Tales from the front
TORONTO SUN, By MICHELE MANDEL, May 2, 2004
HOLD THE rice, the state of the union is looking pretty grim. While the gay community rushes to the altar, straight couples are beating a path to divorce court -- and they're finding that breaking up is hard to do.
Reforms to the much-maligned Divorce Act have been shelved; wives complain they aren't getting the support they're owed; husbands insist they're being bankrupted and can't see their kids and the children are the ones left to suffer most of all.
Love is a battlefield and "until death do us part" has gone the way of the bow and arrow.
Canada has one of the highest rates of divorce in the western world, ranking fifth behind world leaders the U.S., Cuba, the U.K. and France. more than one-third of all marriages in this country end in divorce.
When no-fault divorce was introduced in 1985, ending a marriage became no more difficult than cancelling your cable.
As a result, the divorce rate skyrocketed five-fold between 1968 and 1995, peaking at 96,200 marriages dissolved in 1987.
The easier divorce laws had coincided with a seismic cultural shift: The "me" generation wanted out of abusive and intolerable marriages and they weren't about to stick it out for church, children or what their neighbours might think.
But this new quest for liberation has also had an unintended side effect: It's encouraged people to abandon marriages that may have been worth saving. Many couples are slipping in and out of holy matrimony with as much thoughtfulness as a tipsy Britney Spears in Las Vegas.
And many find they are no better off after they divorce.
"We have ... seen that a sizable proportion of marriages that end in divorce were actually quite 'salvageable' and that many of these ex-spouses are no happier after," notes Dr. Anne-Marie Ambert of York University in a report for the Vanier Institute of the Family.
"One cannot but help wonder if couples who marry should not be more encouraged to face the inevitability of ups and downs in relationships, and I am not referring here to severe conflict, which after all, afflicts only about a third of divorcing couples. After 25 years of studying divorce, I have come to conclude that there are too many divorces that are useless."
Children are often the big losers. Compared to kids of parents who remain together, the York University sociologist says children of divorce are at greater risk of suffering from depression, anxiety, and other emotional disorders; exhibiting behavioural problems; becoming young offenders and doing less well in school.
As they grow older, children of divorce are at greater risk to be more often unemployed, do less well economically; have more marital problems and divorce more.
SOCIAL ILLS FOLLOW DIVORCE
Many experts believe family breakup is behind many of society's current ills, from child poverty to crime and violence. Dr. Harold Minden of York has cited research showing 70% of long-term prison inmates, 60% of rapists, and 75% of adolescents charged with murder come from broken homes.
"The cost to society of marriage breakup and the resulting emotional, social and behavioural problems in children, adolescents and their parents is in the millions of dollars," Minden has said. "And the greatest danger is that we have accepted marriage breakup as normal in our society."
As for the divorced couples themselves, many admit they are not any better off than they were during their marriage.
"A lot of people who decide on divorce don't realize how hard it is going to be and a lot of them with children don't realize how badly the children are going to take it," says Ambert. "We do need divorce for the really bad marriages, but the ones that shouldn't happen ... are a problem."
If there is one thing both sides agree about in the divorce wars, it is that the system is a mess.
The family courts are backlogged, some fathers are being ordered to pay stratospheric child support, many mothers complain that the overburdened Family Responsibility Office is ineffective in getting them the support they're owed.
Nobody, it seems, is happy with the Divorce Act, but revisions that would have changed the terms of "custody and access" to shared "parental responsibility" were even more contentious.
The bill died when Prime Minister Jean Chretien dissolved Parliament, and while new Justice Minister Irwin Cotler says he personally supports the amendments, he seems in no hurry to revive the controversial issue.
The reforms were designed to encourage a more cooperative arrangement between parents by taking out the terms custody and access, says Prof. Nicholas Bala, of Queen's University. "The concern is that the words suggest a winner-loser mentality -- one parent wins custody and the other, as a consolation prize, gets access," he says.
Noted family lawyer Phil Epstein says that instead of changing the terminology, the government should pour more money into court facilities, mediation, conciliation and parent co-ordinators.
"It's the high-conflict cases -- 10% of (all divorce) cases -- which take up 80% of the court time," he says.
Family law is the only area exempted from mandatory mediation in the civil courts because of what Epstein argues are "old-fashioned" notions that women can't hold their own and would be out-powered by their former spouses. Mediation, the lawyer contends, should be compulsory.
The other "scandal" in the divorce courts, he says, is that "in provincial courts, we're up to 80-90% being self-represented."
Legal Aid is so restrictive now that many must go to court without a lawyer, causing an incredible burden on the judges and on the system.
"These cases take twice as long and they're much more difficult to resolve."
That's because it's a "gender war zone" out there, says Bala, of Queen's.
The divide is especially wide because the emotionally charged issues of support and access have seen high-octane groups form on both sides.
If you listened to them, you'd think all divorce cases involve domestic violence or children who are being kept from their fathers, when in fact, those cases are not the majority at all.
For example, Canadian research suggests that access denial by the custodial parent is a serious problem in only 2%-5% of separations.
"In fact statistically," Bala argues, "the problem of fathers who are the so-called disappearing dads ... dad never writes, dad never phones, is a much bigger problem than fathers who are denied access."
Child custody issues remain the most difficult for the courts, Bala says.
"I've heard judges say it's easier to make a decision involving $100 million in a company than a decision involving one child," he added.