The Middle Brow - Divorce Culture

By Emma Plant

Have you noticed the bevy of television shows lately that cater for a divorced culture? I don’t mean a culture divisive in itself, rather popular culture that reflects the high divorce rates of our society.

Prime time is the ultimate time to showcase what the ‘modern family’ looks like (ahem…Modern Family…perfect example). This portrait, if you will, depicts the family unit as an amalgamation of broken hearts, second chances, independent relationships and cohabitation for better (but not for the worse). 

This has effectively reduced stigma around non-traditional family models, but the bright lights of the media also over-power the shadows; darkness and the really ‘icky’ side of divorce and family break down. 

The media is no independent big, bad wolf ready to huff and puff and sensationalise random stimulus; sensitivities around family breakdown outside tabloid culture can be quite high. But the media is a reflection of our society. And, unfortunately, our society is a bit cracked around the familial edges.

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a commentator and author on the ‘divorce culture’ prevalent in Western society, says, “Our high-divorce society is creating a low-commitment culture where the breaking of bonds becomes a defining fact and metaphor…”

Whitehead is communicating the idea that the high divorce rates are consequential in our society in other areas besides marriage. The ‘non-committal’ attitude is perpetuated in our daily life. This beckons the question – is our politically correct attitude towards divorce actually glorifying a ‘give-up’ mentality?

Whitehead also points to this ‘divorce culture’ notion as another form of entitlement:
“Americans who once viewed divorce as a last resort have come to see it as an entitlement. It can be traced to the mid-sixties, when a major, and troublesome, shift took place, leading to ‘expressive divorce’ – divorce as an individual prerogative, and as a source of personal growth and new opportunity.” 

Hmmm. Have you noticed this expressed in popular culture too? So cliché is the ‘sex and the city’ storyline of an 18-month relationship breakdown because of a feminist epiphany (not to say that this is always invalid). Whitehead herself does not oppose divorce, she says: 

“It is often the only possible remedy for an irretrievably broken or violence-ridden marriage. Rather, it is casual divorce that focuses on one person's rights, needs, and desires without regard to the consequences for others, especially children.”

So often the media portrays what is legitimately happening in society. However, we know in real life, unlike Friends or Modern Family, there is no live studio audience, no canned laughter and no such thing as an inconsequential divorce.

The financial strain of lawyers' fees aside, as well as the psychological wellbeing of parents who weather the private and social consequences of their decision, an Australian Bureau of Statistics survey estimated 50,000 children will experience the effects of separation and divorce each year. 

Dishearteningly, Paul Amato, professor of sociology at Pennsylvania University and lead author of a study titled Reconsidering the 'Good Divorce', challenges the idea that a cooperative divorce (best outcome under the circumstances) is the road to happiness: 

"Creating a positive post-divorce family environment, although worthwhile, is no guarantee that children will be unharmed by marital dissolution," noted Adele Horin in The Sydney Morning Herald.
The ABS also notes in a report using data circa 2006/7, which shows one in four children will experience a divorce or permanent separation before age 18: 

"The family plays a pivotal role in shaping society through the socialisation of children. Experiences as a child can impact on future development through learned behaviours and access to resources and support networks. The experience of parental divorce or separation, or the death of a parent can potentially impact adversely on a child's psychological wellbeing and their economic and social success as adults."

Additionally: "For 18-24 year olds, 62 per cent of those who experienced parental divorce/permanent separation during their childhood completed Year 12, compared with 77 per cent of those whose parents did not. An average difference of around 10 percentage points in Year 12 completion rates between those who experienced parental divorce/permanent separation during their childhood and those who did not is apparent in each of the 10 year age groups up to 45-54 years. 

This pattern is also reflected in higher educational attainment: after accounting for the effects of age, people who had experienced parental divorce/permanent separation were 28 per cent less likely to have a Bachelor degree or higher." 

There are no answers for questions about ‘divorce culture’ here. There is no pointing of fingers at those who have gone through one. Just a few, very obvious patterns that we should be aware of. Why do we celebrate something if we don’t actually inherently value it? Why are ‘divorce parties’ the new shindig? What values are we communicating for our future, to our kids? 

Stigma is never a nice thing, but neither necessarily are the repercussions of divorce. If the media is a reflection of our socio-cultural landscape, isn’t it good news then that we have the power to change  the status quo to something closer to the reality?


Anonymous said...

This is a great read! Very interesting views on the effects of divorce and the culture that surrounds it.