Professor Lindsay Christopher
13 August 2013
Divorce: An American Tradition
On one of the most important days of his life, Kris’ friends and family gathered around him to celebrate. As they looked over photographs from his wedding day, they smiled. Kim was very beautiful and had been a gorgeous bride. Kris held up his glass of wine and made a toast. While his wine sloshed in his glass, his dad gave him a pat on the back as a gesture of encouragement. Kris recounted how, 72 days earlier, he had married one of the most beautiful women in the world, and how at that very moment he knew he had made the right decision. That right decision was not marrying Kim but coaxing her into signing a prenuptial agreement before they tied the knot.
Prenuptial agreements, also called prenups, are very common nowadays. They serve as contracts to divide property ahead of marriage, as a plan for divorce. As described in the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, prenups can be as common as wedding cake.
What an interesting culture we live in, where we make plans for our divorces before we are even married. It’s almost as if we know that our marriages are doomed from the start. As marriage mentor and author Ramona Zabriskie writes, every American woman wants to feel “cherished” and to have that one person to “cherish” unceasingly. She explains that such a “priceless gift” is not for simply anyone; not for the random person on the street nor even for a close family member. My dear friend Ramona explains that to fully “experience the closeness of cherish,” a lady must chose a life partner. To “cherish” and be “cherished” in return, is “the real why” women get married. Likewise, Zabriskie argues that every man wants to find his “quest” to “conquer” and prove his manhood. She maintains that a man’s “quest… is utterly tied to his identity. He believes that what he does is who he is” (34-42). So it’s not as if marriage has lost its appeal, because statistics show that 90% of all Americans get married at least once in their lifetime (Wolfinger 2). It seems more appropriate to identify the culprit of divorce as an alteration to accepted societal standards, drastic transformations in the economy, and individual circumstances.
Changes in Society:
Nicholas H. Wolfinger, the Assisant Professor of Family and Consumer Sciences and of Sociology at the University of Utah, enumerates many reasons why divorce rates are so high in his book, Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in Their Own Marriages. One reason, that I find most fascinating, is that divorce has lost its “stigma.” There are hardly any negative connotations associated with divorcees. He persists that, “Americans’ acceptance, or at least tolerance, of divorce has increased to the point that generally it is no longer construed as a moral failing” (Wolfinger 2). In Sociology courses at Clark College, I’ve learned that our American society almost always places blame on the individual. Americans place “a high premium on individual achievement,” and rarely look to our “sociological imagination.” When a culture places value on using the “sociological imagination,” that culture has the ability to see beyond individual circumstances for relation to “massive cultural or historical processes,” or essentially, the bigger picture (Newman 9). Is it not interesting that our society, who usually places blame on the individual, would look for a sociological explanation for divorce?
In those terms, I feel it is imperative to look at divorce from a sociological perspective. Returning to Wolfinger’s claim that divorce has lost much of its “stigma,” Wolfinger asserts that this is due, in part, to the mainstreamed “divorced characters… in today’s movies, literature, and television shows.” He rationalizes that the divorce self- help books in every bookstore contribute to society’s growing desensitization to the topic of divorce as well (2-3). The fact that there are thousands of books on coping with divorce is a sign that divorce is prevalent in today’s society. It’s also proves how cyclical divorce is. Our society suffers from high divorce rates, so our society needs books on coping. Our society has books on coping, so it’s alright to get divorced because other people get divorced and it’s not the end of the world.
If we look at marriage and divorce as they were in the beginning, they bear hardly any resemblance to modern American practices. According to the US History Online Textbook, colonial America did not practice divorce until the New England Settlers arrived with disdain for the Catholic Church. New England Settlers “sought to recreate society” and with their changes, they brought divorce (“The New England Colonies”). The Roman Catholic Church, in fact, was one of the first institutions to formally “outlaw” divorce, as stated in the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. The encyclopedia goes on to read that the authority of the Catholic Church “carried into future centuries and influenced lands as far-flung as Ireland, Latin America, and parts of the South in the United States” (“Divorce”). It’s too bad that those influences didn’t carry on to mainstream American culture.
World War II was another huge factor for high divorce rates. As many women sought to help the war effort, they found new power. Women entered the workforce in unparalleled numbers and the sudden push to return home, in the 1950s, caused for some contention between the sexes. We tend to look at the 1950s as a time where few divorces occurred because, compared to today’s numbers, 1,070 divorces per 100,000 marriages, is comparatively low to modern times. However, the 1950s mark the beginning of an era. With the 1960s, came the great divorce boom. As women graduated from higher education and gained steady employment, they no longer felt the need to remain trapped in their miserable marriages. The divorce rates loomed from the 1960s to 1979, and in the midst of that timeframe, people demanded change. The feminist and sexual revolutions where the vessels for that change (St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture).
Returning to the concept of “stigma,” the feminist and sexual revolutions “combined to give divorce a more positive image that reflected the right of women to be liberated and independent” (St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture). As women felt compelled to act on their rights for independence, the sudden outbreak of AIDs tamed the divorce rate back down in the early 1980s. While yes, it would be wonderful to tame the divorce rate again, I’m not a fan of the AIDs method.
Bramlett, Matthew D., and William D. Mosher. “Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States.” Family in Society (2002) Gale Opposing Viewpoints. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.
“Divorce.” Encyclopedia of Gender and Society. Vol. 1. 2009. Web.
“Divorce.” Encyclopedia of Sociology. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. 2001. Web.
“Divorce.” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. 2013. Web.
Howell, Marilyn. “Building Social Relationships: Intimacy and Families.” Sociology 101. Clark College, Vancouver, WA. 12 Aug. 2013. Lecture.
Newman, David M. Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life. 9th ed. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, Inc., 2012. Print.
Our Families, Ourselves: Changing Families an Introduction to Marriage and Families. Intelecom. 2007. DVD.
“Predicting Divorce.” Encyclopedia of Mathematics and Society. Vol. 3. 2012. Web.
“The New England Colonies.” US History Online Textbook. USHistory.org, 2013. Web. 13 Aug. 2013.
The Way We Live: The Common Ground. Intelecom, 2006. DVD.
Wolfinger, Nicholas H. Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in Their Own Marriages. 2nd ed. New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.
Zabriskie, Ramona. Wife for Life: The Power to Succeed in Marriage. Salt Lake City: Leicester Bay Books, 2013. Print.