What's with all the "divorce porn"?

We are being inundated by stories about marital splits at the same time that the actual divorce rate is declining

Published August 28, 2010 1:01AM (EDT)

It is the latest trend IDed by the New York Times Style section: "Divorce porn." Writer Bruce Feiler sees "Eat, Pray, Love," "Mad Men" and Andrew Young's memoir "The Politician" as evidence that this has been the "Summer of Divorce." Add to that the fact that "the biggest celebrity stories of the year have all involved breakups, from movie stars (Sandra Bullock, Susan Sarandon), to television stars (Kelsey Grammar, 'The Bachelor'), to sports stars (Tiger Woods, Chris Evert) to political stars (the Edwardses, the Sanfords, the Gores)," he writes.

These disparate examples appear to feed very different needs. We indulge in all the nasty details of recent political and celebrity splits, much in the way that we try to grasp the why and how of divorces in our family or circle of friends. If you can better understand what happened to them, you can protect yourself from the same fate, we hope. Given the current anxiety about marriage, fidelity and our biological programming, it is no surprise that we are picking apart these cautionary tales. As for the examples that are actually designed as entertainment, like "Eat, Pray, Love" and "Mad Men": Conflict and turmoil have always made for more compelling narratives.

There is no question that, as far as pop culture is concerned, the state of matrimony is in disrepair. Interestingly enough, though, divorce has actually been on the decline. Feiler reports:

The divorce rate in America is at a 30-year low. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the current divorce rate at 3.5 per 1,000, down 8 percent in the last five years, 16 percent since 2000, and a staggering 34 percent since its peak in 1979. Roughly 20,000 fewer American couples are divorcing every year as compared with a decade ago.

So, why the fascination with "divorce porn," then? "Divorce porn may be that rare indulgence that actually slakes interest in the activity it celebrates," he proposes. Feiler also quotes Larry Hackett, managing editor of People magazine, as saying, "It's entirely possible that people can look at all those stories and in some emotional way let off steam," he said. "We live through these folks so we don’t have to live that way ourselves." Ultimately, Feiler compares marriage to ... an itchy skin disease:

Fantasizing about escaping your marriage is not an acute problem that flares up after seven years; it's a chronic condition. And for the first time in decades, we seem to have found a cure that helps. If the Summer of Divorce teaches us anything, it’s that scratching your own itch may make it worse, but watching others scratch theirs seems to make yours better.

He comes uncomfortably close to making the dubious argument that there is a cause-effect relationship here (i.e., "divorce porn" keeps marriages together). In the past, researchers have suggested that the declining divorce rate might be a reflection of the fact that a growing number of couples live together without marrying. (There are also significant, complicating demographic changes to take into consideration.) The bottom line, though, is that we don't have the data or the historical perspective to say for sure. In the meantime, pass the popcorn.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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