Why Divorce Is Bad

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Why Divorce Is Bad


By: Margaret E. Sangster

Date: April 15, 1905

Source: Cleveland Journal〉, April 15, 1905, p. 6. Available at Ohio Historical Center. "Why Divorce is Bad." 〈http://dbs.ohiohistory.org/africanam/det.cfm?ID=3769〉 (accessed June 18, 2006).

About the Author: Margaret E. Sangster (1838–1912) was a nineteenth century author and editor. A deeply religious woman, she is known for her writing as well as her editorial work, including her role as editor of Harper's Bazaar.


Divorce, the act of legally ending a marriage, is a common occurrence in modern America. In 2004, the United States experienced 3.7 divorces per 1,000 citizens, down considerably from 1981 when the rate peaked at a high of 5.3. However, the United States has the highest divorce rate in the industrialized world; by comparison, Canada and most Western European nations have rates of 2.0 per 1,000, and Spain's rate is only 0.6.

Divorce rates in America generally increased during the twentieth century, beginning at around 1.5 per 1,000 in the early 1900's. Numerous factors have been blamed for the rise in divorce rates. Demographics are thought to play a role; during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, first-time grooms were an average of four years older than their new brides (ages twenty-six and twenty-two, respectively) and frequently had a much higher level of education. With their income potential severely limited and no government welfare programs, women had few options but to remain married.

The age difference between brides and grooms fell to three years during World War II, but from 1950 onward the age of first marriage for women steadily climbed to a 2002 level of 25.3, just below the male average of 26.9. Women marrying in the early twenty-first century are generally better educated and more financially secure, making divorce an economically realistic option for many of them. The availability of inexpensive birth control also allowed women to postpone childbearing, simplifying the decision to divorce in the early years of a marriage.

Other factors have also been blamed for rising divorce rates. Social and religious stigmas toward divorce have become less severe, and no-fault divorce laws in many states have led to newspaper ads touting inexpensive, "while-you-wait" divorces. A 1996 Census Bureau study found that the total population of divorced individuals in the United States climbed from 4 million in 1970 to 18 million in 1996, making divorced men and women a significant segment of the U.S. population.

As divorce has become increasingly common, social scientists have devoted considerable effort to assessing its impact. But decades before the effects of divorce were first scientifically investigated, some observers were already fully convinced of divorce's detrimental impact and were taking steps to curb divorces in America.


Pulpit and press and even fiction are calling attention to the widespread evil of easy divorce. A brilliant English novel, recently published, introduces no less than four misfit pairs, who, however, settle their differences in one way or another, outside the courts. Judge Grant's deeply interesting work, The Undercurrent, is a study of American life, which shows in startling colors the tendency to rush to divorce, not merely when it is, like surgery, in extreme cases necessary to save life, but when it is prompted, shall we say, by mere idleness and caprice, reinforced by a passionate desire for personal enjoyment.

In a certain ultra-fashionable set, it seems no longer to excite more than a passing comment, when A, growing tired of his wife, and coveting B's, secures a legal separation from her. In an incredibly short space of time the bond that unites the B's is probably broken and another marriage takes place; possibly two marriages take place. The thing is almost like the children's game of stagecoach, in which seats are changed with headlong haste. The evident prearrangement is shocking and awakens disgust.

This changing partners is still regarded in some conservative states of our union, notably in the south, as disgraceful, unless it be for a cause which in itself dissolves true marriage. In some of the older northern states and in some states of the newer west almost any flimsy excuse suffices to separate those who have been united by the sanction of the law and the church. Marriage is regarded by the church, or speaking strictly, by the Roman church and the Protestant Episcopal communion, as a sacrament. For the protection of society and the safeguarding of the home, it were well if this view were more generally taken. It is not very many years since it would hardly have been possible for decent people to air their quarrels and grievances in the public eye without shame and without reserve, as too frequently is now done. Nor is it very long since a slight stigma, a shadow, if not a stain, inhered in the very thought of divorce, so that respectable people shrank from it with horror and preferred to endure almost any suffering rather than have recourse to so heroic a remedy.

The worst feature of divorce is that it strikes a desperate blow at the integrity of the family. Historically speaking, the family came before the community, before the state, and before the nation. However prosperous a nation may seem to be, it cannot rise higher than the highest water-mark of its home life, nor can it be stable nor have its prosperity assured if there are rottenness and degeneracy in its homes. Divorce strikes a cruel blow at the happiness of childhood, and inflicts an unmerited reproach upon little ones who were called into the world by fathers and mothers whose self-will no longer permits them to live together in peace.

No dispassionate observer can help an extreme sorrow for children who are thus worse than orphaned in the morning of their days.

Sometimes the public is shown the spectacle of parents at strife, one or the other fighting fiercely for the possession of the offspring of both. Whichever gains the day, the father or the mother, the children have thrust upon them far too early the grief and pain which belongs only to maturity. Sensitive children suffer acutely in such circumstances. They are shamed in their own sight and in the eyes of their world of the schoolroom and the playground. Pending the decision of a stubbornly contested divorce case children are sometimes tossed about like balls in the hand of a mocking destiny, from one makeshift of a home to another, spending six months with a mother, then leaving her to pass six months with a father, both of whom adore the children, while they hate each other and are at deadly feud. No better hot-bed for the growth of everything inimical to good morals and good manners can be found than this. It stunts the good and forces the evil to rapid growth.

A curious obscurity must come over the mental vision of a father who desires to snatch his children from the mother who bore them, and a strange aberration of reason has seized the mother who would teach her children that their father is their worst enemy. No one can deny that causes exist which render legal separation a mournful necessity. Among these, infidelity, desertion, nonsupport and drunkenness must, of course, be included, and to these some thoughtful people add incompatibility of temper. In the later case it is often discovered that the incompatibility is superficial and not vital, and that it could be overcome by patience and self-control on either side. In too many instances the gist of the matter is that the infelicities of marriage spring from idleness, love of display and self-indulgence. A hard-working woman, with a more or less inebriated husband and a house full of children, once said to me: "Poor people do not go into the divorce court. They pick up their load and carry it on the best way they can. Somehow they know it will all come right at the end of the day."

The rich and the idle among women and men in this country are largely the ones who are bringing the stain of easy divorce upon the republic. It is the woman with several homes in which she does not live, haunting Europe instead, and the society man who is an idler from choice, who are most to blame. These people have grand weddings, marry with a great flourish of trumpets, and soon find the conditions of life intolerable. The next step is to establish a residence apart and through legal technicalities obtain a divorce. Next in hot haste, the wedding bells are run again. If a child has been born the trail of its misfortune seems nothing to its selfish parents.

We need not be too pessimistic. A house divided against itself is a house built on a quicksand. The ultimate good sense of the nation makes for righteousness. The nation is composed of units. The individual who scorns the right and chooses the wrong is less influential than his neighbor who stands firmly for loyalty, good faith and pure living. The nations as a nation abhors whatever mitigates against the stability of marriage and the security of home life. Our strength is in the unobtrusive, comfortable and contented home. In city and country the plain home is the bulwark of the nation. Thousands of people who never gave it a name, are living the simple life, which is also the hallowed and beautiful life. Until truth and honor are lost, and graft and corruption take their place, divorce will remain exceptional. Nevertheless, a toning up of public sentiment is needed, and if practicable, some uniformity of legal enactment should be sought for the salvation of the American home and the protection of our good name and fame.


Margaret Sangster penned her editorial in an era when divorce rates were one-third of what they are today. In the century since she wrote, social scientists began to quantify the economic and social cost of divorce in America. In fiscal year 2000 the federal government spent $150 billion on aid to single-parent households, many of which are the result of a divorce. Single mothers are also far more likely to face poverty than are intact families; by one estimate up to 60 percent of all families below the poverty line consist of divorced mothers raising children.

The trauma of divorce severely impacts children. Young children experiencing divorce generally have more problems in school and are more likely to have legal trouble; they are also more likely to divorce after marrying. A 1997 study found that even adult children of divorcing parents go through a painful grieving process, despite the fact that they no longer live with their parents. A 1994 analysis of previous studies found that children in single-parent homes are from 60 to 120 percent more likely to drop out of high school; they also exhibit higher rates of asthma, speech difficulties, and general susceptibility to illness.

Alarmed at these and other discouraging findings, government, social service, and religious organizations have launched efforts to improve marriages and reduce the divorce rate. Proposals include ending no-fault divorce laws or requiring marriage counseling before a divorce is granted. Clergy in some U.S. cities have agreed that they will not perform wedding ceremonies for couples who have not completed a mandatory course of pre-marriage training. Both liberal and conservative politicians have endorsed efforts to strengthen families, giving the issue potential traction in Washington, D.C. As of 2006 divorce rates are holding steady or declining slightly.

Despite high divorce rates, marriage remains popular, even among the previously married, and second, third, and even fourth marriages are not uncommon. While those considering first-time marriage are frequently told they face a 50 percent chance of divorce, this statistic is somewhat skewed by serial divorcees. Further, a 2004 study funded by Rutgers University's National Marriage Project found that choices such as delaying pregnancy and childbirth until after marriage, completing some college courses, marrying after age twenty-five, and having a steady income each produced double-digit declines in projected divorce rates, making the actual chance of success for most couples much higher.



Burns, Alisa, and Cathy Scott. Mother-Headed Families and Why They Have Increased. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994.

Emery, Robert E. Marriage, Divorce, and Children's Adjustment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1989.

Stanton, Glenn T. Why Marriage Matters: Reasons to Believe in Marriage in Post-Modern Society. Colorado Spring, CO: Pinon Press, 1997.


Aquilino, William S. "Later Life Parental Divorce and Widowhood: Impact on Young Parents' Assessment of Parent-Child Relations." Journal of Marriage and the Family 56 (1994): 908-922.

Ruggles, Steven. "The Rise of Divorce and Separation in the United States, 1880–1990." Demography. 34 (1997): 444-466.

Smith, Jack C., et al. "Marital Status and the Risk of Suicide." American Journal of Public Health 78 (1988): 78-80.

Web sites

Ohio State University. "Family Life." 〈http://hec.osu.edu/famlife/family/index.htm〉 (accessed June 18, 2006).

University of California, Los Angeles. "Divorce Research Homepage." 2001 〈http://jeffwood.bol.ucla.edu/〉 (accessed June 18, 2006).

University of Tennessee College of Law. "Tennessee Family Law/Divorce Guide." June, 2003 〈http://www.law.utk.edu/library/divo2.htm〉 (accessed June 18, 2006).