Is Modern Marriage a Fraud?

I have practiced family law for more than 20 years. More recently, I have tried to reduce that aspect of my practice, because I find it too painful. Like Anne Barschall ("On Marriage and Divorce—with a Proposition Bound to Be Controversial," FJ June 2004), I do not believe in divorce, except where abuse or addiction is involved. But that position is a hard one to maintain in a society in which even our most revered role models—even the public advocates of "family values"—not only accept divorce but get divorced.

Indeed, possibly as a result of misguided interpretations of feminism, many "family values" advocates stated a few years ago that Hillary Clinton was demonstrating her scorn for morality by not divorcing her unfaithful husband. From a society in which women had to struggle to leave abusive marriages, we have evolved into one in which a woman must justify staying in a less-than-perfect union.

I consider myself a feminist. I consider "wife-dumping"—the tendency of some financially successful aging men to discard their aging first wives for younger women—a women’s issue. And I do not believe that the proper response to that issue is husband-dumping.

Part of the problem is that children, the main victims of divorce, have almost no power in the divorce situation. They can do nothing to keep their parents together. Usually, they have almost no say in which parent they end up living with, or in what kind of arrangement. They cannot control visitation—two Illinois girls who refused to see their father were actually jailed by a local judge for violating his visitation order. And they certainly cannot require the noncustodial parent to visit them, if that parent is not so inclined. Nor can they require either parent to pay child support or defray college costs. They are, for all practical and legal purposes, property.

Another part of the problem is that even though most people today marry at much later ages than they did 40 years ago, they still have no real vision of any kind of lifelong commitment. Most people getting married cannot imagine growing old at all, much less growing old with one particular person.

They—we—cannot get our minds around the real meaning of "for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death separates us."

Nobody requires us to do so, even in the course of preparing for marriage. Nobody tells us, "For richer or for poorer means you’re probably going to be broke at some point and you’ll argue about money, not about whether to buy a Mercedes or a BMW, but about whether to buy medication or pay the rent."

Nobody tells us, "In sickness or in health means that one of you will probably have to take care of the other through some long-term or chronic illness or disability. One of you will have to become a caregiver. Marriage means you are committing yourself not to leave if the other becomes unable to earn a living, do the housework, or even have sex."

Nobody tells us, "Until death separates us means that one of you will probably have to make the final decisions about end-of-life care for the other, possibly including terminating life support."

Nobody tells us, "You are getting married at what is probably the best time of your life, when both of you have earning power, health, and good looks. Marriage means you are committing yourself to stay together even when life gets hard. And it will. If you both live long enough, there is a considerable likelihood that one or both of you will lose earning power, health, good looks, or all of them. You will need each other. Marriage means being willing to meet those needs. If you don’t want to think about it, or you just plain don’t want to do it, don’t get married. Marriage, like the old age which is one of its components, is
not for sissies."

So people get divorced under almost any kind of predictable life stress. Poverty, unemployment, illness, disability, the death of a child, multiple births, the death of a parent, natural disasters that destroy a house—statistics tell us that any of these can increase the likelihood of divorce. We seem to feel that, if we can’t make any of these bad life events un-happen, we can at least take control of one other major area of our lives—by getting divorced. The fact that we almost never benefit from doing so is beside the point. To be a good American is to have control of one’s life and to be able to make choices, even bad choices.

To be a good American, in fact, is to run away. We are a nation of runaways. It is programmed into our genes. Our ancestors are the ones who chose not to stay on the other five continents and make their lives work there. When the going gets tough, the tough get going—and they keep going until they are safely out of town. If we can’t run away from poverty, illness, or disaster, we can at least run away from the other person who lives with us in poverty, illness, or disaster.

So honesty in marriage—"unfraudulating" marriage, if you will—requires honesty about life. Any religion that cannot require of us that kind of honesty is a fraud whether or not it presides over the beginning of the marriage. Any religion that cannot give its members a vision of the entirety of life needs to reformulate itself; without that vision, it is not a solution—it is part of the problem.