Kathleen is attractive, successful, witty, and educated. She also
can't find a husband. Why? Because most of the men this
thirty-something software analyst dates do not want to get married.
These men have Peter Pan Syndrome--they refuse to commit, refuse to
settle down, and refuse to "grow up."
However, given the family court policies and divorce trends of
today, Peter Pan is no naive boy, but instead a wise man.
"Why should I get married and have kids when I could lose those
kids and most of what I've worked for at a moment's notice?" asks
Dan, a 31 year-old power plant technician who says he will never
marry. "I've seen it happen to many of my friends. I know guys who
came home one day to an empty house or apartment--wife gone, kids
gone. They never saw it coming. Some of them were never able to see
their kids regularly again."
The US marriage rate has dipped 40% over the past four decades,
to its lowest point ever. There are many plausible explanations for
this trend, but one of the least mentioned is that American men, in
the face of a family court system which is hopelessly stacked
against them, have subconsciously launched a "marriage strike."
It is not difficult to see why. Let's say that Dan defies Peter
Pan, marries Kathleen, and has two children. There is a 50%
likelihood that this marriage will end in divorce within eight
years, and if it does the odds are two to one that it will be
Kathleen, not Dan, who initiates the divorce. It may not matter that
Dan was a decent husband--studies show that few divorces are
initiated over abuse or because the man has already abandoned the
family. Nor is adultery cited as a factor by divorcing women
appreciably more than by divorcing men.
While the courts may grant Dan and Kathleen joint legal custody,
the odds are overwhelming that it is Kathleen, not Dan, who will win
physical custody. Over night Dan, accustomed to seeing his kids
every day and being an integral part of their lives, will become a
"14 percent dad"--a father who is allowed to spend only one out of
every 7 days with his own children.
Once divorced, odds are at least even that Dan's ex-wife will
interfere with his visitation rights. Three-quarters of divorced men
surveyed say their ex-wives have interfered with their visitation,
and 40% of mothers studied admitted that they had done so, and that
they had generally acted out of spite or in order to punish their
Kathleen will keep the house and most of the couple's assets. Dan
will need to set up a new residence and pay at least a third of his
take home pay to Kathleen in child support.
As bad as all of this is, it would still make Dan one of the
lucky ones. After all, he could be one of those fathers who cannot
see his children at all because his ex has made a false accusation
of domestic violence, child abuse, or child molestation. Or a father
who can only see his own children under supervised visitation or in
nightmarish visitation centers where dads are treated like
He could be one of those fathers whose ex has moved their
children hundreds or thousands of miles away, in violation of court
orders which courts often do not enforce. He could be one of those
fathers who tears up his life and career again and again in order to
follow his children, only to have his ex-wife continually move them.
He could be one of the fathers who has lost his job, seen his
income drop, or suffered a disabling injury, only to have child
support arrearages and interest pile up to create a mountain of debt
which he could never hope to pay off. Or a father who is forced to
pay 70% or 80% of his income in child support because the court has
imputed an unrealistic income to him. Or a dad who suffers from one
of the child support enforcement system's endless and difficult to
correct errors, or who is jailed because he cannot keep up with his
payments. Or a dad who reaches old age impoverished because he lost
everything he had in a divorce when he was middle-aged and did not
have the time and the opportunity to earn it back.
"It's a shame," Dan says. "I always wanted to be a father and
have a family. But unless the laws change and give fathers the same
right to be a part of their children's lives as mothers have, it
just isn't worth the risk."
This column first appeared in the Philadelphia