The Structural Importance of Divorce

We have elsewhere noted some of the behavioral indices of this concern. They may be summarized as follows: (1) A widespread condemnation of the extent of divorce and of its increase; (2) the emotional difficulties suffered by the individuals in the divorce; (3) the number of panaceas offered as general solutions for the problem; (4) its frequency as an object of clinical research; and (5) the development of organizations and experts whose aim is to ameliorate this distress. The kinship structure fails to define clearly an acceptable behavior pattern for this experience in the life history of a substantial segment of the population. The kinship system fails to furnish unambiguous arrangements for the following kinds of problems.

1. There are no ethical imperatives for relatives or friends that would make them feel constrained to furnish material support during the crisis and afterwards to the divorcees as divorcees. This is a period of dissolution of certain household arrangements. Most often, the two spouses separate from one another, and at least one of them must set up a new abode. There are new problems of purchasing food and housing, and, of course, there are various legal fees. These costs cannot usually come out of existing income. There is no room for such added expenses. In addition, of course, one or both spouses may lose their jobs, and there is only rarely enough money for both to continue their usual activities without need for added funds.

2. Similarly, there are no ethical imperatives for friends and relatives to furnish emotional support during this period. There is a general ethical imperative to furnish support to close friends during any kind of crisis, and to some extent this is applicable to the divorce situation. It is not comparable, however, to the kind of crisis created by an emergency operation or sudden illness, death, loss of job, etc. In the event of divorce, the friend must make an adjustment among several other imperatives, such as whether he should support the break-up of a family, whether he approves his friend's conduct, or how friendly he is to the other spouse. What we are distinguishing here is the difference between a crisis situation in which the imperatives are clear and one in which they are not clear. As we shall show later, friends and relatives actually do help in this situation, but this is not the crucial point at issue. Whether a given individual gives such support is the resultant of many factors, but he cannot, in our society, base his action upon a simple rule of the kinship or friendship structure. The most striking contrast, of course, is with death of the spouse, for in this case the relative or friend who is unwilling to provide economic or emotional support is viewed with disapproval by all within the group.

3. A further point of ambiguity centers around the readmission of participants into their former kinship structure or into a new one. The importance of this ambiguity is not to be underestimated, and it is indeed the base on which other ambiguities rest. By contrast, among the Zuñi, for example, the kinship is matrilineal, divorce is relatively common, and it is accompanied by little public concern and attention.

This is the case generally, as it happens, for merely private matters of marital conflict and even marriage. In this society the property in land is owned by the woman's side of the family and descends through her line. In one sense, divorce means that the man is "dismissed." We are not, however, concerned with the personal impact of this situation, but with the fact that in the case of a divorce, all the parties concerned know what they are supposed to do. The man returns to his mother's household, where there is a known place for him. He is part of her family line, and marriage has not changed that fact. He does not carry away the corn he has raised, and there is no argument about the ownership of real property, for that remains in the possession of his wife's lineage. There can be no argument about the children, since the children belong to his wife's line. Whether she herself rears the children or they are given to one of her male relatives to rear, the children are nevertheless part of her family, and it is the right of her family to make decisions about the children's welfare. There is no alimony and no child support, since both sides are simply reabsorbed into an existing and usually extended familial network. These provisions exist whether or not either family approves the behavior of either spouse. There may, of course, be some deviations from these rough rules laid down here, for in no society does everyone live up to the ideal. Nevertheless, these are the general moral imperatives, and the individual or family who failed to live by them would be criticized.

In our own society, by contrast, we are not at all clear as to where the members of the divorcing family ought to go. Indeed, in our society the emphasis is so much on the single family unit, the nuclear family, with only rather tenuous and increasingly vague connections with the older generation or with collateral relatives, that often there is almost no other family cell to which the members of the divorced family can go. This is a somewhat exaggerated statement, but it does describe the norms. The husband's original family has no moral imperative to take him back. He has made a claim to adulthood and independence, having founded his new family. He has left the family nest. There is no room for him, not alone spatially as is so often the situation in our time, but in kinship terms. It is assumed that if he divorces he will continue to work and support himself, together with perhaps his divorced spouse and children, but this is not a necessary concern of the family from which he originally came. Again, we must emphasize that, concretely, his original family may help him and be friendly to him, but there is no moral injunction that as divorcee he has such rights.

The wife is in an even more ambiguous position. Our own society is patrilineal, and patriarchal to a degree. By the Judeo-Christian traditions of the Western world, the wife leaves her original family and becomes a member of the husband's family. Actually, because of the pattern of small nuclear families in our generation, husband and wife simply form a new family unit. In any event, she is considered to be part of that new unit, and no longer part of her family of orientation. This is emphasized by the fact that she takes her husband's name and, if she has children, usually keeps her husband's name even after the divorce. The children also have her husband's name, so that even if she returns with her children to her own family's home, her name and kinship designation lie with the family of her husband. To this degree, then, the divorce asserts a legal cleavage which is only partially carried out in institutional fact.

In any event, for all the family members involved in the divorce, there is some ambiguity about the family status and role to which each must return when a divorce is made final. Neither of the two families of orientation is given clear definitions of the approved kinship status to be reassumed by the two married children.

4. As an almost necessary consequence of these ambiguities, the kinship structure does not point out avenues for the formation of new families. In some strata, after what is considered an appropriate period of emotional recovery, the divorced wife gradually forms new male friendships. In others, this behavior is considered vaguely or definitely improper. What is certain, however, is that the family's obligation to help her form a new family is not clear. This is in contrast with the moral imperatives families feel for helping the younger generation find a first husband or wife. Daughters are admonished by both parents that they must look for the right kind of husband, and parents usually make at least token gestures toward helping in this process. 16 Even the most protective mother gives at least lip service to the notion that she must help her son find a wife. The push toward marriage is strong in our culture, and it affects both generations. The family has, however, discharged its obligations when the child is married. The unhappiness and disorganization of the divorced spouse may lead in time to the parent family offering help in moving toward a second marriage. However, this is a result of the personal affection of family members for one another and the distress caused by the other's suffering, and is not so much due to a socially recognized obligation to offer this type of aid to a divorced child.

5. Correlative with these gaps is a further ambiguity concerning the proper behavior and emotional attitudes of the spouses most directly concerned. We have just noted the failure to specify the proper behavior for various activities which might be carried out by relatives or even friends. However, the other side of all such sets of definitions is a specification of the appropriate role behavior of the two spouses. There is no clear definition as to whether they should be grieved or relieved. They are in some sense now "single," but the role behavior of the never married is much more definitely specified. Having once been defined as adult and married, a status which is in turn defined as being chronologically later than the status of "never married," neither the spouses nor their families have a simple definition of an in-between state: they are neither old nor young, adult nor child, married nor single. Lacking such a specification, the divorced spouse is subject to criticism by some, no matter what she or he does. Behavior and emotion may seem inappropriate to some members of the family or to some friends. In particular, the proper relationship between the divorced spouses is not clearly defined.

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