When Parents Part

Over the last fifty years, America’s policy makers and commentators have pointed to the failure of people to marry or stay married to explain many of society’s dysfunctions. During that fifty-year period, the numbers of Americans marrying have sharply decreased and about half of those who do marry get divorced. The social organization of the United States (and of most societies in the West) is still seen as being based on families interlinked through marriage, so concern is understandable. But what truly holds contemporary communities and societies together is not the institution of marriage but the family relationships it used to support–above all, relationships between parents and children. So should shoring up marriage still be our priority? And is it even possible?

The decrease in the number of couples who marry is due in large part to a changed mind-set; to changes in attitudes toward sexual relationships and having children, supported by increasingly efficient and available contraception and by the rise in women’s education and income. Even as late as the 1960s and 70s, getting married was integral to being recognized as an adult and to being able to have sex; to leave home to live with a partner, and to have or not have children by choice. Like it or not-and many Americans do not-people now do all these things without marriage. In 2008 more than 40 per cent of babies born in the United States had cohabiting or single mothers rather than married parents, and the figure is predicted to top 50 per cent next year.

Meanwhile fewer than 50 per cent of students leaving high school live with biological parents who are married to each other. Although almost all adults seek close long-term relationships, often regarding such relationships as the sine qua non of personal happiness, it is clear that a dwindling number choose to make marriage vows. If we could accept that a majority of contemporary couples are not going to marry before setting up house or having babies together, however much they are encouraged by faith communities or tax authorities, and that those who do marry as well as those who do not will part when the relationship is irretrievably broken, we could focus on what is wrong with this trend and who it matters to. To many Americans, cohabiting as an alternative to marriage and divorcing to end marriage are wrong because they are wrong: these are moral and religious issues. But to those of us of a more pragmatic mind-set, the concern is less about individual adult relationships with each other than about parents’ relationships with their children.

Lifelong partnership is an ideal, but now that many Americans live into their eighties, that can mean sixty years of monogamous togetherness, and a lot of people cannot manage that; there has to be a socially acceptable means of escape. There is a kind of loving that is usually lifelong, though, and that’s the love that crosses the generation gap between parents and their children. Sadly, the separations and divorces that act as safety valves when the pressure of couple relationships become too great are deeply destructive to parent-child relationships.

A pragmatic definition of a social problem is useful only if it suggests achievable solutions, and we can do a great deal to cushion the impact of separation and divorce on children. Parents divorce each other. They do not and cannot divorce their children–except in extreme cases. The best way to protect children from the worst of family breakdown is to separate the marriage or partnership (which is broken) from the parenting (which is not). The breakup of a family is almost always full of hurt and anger, but while it threatens to overwhelm everything, it must not, at all costs, be allowed to overwhelm the relationships of each child with each parent. If the man who last night admitted to an affair and his plans to leave the family was a good and loving father yesterday, he still is. Whether this disclosure came out of the blue or was the final straw in an already-shaky relationship, the conversation hasn’t changed that. Both spouses are going to be single parents, but that need not mean that their children are destined to become fatherless or motherless.

When a family breaks down what matters most to children of all ages is not their physical separation but their enmity. If mothers and fathers can hang on to their respect and trust in each other as parents, even though they may come to loathe and distrust each other as partners, the damage done to children by divorce can be minimized. “Mutual parenting” (perhaps what Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin meant by “conscious uncoupling”) means mothers and fathers talking, texting, and even meeting to support each other in matters concerned with their children’s well-being and happiness. Above all, it means exes encouraging children to go on loving and depending on both of them. It isn’t easy, but it’s the best way forward that can possibly be offered to children when parents part. (When Parents Part, Knopf May 13, 2015)

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