For a long time, divorce has become routine. Over the years, breaking marital vows—an oath before God if the persons are Christian—has become so simple and cheap that people say, “You can get a divorce for the price of a Big Mac.”
This came to mind as I passed this handmade sign on the side of the road that read: Divorce, $99.00 plus a phone number to conveniently call. Curiosity got the best of me, and I dialed the number to see if it was for real. The man who answered said, “Divorces start at that price, but they can go as high as $389.00.” That’s not exactly the price of a hamburger but nevertheless affordable for anyone.
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It wasn’t only the price I found so offensive. The shamelessness of the shoddy yard-sale-like sign haphazardly scribbled and posted on a sidewalk made it seem that the matter was not important. He and his clients are obviously ignorant of the consequences of divorce on children. They would do well to read Judith Wallerstein’s New York Times bestseller, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce.1
Her book is based on many interviews with adults she had counseled as children after their parents split up. Her studies found that children of divorce (COD) seemed to suffer few ill effects when their parents part ways. However, appearances are deceiving.
Bad things occur as the child matures, hence the book’s title. The legacy of divorce is felt more acutely in adulthood. The most interesting part of her study deals with how children see the mother-father relationship.
When a man and woman are joined in holy matrimony, they become “two in one flesh,” as it says in Genesis (2:24). This may appear as mere poetry to some, but it is how children see their parents. Mrs. Wallerstein explained how children “identify not only with their mother and father as separate individuals but with the relationship between them.” She refers to it as a “template” they carry “into adulthood and use it to seek the image of their new family.”
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The foundational character of a married couple is so important for its offspring that it absolutely, positively cannot fail. When it does, the child is left with uncertainty about everything in life that increases with time. No matter how good things might be at a given point, Mrs. Wallerstein points out that COD are always “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” This is what Karen, whom she interviewed, said about her life:
“Part of me is always waiting for disaster,” Karen said. “I keep reminding myself that I am doing this to myself,” she continued, “but the truth is that I live in dread that something bad will happen to me.” Karen is one example of the COD who actually become stronger people, but sadly because they are forced to grow up quickly.
Those who experience the marital break-up suffer tremendously because of this shattered “template.” Mrs. Wallerstein argues how it has a detrimental effect on all the future relationships in the child’s life, including friendships at school, business partners and most importantly, a future spouse. COD are statistically more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, alcohol or substance addiction, spousal abuse and suicide. Worst of all is the domino effect of divorce. A disproportionately higher percentage of COD divorce compared with those from intact families.
How did we reach the point of slapdash signs offering a $99 divorce? Mrs. Wallerstein explained that fifty years ago, couples seeking a divorce had to present a substantial reason for divorce, such as spousal abuse, infidelity, etc. It also resulted in higher legal fees. In 1969, then-Governor Ronald Reagan passed California’s Divorce Reform Act,2 which changed everything. This is how Mrs. Wallerstein described what happened next:
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“It was a time of hope and faith that greater choice would set men and women free and benefit their children [Emphasis mine]. Within a few years, no-fault divorce laws spread like wildfire to all fifty states. People all across the country were in favor of the change.” With this huge step, a couple could divorce for any reason or none at all!
Did anyone stop to think of how this “change” would affect not only the children but society as a whole? The tragic results are evident.
You still can’t get a divorce for the price of a Big Mac, but it is now so easy that you have to wonder how long it will be before an unhappy couple will no longer need the services of a lawyer, even for a measly $99.
1. Judith Wallerstein et al, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (New York, NY: Hyperion)