Stephanie Coontz’s article “Five Myths About Marriage” is itself full of mythology, not least her third “myth,” “divorce is harmful to women and children.” Actually, I suppose she’s right if you don’t count physical, psychological or financial harm, but a lot of people find those important. Coontz wants us to believe the long-discredited feminist trope that marriage is dangerous to women because it involves living with violent men. Of course sometimes it does, and women and men alike are wise to get out of abusive relationships, but social scientists have long recognized that the safest place in the world for a woman to be is married to the father of her child. That’s the safest place for children too.
Typically, Coontz plays fast and loose with facts.
Economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found that every state that adopted no-fault divorce, beginning with California in 1970, experienced an 8 to 13 percent decline in wives’ suicide rates and a 30 percent decline in domestic violence in the next five years.First, how many wives commit suicide? Given that, males are 75% of suicides, and that those who commit suicide are male, female, old, young, married, unmarried, divorced, wealthy, poor, educated, uneducated, etc. The number of wives who commit suicide has always been quite small. I’m all for a decrease in the number of people who take their own life, but the fact is that a decline in the suicide rate for wives is too small a number to use to extol the virtues of divorce.
For example, there are now about 32,000 suicides each year in the United States. About 24,000 of those are males, leaving about 8,000 females. Of those, let’s say one-third, or 2,666 are married. A decrease of 10.5% (halfway between 8% and 13%) would mean about 280 fewer deaths per year in the entire country. We’re all glad those women didn’t die, but they scarcely make a good argument for divorce.
Oh by the way, was there a causal connection between the advent of no-fault divorce and the decline in wives’ suicide rates? Coontz wants us to think so, but I seriously doubt that one has been proven. In any case, Coontz never says so, and you’d think she would if there were.
Coontz’s claims about domestic violence are more of the same. Is there a causal connection? Who knows? Again, proving causality is simply too far-fetched and Coontz makes no effort to do so. Worse, she utterly ignores the fact that married women are much less likely to meet with violence by their husbands than single women are by their boyfriends. The same is true for men. Generally, wives are less prone to violence than girlfriends. Coontz’s one-sentence brief for divorce as a safe-haven from violence ignores all the inconvenient data on the subject in favor of two factoids that may well have nothing to do with divorce.
It gets worse when Coontz turns to children. While admitting that “children of divorce exhibit more behavioral problems and do more poorly in school than children of intact marriages,” Coontz still manages to conclude that divorce is benign. She does so by citing two studies that conclude that it may not be the divorce itself that harms children, but other factors. Of course, as before, Coontz ignores that massive amount of data that show both children and parents to be harmed by divorce. Not only are married adults generally happier than single ones, they’re healthier too. So are their children, who do better in school, have fewer psychological problems, are less likely to commit crimes, abuse drugs or alcohol, and the like.
Still, it’s possible that those outcomes for children result not from the process of divorce, but from something else. And that “something else” is likely to be the loss of their fathers. In the United States, some 35% of children of divorce have little or no contact with their fathers. Obviously, that’s not true for children in married homes. So, while it may not be the actual process of divorce that so damages children, it may be the entire loss or marginalization of the father. If Coontz were honest, she’d be arguing for family court reform to keep fathers actively involved in their kids’ lives post-divorce, but don’t hold your breath. She has little at all to say about fathers, and almost nothing good.
With that, Coontz seems to think she’s covered the waterfront about divorce, women and children. (Again, husbands and fathers never merit a mention in her section on divorce.) But of course she’s done anything but. What about the fact that divorced women are far more likely to live in poverty or have serious financial difficulties than are their married counterparts? Coontz isn’t interested. Of course, as one British government study found, single women are worse off financially because (a) they don’t have the earnings of a husband and (b) they refuse to work enough to stay out of financial difficulty. But whatever the cause, the fact is that divorced women on average face major financial problems that in turn affect their children.
Coontz expresses no interest in the men of divorce, but they too suffer emotionally and psychologically. That’s mostly due to the loss of their children, but that is one of the consequences of divorce for men, and it’s a profound one. It’s the primary reason why it’s women and not men who typically file for divorce. According to researchers Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen, 70% of divorces are filed by women specifically because they know they won’t lose their children. By contrast, men know the opposite and try to stay in marriages that offer little but heartache, because they want their children with them and they know that won’t happen in the event of divorce. When Mom files for divorce, gets the kids and then interferes with Dad’s already-meager visitation, Dad suffers terribly. Coontz is happy to overlook the phenomenon, but others know it matters.
The Washington Post ill serves its readers by spreading such disinformation, but it’s worse than simple intellectual dishonesty. Coontz is plumping for a dysfunctional society in which marriage and intact families are an odd relic of the past with no relevancy or value to the present, and fathers are at best a vestigial appendage to the system of children’s welfare. She’s wrong. Over 40 years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out the exact problems with unmarried and fatherless families in the African-American community. He was right then and should have been heeded. Instead we continue to listen to Stephanie Coontz and other like-minded commentators. We do so at our peril.