|Alberta Report, January 11, 1999, page 30
Look who doesn't want a divorce
New studies indicate women are first to file, but that joint
custody keeps families together
By Candis McLean
We ought to stop kidding ourselves about men," wrote Winnipeg talk show host John Collison in the National Post last month. "Whether it be biology or the legacy
of Bob Guccione [publisher of Penthouse magazine], when it comes to a troubled marriage,
the male is more ready, willing and able to bail." Mr. Collison epitomizes the
popular view that it is the man who usually breaks up a family in hot-blooded pursuit of a
"trophy wife" or casual affairs. In reality, says a wave of new research,
throughout most of North American history wives have filed for divorce twice as often as
husbands. For good or ill, the news comes just in time to reinforce Parliament's
joint Commons-Senate committee conclusion that Canada's divorce laws should no
longer assume the wife is the morally superior parent who should automatically assume
custody of the children.
The proportion of divorces initiated by women ranged around 60% for most
of the 20th century, and climbed to more than 70% in the late 1960s when no-fault divorce
was introduced: so says a just-released study by law professor Margaret Brinig of George
Mason University in Arlington, Virginia and Douglas Allen, economist at Vancouver's Simon
Fraser University. The researchers undertook one of the largest studies ever on
divorce, using 46,000 cases from the four American states that keep statistics on which
partner initiates the action. In addition to women filing twice as often, the
researchers found, they are more likely to instigate separations and marriage break ups.
The Brinig-Allen study also explodes the myth of the brutish husband,
finding, for instance, that cruelty is cited in only 6% of divorce applications in
Virginia, one of the few states that still uses fault grounds for divorce. More
women than men obtain desertion-based divorces in Virginia, but adultery cases are evenly
split between men and women.
Arizona State University psychologist Sanford Braver provides backup for
the Brinig-Allen study. In his new book, Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths, Mr.
Braver surveyed 400 divorcing couples seeking causes for the breakdown of their
marriages. He found "violence or abuse strikingly absent." Instead, less
dramatic factors prevailed, such as "growing apart" or "spouse not able or
willing to meet my needs." In Canada, adds economist Allen, where one divorce occurs
in every three marriages, the findings are similar.
Theories abound as to why it is so often women who file. Janis
Magnusson, a Calgary divorce mediator, says she frequently sees women with unreal
expectations of marriage and their partners. "Women expect a Prince Charming,
while men just want a wife, sex, food and a job," she says. One of her clients
left her husband for a younger man she found more exciting. But to her "great
chagrin," the woman discovered after five years of marriage and two children that her
new husband was a fake.
"His home was filled with easels holding half-finished
paintings," recalls the woman. "He seemed so cultured. But once we
married, I never once saw him paint a picture." Now back with her first husband
(who had also remarried and separated), the woman says, "I joke that we originally
divorced because he left wet towels on the bed. Seriously, he wasn't much
help. But did I ever say, "Could you put in a load of laundry?" No,
I was busy being the martyr. I just fumed, stomped and slammed. Now we
"I did avoid conflict," her husband admits. "I'm a
police officer and I treat words as bullets. I know you don't get them back.
However, both my wives also had unrealistic ideas. I wasn't playing the husband role
the way they perceived it in the fairy tale world. But men are different. They
don't believe in gift horses or fairy tales."
"Leslie," a Calgary psychologist, reports a similar
experience. After leaving her husband in 1976, she remarried. Then, 20 years
later, she returned to husband number one. "I had such huge expectations that
no husband could have met them," she says. "Now I have comfort, security
and companionship. But I wish I hadn't had to subject all of us to such
trouble." Leslie believes she was a product of the age: "I wanted this
perfect thing; I was very disappointed. He probably was, too, but I was the one
"In informal surveys in my classes," reports Prof. Brinig, "women
say they thought marriage and courtship were alike. Men seem to feel that when
they're married they can be themselves because they have succeeded in the
battle." She is not sure whether that means women are unrealistic, or that the
courtship ritual just means different things to each. In 25% of marriage breakdowns,
she adds, men have "no clue" there is a problem until the woman tells them they
want out. She also notes that women are more likely to file if the divorce rate is
high in their area or if their friends and families are doing it. "Where the
divorce rate is low so there's a lot of stigma attached," she says, "they won't
"The woman is more willing to take risks because she has more of an
emotional support network," asserts Calgary engineer Mahedi Meghani, dismayed that
the wives of three close friends have left in the past two years. "She feels
better equipped to cope with post-divorce trauma, while he realizes he hasn't even phoned
his sister in three years. A woman who is alone is seen to be lonely, so people
phone her. A man is supposed to look after him-self."
Some men experience an increase in material well-being
following divorce. But clinical studies suggest that thanks to
better support networks, divorced women undergo less depression than do
divorced men. Studies indicate that men tend to get more health,
sexual and economic (wage) benefits from marriage than do women,
|Alberta Report, January 11, 1999, p. 31
Spit-on-menthe new media game
explain the preponderance of divorce filed by women, some blame the media
for taking a toll on men's image over the past 40 years. Dagwood
regressed to Homer Simpson, culminating in today's advertising which often
reduces men to male bimbos. "My wife recently pointed out a
billboard that made her angry," reports Michael Brady, Acting Research
Director for Human Life International Canada, "It showed a mother, dog,
kids and a case of cola in a boat, motoring away from shore, leaving dad
behind. The slogan was, 'There is nothing more important than X
cola.' Others point to television commercials such as the Eaton's
man chained to the stove, or a woman saying, "I have two kidsthree,
counting my husband." A cosmetics company announces that its product
was "not tested on animals, except on men."
"Latent contempt for men has now given way to open hostility,"
writes Lysiane Gagnon in the September issue of EnRoute magazine.
"Imagine the reaction," she says, "if a male journalist talked about women
the way columnist Rosie DiManno talked about men recently in the Toronto Star. 'Men are from another planet, sent here by spaceships to
copulate with female earthlings and and propagate the speciesa task for
which science has rendered them all but redundant. We need keep only
a handful of donors on a sperm farm for that purpose, where they can
subsist on pizza and beer and Playboy magazine...Men think
with their ding-a-lings and screw up with their brains.'"
regardless of the quality of the marriage.
"The rights of women in society have been pushed to such an extent
that they now feel if they're not happy, it's their partner's fault," says marriage
researcher Walter Schneider, who hails from Bruderheim, 20 miles northeast of Edmonton [It's
about 50 miles from down-town Edmonton WHS]; 'That perception is heightened by
the social conditioning of men to be chivalrous. Men have to be protectors of women
and children, so they are reluctant to become involved in an adversarial process against a
woman. They're also less likely to seek divorce because that would destroy their
self-image as providers and protectors of the family. It would destroy their world;
all they've sacrificed for would go down the drain."
Mr. Schneider points to an Australian study indicating that of four
marital categories divorced persons have the highest suicide rate, with divorced males
suffering 54 deaths per 100,000 and divorced females one-third that number. By
comparison, people who had never
married had the next highest rate of suicide with 32 per 100,000 for men and one-quarter
that number for women.
Notwithstanding the new studies, the perception that men are pigs still
finds abundant anecdotal support. Marney Hollingshead of Edmonton, a 28-year-old
mother of two, says she is the classic example of a single mom who tried to maintain a
relationship with her husband, but was totally abandoned. "I've got a
maintenance order back-dated to '93, but right from the get-go he never bothered to pay
maintenance," she reports. "I've involved the police, but for years he
hasn't worked enough to file income tax, so there's not much they can do. They took
away his licence and he got one in his brother's name."
Ms. Hollingshead, who returned to university and now
commands a good salary, is repaying $17,000 in student loans. She
says the effect on her children of growing up in poverty "truly, deeply
affects them." But growing up without a father is even worse.
"My son was four when he last saw his dad," she says. "He went
from being happy and easy-going to angry and disrespectful. For
the longest time he didn't trust men. "They'll just leave anyway,"
Ms. Hollingshead doesn't believe the proposed amendments to the Divorce
Act will have much effect on a man like her husband. "I know a lot of men who
have put up with a lot of stuff to see their kids," she says. "But rather
than pay maintenance, my husband gave up his kids. What can you do unless you're
dealing with someone of character?"
But according to Professors Brinig and Allen, Ms. Hollingshead's custody
of the children may be the very reason her husband provides so little support. There
are three basic reasons people file for divorce they say: (1) to stop being exploited
within the marriage, (2) to exploit the other spouse by running off with marital
investments, or (3) to establish custody over children. They believe that
determining which of the three predominates could assist divorce law reformers.
If divorces result mostly from bad (or exploitive) marriages, the
Brinig-Allen study suggests, then divorce should be made,(or kept) easier; if divorces
result mostly from a desire to exploit the partner, then it should be made more difficult
or expensive; and if it is custody outcomes which most influence divorce filings, a
presumption of joint custody, except where one parent can demonstrate the other is unfit,
would "mitigate the incentive for one party filing for the purpose of gaining
unilateral control over the children and therefore the other spouse.'
After analyzing 21 wide-ranging variables, the Brinig-Allen study
concludes that the person who anticipates gaining custody of the children is the one most
likely to file for divorce. Therefore, Prof. Brinig speculates, if joint custody
were the norm, there would likely be fewer divorces, not more. Her conclusion
directly contradicts critics of the proposed changes to Canada's divorce laws, who argue
that if men no longer fear losing custody of their children they will have one less
incentive to stay married.
In fact, however, divorce rates are plunging in states where courts
typically award custody of children to both parents. A study headed by
Richard Kuhn of the Children's Rights Council based in
Washington, D.C., found that states with higher levels of joint custody awards in 1989 and
1990 "have shown significantly greater declines in divorces in the following years
through 1995, compared with other states." Overall divorce rates declined nearly four
times faster in high joint-custody states compared with states where joint custody is
relatively rare. A large factor, the researchers believe, is that joint custody
removes the capacity for one spouse to hurt the other by denying participation in raising
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