The Home Front

A Response to Keith Ablow

Celebrity therapist and “life coach” Dr. Keith Ablow just jumped on the “let’s get the government out of the marriage business” bandwagon. I have been writing against the “privatizing marriage” mantra, going all the way back to 2005. (See also here and here.) I do not wish to rehearse those arguments here. But Dr. Ablow’s contribution to this unfortunate genre is doubly regrettable. He is, first of all, deeply mistaken about the government’s role in discouraging people from marriage. As a psychiatrist, he has no particular expertise in policy analysis, and I am sorry to say, it shows. My second regret about his foray into policy analysis is that he forsakes the area of his greatest expertise, namely, helping people live happier lives. His proposal to “get the government out of the marriage business” substitutes an easy exit strategy for the genuine work of building up marriage and family relationships.

Dr. Ablow claims that government intrusion is the cause of marriage decline because marriage amounts to signing a “draconian contract with the state to manage the division of your estate in the event of a divorce.” Now he is certainly correct that under the current divorce regime, the family court micro-manages people’s private lives. But his argument is completely backwards. He has no explanation for why people are less inclined to marry now, and why government is more intrusive now than in say, 1960. I can answer that: no-fault divorce.

California instituted the first “no-fault” divorce in 1968, with other states quickly following suit. The state no longer recognized marriage as a lifelong union, dissolvable only for cause. Under no-fault, either party could get divorced for any reason or no reason. The current “marriage contract,” if you want to call it that, is less binding than a contract to purchase a home or to take delivery for a load of concrete. For sure, it is easier to end a marriage than for the L.A. Unified School District to fire a tenured teacher.

Most importantly, the legal change to the no-fault regime created unilateral divorce: The state now permits one party to break the marriage contract, regardless of the wishes of the other. This means that the divorce has to be enforced against the reluctant spouse. Somebody has to be separated from the joint assets of the marriage, most often, the family home and the children. The coercive machinery of the state is wheeled into place. The state begins the micromanaging of divorcing couples that Dr. Ablow rightly decries.

Dr Ablow is correct that people are not getting married because they are afraid of divorce, including the state’s involvement in their post-divorce lives. State governments undermine marriage by siding with the least committed spouse. Unilateral divorce was a policy change that just happened to increase the power of the state over people’s lives. No-fault, unilateral divorce is the policy that ought to be reversed. That is not “getting the government out of the marriage business.”

But Dr. Ablow’s ill-advised foray into policy analysis is not the least of the problems with his article. He comments, in an off-hand way, that in his clinical observations, “the vast majority of married people consider their unions a source of pain, not pleasure, and that too few of them are equipped with the psychological and behavioral tools to achieve true intimacy or maintain real passion.” Translation: People don’t have good enough relationship skills to get and stay married, so let’s give them an easier way out.

This statement is both illogical and appalling.

It is illogical because a therapist typically treats people who are having problems. Happily married people don’t usually go to a therapist. He really shouldn’t draw conclusions about the “vast majority of married people,” based on a sample of clients in his own practice.

But suppose his clients really and truly don’t have good relationship skills. His job as a life coach is precisely to give them those tools. It is appalling that he abandons that field, where he undoubtedly has something to contribute. Instead, he goes off on a tangent of abolishing marriage as a public institution. His policy proposal accommodates the present instability of marriage, when he should be leading the charge to combat it.

But, Dr. Ablow, isn’t it your clinical observation that people actually want to get married and stay married? Don’t people want intimacy and passion? And, don’t children want and deserve parents who remain committed to each other?

This is where our current debate over the definition of marriage has led us. A noted psychiatrist joins the parade of people celebrating a cockamamie scheme for destroying marriage as an object of public concern. In the process, he is diverted from the serious business of helping people develop their capacity for love and relationship.

What a loss.

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