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Urban Rhythms

Let's Stay Together

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 2/13/2002

When Michael and Juanita Jordan filed for divorce on Jan. 4, everyone seemed to have an informed opinion about what had happened to their marriage.

People voiced those opinions in barbershops and beauty parlors, on gossip shows and on sports radio. So many folks seemed to know so much about it that I began to wonder whether the Jordan marriage, intimate details and all, was being broadcast for mass consumption on cable (sponsored, of course, by Nike). People even got into heated arguments, as if they could analyze and debate Jordan's household moves the way they analyze and debate his game.

But a month later, when the Jordans withdrew their filing and announced they would try to work things out, those same know-it-alls were stricken into stunned silence, as if Michael and Juanita had proposed to do something so bizarre, so alien, that folks were left speechless. Instead of arguments you got helpless shrugs. Instead of theories, people could only shake their heads in bewilderment.

Bill and Hilary Clinton elicit a similar reaction. Most people would have applauded if Hilary, in the wake of Bill's flamboyant philandering, had kicked the former president to the curb. But her decision to stand by her (no-good) man remains inexplicable, as impossible to decipher as the mystery of who really killed JFK. Is Hilary demented? Is she stupid? Is she afflicted by some flaw in her character that runs so deep that she is unable to do what any "normal" woman would have done, which is to go upside Bill's head? The entire nation is at a loss.

If I were still a romantic, I'd assume that Jordan and Clinton got their mojo--which all men like to believe they have--working and turned their ladies' heads with sweet talk. I suspect, however, that the Jordans and the Clintons are high-profile examples of a slow, quiet turnaround in the way we look at marriage. Our grandparents and parents used to say they stayed together for the kids, but we thought we knew better. Now, slowly but surely, we're returning to an old-school way of thinking.

Frankly, I kind of envy Mike and Bill, because I made a different choice. I got divorced about 10 years ago, when my sons were 10 and 6 years old. It was what you might call an "amicable divorce," which means that instead of spilling gallons of blood on the floor, we only spilled quarts. We share joint custody. And we manage to work in concert where the kids are concerned. Moreover, I've enjoyed friendships over the past 10 years that I cannot bring myself to regret.

Yet I still cannot help but wonder sometimes whether my ex-wife and I made a good decision. When we split, the prevailing rhetoric held that children were best served in a happy home, even if that home was a fractured one. Subsequent research argues differently.

According to Father Facts, a publication of the National Fatherhood Initiative, the National Center for Health Statistics has found that children in single-parent homes "are at a dramatically greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, suicide, poor educational performance, teen pregnancy, and criminality." The Journal of Family Psychology reported in 1993 that even after controlling for variations in parents' education, race, and other factors, "18-to-22-year-olds from disrupted families were twice as likely to have poor relationships with their mothers and fathers, to show high levels of emotional distress or problem behavior, [and] to have received psychological help," according to Father Facts. And in a 1990 report, the Charles F. Kettering Foundation found that kids from low-income two-parent families do better academically than those in high-income single-parent homes. Almost twice as many high achievers come from two-parent homes as one-parent homes.

So how do you think all that stuff makes me feel?

The tidal wave of divorce is slowly ebbing. The nation's divorce rate in 2000 was about 41 percent per capita, down from 50 percent in the mid-1970s. The rate has been declining since 1981. And even though it once seemed to me that everybody was either divorced or getting divorced, in truth people like me make up the minority. According to Divorce magazine, 56 percent of all adults were married and living with their spouses in 2000. Thirty-five percent had never been married. Only 10 percent were divorced.

I read just the other day that married couples experience about the same amount of conflict in their unions as couples that divorce. Those who succeed are the ones who don't let those conflicts tear them apart.

So perhaps it's not so shocking that Michael and Juanita and Bill and Hilary have decided to stay together through thick and thin. Maybe they're doing it for the children. Maybe they weighed the economics and decided it's cheaper to keep her and him. Whatever the rationale, sticking together appears to be the thoroughly modern thing to do.

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