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 exes.
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 criminals.
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 Inquirer (7/5/02)