Since 2008, most of us have been walking budgetary tightropes — cutting a piece off of this, snipping some off of that. For a significant percentage, it’s been a steady slide into fiscal chaos, foreclosures, and fear. . . . Inevitably, a change so vast has also affected our relationships.
There seem to be two trends at the same time:
On one hand, with less expendable income, there are less expendable marriages. Our new economic realities may be forcing yet another belt tightening — or heart tightening — process: People can no longer afford to get divorced.
One attorney in White Plains, N.Y., Joy Joseph, Esq., has been a specialist in matrimonial law for many years. In the last six years, she has seen a very clear downward trend in the number of divorces:
“For people of moderate means, the economy has had a big impact. It is very expensive to get divorced. Only a part of it is attorney’s fees. The bigger part is that the assets are split or devalued in the process. Usually that’s the house, in which they have very little equity. Plus there’s the risk of losing the partner’s health benefits. They’re afraid to live uninsured. So, they cling to an unhappy marriage because they can’t afford to leave.”
On its face, this makes sense: beyond being able to pay the fees associated with divorcing, wealthy people are also more likely to be able to independently sustain themselves financially following a divorce. But is this the reality? Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, which I wrote about here, discusses at length how marriage is much stronger as an institution among the rich than among the poor. And there have been studies done suggesting that the more educated (and, therefore, wealthy) a demographic is, the lower its divorce rates are–and the happier it is.
Acosta’s piece appeared in the “divorce” vertical of the Huffington Post, a section of the news and opinion website whose motto is “marriages come and go, but divorce is forever.” Given that, it would be fair to assume that Acosta would be a marriage skeptic. Certainly after reading the portion of it I excerpted above, you would be forgiven for assuming that she sees a certain injustice in the fact that poorer people may not be able to divorce as easily as richer people. Yet, she concludes her article on a pro-marriage note:
I think of the few moments I was angry and fleetingly considered bailing on my marriage–probably the same time my husband considered a similar solution. What made us stand still and work it through? Admittedly, besides occasional pride and obstinacy, our marriage is very stable. Was it just love, then? Surely love was a good part of it, but I don’t believe it was all of it. I believe the commitment and the difficulty of feathering apart two completely interwoven lives overrode the momentary instability. In being faced with staying, we had to work at it. Easy? Far from it. Humbling. Frustrating. Wearisome. Not easy.
But eminently worth it for us. The process brought us to an entirely new level of intimacy, validating everything the optimists hope for and all that clergy argue: that most of us take the easy way out far too easily and leave before the miracle happens. . . .
While I am certainly not in favor of someone staying in a marriage that puts him or her (or children, especially) at risk, I think it might do us all a bit of good to slow down, to take a bit more time between the fight and the time we scream, “I’m outta here!”
Acosta’s conclusion is not only refreshing, given the venue it was published in, but it is also running against the grain of popular culture, where marriage skepticism reigns supreme. The “I’m outta here” impulse defines the most public and publicized divorces of our age—those, in other words, that appear in the tabloids. Celebrities are always filing for divorce. As soon as the first marital conflict arises, as soon as they realize that marriage requires work and compromise, they call their lawyers. When Kim Kardashian divorced Kris Humphries, they had been married for a mere 72 days.
The ceaseless coverage of these high-profile divorces, like the Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston split, undoubtedly glamorizes them. The intrigue, the conflicts, the drama, the fallout, the feelings–us mere mortals can’t seem to get enough of it. Meanwhile, the message being sent is that marriage is supposed to be easy and, when it’s not, we are justified to throw our vows away. The idea of “commitment” has been supplanted by the selfish vogue of personal “convenience.”
The stars of the real world are not the only ones with broken families, either. Divorce is the hip new thing on television too, as Slate reports:
Turn on your TV tonight. Or tomorrow. . . .The odds are good you will see a divorced mother. On TV, if nowhere else, divorced and separated moms are the demographic of the day: Cougar Town, Breaking Bad, Parenthood, Mad Men, Californication, Damages, Hung, The Good Wife, and now I Hate My Teenage Daughter all feature divorced or divorcing mothers. . . I Hate My Teenage Daughter, uses divorce as a casual plot device, one that allows it to plunk two insecure moms on the same couch, where they can make weight jokes and commiserate about how their daughters treat them. Meanwhile, Louie, one of TVs best comedies, is about the daily life of a divorced dad.
So divorce is not only a trendy topic in today’s pop culture, it is also a source of comedy (which would be news, by the way, to the children of divorced parents). The reality is that breaking a family up is nothing less than tragic, a fact that Acosta captures when she begrudgingly acknowledges that the divorce rate will likely climb once our country pulls out of the recession: “[experts] predict that as the downturn resolves, divorce rates will quickly go back up again, which make some people hopeful. That statistical prediction strikes me as sad, even if it is necessary or inevitable.”