Our scale of marital breakdown has no historical precedent...

Error message

(Tim) This just in from our African correspondent, David Wegener:

Found that article. It's "Splitting Up" by Joseph Adelson, a professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan and the author of, "Inventing Adolescence." It ran in Commentary, September 1996, pp. 63-66. I can't find it online unless you subscribe. Here are the first few...


During the whole of my childhood I knew only two youngster whose families were not intact. One was a boy in my neighborhood, quiet and almost unbearably shy, whose father had died and who was being raised by his mother. The other was my classmate for part of a year in junior high school. This boy would not talk much about himself, but we were somehow able to learn that he was being raised by his grandparents, following his own parent's divorce.

This was the only divorce I and my friends had ever heard about. The boy himself was different from most of us--impulsive, hyperactive, and though bright, unable to focus his attention on work. He became so disruptive that he was suspended from school, an event unique for that time and place. In my own family circle, his circumstances were felt to be the height of misfortune, and his fate was discussed in the most sorrowful terms. "What will happen to the poor child? What other troubles lie in wait for him?"

Within my family, indeed, broken marriage was in general viewed as an alien and catastrophic event. A second cousin, who had had a hard time establishing a career, was married in his middle thirties to a woman of the same age who had been divorced. Consternation followed. A divorcee was a fallen woman, or close to it. One of my aunts even raised the question of whether the bride was really Jewish, or had simply pretended to be in order to get a new husband. In time, that marriage settled into a most ordinary one, but suspicions persisted, and for some years the hapless woman continued to be referred to as "the divorcee."

When I grew up and looked back, none of this seemed surprising to me, given my family and milieu. In my neighborhood we were almost all working-class, immigrant, religious, Jewish, and those who were not were working-class, immigrant, religious, Irish or Italian Catholic. In these cultures, marriage, however wretched they might be, were permanent. A bad marriage was a sad but unalterable fact of life. You would no more think of exchanging your spouse for another than you would think of trading in your ailing cardiovascular system for a better one...

Commenting on these and many similar findings, Lawrence Stone, the eminent historian of the family, has written: "The scale of marital breakdown in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent, and seems unique. There has been nothing like for the last 2,000 years and probably longer." Like most good historians, Stone is not given to excess, and that statement is itself as startling as the findings he and others are addressing.