Readings for an Informed Divorce Debate.

This is the first in a series of posts I intend to prepare for this blog with regard to the divorce debate. It’s all very well for us all to pontificate and prod each other with our preconceptions but where are we coming from and more importantly what are we talking about? The other day I read a status update on facebook by someone who insisted that we should keep partisan politics out of the divorce debate. It’s already bad as it is but confusing party rhetoric with informed debate could be dangerous. This set of posts goes beyond parties and entrenched positions. In this series, J’accuse will attempt to collate information – sociological and analytical – about what surrounds a question such as divorce.

This first article, translated from French (apologies for the not so exact translation) deals with the evolution of the post-modern family from a French perspective. It would be interesting to hear how this kind analysis fits in with the Maltese reality. Is our social set-up so different from that of the French so as to say that the anaylsis is inapplicable in our island? Or have we not yet taken the time to look in this particular mirror and see what it is we are up to when setting up our domestic units? Do the same processes apply to Malta and Maltese marriages? Is the step of divorce and remarriage a necessary and missing step or not? Discuss. Civilly and responsibly if you please.

Extract from “Sociologie de la famille contemporaine”
François de Singly (Paris, 1993, Nathan, pp. 87-89 and 110-113)

The Post-Modern Family

The history of the contemporary family can be divided into two periods. Fom the 19th century to the 60s one can observe a coincidence between the institution of marriage and the focus on interpersonal relationships. Three elements form the basis of a little contested reference model: love before marriage, the strict division of labour between man and woman, and the care for the infant – it’s health and education. For half a century (1918-1968), the fact that the male would work outside to earn the family money and that the woman would stay at home to best take care of the infants was evident in most places.

Starting from the 60s, the housewife model is criticised, particularly by the female social movements – by feminism. The stability of marriages decreases and divorce by mutual consent becomes possible by the law of the 11th July 1975. Cohabitation outside marriage begins to develop. Neither the marriage institution nor the sexual roles disappear – the majority of couples in 1990 are married and live in accordance to rules of specialisation with regard to domestic tasks – they have however lost a huge part of their legitimacy. Thus, three quarters of the persons questioned on the future of two persons engaged in a stable love relationship believe that these persons should live together without getting married if they do not want any children – marriage would become a necessary option if the couple would want a child. The dissociation between conjugal life and marriage has become strong.

The logic of affection, for a long time extraneous to the family and marriage (the myth of love having been constructed against the concept of marriage of interest) has managed to pervade the marriage institution. During the first period of the contemporary family one could have believed that the fusion between these two elements would have been durable. Now the force of the requirements of affection has progressively undermined the institution. In his essay ‘L’amour et l’Occident’ (Love and the West), Denis de Rougemont had the intuition in 1939 that the love worm resided in the marriage fruit:

“If one therefore got married due to a romance, once this romance evaporates is it normal that at the first sign of conflict of characters or tastes one asks: Why am I married? It not any less natural that, obsessed by the universal propaganda for romance, one admits at the first chance of having fallen in love with someone else. It is perfectly logical that one decides just as quickly to divorce to find a new “love”, which means a new marriage, a new promise of happiness; the three words are synonymous.”

The passage from the modern family to the “post-modern” family is the result of an emphasis on a characteristic of the first period: the focus on relations. What changes in face is that relations have less value themselves than the satisfaction that they are expected to procure to each of the members of the family. Today the “happy family” is less attractive. What is important is being happy oneself. Contrary to certain utopias in 1968 or to certain feminist texts that wanted to destroy the bourgeois family and the patriarchal family, the family has not vanished in the sense that individuals believe that it constitutes one of the ideal means to be happy. The “me” (or “I”) trumps the “us” but the former does not require, the elimination of the conjugal group or of the familial group. (…)

Since the end of the 60s, individuals tend to have a conditional engagement with the family group they have created. Approximately a third of couples married in the 80s have divorced or will divorce. They do this earlier: the maximum frequency lies at four years of marriage (a length of time to which we must add the period of cohabitation with the partner). Conjugal instability during the second period of the modern family has increased, without however forcing a general turnover – as certain commentaries would like us to believe. The majority of married couples remain stable.

The devaluation of “perenniality” (pérennité)

The most important change is the relative devaluation of the idea of marriage that believes that one of the objectives of marriage is stability. For example, cohabitants do not think that marriage “protects affection ties”, “proves to the other that one really loves him/her”. The length of the couple’s relationship has no value unless the partner continues to provide the expected satisfaction. As we have seen with unmarried and graduate women, the belief in autonomy (independence) does not suppress the need to establish conjugal ties – the couple remains the main reference – it only renders unacceptable a union that could be perceived as not serving the construction of a personal identity, or one that does not serve the unification of internal contradictions. Conjugal intimacy must not be lived as a tyranny; it must, on the other hand, be the ideal place, at least in the daily private life which allows one to believe that one’s self is stripped of its social roles and has finally reached a deep zone of authenticity. Such a (reciprocal) request is difficult to fill – the analysis of the division of domestic labour has proven it. If the women would refuse certain arrangements, separations would be much more numerous since they have, for the large part, the almost exclusive responsibility of these jobs. The ideal of individual autonomy within a stable group is not simpler to put in place than the ideals of previous periods. Dissatisfaction leading to divorce could, in this perspective, have two different causes (origins):

– either the belief in the ideal of the post-modern couple is too strong; it prevents the possibility of any compromise (notably, the most common compromise in middle and superior couples is that which tolerates a double professional activity on the condition of not putting into question the hierarchy of male and female investments in the professional sphere);

– or the partner (or oneself) cannot sufficiently play the game by participating in the creation of obligatory compromises, the level of contradictions is to elevated.

In short, the modernist project seems to be strictly tied to a higher level of separation. It does not seem to be a greater disfunctionality than the traditionalist project. It is more of a general attitude – giving more rights to the individual vis-a-vis “us the family” – that which easily allows the perception of a conjugal dissatisfaction on the one hand and the transformation of the latter into divorce on the other. Divorce is contained, in a certain manner in certain unions. The intuition of Denis de Rougemont is confirmed by such differences in the rate of divorce with regards to values proclaimed many years earlier. The logic that conditions the foundation of post-modern families is the search, not of solitude, but of the satisfaction of the psychological needs of each member of the family.

D. de Rougemont, L’ammour et l’Occident, Paris 1972 (1938)

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