The world first took note of Barbara Dafoe Whitehead when she published her provocative article "Dan Quayle Was Right" in the Atlantic Monthly in 1993. The piece did more than defend the former vice president's so-called Murphy Brown Speech, which criticized popular culture's idealization of the self-sufficient single parent; it reoriented the public discussion on family, divorce, and out-of-wedlock births. It also set the stage for Whitehead's recent book, The Divorce Culture (Knopf). A Catholic and mother of three, Whitehead holds a Ph.D. in American social history from the University of Chicago and lives with her husband in Amherst, Massachusetts. She talked with Christianity Today's Kevin D. Miller.

In your book you speak of "expressive divorce." What do you mean by that?
While divorce is hardly new, the idea that it carries positive psychological benefits is. "Expressive divorce" is the notion that divorce is an instrument for self-development, self-actualization, self-expression—that it is a way to be a new and better me. It also carries with it a kind of ethical imperative. That is, one is obligated to pursue divorce if it seems to promise greater personal happiness, and that obligation comes before other obligations in the marital commitment.

And there has been another change. The sense that adults are emotionally resourceful and resilient and, therefore, have the responsibility to protect children from loss has given way to the idea that adults are emotionally vulnerable and weak and that children need to do the best they can to survive the losses. This dramatic conceptual shift occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s and was part of what I call the psychological revolution. That revolution changed the definition of marriage from adults devoted to promoting the well-being of other family members—particularly the children—to promoting one's own opportunities for happiness. During that period we saw the divorce rate almost triple.

What did you find in reviewing the research on divorce?
First of all, the research shows that high and unremitting conflict in families is always bad for kids—even if the parents are married. So parents have an obligation to their children to maintain high-quality marriages. But it also shows that children on average do better emotionally in two-parent families than do children in divorced-parent families. This is not to say that single parents can't create a warm, nurturing environment for kids. But as a generalization based on hard social-scientific evidence, kids tend to do better when they have the experience of both parents living together in a marriage.

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For example, one of the long-lasting results of divorce is the damage it inflicts on the father-child bond. For daughters, the effect is a loss of the first man that ever loved them responsibly, reliably. Very often the divorce leaves girls confused about the differences between love and sex, which leads to out-of-wedlock births. Divorce leaves sons without a model of responsible men, maleness, and male behavior. I am a member of a governor's commission that's trying to figure out how to reconnect fathers with their children, but I have to say that in a society that loses all sense of direction about marriage, it's very difficult—if not impossible—to put it all back together again outside of marriage. It's a telling statistic that 70 percent of all juveniles in state reform institutions come out of fatherless homes.

How did the psychological revolution make divorce more acceptable culturally?
I think there were three questionable assumptions. One was that single mothers could provide the necessary economic resources to raise the kids on their own. That idea arose in the 1960s and 1970s from a great deal of optimism about the expanding opportunities for women in education and employment. Feminists also played a big part championing an excessively optimistic view that all that it took was a paycheck—men as breadwinners were not required. Well, we know now that women on average suffer such great economic losses and disadvantages in a divorce that most aren't able to earn enough by themselves to provide for their children.

A second assumption was that children could be just as happy—even better off—in single-parent families. Initial ideologically driven studies backed up this idea. But 30 years of hard-won research overwhelmingly shows that, on average, children in two-parent families do better according to economic, emotional, and other life-course measures, such as their ability to form loyal marriages.

The third assumption was based on the American commitment to pluralism. Just as we're a pluralistic society, the argument ran, we should be pluralistic in our family forms. That translated into a view that family diversity is great and that all family forms are equally beneficial to children. Now we know from the research and from failed experiences in trying to live out this assumption that it is deeply flawed.

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It has been four years since your Atlantic Monthly article "Dan Quayle Was Right" was published. Have you observed a change in attitudes since then?
Yes. For example, a recent Time article reports that 61 percent of all Americans say divorce for couples with young children should be harder to obtain than it currently is. To me, that means that people now understand divorce carries big consequences for kids.

There's also a greater awareness among policymakers of the costs and damages of out-of-wedlock childbearing and divorce, both of which are associated with weakening marriages. There is a new interest in fatherhood, and politicians are worried about a small but growing trend among educated white women—real-life Murphy Browns—to bear children out of wedlock. They find this troubling because those women are part of the elite culture that sets the trends.

Why do you think our society has tiptoed around the issue of divorce?
For one, the debate about divorce and family structure has largely been geared toward baby boomers, many of whom have been divorced. As I've talked to people about my book, I've found young adults are very different from baby boomers. Boomers say, "How dare you criticize my divorce when you don't understand the pain of my decision! You don't understand the reasons I had to do it." By contrast, young adults respond the way high school seniors responded in a recent survey. They said they hoped to get married but also believed divorce was in the cards for them. These kids have high aspirations for marriage but equally high expectations that it will end in divorce.

I think many baby boomers are hostile to what I say because they can't get beyond their own personal experience. Sometimes I ask them, "Do we not have an obligation, no matter what our own experience has been, to help young people, who have a much greater risk of divorce than we did, to try to have lasting marriages?" Then they calm down and agree. But when I ask them, "And what do we have to say to them?"—nobody knows what to say.

You are critical of the divorce culture, yet you oppose abolishing a no-fault divorce option. Why?
I'm in favor of other forms of divorce-law reform; I think that the law in Louisiana offering "covenant marriages" is an interesting public-policy experiment because it has to do with marital commitment rather than grounds for divorce. But I think that to see the law as the answer to divorce and the way to strengthen marriage is probably to take the weakest tool that we have and make it the only tool. This approach places the heart of the problem in the public-policy arena, while I am convinced it lies in the cultural and religious arena.

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Also, historically divorce law has often had perverse consequences. I am critical of efforts to go at it from the back end—when people are on the threshold of divorce to suddenly encourage them to establish fault ground, which often escalates the conflict and inevitably spills over on the kids, who become pawns.

So what do you think can pull us out of this habit of divorce?
A change of heart and mind. A lot of people are cynical about that, but I'm not. Real change will only come when we deal with the religious, ethical core of the problem. We have debates about the morality of assisted suicide, yet there really isn't a well-developed debate within institutions that can give us answers to the ethical and moral dimensions of family breakup. And of course, one of the key places where this conversation about marriage needs to be carried out is in the churches.

How have churches responded to our divorce culture?
In many ways churches have followed the divorce culture. They have not been countercultural but have accepted the secular assumptions. This shows up in the preaching, in the religious education, and in the places churches put their effort. There is a feeling among clergy that to speak frankly about marriage is to be judgmental and unsupportive of all the people sitting in the pews who are divorced. This means those who have the most to say about the commitments of marriage are keeping silent.

After I spoke to a mainly evangelical audience, a woman came up to me and said, "I'm a Baptist and I go to church. My husband left our marriage because he met someone he liked better, and she left her marriage because she liked my husband. My husband married this woman, and they broke up two marriages involving five children. And now they go to my church. They sit in a certain pew at church, and I sit there, too, next to my kids. And my church doesn't have anything to say about the right or wrong of their actions."

She wasn't asking for the pastor to thunder condemnation from the pulpit. But she wondered why it wasn't possible for her own church to address the moral dimension of breaking up marriages and ignoring the first spouse and the children. Theologically and practically, what have our churches to say about decisions and behaviors that affect children and other spouses? By not talking about it, the church sanctions it.

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This is beyond the secular discussion of research evidence; that's settled. What remains unaddressed and underdeveloped has to do exactly not with divorce but with marriage and what it means. That's my challenge to the church.

Practically speaking, how do you think the church could do better?
This may sound like a small thing, but I am critical of the current fashion of editing marriage vows. Americans like to lop off the second half of the vows, but there is good reason why they read, "For better, for worse; in sickness and in health; till death do us part." Churches should use the traditional vows as an opportunity to prompt young couples to reflect on the meaning behind their commitment.

And what is that meaning?
The commitment to maintain the promise in the midst of great difficulty as well as in the midst of great rewards and happiness. Really, it's a fundamental sense that you are now more than yourself, that you are now part of another and at one with another and joining together with that other.

Viewed in this light, the notion of egalitarianism and of a 50-50 marriage is very much contrary to the notion of joining together as one. That view models marriage after our political institutions so that we evaluate our marriages on the basis of what it does for us and what rights it confers on us rather than on a moral basis of responsibility and obligation.

We also need more reflection on the procreative part of marriage—that one enters this union not exclusively because you're in love but because this is a union dedicated to the bearing and raising of children. That's one of the primary, even if not exclusive, purposes of marriage. Therefore, if the marriage is blessed with children, you are now making a commitment to those children. This is a lost idea of marriage.

In spite of my criticism of the church's response, let me add that one of the things that gives me hope are churches and church-based movements that are commissioning lay leadership to strengthen families. I hope that faith communities will continue to take this kind of initiative. That is where the change of heart and mind in our society will begin.

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