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Divorce is a painful and private unraveling for families and a sea of change for society. For parents and children, divorce publicly marks the unfolding of a long and difficult struggle; it is also the beginning of redefining family relationships, a renegotiation that may take as long and be every bit as painful as the coming apart. The United States likes to lead the world—and it does when it comes to divorce, having the highest rate per capita in the industrialized world. Yet, divorce is not just an American problem.

Divorce rates have skyrocketed throughout the developed and developing world, notably in northern Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but also, if less so, in southern Europe and industrialized Asia, including South Korea and Japan, and increasingly in China and even socially conservative India, which historically has had one of the lowest rates of divorce in the world. Only two countries do not have a legal procedure for granting divorce, the Philippines and Vatican City. While the worldwide increase in divorce defies simple explanation, key influences include industrialization, changing roles for women in work and family life, and the rise of the individual versus the family as the basic unit of complex economies.

Thus, the story of the causes—and consequences—of divorce includes economic change often upheaval , a redefinition of gender roles, and a rising tide of individualism over collectivism. To be sure, these broad social forces are tempered by tradition and culture, yet they have not and cannot be fully resisted, despite fervent efforts to do so in some parts of the world, notably traditional Muslim societies.

Culture influences divorce, its acceptability, and its consequences, and as such divorce offers a fascinating window into cultural assumptions and traditions about families, love, power, appropriate roles for men and women, and the value of children. Hollywood divorce epitomizes the consumerist, throw-away-marriage view found in the West, notably the disposable marriages of Kim Kardashian to Kris Humphries in , lasting 72 days and Brittany Spears to Jason Alexander in , lasting two days, reportedly the shortest marriage in history. Such superficiality masks the emotional, interpersonal, and legal turmoil of marital dissolution in the United States and elsewhere, yet Hollywood divorce both reflects and creates a devaluing of marriage, commitment, and family.

Contrast American starter marriages with the shame that accompanies divorce in the east. Divorce carries enormous social stigma in India, for example, particularly for women.


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An Indian woman who divorces is shamed for failing to live up to the principle of pativratya complete devotion and sacrifice to her husband irrespective of the reasons for divorce such as abuse of her. The causes and consequences of divorce are both complex and entangled. For example, low income is both a contributor to and an outcome of divorce.

In the United States, lower-income families are more likely to divorce than their higher-income counterparts, and increasingly, low-income individuals in the United States are less likely to marry at all and instead cohabit outside of marriage or remain single. With the exception of the very wealthy, a decline in living standards is also an inevitable consequence, not just a cause, of divorce. Often overlooked, the obvious key to this inevitability is lost economies of scale, especially for families with children. Simple calculations, based on U.

Labor Department estimates of the cost of living, demonstrate that a family of four living at the poverty level needs about 30 percent more income to maintain the same standard of living if they move from a single household into separate three- and one-person households. Other evidence shows that women bear a disproportionate share of financial hardship, even after accounting for income transfers including child support and spousal support alimony.


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This is due both to general differences in earnings between women and men as well as to the added real costs and lost opportunity costs associated with raising children. The substantial majority of children still live primarily with their mothers following divorce. Like income, conflict is both a cause and a consequence of divorce.

Marital strife obviously contributes to divorce, although, perhaps surprisingly, many divorces, at least in the West, are not preceded by notable conflict. In the second half of the 20th century, divorce became more acceptable socially and legally, hinged largely on the assumption that a separation would end children's exposure to family conflict, an experience that is both distressing and potentially destructive.

Yet, ironically, not only are many marriages relatively free of conflict prior to dissolution, but a marital separation may also be the beginning, not the end, of intense child-focused disputes between former partners who remain parents.

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And evidence clearly indicates that parental conflict is a key contributor to the well-being of children. Children from high-conflict marriages fare better following divorce; children from relatively low-conflict marriages fare worse following divorce. How children adjust to divorce is a topic that has been widely debated both as a matter of policy and among social scientists. Even parents in the same family may do so, such that the parent who wants a divorce often sees the children as doing fine, while the parent who does not is likely to see the children as devastated by divorce.

A notable lack and future need is better documentation of cultural influences on children's adjustment to a parental divorce. It seems safe to predict that children suffer more in societies where divorce is highly stigmatized and where there are few social or economic supports for children and parents from divorced families. Of course, divorce affects the mental and social health of adults as well as children. Depression is a common consequence of divorce, particularly a period of intense grief around the time of a marital separation.

Like economic hardship and conflict, depression also is a cause as well as a consequence of divorce. Divorce also contributes to the long-term health and well-being of adults. Most dramatically, married adults live longer than their divorced counterparts. People may marry for love, at least in the West, but the legal issues involved in divorce make it clear that a marriage is about far more as was perhaps more clearly recognized historically in the United States and Europe and still is in other parts of the world.

When a marriage breaks down, former partners must legally resolve two, broad concerns: what to do about their money and their children. Financial issues involve a dividing property, b spousal support alimony , and c child support. Child-rearing matters focus on a where children will spend their time physical custody and b how parents will continue to make decisions together or separately legal custody. Again, consideration of these matters offers a window into fascinating cultural assumptions and how they are changing.

Less than two centuries ago, a man living in the United States owned both his property and his children in marriage and following divorce. Today, however, equal legal rights for women and men in divorce are becoming increasingly common. In the West, property acquired during marriage is widely viewed as jointly owned, irrespective of who earned what income or who holds legal title.

Similarly, mothers and fathers are increasingly expected to share some form of custody of their children, that is, joint custody which can include joint legal custody, joint physical custody, or both.

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Belgium and Denmark have taken the most dramatic step in this regard, embracing a standard of sharing equal parenting time following divorce. Note: Denmark repealed its law while the encyclopedia was being compiled. The legal grounds for obtaining a divorce are similarly revealing. No-fault divorce, which may be granted based on the request of one party or following a period of separation, is common in the United States and Europe.

Historically, and in many countries today, a divorce must be granted on fault grounds, such as adultery, cruelty, or desertion. A contrast to the contemporary Western embrace of gender equality, fault grounds sometimes have and still do differ for men and women. For example, some forms of adulterous behavior might be more acceptable for husbands than for wives.

As noted, divorce can be a struggle not only for individual families but for societies as well.

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For religious or political reasons, some view marriage as sacred, procreation as the main purpose of sexual union, and the family as the bedrock unit of society. Others view marriage as choice, sex as recreational, children as optional, and family diversity as a new value to be embraced. While the gulf between such viewpoints is unlikely to be soon crossed, there is consensus that divorce and non-marital childbearing place economic burdens on families and thus on institutions concerned with the well-being of children and families.

As one indicator of this, in the past a parent had died in nine out of 10 families in the United States who received social security benefits for children; among contemporary forms of welfare, both parents are alive for nine of 10 benefit recipients. Given this, it perhaps is not surprising that, in the United States at least, policies designed to reform welfare often included efforts to promote marriage. Before delving into divorce, entry after entry for many nonindustrialized countries must first set a backdrop of family that will be jarring and hopefully enlightening to many Western readers.

For example, what percentage of girls are married during their teen years? One answer: 30 percent of to year-old girls in Ethiopia are or have been married. Some other questions that you, the reader, will be confronted with as you flip through the entries from nonindustrialized countries are: How common is maternal and infant mortality?

Are marriages arranged? Is polygamy an accepted and perhaps common practice? Is acquired immune deficiency syndrome AIDS rampant? Is marital rape legal and socially accepted?