September 15, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The mainstream media just can’t seem to get it right. Even when they get something right, it’s so lacking in context that it might as well not be. Of course I’m talking about family-related issues, but it’s true elsewhere as well. Here’s an example of the former (Huffington Post, 9/10/13). If someone wants to teach this in journalism class, the article is a good lesson in how not to address the topic of divorce or separation or, I suspect, many others.
The problem is that the author wants to show how differently men and women respond to divorce, so she takes a “this is true of women/that is true of men” approach to doing so. That allows her to be basically correct with her facts but utterly misleading about the realities of divorce for the sexes. She puts the dots on the paper but never considers connecting them.
The writer, Nancy Fagan, is correct that, for example, divorce is emotionally trying for both sexes and that “women initiate divorce,” “women have custody of children” and “women experience less stress.” But she doesn’t notice that, between each of the statements in quotation marks, she could have inserted the word “because,” and had a far more informative article. Facts alone, without context or causality, are generally pretty meaningless, and Fagan’s piece is Exhibit A for the proposition.
The simple truth is that women are generally happier about divorce and more able to deal with it well for some very straightforward and obvious reasons. The most important is that they get the kids. As Brinig and Allen show, women are the ones to file for divorce (they do so in 70% of cases) because they know they won’t lose their children. Men know they will lose their children, so they cling more doggedly to relationships that may well not be working for them.
Study after study shows that the loss of the role of father and provider is traumatic for men, often devastating their sense of purpose and worth. Couple that with the loss of home that’s typically given to the woman in a divorce and custody case, and the loss of income that goes to the woman in child support and alimony, and it’s clear why divorce is easier for women than for men. Women know they’ll get the kids and experience a relatively modest decline in their standard of living, while men know the opposite on all counts.
The suicide rate for men shoots up for men who divorce, but for women it remains about the same. The reasons should be obvious; men lose much of their raison d’etre while women lose little.
But Fagan is content to recite facts with no context, no empathy and no notion that one phenomenon causes another. From reading her piece, an untutored reader might well conclude that women are simply the more “powerful” and “resilient” sex, two words Fagan happens to use in her first paragraph. After all, both sexes divorce, so why do women respond so much better to the experience than do men? It’s that failure to ask “why?” that renders Fagan’s piece essentially useless, despite its basic accuracy.
As to the “that is true for men” part of the article, Fagan is basically clueless. Her points 2 (Men Experience Greater Adjustments) and 5 (Men are Negative) are good examples. Why, Ms. Fagan, do men need to adjust more than women and why are they negative about the prospect of divorce? She offers nothing to answer either question, despite the fact that answers to both are perfectly obvious. Men adjust more because they lose more – a lot more. Men are more negative because they lose more – a lot more. One visit to a lawyer will tell any man that he’s about to fall off a high cliff, and that’s if his wife chooses to play nicely and not level false allegations of domestic or child abuse at him. Even a standard, off-the-shelf custody case will likely damage him irreparably for years to come. He’ll go from being one of the two most important people in his children’s lives to being an occasional visitor. They’ll know their teachers and their friends’ parents far better than they know him.
And of course he’ll be living in a one-bedroom apartment praying he doesn’t get laid off work. Should that happen, he’ll find himself scrambling to pay a lawyer to try, often in vain, to get his payments lowered. If that fails, he’ll be looking at jail and as much as 12% per annum tacked on to the child support payments he can’t make anyway. All of that is for the privilege of paying his ex alimony to make sure her standard of living doesn’t dip even a little bit. Negative? Why would a guy be negative?
Fagan’s right about her point 4 that “men who have joint custody are better parents,” even though she doesn’t know what joint custody is. She seems to think that joint legal custody is joint physical custody. It’s not. Joint legal custody just means he’s to be consulted about all important decisions regarding the child. Does his child need surgery? He’s supposed to be consulted. Does Mom want the child to change schools? He’s supposed to get a say.
But what if none of those things occurs? The dad with only legal custody is about as important to his kid as the mail man.
Joint physical custody, by contrast, means he gets to see his child. Maybe not very often, but at least he has some contact, some input into what the child experiences, how he/she sees the world. He’s got a chance to be an important influence in little Andy or Jenny’s life. That’s why joint physical custody makes for better non-custodial parents – the guy’s actually got something to do with raising his child. He sees the child and the child sees him. Somehow Fagan manages to not get that.
Fagan’s “on the one hand ‘A’ and on the other hand ‘B’” approach is worse than just disingenuous, it’s insidious too. By presenting the subject as, in some way, just the way men and women are, she encourages readers to not seek change. If men experience divorce one way and women another as a matter of their gender identities, who would consider change? Why not try to get dogs to behave like cats and vice versa? It’s a losing proposition.
But of course none of the behaviors she identifies is necessarily related to the sex of the divorcee. On the contrary, they’re a matter of public policy. Those behaviors stem, not from biology, but from the incentives we give to men and women as a matter of law and judicial practice. Men and women behave the way they do when faced with divorce and child custody due to what they can safely predict will happen. They can predict that because data and their attorneys make it clear from the start what will happen. And overwhelmingly, the system of family courts and family law privileges mothers over fathers. They do so in just about every imaginable way, from custody to visitation to support to alimony to move-aways to false allegations of abuse, to failure to enforce visitation, to draconian enforcement of child support and alimony, and on and on. Those things are all either spelled out explicitly in legal statutes or a clear matter of judicial preference.
As such, they can be changed. They can be changed by making people more aware of what their public “servants” are doing and by bringing pressure to bear on them. Exactly that is going on in every state in the nation by countless thousands of men and women who are dedicated to bringing family law in line with fundamental fairness and the science on child well-being.
And it is that, I suspect, that Nancy Fagan wants no part of. She wants us to believe that how men and women respond to divorce is just a matter of women’s strength and men’s weakness. And if we believe that, we won’t be inclined to act. Like so many others, Fagan likes the system just the way it is.
But the times they are a-changin’. Gradually, state legislators are being forced to realize the disaster that is family law, for children mostly, but for fathers as well. This is a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle. Those dedicated to constructive change aren’t going away, and we’ve got truth and fairness on our side.
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