The Essential Grandparent's Guide to Divorce: Making a Difference in the Family
By Lillian Carson
Because divorce rates are increasing around the globe, some sociologists are suggesting that we begin to look at divorce beyond the individual and family and view this phenomenon as a cultural change.
In the new millennium, will the institution of marriage be defined differently? Perhaps, but in which direction is it headed? Will the pendulum swing backward, away from divorce?
A report from the U.S. Bureau of the Census shows that the average age for a first marriage has gone up from 20.8 years in 1970 to 25 years in 1997 for women and from 23.3 years to 26.8 years for men. Is this an attempt by Generation X to exercise caution?
Research by Larry L. Bumpass of the University of Wisconsin has determined that the divorce rate has stabilized in the past two decades. As of March 1997, the United States had more than 19 million divorced people, or 9.9 percent of those eighteen and over. Among whites, 9.8 percent are divorced, compared to 11.3 percent of blacks and 7.6 percent of Hispanics.
According to Mark Dunlap of the Relationship Institute of Santa Barbara, "Serial monogamy is wearing out. People are tired of changing partners. They realize how hard divorce is on children. They went from the "til death do us part' before the 1960s to the stage where it was okay to divorce and even the thing to do in the '70s and '80s. Now," he says, "there's a trend back to the stronger sense of commitment. More couples are opting to work on their marriage rather than heading for divorce court." That sometimes means taking a serious look at their models for marriage.
Marriage reaches beyond the two partners. It encompasses a bond to a larger society as a public statement of intent to become a family. The family is the foundation of our civil society. And grandparents provide the cornerstone of that foundation. This is true in both a literal and metaphorical sense. The cornerstone is traditionally the first stone to be set, marking the beginning of the building. It is the repository for the history of the building, commemorating when it was built and those who contributed their efforts to its construction. And, standing at the corner of the foundation, the cornerstone provides for the convergence of the sides, joining and blending them together. And that's the grandparents' position. As the cornerstone, we are set first in time and hold the knowledge of the family history, the stories, the traditions and values that are a family's foundation. As the cornerstone of the family, grandparents serve the function of connecting their families, drawing and holding them together. Grandparents strengthen families. Of course, many marriages are in serious trouble. Some divorces are, in fact, acts of courage. The following excerpt, written by Peggy O'Mara, editor of Mothering magazine, expresses the motivation, desperation and thoughtful resolve behind some divorces. It is a moving description of the struggle for growth in life and divorce.
I would like to refute the popular misconception that divorce is an act of cowardice, a running away, an easy way out. It is, in fact, a great act of courage when it has as its motivation the continued growth and health of the family. Divorce willingly and knowingly brings hardship upon the family. It is an open invitation to a hurricane. It is a purposefully chosen healing crisis.
The self-inflicted natural disaster of divorce changes many lives irrevocably. It is painful, embarrassing, depressing, exhausting and often expensive. I do not believe that anyone would choose it who was not severely oppressed emotionally, psychologically, physically or spiritually.
In measuring the varied impact of divorce, it is difficult to determine exactly how the many factors involved affect each of the family members. There are negative effects, such as the death of the nuclear family and the psychological sense of failure, parental separation and fear of physical separation, and positive effects such as relief from the violence or rage that may have existed in the home prior to divorce, as well as the tension and disharmony.
It is important to appreciate that families who are able to recover from the pain and disappointment of divorce can indeed be healthy and happy families again, and can even be healthier families. This does not mean that I encourage divorce or that I believe the positive qualities of divorce will drive hordes to the divorce courts. We are better than that! We do not give up easily.
Making a Marriage
Today's mind-boggling technology continues to remove us farther and farther away from the processes of life and complicate the making and preservation of marriage. Urban children, especially, are separated from the natural facts of life. For them, milk comes from the market. A connection to the cows that produce the milk products they eat and drink evades them. Much is lost by this separation from the cause and effect of daily life.
A minister friend recently lamented about our sanitized life experiences. Recently on a trek in the Himalayas, she witnessed a burial ritual where the family carried the deceased body to the edge of a river that flows into the Ganges. After special preparation they burned the body and cast the remains to the waters, returning it to nature. This hands-on experience confronts the mourners with the absence of life in the physical shell as they are giving it up to nature. It connects the living to the fact of death and the cycle of life and challenges the wish for denial.
Contrasting this to the burial services she performs here in the United States, the minister wondered out loud, "How did we get so clean?" Mentioning that she usually asks cemetery officials for dirt so that she can symbolically relate the return of the body to the earth, she told me that sometimes she receives sand instead because, it is explained, "Its cleaner." Adherents to the Jewish faith have the tradition of lowering the body into the earth and shoveling earth to cover the coffin. Ancient Native American tradition returned the body to the earth directly, without a coffin. The early Plains Indians built a platform and left the body for nature's disposal.
Being removed from the life process affects our daily life and perceptions. It spawns disregard for the environment and leaves us unconnected to the life cycle. It has encouraged the quest for eternal youth at the expense of a reverence for aging and the value of older people. It also leads to some of today's mismatched marriages.
A wedding photographer told me of her interesting vantage point on marriage. She photographs about thirty weddings each year and interviews each couple. "About eight of those thirty marriages appear to be solid, a union of two people who have found their soul mates," she stated. "The rest seem to lack depth. Typical responses from them when I ask "Why are you getting married?" are "Well, I'm getting older and I want to have children," "I've made it and it's time to settle down and have a family," or other vague answers that have to do with superficial aspects of the other person like "He's such a fox," "I'm proud to have such a pretty fiancée."
"Overall," the photographer continued, "I've been struck by the naive approach to relationship, the major issues that haven't been resolved, especially in mixed religious and cultural unions, the materialism, and apparent lack of depth in the relationships."
In their book, The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts, Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Biakeslee enumerate the emotional tasks that couples need to complete in order to have a good marriage. After interviewing fifty couples who felt they had good marriages, the authors identified several psychological steps that couples must take to commit to a working marriage. The steps include separating from the family of childhood, carving out autonomy, and creating an environment where anger and conflict could be safely vented. All of the couples reporting good marriages had addressed these tasks.