Relaxing after a workout, senior Nina Lesser-Goldsmith candidly talked over coffee in the Ivory Tower food court about an emotional tale involving a love affair, discontent and manipulation. She was not talking about the latest episode of “The O.C.” but rather a tale that many students her age can identify with – the divorce of her parents.
“I’m happy about the divorce now because I’m old enough to understand the situation better,” Lesser-Goldsmith said. “But then I was confused, I was pretty messed up. I went to therapy.”
After the divorce, Lesser-Goldsmith split her time equally between her parents. Despite the difficulties, she said she has not sworn off tying the knot but rather has decided to regard marriage in a more rational manner.
“I’ve been in a one-year relationship and I’m not scared (of marriage) but I do know that I would be really, really sure so I wouldn’t put my kids through what I experienced,” she said.
The high divorce rate of the baby-boomer generation, consisting of those Americans born in the post-WWII era from 1946 to 1964, left its mark on American society, with millions of children growing up in one-parent or step-parent households. Now in the 21st century, this generation of children is approaching adulthood and regarding marriage with caution and sometimes apprehension.
“I definitely think that a fear goes through my head when I think about marriage,” freshman Beth Lattin said. “I’d say at least half my friends at home, and especially here, have really weird family situations.”
The divorce rate in 2000 was estimated at 48.8 percent, a substantial change from 15 percent in 1970, according to the Population Resource Center.
Dr. Stephen Forssell, a GW lecturer in psychology and a divorced father, confirmed the trend.
“It is definitely possible that (the high divorce rate) has contributed to a decrease in marriage and increase in age (of getting married),” Forssell said.
Forssell said the delay and decline in marriage in contemporary society has ultimately been the result of a shift in cultural norms associated with the women’s movement and the sexual revolution.
“It changed from abstaining from sex until marriage and being married to one person your entire life to pre-marital sex being acceptable if in a committed relationship and then maybe marriage,” Forssell said. “Instead of all at once, sex and marriage come one at a time and maybe with more than one partner.”
Many students agree that the changing role of women and popular depiction of marriage have made successful matrimony more difficult in contemporary society.
“All the movie stars get married five or six times, what kind of environment does that expose us to?” Lattin said. “And then there is the double standard for women to have children and a career with the whole controversy over whether a woman should then take maternity leave.”
Even though Americans are now waiting longer to marry, the question still remains whether today’s young adults will keep the divorce rate steady. Children of divorced parents were found to be 50 percent more likely to divorce than their counterparts from intact families, according to a 1996 study by Divorce Magazine.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if (children of divorced parents), who have experienced divorce, especially a bad one, will be looking at alternatives such as co-habitation or choosing to live as a single parent,” Forssell said.
Some students said they have seen the denunciation of traditional marriage and family life among their peers from divorced families.
“I have one friend who doesn’t even date. (Her parents’ divorce) was real, real bad,” freshman Amy Fishman said.
Fishman’s example is not representative of the majority, however. Most children of divorced parents emerge relatively unscathed by the situation, Forssell said.
“In terms of children (of divorced parents), it is most important to know that kids tend to generally do okay,” Forssell said. “Divorce occurs because of conflict and conflict can cause anxiety, conduct problems, or depression. The worst time for kids is a year or two after the divorce.”
Forssell and students agree that divorce is better than a conflicted marriage in general.
“Divorce can be healthy for some people,” Lesser-Goldsmith said. “Even with what I deal with like planning graduation, (divorce) is better than living in an artificial world pretending to be happy.”
With so many marriages ending in divorce, many wonder if the future will see the elimination of the marital institution. Forssell, however, is doubtful of such a scenario.
“Marriage is an institution with a lot of cultural value and has been for a long, long time,” Forssell said. “It does change over time, but it’s never going away forever. People like pairing up, attachment, bonds – we’re social animals.”