The Culture of Divorce

The long history of family fragility notwithstanding, however, sophisticated scholarship now identifies divorce as a source of instability particularly threatening to children's well being. Sociological and ethnographic studies appearing since the mid-1990s suggest that the fate of the "family of origin" is of systematic and enduring importance to many central features of children's lives, and that the damage ensuing from divorce has a strong tendency to reach well into adulthood, at least in contemporary American culture. Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee argue in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (2000) that divorce impairs children's ability to consolidate their identities as mature adults and to form their own enduring intimate relations, in a way that is apparently different and seemingly graver than other forms of familial disruption and reconfiguration. Some of this damage would seem to be a function of features that often attend divorce: the subsequent inability of parents to provide reliable, timely, and well-directed care, the tendency of noncustodial parents— particularly fathers—to attenuate or even abandon their connections to their children, economic losses leading to a reduced ability of custodial parents to spend time with children, and so forth. Some damage, however, apparently is attributable to divorce itself. Even when parents divorce relatively amicably, maintain continual and substantial engagement in their children's lives, do not require their children to "take care of them" emotionally in inappropriate ways, and are able to support their children's fiscal and emotional needs without interruption, children undergo losses in their expectations and abilities concerning the maintenance of their own long-term intimate relationships, and seem to suffer a measurable delay in their movement into adulthood. These decrements seem to be of a different and more severe character than the harms that affect children who have grown up in families where the parents were continually unhappy but did not divorce.

While many questions remain to be answered—for example, why these harms seem to be more pernicious in the United States than in, say, Scandinavia; and whether divorces in which care is taken to protect the children are worse on the whole than other ways in which families have come unglued throughout history—recent social scientific studies make it difficult to regard divorce as a feature of contemporary life that children can simply get over.

These results may have implications for bioethics as well as for healthcare practice and policy. Is the process of transferring ever more intensive forms of care from hospital to home made more morally suspect by the possibility that children with divorce in their pasts will be less willing to provide such attention with the consistency and quality required for good health outcomes? Is the role of family members as presumptive proxy decision makers cast under a cloud? Is the apparent willingness of many physicians and at least some bioethicists to recognize family interests as relevant to medical choices rendered more problematic by these data? And, given the emotionally complex, internally contested, and structurally protean character of people's affiliative and kinship patterns, what counts as a family anymore, anyway?

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