we make people spend a day in divorce court before allowing them to file for divorce? Why not? We force divorcing Massachusetts couples to endure a parenting class, which consists of five hours of kumbaya with dubious benefit. And the parents must pay. Conversely, family court sessions, generally open to the public, are free. Misery for the masses, on tap like a bitter beer.
Recently, I witnessed two people (and, of course, their attorneys) come before a judge in Cambridge because the mother had allowed their teenager to fly to Florida with another family, despite the father’s objection. So much for the parenting class. Or, for that matter, the “freedom cake.” Freedom’s just another word for “why don’t we let a complete stranger decide where we live and how much of our money we can keep?” Conservatives should refrain from divorcing just on the basis of governmental intrusion alone.
Of course, just as no one enters a marriage anticipating its end, no one thinks getting divorced is going to be that bad. “Everybody thinks they’re going to be different,” Michele Weiner-Davis told me. Weiner-Davis is an outlier, a brash Cassandra who makes a living trying to stop people from getting divorced. Her “Divorce Busting” book, website, and practice were born of the anguish she experienced when her parents divorced when she was a senior in high school and “this warm little nest fell apart.”
“It had such a profound effect on me, that I decided I wanted to be the Johnny Appleseed of love and teach people what they need to know so they’re not faced with that, to try to give a crystal ball into the future,” she said.
No one — not Weiner-Davis nor her compatriots at Kids Against Divorce or the Coalition for Divorce Reform (for which I occasionally write) — is encouraging people to stay in marriages that are abusive or wracked with addictions. But the troubling trend to celebrate, not mourn, the end of a marriage noisily obfuscates a truth: When ending, even a low-conflict marriage can molder into a high-conflict divorce. Open an observation window in the process, and there’d be far fewer cakes.
Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @grahamtoday.