Till divorce do us part
In the past 10 years the divorce rate in Canada quintupled, and the trend continues. Is marriage dying? What are the alternatives?
“She changed completely from the woman I knew when we were married. Then she cared about everything I did on the job and in the house. I used to help her with the kids, and we made plans together to build a cottage and save for the boat. Suddenly she wanted to go to work again. She said she was bored and lonely and wanted a career. I had the feeling she resented me, our marriage, and even the two boys. I started to go out after work, and we had some terrible rows. We bickered constantly. I’m bitter about the divorce, but Ijust can’t live with her any longer ...” Timothy S., 39, sales manager.
“He was jealous of me and resented the fact that I had the right to become more than simply a maid and a mother. He was always putting me down at home: on the job I got my confidence back. When I went out to work he began to drink heavily. He started coming home drunk and began to push me around physically. I don’t want him to see the children anymore because I don’t trust him with them alone . . . I’ll never let a man run my life that way again...” Mary S., 35, art assistant.
Later, their condemnations slash across the stillness of the courtroom. “He ordered me... She lied to me ... He was drunk and he hit me ... I saw her . . . We have lived apart . . .” Two black-robed lawyers orchestrate the wrenching ritual of divorce. Above them, directly below the sculpted coat of arms of Canada, sits the judge, his expression earnest, inscrutable, his eyes sweeping periodically to the two lawyers, then back to the witnesses. Occasionally he asks a question, and when he speaks the sound of his voice stills the courtroom. The testimony continues, an anthology of bitter stories told and retold to convince his lordship that yet another divine union should be ended ...
This divorce is taking place in the Supreme Court of Ontario, but it could easily be any courtroom in the land. In 1974 about 90,000 Canadians were involved in similar scenes. Twenty-year-olds in jeans and open shirts. Manicured women and polished men who know of backyard pools, bond yields and double garages. Elegant matrons, mothers of infants, fathers of teen-agers, waitresses, suburban mothers from establishment backgrounds, professors, nurses, laborers—they came
from every stratum of Canadian society, wounded and disillusioned, to formalize the end of their marriages. Their cases were as unique as their unions once were, and yet they have much in common. According to a Social Readjustment Rating Scale published by the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, spouses involved in divorce proceedings endure the second highest stress rate in modern society, even greater than being sentenced to a jail term, and far greater than the shock of the death of a close family member.
But for most people the pain and desolation of divorce seem preferable to the agony of a dead marriage. It certainly isn’t a deterrent. In 1974, a record 45,019 marriages ended in Canada’s courts, an increase of 20.6% over the previous year, and five times the number of a decade earlier. In Ontario, where 15,277 couples called it a day, the divorce rate rose by 8.6%. In Saskatchewan it rose 17.1%, in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland more than 25%. In British Columbia, more divorces were granted in 1974 than were granted in the whole of Canada 12 years earlier. Even in Quebec, where the church still has considerable influence in secular affairs, 12,272 couples renounced their marriage vows, sending the divorce rate up 50%. The statistics contained some surprises, too, about who gets involved in divorce. The conventional view is that splitting is the act of the restless young, but in 1973 fewer than 6% of all males involved in divorce were under 25, whereas more than 16% of divorces involved a male spouse over 50 years. From 1970 to 1974, divorce among people over 40 rose by 40% ( the average age of divorcing partners in 1974 was 38years for men and35 for women). With their life-span increasing, many couples apparently see their forties and fifties as a time to begin all over again—with somebody else. But more young marrieds are calling it quits. In 1973, the greatest number of divorces occurred between the fifth and ninth anniversary, and the average length of doomed marriages has shrunk to 11.8 years, the lowest in the nation’s history. But when all the data are computed, the simple box score is the most startling: at the current rate one out of every four marriages ends in divorce. Some social scientists predict that by the year 1980 the ratio will drop even further.
Everywhere the questions are the same. Can traditional marriage work in today’s society? Or is it a one-way state-stamped ticket to boredom, resentment and finally open hostility? Some social scientists claim that just as attitudes are changing about the value of labor and leisure, so too the concept of love and marriage is undergoing reassessment. “I don’t see these rising divorce rates as a catastrophe,” says Dr. Frank Sommers, a Toronto psychiatrist. “It’s overdue. People are stepping out into life again to grow as individuals. They are awakening to their own human potential. They want more out of life than food and shelter.” Other social scientists contend that current divorce statistics are often misinterpreted. “The latest statistics,” argues Dr. Benjamin Schlesinger, professor of social work at the University of Toronto, “can be totally misleading if examined out of context. The most quoted ratio, that one in four marriages will end in divorce, should be recognized as only a measurement of the number of divorces granted in one year compared to the number of marriages performed in the same year. What about the hundreds of thousands of Canadian marriages from other years that are surviving and are still intact? In fact, only about 1% of all marriages go through divorce every year. Marriage is here to stay.”
Perhaps so, but according to recent estimates one in every six families in Canada has had a relative involved in divorce, and while the effect of divorce on the larger family unit is still a sociological question mark people are becoming increasingly critical of holy matrimony. In many cases, even distant relatives are pulled into the whirlpool of estrangement for solace and aid, and frequently they become helpless players in the tragedy. In countless ways, parents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles help ease the burdens and smooth the way for one-parent families and often they become surrogate parental figures to the children who now account for 10% of the population under 18 years of age in Canada. It is understandable, then, that the subject of marriage, divorce and, in a larger context, the broken family has begun to fasten onto the national consciousness as never before. Federal, provincial and municipal governments are conducting enquiries into the legal and social aspects of family breakups. Books on how to begin, conduct and survive divorce are becoming as popular as sex manuals. There are now divorce greeting cards, and some feminists,'lawyers and legislators are talking about a new wrinkle : divorce insurance. Organizations such as Parents Without Partners boast a membership of 3,800 in 50 chapters across Canada. A host of new support courses have been launched, offering counsel and companionship to troubled spouses involved in divorce. In Vancouver, two such courses— “Divorce Lifeline,” sponsored by a church group, and “Un-Coupling,” run by the Family Services of Greater Vancouver— are so popular they have been forced to split into separate groups to keep their meetings manageable. In Montreal, where an average of 50 petitions for divorce are filed each day, there are at least 24 courses on marriage and divorce running concurrently. In Toronto, sociologist Peter Kiviloo introduced a “Creative Divorce” course at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute two years ago, and across the province no less than 12 such courses have sprung up at community colleges and YMCAS. “It’s frightening,” says United Church Minister James Strachan of Winnipeg. “People are flocking to any place where they can get help. Any counseling courses I have ever held or I have known about are full.”
The growing popularity of divorce courses confirms another fact: there is now almost no social censure attached to the failure of two people to live up to the vow “till death do us part.” Twenty-five years ago it was different: couples intrepid enough to seek a formal divorce often sought the comforting anonymity of some distant locale to do so. Even now, in smaller communities the fear of scorn and scandal seems to be a deterrent to divorce. University of Manitoba sociologist G. N. Ramu says recent studies show the incidence of divorce in small towns is much lower than the national rate mainly because the individual in the small community is still held accountable to his peers. In the larger cities it is different. Says Lillian Messinger, chief social worker at Toronto’s Clarke Institute: “In fact, some people view divorce as the almost natural consequence of personal growth and the attainment of selfhood. This approach merely confirms societal attitudes which say in effect, ‘It’s okay to be divorced.’ ” What altered the venerated ideal that marriage was a lifelong union of total intimacy that no man shall put asunder? Many sociologists believe that profound changes have quietly reshaped the attitudes and expectations most Canadians have developed about all relationships, marriage included. This new ethic, they say, is the product of a society that is first, essentially transient; second, governed by a throwaway mentality; and third, celebrates change. It is a society in which 25% of Canadians tear up their roots and move every year; in which the average length of time a breadwinner spends on one job doing one kind of work is currently less than 4.3 years. “Commitments and loyalties to friends, employees and spouses are constantly being reassessed in this milieu,” says Dr. Harvey Silver, marriage counselor and senior psychologist-consultant to the staff development branch of the federal government. “As a result people are no longer prepared to be bound by their past. They no longer feel obligated. Now they are raising existential questions that have great bearing on their marriages like, ‘Is this all there is to life? Is this all I want to be?’ As individuals we have become pri-
SOME PEOPLE NOW SEE DIVORCE ALMOST AS A NATURAL RESULT OF PERSONAL GROWTH
marily concerned with our own personal growth and we are no longer saying, ‘I’m on this planet to promote the health and well-being of someone else,’ even if that other person is our spouse.”
A host of other social changes also are undermining the concept of traditional marriage. The rise of women’s lib, the sexual freedom of the Seventies, the virtual disappearance of neighborhood life, the breakup of the larger family unit. According to Velio Sermat, professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, “All of these developments have conspired to isolate marriage from the other loosely connected links of modern life. Years ago marriage brought the spouses into a meaningful union with the larger family unit. Uncles, aunts and grandparents were part of a protective and productive entity. There were neighborhoods and identifiable places where the family gathered. There were meaningful models of marriage we could look to and emulate. Now very few of us have a feeling of belonging to a large family unit, of sharing family ideals. How many of us can say our cousins, even our brothers and sisters, know who we are, what we really do in our jobs or what we really care about?” Set adrift from traditional family ties, operating in what one marriage counselor calls "self developed orbits of activities," many marned people seek an illusory sense of re newed independence-a desire to recap ture lost youth. Says Sermat: "Today most people want to be individualists. They don't want to be tied to their spouses' per ceptions of how they should spend their free time; how they should relate with members of the opposite sex; or even how they should treat each other. But you can't be totally emancipated, whatever that means, and still pretend to be a coopera tive partner in a traditional marriage." Most Canadian churchmen would sub stitute the word "self-indulgent" for the word "emancipation," although even in the Roman Catholic Church, which does not sanction divorce or remarriage, many clergy, such as Father Paul Lannan of To ronto's Catholic Information Centre, are offering highly popular counseling courses for separated spouses. The divorce rate among Catholics is fast approaching the national norm, and Catholic counselors are beginning to admit that there are valid reasons for divorce-and remarriage. Like some other Catholic clergy, Father Lannan is advising couples wanting to remarry to have a civil ceremony, which he will then seal with a Mass and Holy Commu nion, "if I'm convinced they are doing the right thing." According to psychologist Sermat, the rise of secularism may be problematic in another sense. As children, he says, we either learned or instinctively came to rely on a totally beneficent and supportive personalized God, "who sym pathized with our needs and understood our desires at all times. As adults no longer involved in religion or committed to God in any way, there is a tendency to unrea listically look to their spouse as a surrogate godlike being who should not have selfish desires, abhorrent appetites, bad habits or deteriorating qualities. These people un consciously expect their spouses to be con stantly supportive and sympathetic. No one can live up to that kind of image."
Other psychologists characterize this phenomenon as the rising tide of expecta tion, the most vicious and dangerous en emy of marriage. It assumes that somehow both spouses will continue to seek out the same objectives in life and reach them at the same time; that the intimacy shared during courtship will flourish with age; that the other spouse shouldn't be jealous, envious or too demanding. Says Dr. Sy Sil verberg, a sexual therapist in Toronto: "I see all kinds of otherwise intelligent and sophisticated people who still believe the nonsense that husbands and wives should always want sex at the same time, should be equally involved and should come away from intercourse exclaiming in unison, `It was a transcendent experience.'" Silver berg's experience is shared by marriage counselors who report an increase in the number of married women troubled by a lack of orgasmic fulfillment and by hus bands who expect fantasies adopted from popular magazines to be reenacted in their own bedroom. On the other hand, they rarely encounter couples who experience real sexual dysfunction. “When patients finally learn to communicate their sexual needs openly and honestly, as well as their concerns and fears, they usually solve the problem themselves,” says Silverberg. Once considered a subject too delicate and intimate to be dealt with by a family counselor, sex is now almost always discussed during the early stages of family counseling. Says one counselor: “It’s the most accurate barometer of the state of marriage, regardless of the problems.”
But if sex is a peripheral factor in marriage breakup, so too are differing attitudes toward money, religion or individual values. “The major cause of marital failure is withdrawal,” says Lee Haughton, a counselor with the Family Service Association of Metropolitan Toronto. “Society literally floods us with outlets that allow us to slowly and imperceptibly isolate ourselves from our mate. We join clubs, enroll in special interest groups, take creative courses in night school. We spend leisure time keeping ourselves in shape, improving our skills. When we are at home, and have the opportunity to talk with our spouses, we sit in front of the television set, blocking out communication.” The pattern is all too familiar: recent studies have shown that the average couple spends less than three hours a month conversing about topics that are not related to imminent decisions. Haughton maintains that feelings get lost in the shuffle and spouses are forced to evaluate their relationship through what he calls “telegraphed communication” sandwiched between commercials or admonitions to the children over dinner. “After a while, the husband and wife realize that they are strangers whose attitudes and values may be conflictual. That’s when the trouble really begins.” Another counselor sums up the malaise this way: “It’s the feeling of being alone. It’s when you wake up at 2 a.m. and realize that no one understands you, your goals or desires.”
Even the most traditionally minded marriage counselors agree that if the rising tide of divorce proves anything it is that marriage is evolving, and that within 25 years the vows of love may take, in addition to traditional marriage, many different forms. Sociologist Kiviloo believes that by the year 2000, at least 25% of Canadians will be changing mates two or three times during their lifetime. “Our needs change as we grow older,” he says. “During the late teens and early twenties, we are preoccupied with romanticized love. We seek to satisfy our sexual needs and choose our partner accordingly. During the thirties and forties, we want someone who is charming, witty, intellectually stimulating and capable of keeping up with fresh demands and opportunities. In old age we seek a person who is sympathetic, understanding, and who also offers new insights into life.” Kiviloo predicts that serial monogamy may become the most popular form of union in the next century. Another alternative is the contract or renewable marriage, in which both partners agree to live with each other monogamously for a stated length of time, say four years. They consult a lawyer and work out the ownership of property and the disposition of assets accumulated throughout the term of their union. When the contract is nearing its expiry, both spouses assess the relationship and decide whether they wish to re-
THE AVERAGE MARRIED COUPLE SPENDS LESS THAN THREE HOURS A MONTH ‘JUST TALKING’
new the marriage or part company. “The contract marriage eliminates much of the expectancy of spouses, and they each know their right from the beginning,” says Kiviloo. Some sociologists also see future potential for communal relationships in which single people live together without legal or religious bonds.
But of all the talked about alternatives to traditional marriage, none has aroused more interest than the concept of open marriage first advanced by Nena and George O’Neill in the best-selling book of the same name. The O’Neills advocate a marriage in which both spouses perform as equal partners free to explore all options leading to selfhood. Rigid role behavior, “smothering togetherness,” denial of self and enforced fidelity, characteristics they attribute to closed marriage, are replaced by flexible role behavior, open and honest communication, privacy, growth and individual freedom. The emancipated couple, having transcended the “bondage” of a closed marriage, may engage in outside sexual relationships—if they have genuine trust and understand “mature” love. “We are not recommending outside sex,” say the O’Neills, “but we are not saying it should be avoided either.” The O’Neills’ concept of emancipated sex is generally regarded as impractical and dangerous by professional counselors. “The most committed disciples of open marriage find their way here,” says John H. Gomery, a leading family affairs lawyer in Montreal. “They accepted the concept of independence, selfhood and trust completely, but when it came to outside sexual relationships their intellectual acceptance couldn’t overcome the emotional turmoil generated by the knowledge that their mate was having an affair—even though there was no deceit involved. They just couldn’t take it.” Whether the frontiers of marriage will be expanded to include such bold alternatives, it is clear that if traditional marriage is to survive there is urgent need to reevaluate its legal, social and psychological basis. The loudest cries for change centre on the tangled mass of divorce law. Although only eight years have passed since the country’s medieval divorce law was changed to include 13 additional grounds for divorce (including physical or mental cruelty, alcohol and drug addiction, desertion and separation as well as adultery), most lawyers and judges agree that the legislation, which is still based on the adversary system, is antiquated and, according to the federal Law Reform Commission’s working paper, “pits each spouse against the other and virtually ignores the interests of the children.” Recognizing this, the Law Reform Commission began a study of the federal divorce laws four years ago and will present a list of “fundamental revisions” to the government this month including recommendations for pretrial counseling for couples, neutral pleading that excludes accusations of misconduct and special counseling services for divorcing parents and their children. According to Toronto Family Affairs lawyer Malcolm Kronby, “The recommendations are a step in the right direction, especially if they lead to a unified family court system where all matters involving custody, alimony and child support are dealt with by one court. Anything that will simplify divorce procedures would be a blessing.” But many counselors are disappointed with the commission’s preliminary proposals: they believe the no-fault divorce system is the only humane and efficient legal approach to marriage breakup. Already accepted by 25 of the United States, the no-fault concept eliminates the adversary role; the courts accept an acknowledgment of irretrievable marriage breakdown by both spouses as sufficient grounds for divorce. Many Canadian lawyers and judges are skeptical of the system, pointing to such states as California where no-fault divorces are almost as easy to get as prescription drugs, but Kronby believes nevertheless that in five or 10 years, “we will have some form of modified no-fault divorce in Canada.”
For other equally important reforms, Canadians may have to wait longer. Counselors and psychiatrists say that if traditional marriage is to remain a viable form of union our entire concept about communication of emotions has to change. “When we learn to get in touch with our own feelings and how to share them with others we naturally respect other people’s emotional points of view,” says psychiatrist Sommers, “and this is critical in maintaining an intimate and permanent relationship between two people.” Sommers and others believe educators in public schools and beyond must include the teaching of communication skills as an important part of the curriculum. “Certainly such courses are equally important to any that are being taught now,” he says. “It’s ironic that we spend years teaching people how to fit into a society without laying any emphasis on how they can successfully cope as individuals within that society.” Many of the professionals in the field believe that couples contemplating marriage should be required by law to attend premarital evening classes where prospective spouses would explore personal values and objectives and attend lectures on sexuality and communication. Some counselors believe that couples should be allowed to marry only when both of them have reached their mid-twenties. There are suggestions that compatibility tests should be mandatory, that more emphasis should be placed on offering married couples continuing counseling. Social worker Messinger believes that even stable marriages should have periodic checkups. “We’ve placed too much emphasis on the problem marriage,” she says, “and have virtually ignored counseling as a supportive mechanism that could be beneficial for all marriages. It’s particularly important to have a marriage checkup after the first year when the pattern and decision-making process have just been established,” she says. “There isn’t a businessman who doesn’t carry out an annual stocktaking and examine a statement that reflects the state of his business. Why should marriage be considered any different?”
No matter what else happens in the future,the pledge “till death do us part” will still be revered as the ultimate sign of love. The cynicism of the Seventies seems to have done nothing to change the ancient equation that love means marriage—eventually. And the most eloquent proof of that fact lies buried in the statistics on divorce: almost 42,000 Canadians who saw their marriages die in 1974 decided to try again, and they accounted for 11% of the record number of marriages that year. Marriage will endure says sexual therapist Silverberg simply because there is nothing to replace it. “Man must have long-term intimate relationships. He must have a secure and permanent base in life. He must believe that there is someone who will accept and continue to care. You can’t accomplish that with someone who has a casual or temporary commitment. As long as man craves for permanence in his life he will seek marriage.” The question is whether he is prepared to work for its preservation. Ç*