A woman’s love letter to herself and the no-fault divorce system

How did the U.S. end up with double the percentage of children living without two parents compared to a lot of European countries? (link to some data) “Divorce Can Be an Act of Radical Self-Love” (New York Times, 9/30/2021) and similar celebrations of the path to bliss starting at the local family court might be partially explanatory (the cash incentives are very different too!).

Let’s see if the article is convincing:

… I’ve learned that divorce can also be an act of radical self-love that leaves the whole family better off. My divorce nearly seven years ago freed me from a relationship that was crushing my spirit. It freed my children, then 5 and 3, from growing up in a profoundly unhealthy environment.

Profoundly unhealthy environment? Dad was beating the wife and kids while smoking crystal meth and without taking any breaks to inhale “essential” (in Maskachusetts) healing cannabis?

There was no emotional or physical abuse in our home. There was no absence of love. I was in love with my husband when we got divorced. Part of me is in love with him still. I suspect that will always be the case. Even now, after everything, when he walks into the room my stomach drops the same way it does before the roller coaster comes down. I divorced my husband not because I didn’t love him. I divorced him because I loved myself more.

The mom/author says that she wanted more time to work:

I made choice after choice to prioritize my career because I believed fervently in the importance of the work I was doing, providing legal representation to wrongfully convicted men and women.

I have spent much of the pandemic interviewing working women who are diverse across race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, geography, class, age and profession for a book I am writing about ambitious mothers and the benefits to their children when they prioritize their careers.

Talking to the subset who are divorced, I found a common theme, even a sisterhood: Divorce is painful and heartbreaking. But it can also be liberating, pointing the way toward a different life that leaves everyone better off, including the children.

One 38-year-old newly single mother who works full time and attends graduate school at night told me with pride that for the first time, she is living with her 9-year-old in an apartment she picked out, decorated and paid for on her own.

… for unhappily married women who are able to support themselves and their children, breaking free can also be like plunging into a cold ocean: a shock to the system that is at once brutal and cleansing. They can emerge stronger and clearer-eyed. Their children benefit because happier mothers are better parents.

That last one is my favorite. According to the author and the NYT editors, it is safe to assume that a person who is unhappy in a marriage is guaranteed to find enduring happiness just as soon as the divorce lawsuit is filed. And then the children will bask in the reflected glow of that enduring happiness as they shuttle back and forth between households, watch their college fund being spent on lawyers for both sides, etc. Certainly there is no possibility that the person dissatisfied with Situation A will become dissatisfied with Situation B. (A friend’s wife recently hired a 50ish woman to be her assistant. The woman complained that previous employers had mistreated her, sexually harassed her, etc. After a few weeks… she quit the assistant job.)

The first sentence in the above excerpt is also interesting. Mom says that she didn’t want to invest too much time in her kids because it was important to help the wrongfully convicted and the only way to truly focus on helping out in criminal court was via a trip to the local family court. But, unless the real answer is that she wanted to spend time have sex with new friends from Bumble, wouldn’t the optimum solution have been to dump all child- and household-related tasks onto the husband/father(maybe!) and hired help as necessary? The dad sounds like a total pushover: “He rarely travels and actively engages with nearly every aspect of our children’s lives no matter how mundane.” and “My ex-husband and I make a point of spending time together with our children, having regular dinners, watching sports and going for bike rides as a foursome.”

Overall, if it is this easy to use children’s feelings and words for one’s own benefit, almost any selfish adult decision can be justified. Imagine someone who identified as a “man” writing “I knew that my 5-year-old would be better off if he/she/ze/they could vicariously share the joy that I experience when out on Tinder dates with women 15 years younger than his/her/zir/their mom.” This was a popular perspective in the “do your own thing” era circa 1970 when no-fault (“unilateral”) divorce was being made available. According to the academic psychologists, this perspective is simply wishful thinking on the part of adults who are pursuing selfish goals. See “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: Report of a 25-Year Study”, in which 131 children of divorce were followed; they did not fare well compared to adults who had grown up in intact families. The PDF is available:

Hardly any of our subjects described a happy childhood; in fact a number of children told us that “the day they divorced was the day my childhood ended.” … By the 25-year mark, the majority had decided not to have children.

No child of divorce in our study was invited by both parents, either separately or together, to discuss college plans. … Only 57% of the divorce group achieved their bachelor’s degree as compared with 90% in the comparison group. … Unhappy, [those who did attend college] settled for fields of study that were not their first choice, at lower ranked institutions than their parents had attended. It was at this time that one young person, echoing the emotions of many others, commented bitterly, “I paid for my parents’ divorce.”

The central finding of this study is that parental divorce impacts detrimentally the capacity to love and be loved within a lasting, committed relationship.

A subgroup of over 20 women from the divorced group sought out multiple lovers. … Their sexual encounters seemed driven by anger at men, which even their close relationships with their fathers did not seem to mute.

(i.e., a mother’s alimony-fueled escape to Tinderhood can result in daughters who are passionate Tinder users as well)

I find this a fascinating cultural artifact, not so much that the law professor would justify reorganizing her own life for her own reasons as something that benefits her children, but that these rationalizations would be of wide enough public interest to merit publication in one of our biggest newspapers. That says something about how passionate New York Times readers are about living their best life, regardless of the consequences to children and others.

Related:

  • the author, Lara Bazelon, was able to take time away from helping the wrongfully convicted to write an editorial for the New York Times complaining that Amy Coney Barrett wouldn’t be enthusiastic about abortion (“the heart of the long, continuing march for gender equality”). This is consistent with her more recent NYT piece (above), since the best way to avoid being bothered by children is to abort them (legal right up to 36 or 37 weeks in Massachusetts if one doctor thinks the child who pops out will irritate the mother and therefore impair her mental health). Thanks to Professor Bazelon, we now know that a judge appointed by a Republican doesn’t love abortion as much as a Democrat-appointed judge would love abortion!
  • “Female Voters’ ‘Marriage Gap’ And The Midterms” (NPR): “Married women tend to have more conservative beliefs and vote more for Republicans, while single women tend to be aligned more with Democrats.” (i.e., one way to boost votes for Democrats is to encourage women to file divorce lawsuits)
  • Facebook uses a Malibu-flying engineering manager to promote careers in engineering… (we celebrate the mid-life gender ID change of a married “man” without considering the effects on the middle-aged wife and on the kids)

20 thoughts on “A woman’s love letter to herself and the no-fault divorce system

  1. They were looking for bigger than life in my 40 years of dating experience. Men couldn’t just show up, but had to come across as the next Mark Zuckerberg. In Calif*, that was a reasonable goal for any woman who is healthy & over 30.

  2. I must object to the proposition that abortion is “the heart of the long, continuing march for gender equality” (quoted from the NYT). New evidence has emerged this year that “men” can have babies and abortions, but the quoted part seems to imply that only “|women” can. That seems to be hate speech under the most recent rules!

    • Selfish parents are the worst and their selfish choices are a big contributor to generational dysfunction and societal decline. Congrats on that radical self-love!

  3. She says: “I fervently wanted to save my marriage and give my children an intact family.” And it doesn’t sound like that would have been very difficult, from what she describes! So what does “fervent” mean? One definition:

    https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fervent

    Definition of fervent
    1: very hot : GLOWING
    the fervent sun
    2: exhibiting or marked by great intensity of feeling : ZEALOUS
    fervent prayers
    a fervent proponent
    fervent patriotism

    But all of that fervency was no match for her self-love:

    “But deep inside, I knew that trying to force myself to subordinate my ambitions and always put our children first would have been impossible without lopping off a vital part of myself.”
    Therefore she projects thirty years into the future and conjures up a depressing, lurid scene that helps convince her that all that fervency is just not worth it:

    “And there I would be, skinny and sunken in my sea-foam mother-of-the-bride dress, the smile on my face freezing the resentment beneath it, a third vodka tonic sweating in my hand.”

    In other words, she sat there and imagined a dystopian nightmare for herself and used it to justify ending her marriage, so she could get back to doing what she does best: caring about herself. I’m just glad that this article doesn’t include any response whatsoever from the husband, because I really don’t want to read it – and I wouldn’t believe it if they published it.

    I hope he’s even more glad to be free of her than she is to be free of him.

    It’s just a good thing this woman doesn’t (at least not as far we know) have access to firearms, because I rate it as a coin toss that she could envision another terrible future for herself that causes her to blow her own brains out to avoid it, now that she’s free.

    I didn’t know until now that the New York Times had decided to become Cosmopolitan Magazine circa 1979.

    • Equivalent formulation: “I fervently wanted to buy some after-school piano lessons for my child,” she said, “but I live in Massachusetts where the marijuana shops are considered essential and they were having a sale on cannabis so naturally I had to spend all of my discretionary funds on discount essential pot.”

    • Also: This woman describes the very imaginative thought process she relied on to dispense with her fervency after she got married and had children. All that despite her compliant and willing, helpful husband, and her career.

      What about the imaginative process she must have had (unless it was a very recent gift she just started to listen to one day) before she decided to get married? How about when she was there standing at the altar (did she get married in a church or a synagogue or some other place like that) reciting her vows? Presumably she was intelligent enough to read the vows beforehand, understand what they meant, and agree to them?

      What were they all about? Why go through with the whole rigmarole of a wedding ceremony, all the trouble and expense, if nothing you’re doing there really means anything, and is subject to change depending on whatever pops into your imagination a few years down the road? Why not just shack up and save everyone the theater, and the expense of it all? If it’s meaningless (or can be forgotten and redefined as meaningless) why do it?

    • Alex: You raise a good point. If the actual goal is to be a single parent, it is irrational to get married from an emotional point of view (utter vows that one has no intention of keeping absent some sort of perfect fairytale life) and from a financial point of view (banging a drunken already-married dermatologist will yield more child support cash that a medium-term marriage to a medium-high earner).

    • @Philg: Unfortunately it sounds a lot to me like another couple in my family (not me) who in all honesty should *never* have gotten married (like me, and I *didn’t*, at least not to the person I was thinking about it with, thank goodness.) Ever. And I tried to tell him, but he wasn’t about to listen to me. He knows now!

      This woman is LUCKY, because she actually seems to be independently functional, not seriously impaired in other ways, and has a former husband who doesn’t sound like he’s got a vengeful or retributive bone in his body.

      I don’t know what the point is except kabuki theater for going through the ceremony and the ritual (both moral and legal) unless you’ve read the vows and mean them. Otherwise save the money, find someone else, and don’t mess around. It’s about shared sacrifice. That’s what the “lopping off part” MEANS. That’s what you AGREE TO. If you don’t like that ticket, don’t buy it and take the RIDE and put everyone else through it.

      The lawyers have a target-rich environment as it is, why feed them more? (Sorry lawyers.)

  4. Sometimes women get divorced, and make a great effort to convince others that they are not being selfish. This is the opposite. She is trying to convince us that she is being selfish. Okay, I am convinced!

    • @Roger: I knew someone would condense it. That’s very good.

      I’m still wondering about the husband though. What was going through his mind? “Well, I know she’s extremely selfish and can talk herself into or out of anything. Why am I doing this?”

    • @Alex. That’s right, she can convince herself of anything. Consider her book: “a book I am writing about ambitious mothers and the benefits to their children when they prioritize their careers.” The only way I can grok that is that this woman is toxic to her kids, so the less she has to do with them (“prioritize her career”), the better off the kids are. So she actually hates herself, but she’s convinced that she loves herself! Just typically NYT stuff.

    • @Evelyn: I don’t mean my responses to sound like I’m exclusively blaming the woman here, or women in general – because I’m not. My goodness, if I was forced to recount all of the stupid decisions I’ve made (or talked myself out of making) with relationships throughout my life, the moderators on this blog would be forced to ban me because nobody needs to hear that kind of soap opera, with everything else that’s going on in the world. But you know, it is a two-way street, and guys make really bad decisions too. For some really bad reasons.

      It isn’t as though marriage exists in a vacuum and you’re the first two people on Earth doing it.

      This woman is educated, intelligent enough to write an op-ed that gets published by the New York Times (let’s not speculate about why that is, I’m sure it’s a fascinating side story of someone-knows-someone and needs an article) and I guess her ex-husband wasn’t totally non-compos mentis at least from the neck up. In other words, there are lots of examples to consider prior to saying the vows, and if you can’t do the homework and be honest enough with yourself and your future spouse (and vice-versa) to know that it’s probably a bad idea, you shouldn’t do it. We don’t force people to be married at gunpoint in this country any more, so you really have think about it for yourself.

      The no-fault divorce system made it a lot easier for people to get out marriages, and I think it further devalued and diminished the probity and honesty and seriousness with which people approach the decision in the first place. The result being a huge increase in lawyer fees, broken families and heartache (despite what she tries to say in this article.) Then we add in the fact that people of a certain class and background go through these extended adolescences of consequence-free decisions, and there’s no wonder they want to keep them going as long as possible, by inventing all kinds of new terminology like: “an act of radical self-love.”

      No. It’s called: “You didn’t really grow up. And you don’t want to!”

      As I say, I have male friends who have also learned the hard way that they didn’t put enough thought into it and weren’t as mature as they thought they were.

    • @Evelyn: Finally, I have two family members – both women who identify as such – who *did* think it through along with their husbands-to-be, and seem to be very happily married now. Both of them have rewarding careers, one has a child with another on the way and the other intends to have at least one. Their husbands are 100% on-board – I’ve talked with them recently, very sane, smart guys, quite different but both solid, stable men – and they’re very happy with the decisions they’ve made and the women they’re married to.

      One of the women is an endowed chair tenured professor at a big, important university who writes papers that get read by Serious People at Important Conferences. The other also has a very rewarding and challenging career. Their husbands aren’t slackers, either.

      These two girls (as I knew them in diapers) were their parents’ only children, and I can tell you that their father in particular spared no effort to help the girls achieve everything they could in life. He’s very proud of them. I joked with him after the wedding reception for the second daughter had wound down. He said: “So what did you think of it all, Alex?” I answered: “I think you should have two more daughters! You did a good job!” He’s in his 70s and got a big laugh out of that one!

      These people all their took their time and thought it through, and I can attest that they were *ALL* raised in intact nuclear families where both parents understood what they were doing. I can look at their examples and say: “Yeah. That’s where I screwed up” without being angry! I couldn’t be happier for them.

  5. This sounds very similar to the author of “Eat Pray Love” who left her husband and tried to justify it.

    The Christian-oriented writer Dalrock (a pseudonym) wrote about Gilbert’s selfishness here: https://dalrock.wordpress.com/2016/09/29/she-didnt-stick-the-landing-and-she-wont-leave-the-floor/

    Gilbert’s latest quote on her home page, promoting a new novel: ““Life is both fleeting and dangerous, and there is no point in denying yourself pleasure, or being anything other than what you are.”” Seems to fit …

  6. The real reason American women are so divorce-happy is obvious – but cannot be explained without explaining some basic facts about biology of instinctive behavior (i e the science of etology).

    Basically, sexual attraction is instinctive The instinct in females is to find the sperm donor with best quality of genes. Since direct measurement is impossible, the instinctive program relies on proxies – such as visible social rank and behavioral patterns associated with it. Such as aggression and displays of fitness. Toxic masculinity, if you wish.

    Which directly contradicts social conditioning towards being nice and considerate. Instinct doesn’t care – a man who lets a woman to walk all over him quickly becomes unattractive to her because he clearly ranks below her. Even if he’s a decent successful guy who is otherwise a good catch. He’s still a cuck as far as her instincts are concerned. And being in relationship with a cuck is what makes her unhappy. The rest is just rationalization.

    Feminists, not being particularly bright, engineered their own unhappiness by pushing through thorough program of conditioning men to be “nice” – from early age. Now they have a dating pool consisting mostly of nice cucks and sociopaths. Somehow this all is still mens fault.

    • @averros: Thats all fine and dandy and I agree with all of it. I think it leaves out two points though.
      1. Dont rush to have kids. People forget or never learn to consider the tremendous responsibility to providing a stable environment that one bears as soon as your first kid shows up. Which leads me to:
      2. At some point one has to acknowledge that humans are not animals totally driven by instinct. We have the means to fight our instincts or maybe redirect them. It sounds like she didnt try much. Even an occasional affair with tacit approval from the cuck while keeping the family intact might be preferable.

    • averros, your explanation has some plausibility in describing today’s family life in western countries. What it doesn’t explain however is its change over time.

      Before the 20th century, family formation was in principle, and usually in practice, a matter of lifelong commitment. Divorce was unusual, scandalous and difficult, see for example King Henry VIII. Then, within living memory, we see marriage and child rearing increasingly disconnected, haphazard and temporary. This huge and destructive change, historically abrupt and unprecedented, demands an explanation.

      Only one theory seems to account for it. The industrial revolution virtually abolished infant mortality and deadly infections. From then on, increasing proportions of each succeeding generation could survive while in a state of health that would have been lethally deficient in earlier times. These deficiencies include mental health. So since about 1850, western countries have become profoundly mentally ill, in a slower and more complex version of mouse utopia. If there is a better theory I would love to hear it, because the mouse utopia theory implies that all civilizations that achieve industrialized prosperity will die, as ours did.

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