Coming to terms with divorce
Divorce. When the end of a marriage finally comes, it can be remarkably swift, mechanical and bloodless. At 10 a.m. on a typical weekday, a county court judge takes her place on the dais below a royal coat of arms. Before her, black-gowned lawyers perch on long benches while their clients behind them eye each other nervously. One by one the petitioners approach the bench, and the judge, as the law requires, asks, “Do you think there is a chance of reconciliation?” Invariably the answer is “No.” Then, in a procedure that can take as little as five minutes, a union that may have lasted from a few days to several decades is quietly dissolved. In a court for uncontested divorces, the issues of children and property have already been settled. There is no public bitterness or bickering. By noon 29 marriages that began with hope have ended with a stranger’s legal decree and no visible signs of regret.
The scene unfolded in a Toronto courtroom last week before Judge Donna Haley. But, with minor modifications, the same drama took place in divorce courts across the country. By sheer force of numbers, Canadians are taking divorce off the back streets, where it was once considered a symptom of questionable morality, and giving it Main Street respectability. In a well-documented, 250-page study released last week, Statistics Canada underlined that fundamental shift in social attitudes with a shocking revelation—at the current rate, 40 per cent of all Canadian marriages will end in divorce, an astonishing 500-per-cent in-
4People are told they can have instant happiness, like instant food and they take the idea into marriage’
crease since the divorce laws were liberalized in 1968 (page 41).
The pain and the disappointment are still there. No matter how much the process of getting a divorce is simplified, the collapse of a once-happy marriage is never easy to accept. When battles over children or assets are involved, the experiences are both painful and humiliating. Still, as the new figures show, growing numbers of Canadians
are taking the chance to get out of marriages that no longer work. Divorce increasingly affects all social levels and all ages, although those who marry young are the most vulnerable. And it is the separation of couples at an earlier age, and after fewer years of marriage, that is at the heart of the still-burgeoning divorce rate. Says Rev. Don Paschke, a Winnipeg United Church minister and marriage counsellor: “People are told they can have instant happiness just like instant food, and they take that attitude into marriage.” Inevitably, such a revolution in values forces changes in legislation. And, reports Maclean’s Mary Janigan, change is on the way: even more liberal divorce laws will likely be the major noneconomic element in the Liberal government’s throne speech this spring. Justice Minister Mark MacGuigan is expected to introduce legislation reducing the minimum length of separation for a “no fault” divorce—which allows a couple to split up on the simple grounds of “marriage breakdown”—to one year from the current three years. That change would sharply alter the “adversarial” approach to divorce in which, even when both spouses feel their marriage has collapsed, one has to sue the other (usually for adultery, cruelty or desertion) to dissolve the union if they want to avoid the long separation term. MacGuigan also intends to eliminate the need for court appearances for most simple, uncontested divorces, which now clog the justice system. The new law would not go so far as to grant divorce on demand—the courts would still demand “satisfactory” arrangements for the custody of children and maintenance. Said one justice ministry official: “We want to bring a little justice and harmony—not impose a system of guilt on a process of law.”
The proposed changes will be welcomed by lawyers and separating couples, who have long argued that Canada’s divorce legislation punishes people already suffering from a major upheaval in their lives. “Once two people have decided they want a divorce,” said Maria Siciliano, a 32-year-old Oshawa, Ont., clerk who recently split custody of her two children with her former husband, “the legal hassles and the expense are just an added burden. They just don’t need them on top of everything else.”
Adultery: A divorcing couple’s headaches were even worse before 1968, when virtually the only ground for divorce was adultery. Jane Gale, the twice-divorced editor of Homemaker’s, a Canadian women’s magazine, said of her first divorce, 17 years ago: “In court there were all these women, who had to wear hats as a sign of respect to the judge, standing up and telling how they had committed adultery. It was terrible. You felt like a leper.”
The legislation that MacGuigan is drafting is an attempt to catch up with the reality of the 1980s. And that reality extends to the country’s top political leadership. Of the three national parties, only the Tories’ Joe Clark still lives with his first wife. NDP Leader Ed Broadbent is divorced and remarried, and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is separated (his Roman Catholic faith does not recognize a civil divorce). Many high-profile cabinet ministers, including John Roberts, Lloyd Axworthy, Roméo LeBlanc, John Munro and Francis Fox have been divorced or are separated.
For all their alarming implications, the new divorce statistics are a reflection of prevailing social attitudes. Moreover, there is a growing body of experts that even sees the numbers in a positive light. Many counsellors and lawyers—and even clergymen—believe that divorce, traditionally considered a sign of social disintegration, may, in fact, signal a healthy adaptability, with the emergence of new types of families and new social groupings that may be more attuned to people’s real needs. “I am not alarmed at these statistics,” says Benjamin Schlesinger, a professor of social work at the University of Toronto. “It is my view that they reflect the fact that Canadians are becoming more honest. Before, people underwent only an emotional divorce. Now, more are choosing to make it a legal one.” Equally, there are those who lament what they see as a vicious circle at work in modern society. “The phenomenon that disturbs me is a kind of desensitizing of the general population to traditional moral values,” says Halifax’s Archbishop James Hayes. Negative influences, such as pornography, “are ab-
solutely everywhere,” he adds, “and people come to accept it without any critical view. But to me the obvious and natural way to form that critical view is in the family setting.” However, that idealized setting is clearly no longer the norm. In the past decade 500,000 children have watched the agonizing breakup of their parents’ marriages. For many children today, the family means one parent, a stepparent, stepbrothers and stepsisters and complicated arrangements for alternating weekends and holidays with the other parent. During the 1970s the number of single-parent households increased by 50 per cent, from 425,000 to 637,000, and the increase in that kind of family structure is expected to outnumber all others within 20 years. With a lower birthrate, a shrinking family size and an increase in the number of couples who choose to remain childless, the nuclear family, like 1950s music, is moving into the realm of nostalgia. As the Statistics Canada study concludes: “Like it or not, we are in the age of the relativistic family in which change might not
necessarily be bad but rather a different point of view.”
Sociologists and other experts in the field are generally quick to agree. Rollie Thompson, a former Halifax lawyer who handled many divorce cases and is now the executive director of Dalhousie Legal Aid, says Canadians are experiencing a “very long shift in the structure of the family, from extended family to nuclear family, to single parent, to reshuffled family.” And even the children, generally regarded as victims in the sociological dance, will likely be better off in the long run, he says. “It creates strains, there is no doubt about that. But as it becomes more common, you will probably find kids adjusting to it much better.”
That attitude is backed up by 16-yearold Sean Ramsay, for one. A Winnipeg high school student whose parents were divorced when he was just 4, Ramsay now says: “I get along with my stepfather. I can handle my situation.” But he acknowledges that it was easier for him than it might have been in the early grades, “because so many children came from similar backgrounds.” •
Less stigma: The effect of a family breakup on the children nevertheless remains a significant factor, even in today’s laissez-faire social climate. “Now there is definitely less stigma, and usually there are other children in the class who have been through the same thing,” says Carolyn Humphreys, a psychologist at the Atlantic Child Guidance Centre in Dartmouth, N.S. “But I do think that children will always react to their parents not being together, especially if they are at an age to remember the break.” One problem many youngsters encounter, says social worker Keith Black of Winnipeg’s Child Guidance Clinic, is a feeling of guilt. “I have talked to children from divorced or separated homes, and they keep wondering and asking themselves if they were to blame,” he says.
have talked to children from divorced or separated homes, and they keep wondering and asking themselves if they were to blame,” he says.
Like the family, the institution of marriage, although somewhat changed, seems to be surviving the boom in divorces. More than threequarters of Canadians who are divorced choose to remarry. Twice-divorced Toronto sociologist Peter Kiviloo says that the next step will likely be for people to have a “series of marriages”—a system known as serial monogamy—which will give them “greater freedom and diversity.” Concludes Raymond Ali, a Winnipeg family counsellor wh'o increasingly finds himself advising couples not on how to live together but on how to separate: “People are not seeing marriage any longer as a lifelong commitment. Overall, I think that may be a sign of health rather than sickness in a society.”
Divorce, meanwhile, has become so ingrained in the Canadian way of life that it is now big business. In the past decade Canadians paid lawyers about $500 million to arrange their divorces. A basic uncontested divorce can easily cost between $600 and $1,000 in legal fees. There are self-help books with such titles as Creative Divorce and What Every Woman Should Know About Marriage, Separation and Divorce. Do-it-yourself divorce kits— costing from $8.50 to $14.50—are increasingly popular in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. In the United States, always at the cutting edge of social trends, couples about to get married can now take out divorce insurance. The policy guarantees alimony payments, child support and maintenance in the event of a separation or divorce. With default of divorce settlement payments running at 30.9 per cent in the United States (and with 75 per cent of agreements in arrears in Canada, according to 1976 figures), insurance may become as prevalent as wedding gifts.
One New York City celebrity lawyer, Raoul Felder, nicknamed “the bomber” for his ability to get big divorce settlements for wives of rich men, says bluntly that the big firms are moving into divorce litigation because “they know that’s where the bucks are.” Felder points out that even people making modest incomes can be forced into paying large settlements. “Let’s take the case of a man who owns a small deli and makes, say, $300 a week,” he explains. “Now you have to take into account the assets of his store, his stock. It’s not so simple; all of a sudden we might be talking about a $100,000 case.”
Assertiveness: Divorce has also
spawned hundreds of counselling services offered by churches, voluntary organizations and even municipalities. The Canadian membership of one group, Parents Without Partners, has risen steadily during the past decade to about 6,800. The 10-year-old One Parent Families Association of Canada has 48 chapters and 5,000 members. In Winnipeg the YWCA will soon launch a program with a telling title—Assertiveness for Women Going Through Divorce or Separation. In Vancouver 38-yearold Mimi Rollins is pleased with the weekly Divorce Lifeline group meetings she attended for six months while her 13-year-old marriage was breaking down. Says the mother of two: “My life has steadily improved, and right now I would say it’s pretty well perfect.”
In Halifax one Roman Catholic priest, who has just finished training for a full-time role as a marriage counsellor, and three social workers have set up a counselling office in a church building. Says Archbishop Hayes: “There have been so many calls on priests everywhere that we realized there had to be some opportunity for people who were doing this on more than a part-time basis.” And a Calgary organization known as the Singles Council, which is partly funded by the city, has attracted 500 members. About 98 per cent of them are trying to rebuild their lives and make new social connections after a divorce.
who has just finished training for a full-time role as a marriage counsellor, and three social workers have set up a counselling office in a church building. Says Archbishop Hayes: “There have been so many calls on priests everywhere that we realized there had to be some opportunity for people who were doing this on more than a part-time basis.” And a Calgary organization known as the Singles Council, which is partly funded by the city, has attracted 500 members. About 98 per cent of them are trying to rebuild their lives and make new social connections after a divorce.
Although Canadians are witnessing a divorce explosion, the formal dissolution of marriage is anything but a modern phenomenon. In fact, it is the social disapproval of divorce that is new. The Sumerians had a system of divorce in 3000 BC, and under both the Roman and Judaic traditions divorce was developed as a sort of institutional escape hatch, a means of preventing husbands from murdering their wives when marriage became stale. It was only with the advent of Christianity, when marriage became a religious sacrament as well as a civil contract between a man and a woman, that the idea of an indissoluble union was introduced.
Several attempts to loosen the restrictions on divorce have been made in recent centuries (most notably after the French and Russian revolutions) but they were reversed in later, more conservative eras. First in the Western world to adopt more humane divorce laws were the Scandinavians in the 1880s. The United Kingdom introduced no-fault divorce in 1969, while in the United States all but two states agreed to a no-fault system during the past 10 years.
In the midst of an international flurry of legislation, Canada was not alone with its spiralling divorce rate. With 2.4 divorces per 1,000 marriages in 1977, Canada ranked behind Denmark with 2.5, the United Kingdom with 2.6, the Soviet Union with 3.4 and far behind the United States with its staggering five per thousand.
New generation: Compared to other nations, Canada’s divorce rate traditionally has been low. There was one sharp burst after the Second World War, when many quick wartime marriages fell apart. But in the subsequent decade, after the turmoil of the Depression and two wars, families seemingly wanted nothing more than a tranquil, prosperous and stable life. By the 1960s a new generation of young people was growing up, oblivious to public censure and more concerned with self-fulfilment than with commitment. Then, when the influence of religious institutions declined and the desire for material goods was satisfied for an increasingly large number of people, the young began searching for a different kind of quality of life.
and more concerned with self-fulfilment than with commitment. Then, when the influence of religious institutions declined and the desire for material goods was satisfied for an increasingly large number of people, the young began searching for a different kind of quality of life.
That rebellion was accompanied by an almost careless shedding of old norms and the emergence, according to Rev.
Ron Barnes, a Vancouver Anglican priest, of “a waste society.” He adds,
“We throw away our plastic cups and our cars, our clothes and our wives.” There are others who believe that family
life has been undermined particularly by the growing numbers of young mothers going to work. Even working women without children often find that their marriages cannot withstand the strain of competing careers. Says Maire Kushner, a 28-year-old Toronto store manager who recently ended her 2xkyear marriage: “I was always in a position of making more money, but when my job changed to more of a career it threatened my marriage.” The fact that Canadians live longer may also be a major cause of divorce. Notes Vancouver psychiatrist Michael Myers: “In the past your husband would die before you had to get rid of him.”
Prosperity, too, can make marriage more difficult to sustain. Stable family life is not always easily adapted to the fast life of a prosperous society. The divorce rate in rural Canada is half that of the big cities. And, on a regional basis, the rate is lowest in the financially struggling Atlantic provinces, while well-to-do British Columbia and Alberta are at the top of the divorce list. The problem seems to be one of great expectations followed by great disappointments. Don Karst, executive director of the Calgary Family Service Bureau, says that many of the young couples who migrated to the prosperous West had unreasonable dreams of a g new life. They thought “the § grass is greener out here—all 'i things are going to be better, in£ eluding their marriage, which £ may or may not have been in 5 trouble already.”
Even if divorces do become inexpensive, they will continue to exact a high emotional toll. A marriage breakdown produces a feeling of failure, of not having lived up to an ideal. Accepting the end of a personal dream can be a long, agonizing process. For 37year-old Beverley Simpson, a secretary with the Manitoba government, there was a period of deterioration before she would accept the end of her nine-year marriage two years ago. Her husband never consulted her, even on major decisions, she says. Even after he sold their Winnipeg home and moved his wife and young son to St. Andrew, a small community on the Red River, she says she continued to try to make the marriage work. But there was a price to pay. “I became very nervous. I lost my selfesteem, my self-confidence. All I did was cry all the time,” she said. The end came when she was pregnant with her second child. A neighbor told her that her husband was seeing another woman. Five days after the baby was born, Simpson went to court, where her divorce was granted on the grounds of adultery.
young son to St. Andrew, a small community on the Red River, she says she continued to try to make the marriage work. But there was a price to pay. “I became very nervous. I lost my selfesteem, my self-confidence. All I did was cry all the time,” she said. The end came when she was pregnant with her second child. A neighbor told her that her husband was seeing another woman. Five days after the baby was born, Simpson went to court, where her divorce was granted on the grounds of adultery.
When a marriage is finally over, even a difficult marriage, the victims of the breakdowns are often burdened with remorse and feel an overwhelming sense of guilt—especially if they are found to be at “fault.” When Toronto helicopter pilot Steve Munroe, 34, left his wife a year ago, he blamed himself and felt “she couldn’t do anything wrong.” But a feeling of resentment developed later when his wife won support payments and the house. “I feel because I’m male I’m being punished, especially because I orginally left,” said Munroe.
When the tempest of emotions aroused by divorce clears, however, most are prepared to try marriage again. “Today I am a positive person,” says Simpson. “I was terribly negative when I was with my husband and I cried all the time. No one should have to live with that. I think I stayed too long.” Oshawa family therapist Keith Marlowe, himself divorced, says he detects a much more positive attitude in the divorce workshops that he gives. “The people in the course came from marriages that were less bitter, less intense, less destructive than marriages from the past. People seem to look at workshops more positively,” he says. “They have more optimism about relationships ahead. People want to make sense of the experience of divorce.”
again. “Today I am a positive person,” says Simpson. “I was terribly negative when I was with my husband and I cried all the time. No one should have to live with that. I think I stayed too long.” Oshawa family therapist Keith Marlowe, himself divorced, says he detects a much more positive attitude in the divorce workshops that he gives. “The people in the course came from marriages that were less bitter, less intense, less destructive than marriages from the past. People seem to look at workshops more positively,” he says. “They have more optimism about relationships ahead. People want to make sense of the experience of divorce.”
For some, the benefits of divorce are immediately apparent. “There is a sense of relief; it is the culmination of things falling apart for many years,” notes John Smith, 47, a Bedford, N.S., civil engineer. Smith was divorced last July after a six-year separation and he has custody of two of their three teenagers. “With all the optimism, you of course finish up with something missinghaving someone who cares for you. You compensate for that; your children become your beneficiaries in that compensation.”
Smith, 47, a Bedford, N.S., civil engineer. Smith was divorced last July after a six-year separation and he has custody of two of their three teenagers. “With all the optimism, you of course finish up with something missinghaving someone who cares for you. You compensate for that; your children become your beneficiaries in that compensation.”
Maria Siciliano, who attended a 10week course at an Oshawa community college, says it helped her get over the bitterness she was feeling toward her husband. She was surprised at the sympathy she felt for the men in the course. “It was very helpful to get a man’s perspective,” Siciliano recalls. “I didn’t re-
alize they had the same problems in coping—with the kids, financially—as women did.”
Counselling: The challenge now facing many couples is one of trying to anticipate and prevent future marital problems before the marriage is even formalized. Sociologist Schlesinger says that “the answer lies in making marriage harder to enter into and divorce easier to get.” Adds Paschke: “In a way, I think these shocking divorce statistics may serve a positive purpose if they get people thinking more about the problems of marriage.” Many churches and synagogues already require newlyweds to take premarriage counselling courses, and initial indications are that
they are producing the desired results. Young couples attend an intensive weekend session or meetings held over several weeks and discuss how they would react to problems such as financial difficulties, intrusive in-laws or bad habits in their mates. Even more important, they explore their expectations of marriage and of their future spouse, often finding potential problems becoming painfully clear. A young woman struggling to grasp the idea of independence within marriage often discovers that her fiancé would prefer a more family-oriented wife. Or a man might learn that he would feel suffocated by such a wife. Patricia Slade, a social worker with the Toronto Catholic Fam-
ily Services, which offers premarriage courses, says the aim is to force couples to think twice about what they are doing. “We anticipate there might be more breakups before the marriage instead of after as a result of these courses,” she says. “Often there is a decision not to marry based on what they hear in the course.”
In the past, as burgeoning divorce statistics were publicized, they caused dire predictions about the future of society. The latest figures, although by far the most stunning, have been accepted pragmatically. The unavoidable implication is that divorce is being accepted as a part of the Canadian fabric, and no amount of hand-wringing can alter that cold fact. Psychologists and sociologists, and even the participants, are instead talking about how to survive divorce, how to make it less traumatic, especially for the most helpless bystanders—the children. As with any cosmic upheaval in an individual’s life—divorcees often talk about the ending of a marriage in the same terms as they discuss the death of a close friend— there can be no underestimating the sense of grief and the needed period of mourning. But they are also beginning to talk with a guarded sense of optimism. After all, they are not alone, or even in a small minority.
cold fact. Psychologists and sociologists, and even the participants, are instead talking about how to survive divorce, how to make it less traumatic, especially for the most helpless bystanders—the children. As with any cosmic upheaval in an individual’s life—divorcees often talk about the ending of a marriage in the same terms as they discuss the death of a close friend— there can be no underestimating the sense of grief and the needed period of mourning. But they are also beginning to talk with a guarded sense of optimism. After all, they are not alone, or even in a small minority.
In addition, many experts believe that the accelerating rate of divorce may begin to slow down. Karst thinks that as people begin to look for greater stability in their lives, the number of breakups will slowly decline. Paschke agrees that the pendulum, once swinging away from an overly restrictive notion of marriage, is now tilting back to a “more reasonable position.” And Schlesinger insists that the majority of marriages are still surviving. “More Canadian families are lasting than blasting,” he says. “Where the trend in the 1970s was the ‘me generation,’ the 1980s will be the decade of the family.”
that the pendulum, once swinging away from an overly restrictive notion of marriage, is now tilting back to a “more reasonable position.” And Schlesinger insists that the majority of marriages are still surviving. “More Canadian families are lasting than blasting,” he says. “Where the trend in the 1970s was the ‘me generation,’ the 1980s will be the decade of the family.”
in New York.