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Just How Private Should Divorce Be?

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Your friend tells you he's getting divorced. You're shocked because he and his wife always seemed like the perfect couple. You're worried for them and their young kids, and their divorce causes you to reflect about a lot of things you've observed about marriage.

You know enough from your own parents' divorce how unhappy things can be for the kids, how emotionally and financially hard it can be for one spouse or the other, how even a "good" divorce can be fraught with complications once new loves arrive on the scene.

Beyond that, they're the third couple in your circle of friends to divorce in the past year. You start to question your own marriage -- are we next? Are we being blind to our own issues, not so different from those of our friends? Are we truly as happy and committed as we say we are, or others believe us to be?

You feel somewhat helpless but anxious: What do you do? What should you do? What can you do, if anything? Still, you know that some marriages can't -- and shouldn't -- be salvaged.

We wed in a great public display of love and commitment. Divorce, however, is a totally private and personal event. But, is it really?

Perhaps not, suggests M. Christian Green, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and a former lecturer at Harvard Divinity School.

Divorce doesn't just affect a couple and their immediate family; friends, neighbors and entire communities are impacted as well, she writes in "There But for the Grace: The Ethics of Bystanders to Divorce," an article in the Institute for American Values' newsletter, "Propositions."

Green suggests it may be wrong to view divorce as merely a personal choice with limited impacts. In looking at "the public effects of the divorce revolution, its implications for both the moral formation of individuals and the well-being of society, and what, if anything, organizations of government and civil society should do," divorce might be better seen as a decision that has far greater implications, she says. Like other so-called private actions, divorce may have "wider, sometimes unintended and unanticipated, effects on surrounding communities and the wider society," she states.

Do others who witness a divorce experience a "there but for the grace of God go I" moment? Does this witness produce bystander anxiety? Does it produce something like survivor's guilt? How does witnessing the divorce and family disruption of others affect the bystander's own worldview when it comes to normative images of marriage, family, society and self? Extending the circle of bystanders even further, what effect does the witness of divorce have on society as a whole? Has the divorce culture produced a kind of cultural trauma?

It's clear the "divorce revolution" is impacting twenty- and thirty-somethings, especially men, many who are delaying or avoiding marriage altogether.

Green cites studies that suggest divorce is somewhat contagious, not in a disease sort of way, but in its ripple effect -- one couple's divorce can influence divorce among siblings, friends, neighbors and even co-workers.

In addition to "contagion" theories, there's the "generational dimension" -- adult children of divorce tend to divorce, too.

Finally, she says, the breakup of a family may be no different than other trauma, such as war, terrorism, genocide, natural disasters and unemployment, in a child's eyes. Green suggests our current definition of cultural trauma -- although "controversial and contested" -- is broad enough to include divorce. A child of divorce may experience the same economic deprivation, relocation, shame, guilt and memories that "shape moral formation" as those who have experienced other traumas.

Ultimately, she says, all of us are impacted by divorce, even if it's not our own.

"(W)hen we bring research on divorce into conversation with rich, emerging bodies of work on social contagion and cultural trauma, we see that bystander effects, while indirect and diffuse, may be no less real or consequential, and that they beckon us to individual and collective reflection on the broader effects of the 'divorce revolution.'"

Does that mean we, as bystanders, have a right to ask more of those who may be considering divorce? Should couples think beyond their own needs and desires when they weigh the pros and cons of dissolving their family? Should bystanders have any say in a couple's divorce?

It would seem somewhat crazy to tell a friend that his divorce is not only causing you distress, but that it also may put ideas into your spouse's head, which may lead to your own divorce, thus impacting your kid's "moral formation" -- and could he please just give counseling one more try? After all, it's none of our business. But, perhaps it is.

What do you think?