How Newsweek Got it All Wrong About Divorce


As a writer, I believe in the power of words. But we have to think critically about what we read—and hear—and judge for ourselves whether it makes sense.  In divorce, this is particularly true.  Even the most well-meaning journalists and scholars make mistakes, sometimes due to their own, unrecognized bias.

I wrote earlier about an article in Newsweek magazine that purported to expose insidious new attempts to make divorce more difficult.  I share the author’s concerns about a punitive mindset toward divorce, but she conflated anti-divorce legislation with genuinely helpful innovations, such a parenting classes, leaving readers confused and me incensed.  

The Newsweek article is an example of why it can be so hard to maintain our calm, rational side when divorcing—misinformation, even when shared in good faith, can generate more conflict and fear.

The article was a reaction to some states making it harder to divorce, attempts that look like misguided efforts to keep people wed through legislated moralizing and red tape.  This is a horrible trend, and baffling to confront: those in favor of strong marriage want to keep people bound in weak ones.  Sometimes you need to exit a terrible marriage in order to create a good one, but the stick-it-out-at-all-costs idea projects a far dimmer view of marriage than most of us have even of divorce.

I agree that an 18-month waiting period between filing and divorcing, cited in this article as happening in Arkansas, is too long for many families.  It’s a movement out of sync with the today's realities, especially given the fact that Arkansas has one of the highest divorce rates in the country.  But the author goes on to decry other enforced “curbs” on divorce that actually are hugely helpful services created by divorce innovators, legal and psychological.  Such as parenting classes, mentioned in the piece as an insulting intrusion on personal freedom.  Massachusetts, for example, has a mandatory six-hour parenting education course for divorcing parents.

A parenting class is not an attempt to make divorce harder.  Parenting classes are an example of the new resources available today to help people better protect themselves and their children in the process of divorce.

Parenting classes began appearing in the 1980s and ‘90s as divorce activists began pushing to replace the law-oriented, adversarial, punitive approach to divorce with a more collaborative, interdisciplinary process. This transition dovetails with seeing divorce as a potential public health crisis—with risks that can be mitigated through support—rather than a punishment for the morally corrupt.  Early surveys of parenting classes show that they are widely effective and popular.

People I’ve spoken to who've taken mandatory parenting classes said they benefited from the time spent with other parents going through the same thing.  They genuinely appreciated the information provided; even when it felt obvious, it was good to hear.

The Newsweek article also points to counseling as a problem.  Counseling does not make divorce harder. Counseling makes divorce easier.  Divorce is a legal and emotional issue and the one affects the other. Counseling is a tremendous help to couples not only in the moment of divorce but also in their attempt to help craft a positive relationship moving forward.  At the Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing families in Denver, the nation’s first one-stop divorce and separation shop, counseling is an important part of helping people move past anger and craft parenting plans and separation agreements that last.  The new-ish form of divorce law, collaborative counsel, also includes counseling as an important part of the process, for couples who need it.

I’ve written about the religiously-fueled bias against divorce, the tendency to conflate stats on various social ills with divorce, when they are not, in fact, caused by divorce.  This fear-mongering helps no one.

 But the flip side of assuming every divorcing couple is ruining their lives through an irresponsible, materialistic quest for the next shiny thing?  Viewing every attempt to integrate social, financial or psychological support into the divorce process as an effort to keep people wed.

The Newsweek article certainly points out some of the legal and ideological problems still dogging divorce— unfair welfare policies that punish poor parents, for example, and a crazy-making notion, cited by New York attorney Matthew Reischer, that divorce should be more difficult.  As if divorce isn’t difficult enough?  The article quotes Reischer as saying he wants divorce to be more “arduous and cumbersome” so people will think twice before marrying.  As a nation, we are thinking twice about marriage.  Marriage rates are dropping, enlightened divorce laws not withstanding.  Reischer voices a punitive-minded misunderstanding of love and marriage, not to mention divorce.  

People do not divorce because the process is insufficiently arduous.  They divorce because they are devastatingly unhappy while wed.

When they divorce, they need policies and practices that make the process as painless and easy as possible, so that their lives and their second marriages have a chance of working, rather than being destroyed by resentment and ongoing fights leftover from the first.  Easy means emotionally bolstered.  Easy means classes and counseling, financial education and anger management tools.  Easy does not necessarily mean fast, I'm sorry to say.  But nor does it mean more break-ups.  An easy divorce—one that's educational, supported, intelligent—creates stronger families, safer children, and healthier adults, post-marriage.

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