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The "Walkaway Wife" Syndrome

From the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Wednesday November 29, 1995
by Paul Akers, Editorial Writer for the Scripts Howard News Service

Picture the contemporary American family as a silent movie. Is there any doubt who would play the villain, instantly invoking boos and hisses from the audience, and perhaps a fusillade of popcorn? The answer is as plain as a waxy mustache, sinisterly twirled: The Man.

Like the devil, the man takes many guises. In the inner city, especially, he is an incubus, impregnating poor women and leaving them to their fate as he seeks his next conquest. Among the monied class, he shifts shapes to hunter, dumping his loyal partner of many years for a Playmate-class trophy wife. And whether ragpicker or Rockefeller, he is apt to materialize as the Deadbeat Dad, refusing to give his kids the financial support to which they are legally and morally entitled.

Surely this fiend has a lot for which to answer. The best research shows that children from father-absent homes, regardless of economic class, are more likely to suffer emotional maladjustment, flunk school, break the law.

The scoundrel's son may well become violent felons: A 1987 study found that 72 percent of young killers grew up fatherless. His daughters are at risk for early pregnancy and venereal diseases. If Betty Crocker wrote a recipe for a miserable life, this would be it.

But in our zeal to pelt the screen with snack food when the wicked man appears, we are overlooking a remarkable fact: Whatever holds true in the ghetto and among country-clubbers, in the middle class it is the female who most often initiates family breakup, and indirectly performs "father-ectomies", by the simple mechanism of filling for divorce.

Let us continue to hoot the Deadbeat Dad, while reserving a small Bronx cheer and a few kernels of social condemnation for the Walkaway Wife.

How prevalent is the phenomenon? In 1988, according to the Monthly Vital Statistics Report, 65 percent of all divorces involving children were wife-petitioned. Surveying 350 divorced men in Texas from 1988-1989, the Washington-based Children's Rights Council found that their wifes had filed for divorce in 75 percent of the cases.

David Blankenhorn, author of "Fatherless America", says that women begin at least 60 percent of divorces - a historical flipflop.

Granted, many female filers have sound reasons to hit the marital silk. Their husbands may be philanderers, dope addicts, batterers. In some cases, abandoned wifes are simply formalizing a defunct marriage. Even so, says Blankenhorn, something else is sending middle-class women to the divorce lawyer, namely "a revolution in thinking about what it means to be married".

Paradoxically, he says, most modern wives say they are getting a better deal from their husband than their mother got from their father. There is more gender flexibility, more shared custody care. "But a lot of them also are saying, `I'm just not getting what I need.' "

Blankenhorn likens the sexes' disparate criteria for a good marriage to house-shopping. Men, usually more "rule-governed", are satisfied to see a house that has a roof, four walls, a den and other features it is "supposed" to have. Women, however, are wont to ask themselves: Will I feel at home here? Does this place reflect who I am?

"Similarly", Blankenhorn says, "men think, `I should be married.' But women are much more `interior.' Their needs are for affection, conversation and sexual intimacy. Typically in counseling, women will say they're experiencing emotional death. Men will say that they didn't know anything was wrong."

That the wages of doltishness is divorce is confirmed by Michele Weiner-Davis, an Illinois marital therapist and the author of "Divorce Busting." Early in a marriage, she ways, a woman often will pursue her husband fro "more intimacy, more time, closer connection." If he withholds them, she may begin to carp about his personal habits. If her emotional famine persists, she often will take the final, cataclysmic step: planning to exit the marriage.

Weiner-Davis claims an 85 percent salvage rate for sinking marriages. But wives who deliberately decide to call it quits are almost counseling-proof. "It's sad," she says. "For the first time she really has his attention. He's desperate to work on the marriage. But in the vast majority of cases, she's long past being open to any reconciliation."

Further evidence that unhappy wives are increasingly divorce-minded comes in a 1995 study of 589 couples published in the American Journal of Family Therapy. Women, as it turns out, are more prone to make plans about divorce and discuss them with friends. Certainly in a country that leads the world in marital failures, there are plenty of these divorce "coaches," who may seek to assuage their own breakup guilt by adding to their ranks.

Psychologist John Guidubaldi of the U.S. Presidential Commission on Child Family Welfare detects a "contagion" factor at work between actual and potential divorcees.

But greater social acceptance isn't the only reason divorce is enticing so many women. State Laws and judicial customs buffer women from of the pain of a split.

Divorcing mothers stand roughly a 90-percent chance of winning real custody of the children, thus child support. As a rule, ex-wifes receive half the marital property. Many get spousal support. No one suggests that mothers be forced to trudge out into the snow, babes in arms. But if we judge family collapse to be a societal crisis, our laws should not sweeten the divorce pot too much for either gender.

"A lot of women get bored in their marriages," say Guidubaldi, "If they can forecast all these benefits, why stay married?"

But divorce hurts everyone. Fathers lose disposable income and routine contact with their children. (Q: Except in wartime, when else have loving fathers been legally torn from their own offspring? A: During slave auctions before black emancipation.) Women, too, become poorer and seldom meet Mr. Right. "By leaving instead of working on the marriage," notes Weiner-Davis, "a woman sets herself up for a repeat experience." And the havoc divorce wreaks on kids is axiomatic.

Divorce upends the worlds of perhaps a million U.S. children each year. Yet surely many of the rubbled marriages producing these family-disaster waifs are rescuable. Before granting divorces, states should mandate pro-family counseling that teaches men and women how to talk to each other. Also, the concept of "fault" should be introduced into divorce law. Then any spouse who unilaterally abrogated the marital contract without just cause -- ennui and a yen to self-actualize wouldn't count -- could expect little favor from the court.

"It's socially risky when marriages depend on a day-to-day temperature-taking of 'Am I happy in this relationship?' " observes Blankenhorn. "In a high-divorce society, we need to look at both male and female behaviors that contribute toward divorce."

We won't do that as long as, (we are) preoccupied with with jeering the Deadbeat Dad, we allow the Walkaway Wife to walk off into the sunset.

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