That the '70s became the Divorcing Decade was confirmed, in my mind at least, the other day when the Census Bureau's statistics came across my desk. The stats bring plenty of worry clouds to the horizon. Beneath the large and serious concerns, however, peeks the sunlight of some opportunities and challenges, because the social change of the past 15 years has opened the door for couples in the '80s to redefine the meaning of partnership.
Black couples appear to be particularly in need of such redefinition. Census figures show that divorce now hits black couples harder than any other group. Ten years ago, one out of 10 black marriages broke up. By 1980 the rate had more than doubled so that now one out of every four black marriages ends in divorce. In addition, unlike divorced men, most of these divorced women do not remarry.
One divorcee I know described her experience: "The warm, close-knit family I was raised in taught me to believe in marriage and family, so I tried to do what I had seen my mother do." She quit college to marry at 17, gave birth to a daughter, worked as a typist and also as "maid, cook, cleaner, laundry woman, and everything else" inside her home. "I thought all of those duties were expected of me because I had seen my mother do them."
Her husband, who had temporarily abandoned his studies and was working at various minimum-wage jobs, "loved it," she said. Realizing that education was essential, however, she returned to college and, at first, her husband supported her wholeheartedly. But as she advanced in college, gaining in self-confidence and worldliness, he seemed to fall behind her intellectually. That's when their problems began to grow.
"My husband's ego couldn't deal with that. . . . Once, one of his friends saw him coming down the stairs with a load of laundry in his arms and said, 'See, man, I knew you made a mistake when you sent your wife to law school.' He exploded."
Despite $50-an-hour marriage counseling, their marriage ended in divorce.
The high divorce rate has made female-headed households one of the biggest demographic stories of the '70s. Among blacks, some 40 percent of the households are now headed by a woman. Too many of the children in these households face some hardship as a result because, over all, 80 percent of the women in the American work force are concentrated in dead-end, low-paying jobs and make 60 cents to every dollar made by men.
Many women just don't have the energy to be breadwinner, family guidance counselor, father and mother. As a result, these children are more vulnerable to all the pitfalls of an unsupervised childhood.
Feminist Betty Friedan has been questioning the feminist movement she helped start and argues that the new cause should be the family. Black women, who never adopted feminism's antipathy to family-oriented values, won't have the same trouble some feminists might in moving in that direction.
But this will require working out some of the alienation between men and women that the last decade has produced. Friedan says many women have denied part of their personhood by working so hard at careers so as not to be trapped in the same way they perceived their mothers to be. Few women -- for that matter, just as few men, too -- are superhuman enough to be able to both run their homes and families and exercise power in their profession.
The answer is to put men back into the picture of female self-fulfillment and learn to work with them on an equal footing. In working out the alienation, black men, who smart over a perception that white men prefer to hire black women, should redirect that negative energy into a drive to succeed in today's tough economy. Bitterness is a luxury they cannot afford.
At the same time, women who are contemptuous of black men who cry the blues and say they can't deal with racism are going to have to become more sensitive to the impact their successes are having on the male ego if they want to have meaningful relationships.
The contributing factors to the high divorce rate are obviously complex. But the solutions are basically simple: understanding and patience. And, when you come right down to it, that's always been the key to good relationships, hasn't it?