WSJ on Divorce: Emperors new clothes

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The Wall Street Journal published an article adapted from Susan Gregory Thomas’ “In Spite of Everything: A Memoir” titled The Divorce Generation. The article reads as a tragedy of a parent, who has been traumatised by the messy divorce of her own parents, and has vowed herself never to do such a thing to her children. Which, in a somewhat predictable twist of fate, she in the end does. And the parent is the whole generation.

She begins by laying down some statistical grundwerk. Thomas’ claims that for the generation X the defining question was not where you were when JFK was shot or men landed on the moon, but “where were you when your parents got divorced?”. And sure enough the National Marriage Project’s data backs her claim, showing a steep rise beginning in 1965 and peaking at 1980 (2.26 % of married women). Since then the trend has somewhat declined and solidly rested at ca.1.6%, which is similar to the rate in about 1973.

She gives an autobiographical example of how common divorce was in her neighbourhood, and how it gave the children a negative ripple effect of drug abuse and other sorts of problems.

What the children also got from this, was a obsessive need not ever to divorce. And so

According to U.S. Census data released this May, 77% of couples who married since 1990 have reached their 10-year anniversaries. We’re also marrying later in life, if at all. The average marrying age in 1950 was 23 for men and 20 for women; in 2009, it was 28 for men and 26 for women.

So to avoid divorces, we never get married in the first place. It looks good on paper.

In the same time out-of-wedlock births have risen from 330.000 in 1965-9 to 715.000 by the end of 84, while the rate of birth in general has stayed somewhat the same. In 2007 NCHS claims that nearly 4 in 10 births were to unmarried women.

So what is this? A matter of semantics? After all marriage and divorce, especially in our rather secular world, are only aged constructs?

So it might be safe to establish that the premise of avoiding divorces for the good of the children is false, in the sense that there are more children whose parents are not married (incl. divorce) than before.

I think this is a loop-hole. When the whole generation has established that divorce is bad, then you remain good when you avoid divorce. And what a better way to avoid it than to never generate the possibility. It’s about apperiances. About avoiding the stigma of a divorcee.

…it was the one-armed man!
But Thomas tried. She writes about gen X’s nearly martyrdom-parenting

Having grown up without stable homes, we pour everything that we have into giving our children just that, no matter how many sacrifices it involves. Indeed, Gen-X’s quest for perfect nests drove us to take out more home equity loans and to spend more on remodeling, per capita, than any generation before it, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Which would appear an awful lot like swifting the blame by proxy to the children. We ballsed up the economy for you. In a move not dissimilar to building an a-bomb to uphold peace. This game goes to both temporal directions. Our parents did nothing for us, we did everything for you. It’s not our fault.

It’s always someone else, isn’t it?

What is also worth noting here is that when talking about being there for the children we suddenly end up in remodeling and home equity loans, which have nothing what so ever to do with good parenting.

We were doing everything differently, and the fundamental premise was simple: “Kids come first” meant that we would not divorce.

So “Kids come first” = “No divorce”. Who needs grayscales.

But then again, these Gen X parents can not turn to their parents for tips, so

Why would we take counsel from the very people who, in our view, flubbed it all up? Instead, says the research, we depend on the people who actually raised us, albeit wolf-pack style: our friends.

The same people who, you know, are just as clueless as you.

Me, Myself and I
So who or what are these generation X parents on display here?


It wasn’t until my daughter was a few months old that it dawned on me that when the pediatricians and child-care books referred to “separation anxiety,” they were referring to the baby’s psyche, not to mine.


The thought of placing her in someone else’s care sent waves of pure, white fear whipping up my spine. It occurred to me that perhaps my own origins had something to do with what a freak show I was. After hearing about my background for some time, my distinguished therapist made an announcement: “You,” she said, “are a war orphan.”

I rest my case.

Okay, okay, I’ll clarify. It’s always only by proxy about the baby. And the proxy is you.

Divorce 2.0: tres magnifique!
So when the ideal of never-divorcing parent finally falls (as external models often are to do), what is there to be done?

Enter The Good Divorce. Where parents keep in warm contact, even share a house or bi-weekly house the children. This is a nice good, new, inhabitable sign. Oh, and it is becoming “a trend”.

The Good Divorced Parent also has data to back this up, like:

A 2009 study published in the journal Child Development found, for example, that teenagers with involved fathers are less likely to engage in risky sexual activities.

Which, of course is probably true, but it only implies causation. Maybe there is a confounding reason between fathers who are able to, and want to, keep involved in their childrens lives and low sexual risk. Maybe their relationship was different to begin with, and these are both results from that? Maybe they were involved not because a research had told them it will be for the best, but because they were that sort of a parent?

Eppur Si Muove!
Relying on external cues, like out-of-context research data, WSJ, your friends etc. on parenting and leaving no space for your internal cues can lead to raising a generation of confused brand-oriented parentificated children.

And how will those parentificated children deal with marriage and divorce? When they both are accustomed to parents hovering above them constantly with their neurotical obsessiveness. How come even though I have all these toys my marriage is still miserable?!


Oh, and why was this on the WSJ? Because obviously the reader can rest peacefully. Your parenting is not your fault. Your divorce is not as bad as it appears. You can not screw them up like the previous generation. And if you did, it’s not your fault. Oh, and it’s completely fine to project your childhood traumas and needs to your child. It’ll be fine. Have an iPod.  

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8 Responses to WSJ on Divorce: Emperors new clothes

  1. Pastabagel says:

    “we depend on the people who actually raised us, albeit wolf-pack style: our friends.”

    This is a point in Marcuse’s The Death of the Freudian Concept of Man, which I wrote about in way-too-much-length here. The idea is that without the role that father’s typically played in the 19th and early 20th century being played by anyone, post-Freudian children attach themselves to tribal groups of their peers in search of leaders who invariably come from the entertainment or sports industries.

    But I think the reason it is in the WSJ is because it’s more to assuage Boomer guilt over having screwed up pretty much everything their generation came in contact with. Even that statistic about Gen-X spending more per capita on remodelling is misleading–without reliable job markets in any industry outside the professions and healthcare, house flipping became a viable career choice. In 2005, 40% of houses sold were secondhomes. That doesn’t argue for building the perfect nest, it argues for the proposition that the only money to be made is in gambling and related pursuits (day trading, ebay, etc.)

  2. ThomasR says:

    I don’t think I would accept her premises quite so readily. Is the cause of a “low” divorce rates in generation X really the high divorce rate in their parents? is the postponement of marriage even related? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t find any of her arguments terribly convincing. TLP may or may not be right about her entire generation being narcissists, but I would venture to say that this author definitely is. The author doesn’t even care about her baby daughter except as she relates to the author! This article reminds me a lot of the one that TLP deconstructed so thoroughly (I can’t remember the author’s name) with a scanned in copy of the article.

  3. Neex says:

    I think your comments are all very good observations. But I’m going to challenge you a little bit. You kind of lose your point when you start talking about how the kids of these neurotic overbearing self -obsessed parents will in turn become bad parents themselves.

    I thought your point was that these neurotic overbearing parents need to get over their parents inadequacies and just deal because ultimately that’s life?

    Which sort of brings us to: why do we care that these are self-obsessed overbearing neurotic parents? Ultimately, shouldn’t the kids just deal and be fine anyways because parental inadequacies can only hurt you if you let it? If these neurotic self-obsessed overbearing parents hurt their kids— then we know who is to blame. The kids, because they let it affect them. Right?

    • Comus says:

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t however see the points you raised as mutually exclusive or contradictory. Au contraire, a frenchman would say.

      See, and here I’m alluding quite much to PastaBagels previous remark on the post-freudian man, the point is exactly that. IF the gen X parents described by Thomas do not find a way around their parental issues, which in this case would be the lack of a parental superego, they will overcompansate this very lack on their own children. Like a hungry mother who keeps feeding her children even though they are full. The parents needs are of importance, the children just a stand in, a stunt-double, for the parent. So the question is how does a child develop, if he or she is raised under an externally-motivated superego? One might say, that more often than not, they will prioritize external cues to internal ones. It is more important how others see them than how they feel or what they are. They, one might hypotethize, might be more prone to borderline.

      And why this is important is because of identity development, which bases rather much on the first years, and on the attachment style. And now I see the inherent cynical wit in your statement and pause.

  4. cb3k1 says:

    I found this article interesting, as I had been pondering why the divorce rate has dropped over the past few decades. But I was struck by the lack of personal insight from the author. She danced around it several times, coming close, but ultimately backing off. A few sentences stuck in my brain though.

    She ends the article with,

    “But we have not had our parents’ divorces either. We can only hope that in this, we have done it differently in the right way.”

    Two different sides of the same coin. This sentence really bothered me. Is there a right way to traumatize children? Certainly one may be less damaging than the other, but right? Maybe she was being sarcastic, but I doubt it.


    “Having grown up without stable homes, we pour everything that we have into giving our children just that, no matter how many sacrifices it involves. Indeed, Gen-X’s quest for perfect nests drove us to take out more home equity loans and to spend more on remodeling, per capita, than any generation before it, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.”


    “Many of us have ended up inflicting pain on our children, which we did everything to avoid.”

    She was willing to fix everything around her that could harm her children, as long as she didn’t have to fix herself.

  5. claudius says:

    Excellent work, Comus.

    How come even though I have all these toys my marriage is still miserable?!

    As though spending more money on their homes in any way has something to do with being a good parent and, as Pastabagel indirectly pointed out, the increase in spending was not due to an increase in value-producing industry. It was really because so many of these boomers were going into insane rates of debt, and/or pursuing ventures which add no long-term value to the economy.

    The irony is, with the national debt at $14 trillion, her kids will be paying for those fancy houses all those boomers went into debt for. So the children have been failed financially and emotionally.