Think Before Promoting Divorce Rationalizations

For nearly eight years, I’ve kept a yellowing copy of the Providence Journal’s Lifebeat section from Saturday, June 19, 2010.  I’ve held on to it because I thought it important to comment on that issue’s column by Mark Patinkin, but the subject matter is extremely personal, and I didn’t feel right tackling it back then.

I think Patinkin was wrong to rationalize his divorce as he did, and since he shared his rationalization from one of the state’s biggest platforms, I’ve felt some obligation to use my much-smaller one to argue against his two errors.  Scroll down a bit from this link, if you’re interested in reading the text.

At the outset, I should be clear about my understanding of marriage’s purpose, which I’ve repeated many times over the years:  Marriage is a social institution with the purpose of providing stability to the people in our society who most need the encouragement.  Those who are fortunate enough to find lifelong fidelity to be an easy feat don’t need a social institution.  Those who have other supports (notably, wealth) have the resilience to weather the consequences of avoiding or exiting marriage.

But all of us in these categories have a responsibility to maintain the institution of marriage for the benefit of others who may not have our advantages and, more especially, for their children.  We keep our vows and espouse the principles of monogamy and permanence for their benefit.

Patinkin’s rationalization of his own divorce clearly violates this principle:

They handle divorces on the fifth floor. I had been there before as a journalist, writing about how, after years of shared lives, it comes down to a division of assets – who gets the dishes, who the children. No one expects to find themselves on this floor, but if the statistics are correct, for half of married people, it is a matter of time. The hallway was crowded and many folks looked strained. There are few parts of life with deeper emotion. The process is full of heartache. If only he’d done this…or she that. But beneath it all, the explanation is usually simple. People change. That’s all.

This attitude damages the institution of marriage at the level of its very purpose.  Yes, people change, but that’s not “all”; it’s why.  It’s why we have marriage:  for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, when you enjoy quiet nights at home and when you don’t.

The commitment that two people make to each other before settling fully into their adult, familial lives is that they will always have the security and support of the other person.  The value of this pledge is most commonly seen in divorces when one spouse, historically the wife, argues that she let educational and occupational opportunities pass her by because she was part of a marital team that had more-pressing needs.  With the dissolution of the team, she finds that she cannot rely on the future support that was part of the bargain, and so she asks the court for a financial assessment of her sacrifice.

The value can be much more subtle, though.  Our lives involve series of encounters, and nearly every day, those of us who are married meet and pass by people who might otherwise have been available to care for us intimately at some future date of need.  Because relationships are so emotionally fraught, vanishingly few of us make rational cases for our preferences when faced with something like divorce.  Whether out of shyness, a desire not to impose on others, or love in the sense of “willing the good of the other,” only the rare husband or wife would respond to indications that the other wanted out by saying, “I’m not confident that I will find somebody else to help take care of me when I’m old, at this point, and you have a responsibility to be that person.”  Marriage takes the need to make that awkward, overly contractual case off the table and asserts it implicitly.

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That gets to the second error of Patinkin’s old column.  In the specific, I’m not inclined to criticize the decision that he and his wife made; he offers insufficient details about their lives together or the impetus for the divorce.  But he didn’t just get divorced.  He got divorced and then published a vague, self-justifying column.  Doing so without details makes this error more damaging.

For one thing, he and his former wife appear to be in a position to take care of themselves.  As stated above, the institution of marriage is particularly valuable to those who aren’t so well positioned.

For another thing, the circumstances of “people change” can vary hugely.  “People change” can be “my husband became a violent drunk” or “my wife cheats on me and uses it as a way to embarrass me publicly.”  “People change” can also mean “he makes less money than he used to” or “she put on more weight than I find attractive.”*

Maybe it’s the case that the Patinkins mutually grew apart and had either the prospects of finding replacement relationships or the means of paying for care to replace it, but that won’t be true for everybody directly or indirectly affected by his column.  However he might counsel others personally in their own situations, what his column did was to devalue marital vows broadly, throughout our shared community.

The odds are slim that Mark Patinkin will ever encounter anybody who mentions this particular column, and slimmer still that he’ll have cause to ask himself whether it did harm.  Other writers and public figures, however, should pause before reinforcing his error.  If you’re going to write about your divorce, what is your purpose in doing so, and is there the potential for unintended consequences that outweigh whatever catharsis you take from the exercise?

These are the sorts of questions we have to ask ourselves.

* I’m sticking to gendered clichés, here, for simplicity of meaning, not to assert that these scenarios aren’t ever reversed.

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