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Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and “The Divorce Culture”

February 24, 1997 at 6:00 PM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor-at-large of “U.S. News & World Report,” engages Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a writer on family and social issues, author of “The Divorce Culture.”

DAVID GERGEN: Mrs. Whitehead, you’ve written a book about the divorce culture and how it’s captivated this country over the last 30 years, giving us the highest divorce rates in the history of man as far as I can tell. My question to you is: What do we do about it?

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD, Author, “The Divorce Culture:” Well, I think–and this was one of the reasons for the book–we do a little consciousness raising. We’ve been very shy in this nation about addressing the subject of divorce. We have had this polarizing debate about so-called “family values,” and we’ve reached a consensus roughly that out-of-wedlock childbearing is not good for children or the society. But we have tended to say it’s a problem over there; it’s them; and divorce is the 800-pound elephant in the middle class living room. And so one of the goals of this book was to say, look, let’s talk about this.

DAVID GERGEN: I see. Just like Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring” and raised our consciousness on the environment.

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD: Well, yes. I mean, I’m not sure I can aspire to her status, but that’s the idea.

DAVID GERGEN: Well, what was the psychological revolution all about? Do we have to recognize first where we come from?

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD: Well, what happened and what scholars call the psychological revolution, which was from about the late 50′s into the 1970′s, was that we really began to measure family well-being in more individualistic and emotional terms, so that institutions like marriage somehow bore the burden, the increased burden of providing for individual well-being and happiness. And if they didn’t deliver, if marriage didn’t deliver, then one of the things we came to say was we want out. And so it was a profound change in the way we thought about family, which traditionally was the domain not of individualism but of relationships and of obligations from the older generation to the younger, to a much more individualistic sense of what family was about.

DAVID GERGEN: We’ve moved down from the ethic of obligation to the ethic of self.

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD: I argue that in the book. And I think there is pretty strong evidence to support it, yeah.

DAVID GERGEN: This question. We’ve seen a lot of research in the last ten years saying that divorce really does damage a great many children.


DAVID GERGEN: What interested me about your book was that you made that argument but you also said, unfortunately for a lot of women and even men, getting out of marriages that don’t seem to be working very well gives them a sense of liberation.


DAVID GERGEN: You had a figure of 80 percent, for example.

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD: Well, one study did find that by their own self-report 80 percent of all women who divorce say they’re better off. And even a smaller percentage, but still significant, say they have more economic opportunities after divorce. I think it’s 50 percent of men say they’re happier, so I mean, there is this factor of reported happiness after divorce by the adults.

DAVID GERGEN: So how then–that’s the basic conflict, is it not, between the adults, who in may cases feel happier, children who economically are or emotionally may be worse off. How do we resolve that? How do we change a culture with regard to that issue?

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD: Well, one of the things about a divorce culture is it’s a culture where I think we are more adult-centered, and where we, I think, have not acknowledged sufficiently this dilemma that you point to that adult interests in family relationships and children’s may sometimes be at odds, or at least diverging. And this is, I think, important with respect to women and children because traditionally we’ve assumed that women and children were almost identical in their needs and interests with respect to family life. And we see too that women, because they–for good reasons–because they’ve moved into the job market and into public life–may have different aspirations and interests than their very own children.

So, I mean, I think talk about this, frankly, honestly, understanding that these are social goods in conflict, but too, I wrote the book in order to give voice to children who don’t have the vote. We might have a lower divorce rate if they did have the vote, who don’t pick their own family members, and certainly rarely have a say when their parents break up. And when I go out and talk on the stump, it’s really interesting because people very often disagree with some of the things I have to say, but the conversation, the dialogue is so adult-centered, no one ever says, gee, this sounds troubling to me; what can we do for the sake of the children, and so that is the question that I think we, first of all, just have to acknowledge; that there is this divergence between adult and children’s interests.

DAVID GERGEN: Yeah. I was interested–we spend a great deal of our time now in our public dialogue talking about the importance of getting a college degree as a ticket to the middle class. But you are saying that marriage may be a more important ticket into the middle class than a college degree.

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD: Yeah. There is some evidence that suggests that a married couple with a high school education actually are slightly better off economically than a single parent with a college degree. And we know from other forms of evidence that, assuming the family is reasonably well functioning, that the kids are better off as well.

DAVID GERGEN: David Popenoe from Rutgers, who’s written a book on the break-up of families, has argued that we ought to have two standards for divorce, two different sets of laws, one set of laws that would make it rather easy for childless couples to get a divorce and essentially the no fault approach, but we ought to set a higher standard, a higher bar for couples with children. Do you believe that?

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD: Yeah. I think that that is reasonable. I think it’s important to acknowledge that divorce is painful and difficult. I mean, the society has a stake, I think, in strong marriages even when there aren’t children involved. But surely, it’s a way of recognizing the special social trust that’s involved when a couple brings children into the world. And there are some interesting ideas now about how legislatively we can slow that process down. And, you know, I think there’s a degree to which we can improve divorce, but there are some better or worse ways to go about it.

DAVID GERGEN: In changing a culture, how do we find a language? I’ve been really interested in this question about how we find a language that can, in effect, express social disapproval of divorce or out-of-wedlock birth without stigmatizing the women who suddenly find themselves and they’re leaving abusive marriages, which you think they should be able to leave–


DAVID GERGEN: –a chronically abusive marriage. How do we do–how do we have a language which respects those women in the jobs they’re trying to do, and their children too, and at the same time express the social disapproval?

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD: Well, I think you root in what we’ve learned in the past 30 years about the impact of divorce, because one of the things I learned in writing the book was how optimistic we were in the late 60′s and 70′s about the across-the-board advantages of divorce for everyone involved. And it was a kind of a vast social experiment that we entered into to have the sharp jump in divorce. Now we do more about what its impact is, and so to have a language I think that begins to just simply acknowledge that we’ve learned some things, and to have, therefore, a responsibility, I think, to look at what the research shows, to look at what children’s experience has been like, and to begin to think it through in that way. What do we do with this learning, and how do we transmit it to the next generation?

DAVID GERGEN: And to have a moral language of what we approve of that’s more positive.

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD: Exactly. One thing that strikes me as I talked to the so-called Gen X-er’s, young adults 18 through 29, is that while they’re very accepting of their own parents’ divorce and a lot of them have lived through divorce, they, nonetheless, have a kind of moral language for talking about the relationships that they aspire to; that is, they do hunger for and seek mutually satisfying, long-lasting relationships that are permanent.

DAVID GERGEN: And this final question. In that sense, are you optimistic about this new generation, this Gen X, as they’re called, the 18 to 29 year olds? My impression is that, in fact, they’re much more traditional in their views, and they have a much lower divorce rate than their parents. But I’m curious about your view.

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD: Well, this is my anecdote. And I ground it in signs, as I’ve gone around the country talking. Young people are very, very eager to go into marriage in a thoughtful and careful way. They’re sort of more aware of the risks than my generation was, and they need a little help. And it strikes me that we talk more frankly about sex in our culture than we do about this very important institution called marriage.

DAVID GERGEN: Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, thank you very much.

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD: Thank you very much.