Social Isolation During Divorce – Implications for the Family Law Attorney

Recently, a spate of articles in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other national publications have indicated that affluent divorcing parents are now facing greater social isolation during divorce. On June 17, 2011, the New York Times on its website and in print editions featured an article titled “How Divorce Lost Its Groove,” by Pamela Paul. The gist of this article was that affluent divorcing parents, particularly divorcing mothers, face significant social adversity in their communities. That article reported that a 2010 study by the National Marriage Project found that only 11 percent of college-educated Americans divorce in the first 10 years, compared with 37 percent for the rest of the population. The article also noted that, for every cohort since 1980, a greater proportion of married couples are reaching their 10th and 15th anniversaries, according to Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History.

In discussing the social implications of the shift in divorce statistics, the New York Times article reflected on the change being motivated in part by terrible divorces experienced by young parents when they were children. Dr. Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University reported that “The shift in attitudes and behavior is very real. Among upper-class Americans, the divorce rate is going down, and they’re becoming more conservative toward divorce.” Cherlin in his recent work, “The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and Family in America Today” attributes the swing, in part, to a generational make-over. However, Cherlin also points out the fact “That this change has occurred mainly among the affluent suggests it’s not just a reaction to the divorce epidemic of the ’70s. The condemnation of divorce is also coming from the group that is most confident it can make its marriages succeed, and that allows them to be dismissive of divorce.” The New York Times article discussed reports by several affluent mothers across the country who had been socially ostracized as labeled as poor parents after commencement of their divorces.

A plethora of other recently published data seems to suggest that children whose parents get divorced lose ground in both academic and interpersonal skills. The June 2011 issue of The American Sociological Review published a study that followed the development of 3,585 children from the 1998/1999 kindergarten class. The study found that children of divorced parents fell behind their peers in certain math and interpersonal skills. In reporting the results, Hyun Sik Kim stated that negative impacts appear after the divorce petition is filed, develop during the divorce process, and neither worsen nor improve post-divorce. Though the report reflected no decline in reading scores or increase in fighting, this study adds to the weight of the perspective that divorce causes persistent harm to children.

As Paul’s New York Times article reports, “splitting up with tender, vulnerable children in the mix is seen as a parental infraction.” The same article quotes Bradford Wilcox, associate professor of sociology and the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage project as asserting that, “There has been a striking shift in both beliefs and behavior towards marriage among educated and affluent Americans.” Wilcox also states, “There’s a tacit or explicit recognition among well-educated parents that their kids are less likely to thrive if Mom and Dad can’t be together.” Even though many studies have supported the proposition that children in high conflict divorce experience the greatest deficits in well-being, while children in more amicable divorce do not experience such deficits, some researchers interpret newer statistics as reflecting a significant adverse impact of divorce on children, regardless of the degree of conflict or design of post-decree parenting plan. Such studies inform the affluent readers and others in their social context amongst our clients.

The New York Times article reports that several women surveyed by the author reported that news of the divorce appeared to unnerve other couples in the family’s social circle, resulting in additional isolation of the divorcing parent. According to the women reporting, it is as if divorce were contagious and the news of the divorce created unease amongst family and friends regarding the stability of their own marriages. The article then referred to a 2010 study out of Harvard, Brown and the University of California, San Diego reporting a 75% increase in the probability of divorce if a close friend is party to a divorce. Regardless of whether fear exists that association with parties to divorce will forecast doom for one’s own marriage, the social ostracism experienced by divorcing parents cannot help but have a negative impact on our clients.

While attorneys and courts can cling to the statutory perspective of “no fault” divorce, clearly a shift is occurring in which affluent parents are not sanguine about the impact of divorce on their children. As reported in the New York Times article and several recent Wall Street Journal articles, greater disdain for the decision to divorce may result in some parents choosing less adversarial divorce structures, such as mediation or collaboration, to mitigate for their children the damage they themselves experienced as children of divorced parents. However, this sociological shift to consider divorce an avoidable harm to children may also increase the need to direct moral responsibility for the divorce onto the other parent. Further, the perspective that divorce harms the interests of children may also lead some mental health professionals to privately assess relative fault in the loss of the marriage, as an unacknowledged component of parenting recommendations. Even a party’s own therapist and divorce lawyer may prefer to see their own client as the victim to whom divorce happened, rather than as a co-perpetrator in the loss of the marriage. Any such effort or unstated impulse to assign responsibility for loss of the marriage may feel like sympathy or empathy, but it may also insulate a party from the sense of shared responsibility for the loss, a feeling that may be necessary for post-decree recovery by the client.

The social isolation of divorcing parents may result in postponed divorces that are no less bitter for having been deferred. Divorces postponed during child-rearing years may result in an increase in the proportion of couples who file for divorce just as the youngest child graduates from high school or college. In addition to bitterness resulting from the deferred divorce, poor economic and parenting decisions may be made in the years between the decision to divorce and the filing of the petition, which mistakes interfere with the capacity to obtain appropriate orders by settlement or trial.

Whenever the divorce occurs, the social ostracism faced by our clients increases the emotional burden they experience from the divorce itself. At a time when they most need social connections to family and friends, they may find those connections severely weakened due to the disdain towards divorcing parents. Further, to the extent that a party’s family and friends regard divorce as an avoidable harm to children, there may be undue pressure to reconcile, delay, or capitulate for purposes of settlement, when a parent’s real need may be to start making appropriate decisions for their post-decree futures. Social ostracism in divorce increases our clients’ dependence on us and our staff for the validation they can less and less expect to experience elsewhere in their lives.

by Diana L. Powell
Colorado Bar Association Family Law Member Newsletter — July 29, 2011