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Making Sense of Divorce




Excerpted from
Divorce Talk; Women and Men Make Sense of Personal Relationships
By Catherine Kohler Riessman

Personal Meaning in a Social Context

Divorce has touched the lives of more individuals today than ever before in history. The marital bonds that in earlier generations (and in many parts of the world to this day) were broken most often by death are in many Western societies now most often broken by divorce. As a relatively common response to marital unhappiness, divorce is a recent phenomenon, characteristic of the past century only. Yet because of it, the world is changing for the large numbers of people whose lives are uprooted by the experience.

Like death, divorce can be traumatic, because our lives are organized around particular relationships that are crucial to how we find meaning in our lives. When we lose an important relationship, whole structures of meaning disintegrate, as do the routines of everyday life organized around the relationship, and these losses often lead to distress, anxiety, and grief. We search for a compass, a new structure to give us bearing, as we try to separate emotionally both from the person and from our own previous identity associated with the relationship. Eventually, we reconstitute a new identity so that we can live and act. Central in this process is the development of an account— what happened and why. Because divorce assaults the world we and others take for granted, it requires explanation.

We usually think of this process of making sense of a stressful event as a private matter. People go through it on their own, in isolation, perhaps with family and friends, but out of public view. Similarly, we often think of divorce as an individual problem, having to do with someone's character, relationships, or milieu. In the words of C. Wright Mills, it is a "private trouble"—values cherished by the individual are threatened. But as Mills argues, private troubles can become social issues when they transcend local environments and people's inner lives. Divorce is a social issue because it suggests there may be structural trouble in the institution of marriage, in relationships between husbands and wives in general. Divorce is a public issue, as well, because it involves institutions outside the family, notably the state, and raises a variety of policy questions.

In its frequency alone, divorce can no longer be viewed only as a personal matter. Particularly for Americans born after World War II, it has become commonplace. Between 1963 and 1975 the divorce rate in the United States increased 100 percent, and it continued to increase each year until it reached its all-time high in 1981, when 1.21 million people divorced. Although there is debate over the reasons for this trend, it is clear that as a consequence of the liberalization of divorce laws, divorce became possible for countless individuals who would never previously have considered this means of ending marital unhappiness. Had the spiraling rate of increase of the late 1960s and 1970s continued, by the end of the century nearly every American would have ended a marriage through divorce. As it is, demographer Andrew Cherlin estimates that if recent trends persist, about half of the people getting married today will eventually get divorced. Historian Lawrence Stone estimates that in England over a third of current marriages "will end in the divorce court rather than the funeral parlor." (England and the United States have the highest divorce rates in the Western world, apart from Scandinavia.) The enduring married couple has become somewhat of an endangered species, and couples in which one or both members have been married before are increasingly the norm.

It is paradoxical that individuals must take pains to make sense of divorce—to interpret it to themselves and to others—given that so many people end marriages and that it is so easy to do. Legally, the event is handled "with conveyer-belt speed and impersonality," suggesting that it has become an administrative action and is no longer a moral or judicial action. Yet divorce, while statistically normal, is not normative in a sociological sense: marriage remains the desired state for adults. Witness the rituals and symbolism that surround weddings, and the absence of these for divorce. Rituals carry powerful messages about the kinds of women and men we are expected to be, just as they perpetuate beliefs necessary to maintaining a particular social order. The custom of elaborate weddings persists from one generation to the next, with the bride usually wearing white, and the language of the ceremony reflects the belief that the union will be permanent—"until death do us part." Even in weddings of "modern" couples, who construct their own rituals and write their own vows, or even for couples who themselves were raised with divorce, there is still the expectation of "forever."

Although the belief in living happily ever after may have been replaced by the idea that marriage is "work," commitment nonetheless is the rule of the day. Marriage continues to be something that people take very seriously, despite massive changes in other aspects of family life. Divorce challenges this cultural value. It is not surprising that in spite of all the rhetoric of liberalization (and the fact that Americans broke the divorce barrier and elected Ronald Reagan, who had been divorced and remarried, as President), divorcing individuals still consider themselves somewhat deviant, at least while they are going through the process. Feeling like "damaged goods," they perceive that others view them as stigmatized.6 They seem to continue to carry in their heads past notions of matrimonial fault, despite the no-fault ethic of contemporary legal practice. Societal expectations help explain why divorce is so stressful, and why individuals must go to such great lengths to explain why they are divorced.

In contrast, another major change in family life—married women working outside the home—has become both statistically normal and sociologically normative. In the not too distant past it was thought that something was wrong with a man if his wife had a job; perhaps he was not a good provider. Although these beliefs may still persist in some pockets of American society, especially if the wife's job is not in a traditionally "female" sector, in general families are not stigmatized and women do not need to give elaborate explanations for their decision to work outside the house. Women's earnings are now usually necessary for families to maintain the way of life they desire. Employed wives may experience considerable distress because of their multiple roles, but typically this strain is not tied to feelings of being deviant or outside the normative order.

Thus the ideology of women's proper place has changed, but the ideology of marriage as forever, in contrast, has not changed to nearly the same degree. There has been little breakdown of the ideology of marriage as a lifelong state, despite the reality of a high rate of divorce that contradicts it.

Divorce also constitutes a public issue because of the poverty of families affected by it. Children of divorce, along with their mothers, are disproportionately poor, and have come to depend increasingly on social services from the state. Whereas 13 percent of the children in two-parent families lived below the poverty line in 1983, the figure for female-headed households was 56 percent, the majority made poor by divorce. Sixty-six percent of children living with only one parent do so because of marital dissolution; only 27 percent are children whose parents never married. Mothers turn to welfare and/or to jobs in low-paying sectors of the economy because they lack sufficient economic support from their ex-husbands or receive no support at all, and because they often have few marketable skills. Divorce has created a national crisis, exemplified by the question posed frequently in the media, "Who will care for the children?" In the absence of a collective answer, individuals devise their own solutions, making do in private ways.

Divorce is a public problem in at least one other arena: health care. Research has shown that divorce is associated with a variety of physical and mental health problems, both for women and for men. Divorced men are more likely than their married counterparts to die, for example, and they are also more likely to enter hospitals of all types, including psychiatric ones. Divorced women are at risk for acute illnesses and for depression, for which they visit physicians more than married women do. Admittedly, the direction of the causal link between divorce and illness is not entirely clear; does the stress of divorce compromise health, or is divorce more common among those with health problems? What is clear, however, is that the problem affects the medical care system: it must respond proportionally more to the divorced than to the married and, as one conservative critic recently speculated, the "flight from marriage" may be a source of rising medical costs.

This study links the social and public issues of divorce with the personal and private experience of divorce. Specifically, the book concerns the interpretive process through which individuals make sense of their former marriages and their current lives—a process that can be studied by focusing on how people talk about their experiences. Though seemingly private, their stories of "what happened" are socially patterned in various ways, and women's accounts are distinctive in certain respects from men's. Embedded in an individuals account of a divorce, too, is a social discourse and often a set of public issues that need collective solutions.

The "talk" that I analyze comes from interviews with fifty-two women and fifty-two men who had been separated and/or divorced for no more than three years—the period most salient in making sense of the past marriage and the current self. (Throughout this book, I use the terms "separated," "divorced," and "divorcing" interchangeably; "separated" is not used in its more restricted sense, indicating individuals who have not yet obtained a legal divorce, but rather refers to anyone living apart from his or her former spouse.) The women and men were located both through court records and through referrals from individuals already contacted through the court sample. Referrals were used to allow the inclusion of some who were recently separated and less likely to be involved yet in court proceedings; otherwise, there were no significant demographic differences between the two groups of interviewees.

The sample was chosen with care to be representative of the general population of individuals going through the process of marital dissolution, and ultimately the group included individuals with a range of incomes, educational backgrounds, and occupations. All were between the ages of twenty-five and forty-eight. All but a handful had been married only once, for at least a year; twenty individuals had been married to someone else in the sample (but their responses are not treated any differently from the others', as explained in the Appendix). Some had children, some did not. The Appendix contains a detailed description of the characteristics of the sample and the methods of the study, and a discussion of how it began and the unexpected ways in which it evolved. I will return at the end of this chapter to a description of the study's general approach.



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