Beyond divorce's social stigma

Hello, readers. Look at this story, now back to me. Look at this survey, now back to me. Sadly, the story isn't what you might expect from survey results, but if the reporter checked on some variables, the story might be worth reading. Anything is possible when you consider the religion angle. I'm on a horse.

OK, in all seriousness, you're a reporter. You find out that divorce among college-educated Americans has been on the decline since 1980. What do you do? Who do you talk to? What kinds of anecdotes do you search for? I would think a reporter would want to find stories of people who considered divorce but opted out, but this New York Times 2,200-word piece offers only stories of those who did and the subsequent stigma they felt.

Most marriages that end in divorce fall apart in the first 10 years. But according to the widely cited Marriage Project study last year, among college-educated couples who married in the mid-1990s, the likelihood of divorcing in the first 10 years of marriage fell 27 percent compared with college-educated couples who married in the 1970s.

In a 2008 survey, only 17 percent of college-educated Americans agreed with the statement, “Marriage has not worked out for most people I know,” compared with 58 percent among the less educated.

The experience of being a divorced woman has changed, along with the statistics. “The No. 1 reaction I get from people when I tell them I’m getting divorced is, ‘You’re so brave,’ ” said Stephanie Dolgoff, a 44-year-old mother of two elementary-school daughters who was separated last year. “In the 1970s, when a woman got divorced, she was seen as taking back her life in that Me Decade way. Nowadays, it’s not seen as liberating to divorce. It’s scary.”

The rest of the piece is filled with anecdotes of people who have divorced and faced social ramifications where divorce is less common. If the reporter really wanted to uncover some interesting stories, she could have talked to people who considered divorce and opted against it, maybe for economic, social or perhaps, you know, religious reasons.

Few married couples might not want to tell the world that they considered divorce, but surely there are some honest couples out there to help us understand why they chose to remain married despite their issues. We have talked about this survey before, so we know there could be some religion angles there. Religious reason may not be a factor in why people are staying together, but it's worth asking if the survey revealed anything interesting in that area. From the anecdotes, you might take away that marriage just ties you down and divorce works out just fine, except for the surrounding judgement.

Among a certain demographic, marriage is viewed as something that, like work-life balance, yoga and locavore cuisine, needs to be continually worked at and improved upon. When Ms. Dolgoff tells others about her divorce, their response, with disquieting frequency, is “Yes, well, marriage is hard” as in, “You knew that getting in.”

Blogs and child-rearing books suggest a subtle — and sometimes not-so-subtle — social pressure to tough it out. From the 1970s to the 2000s, the percentage of highly educated Americans who believe that divorce should be made more difficult rose from 36 to 48 percent.

Reporter Pamela Paul cites a study from last year that found that when close friends break up, the odds their marital friends' divorce increase by 75 percent. The story seems so focused on the social ramifications of divorce that it doesn't explore other reasons why it might have other repercussions. What impact does it have on a person's health, their children, their finances, etc.? Are there any negative repercussions? There is some discussion about impact on children, but divorce itself seems consistently positive from the stories in the piece.

A common belief is that if the divorce is done properly, the children benefit more from the separation than from living in a family with a compromised marriage. Ms. Gilman, echoing the sentiments of many divorced mothers, said, “In the end, I actually think it was a very positive thing we did for the kids.”

In another unexpected twist, some divorced women say they detect an unspoken envy. Other wives and mothers, they explained, were “battling it out” while dealing with the unceasing tasks of wifedom, motherhood and work.

This isn't a direct religion story, but the reporter could have deepened the piece if she had considered a faith angle. For instance, were the people who felt more social stigma from divorce religious? Or do people stay together because of faith and/or they feel repercussions in their religious communities? There are anecdotes to explore, especially if the survey offers interesting data.

Still, the chosen anecdotes seem confusing. Don't get me wrong: some of them are interesting and add color. But it's a little like writing a story on how no one is buying landline telephones anymore and talking to people who still buy landlines and asking them about the social pressures they face instead of talking to those who bought cell phones. Sure, one or two anecdotes from landline land makes sense, but shouldn't the focus be on why people are staying together if that's what the data suggests? Reading the anecdotes, you might conclude that divorce is only difficult because it's statistically down among your peers.

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