The Divorce Explosion
“DIVORCE JEWELRY.” That unusual headline appeared recently in a popular women’s magazine. The article urged: “So your marriage has exploded and you’re feeling burned. Why not melt down those memories still cluttering your jewelry box.” For a fee a local jeweler lets divorced people turn his blowtorch onto their engagement and wedding rings. He then molds their trinkets into shapes that won’t remind them of their failed marriages.
These days, marriage, like pens, plates, diapers, and razors, seems to be more popular in disposable form. ‘When you tire of it, just junk it’—so goes the prevailing attitude.
“Marriage as such doesn’t exist any more,” said Lorenz Wachinger, a popular author, psychologist, and therapist in Munich, Germany. An overstatement? Perhaps; but it is not hard to see why he might feel that way. According to the newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung, some 130,000 marriages break up in Germany every year. But divorce is hardly unique to Germany.
A Global Phenomenon
A similar trend is emerging in countries all over the world. The United States, for example, might well be called the divorce capital of the world. The annual divorce rate is over 1,160,000, or nearly half the number of weddings. That works out to over two divorces every minute of every day!
When viewed against the broad backdrop of history, these numbers amount to a divorce explosion. Just a century ago, there was only 1 divorce for every 18 marriages in the United States. Except for a sudden surge after World War II, the rate increased only gradually until the 1960’s. Then, in just 25 years, it tripled!
In the mid-1980’s (the most recent years for which reliable statistics are available), countries around the world saw such peaks in divorce rates as these: Soviet Union, 940,000 a year; Japan, 178,000; United Kingdom, 159,000; France, 107,000; Canada, 61,000; Australia, 43,000. Even in places where religion and laws have kept the divorce rate low, the winds of change are blowing. For instance, in Hong Kong there is still only 1 divorce for every 17 marriages; but the number of divorces there doubled between 1981 and 1987. India Today magazine reported that the stigma attached to divorce is fading among India’s middle class. New courts have been created in various Indian states to cope with an increase in divorce cases of from 100 percent to 328 percent in a single decade.
Of course, statistics cannot begin to convey the heartbreak behind these vast numbers. Sadly, divorce touches nearly all of us simply because marriage is universal. Likely, either we are married or we are the product of married parents, or we are close to married people. So even if divorce hasn’t hurt us yet, the threat of it may still alarm us.
What is behind all these divorces? Political changes may be part of the answer. In many countries the walls of State prohibition against divorce—long supported by influential religious groups—have collapsed in recent years. For instance, in the 1980’s, Argentina declared unconstitutional a law that allowed no legal divorce. Spain and Italy likewise instituted legal divorce. But such changes in law are not always accompanied by a leap in divorce rates.
So something much deeper than the legal system must be at work behind the global divorce epidemic. Author Joseph Epstein touched on it when he wrote that not long ago, “to have been divorced was to have had legally certified, as it were, one’s own lack of character.” But today, he writes, “in some circles, not to have gone through a divorce seems more exceptional than having gone through one; here living out one’s days within the confines of a single marriage might even be thought to show an insufficiency of imagination.”—Divorced in America.
In other words, the fundamental attitudes that people hold toward marriage have changed. Respect and reverence for an institution long held sacred is eroding. So around the world, divorce is becoming more acceptable. Why? What could make people accept something that was once widely frowned upon? Could it be that divorce is not so bad after all?