Read CHAPTER II - WHY DO MEN DESERT THEIR FAMILIES? of Broken Homes A Study of Family Desertion and its Social Treatment, free online book, by Joanna C. Colcord, on

“Before the deserter there was a broken man,” said a district secretary who has had conspicuous success in dealing with such men. By this characterization she meant not necessarily a physical or mental wreck, but a man bankrupt for the time being in health, hopes, prospects, or in all three; a man who lacked the power or the will to dominate adverse conditions, who had allowed life to overcome him. Such an unfortunate may not be conscious of his own share in bringing about the difficulties in which he finds himself, but he is always aware that something has gone seriously wrong in his life. His grasp of this fact is the one sure ground upon which the social worker can meet him at the start.

We should distinguish between the causes that bring about a given desertion, and the conscious motives in the mind of the deserter. It is well for the social worker to make the latter the starting point in dealing with the man, accepting the most preposterous as at least worthy of discussion. The absconder is often too inarticulate and ill at ease to give a clear picture of what was in his mind when he went away. If he was out of work, it may have been a perfectly sincere belief that he would find work elsewhere, or perhaps only a speculative hope that he might. (These are not in the beginning genuine desertions, but often become so later on.) It is possible that, beset by irritations and perplexities, the thought of cutting his way out at one stroke from all his difficulties made an appeal too strong to be resisted. Or perhaps he flung out of the house and away, in a passion of anger and jealousy which later crystallized into cold dislike. The spell of an infatuation for another woman might well have been the cause; or he may have been mentally deranged through alcohol. Simple weariness of the burden which he has not strength of body or mind to carry and ought never to have assumed is one attitude to be reckoned with, and failure to realize or in his heart accept the binding nature of his obligations is another.

His temperamental instability may have been such that the desire for a change the “wanderlust” was driving him to distraction. Or perhaps, under the urge of his own subconscious feeling of failure, he may have convinced himself that if he could “shake” the old environment and all in it that hampered him, he could take a fresh start and make good. “If I could only get to California,” sighed Patrick Donald, “I have a feeling things would be different.” With too much imagination to be content with the situation in which he found himself, Donald had not imagination enough to realize that he would have to take his old self with him wherever he went, and that he might better fight things out where he stood. Men of his sort yearn constantly for the future, not realizing that in its truest sense the present is the future.

Only in rare instances will the deserter accept the entire responsibility for his act. To try to find justification for doing what we want to do is characteristic of human beings, and the deserter is no exception. He attempts to “rationalize” his conduct and so regain his sense of self-approval and well-being by finding excuses and justifications in the conduct of others. Even when the fault is all his, he usually succeeds in making himself believe that his wife is more to blame than he for his having left home. The social worker who attempts to deal with the situation the deserter creates should know this attitude in advance and be prepared, through some simple rule-of-thumb psychology, to attack the obsession and bring him, first of all, to see and face squarely his own responsibility.

Many blanket theories have been developed to explain desertion that it is due to economic pressure; that it is the result of bad housekeeping; that its causes can all be reduced to sex incompatibility. All these factors: undoubtedly have their bearing on the problem, but there is no one cause or group of causes underlying breakdowns in family morale. The ratio of desertions has been observed to decrease rather than to increase in “hard times"; moreover, it is a matter of common observation that not all slovenly and incompetent wives are deserted, and that many married couples in all walks of life whose sex relationships are unsatisfactory, nevertheless maintain the fabric of family life and support and bring up their children with an average degree of success. None of these three factors alone will serve, therefore, as a fundamental causation unit in desertion. Many statistical attempts have been made to study the causes of desertion, and to assign to each its mathematical percentage of influence. The report of a court of domestic relations gives such an analysis of over 1,500 cases, listing 25 causes, and carefully calculating the percentage of cases due to each. A summary of these percentages grouped under five heads is as follows:

1. Distinct sex factors 39.
2. Alcohol and narcotic drugs 37.
3. Temperamental traits 15.
4. Economic issues 6.
5. Mental and physical troubles 2.

It would be easy to criticize the foregoing on the score of grouping. Can alcoholism and drug addiction be separated from mental and physical disorders? And how distinguish infallibly between sex factors, temperamental traits, and mental disabilities? But the main defect in such statistical studies is that they assume in each case one cause, or at least one cause sufficiently dominant to dwarf the rest; and few of the causes listed are really fundamental. The mind instinctively begins to reach back after the causes of all these causes. The social worker who made the sweeping assertion that there are two great reasons for marital discord “selfishness in men and peevishness in women,” came a good deal nearer to an accurate statement of fact with infinitely less trouble.

Looked at from the point of view of the social worker, desertion is itself only a symptom of some more deeply seated trouble in the family structure. The problem presented, if it could have been recognized in time, is not essentially different from what it would have been before the man’s departure. Without attempting, therefore, any statistical analysis of the causes of desertion, we may nevertheless be able to examine one by one a number of possible contributory factors in marital unhappiness and therefore in desertion. No attempt will be made in the list that follows to distinguish between primary and secondary causes, nor to arrange them in any order of importance. An effort to get from case workers lists so arranged resulted only in confusion, each person emphasizing a different set of factors. The groupings here given, therefore, are no more than a placing of the more obviously related factors together and a leading from past history up to the present.

Considering first the personal as distinguished from the community factors in desertion, these may be listed as follows:


1. Actual Mental Deficiency. Character weaknesses such as were spoken of earlier in this chapter grade down by degrees into real mental defect or disorder, and not even the psychiatrist can always draw the line.

A physician connected with the Municipal Court in Boston gives as his opinion that while the percentage of actually insane or feeble-minded among deserters is no higher than among other offenders they are extremely likely to present some of the phenomena of psychopathic personality. Such people have to be studied by the social worker and the psychiatrist, and not from the behavior side only, but with a view to discovering what sort of equipment for life was handed down to them from their family stock.

The plan for the future of a fifteen-year-old boy which was made by a society for family social work was markedly modified when it was discovered that not only his father but his grandfather had been a man of violent and abusive temper, who drank habitually and neglected their family obligations. With this sort of heredity and an ineffective mother, whom he was accustomed to seeing treated with abuse and disrespect, it was felt important to remove the boy, who showed some promise, to surroundings where he could be under firm discipline and learn decent standards of family life.

Feeble-mindedness, closely connected as it usually is with industrial inefficiency in the man, bad housekeeping in the woman, and lack of self-control in both, is of course, a potent factor in non-support and probably also in desertion.

2. Faults in Early Training. To low ideals of home life and of personal obligation, which were imbibed in youth, can be traced much family irresponsibility. It is by no means the rule, however, for children always to follow in the footsteps of weak or vicious parents; and it is the experience of social workers that such children, taught by observation to avoid the faults seen in their own homes, often make good parents themselves. Perhaps even more insidious in its effect on later marital history is the home in which no self-control is learned. The so-called “good homes” in which children are exposed to petting, coddling, and overindulgence and these homes are not confined to the wealthy produce adults who do not stand up to their responsibilities. A probation officer in Philadelphia tells of the mother of a young deserter who could not account for her son’s delinquency. “He ought to be a good boy,” she complained; “I carried him up to bed myself every night till he was eleven years old.”

3. Differences in Background. Even though both man and wife come from good homes, if those homes are widely different in standards and in cultural background strains may develop in later life between the couple. Differences in race, religion and age are recognized as having a causative relation to desertion. Miss Brandt found that, in about 28 per cent of the cases where these facts were ascertained, the husband and wife were of different nationality. “In the general population of the United States in 1900 only 8.5 per cent was of mixed parentage, and for New York City the proportion was less than 13 per cent.... A difference in nationality was more than twice as frequent among the cases of desertion as among the general population of the city where it is most common.” Miss Brandt’s figures for difference of religion are less significant, but it existed in 19 per cent of the total number of cases for which information on this point was available. In 27 per cent of the families where age-facts were learned, there were differences of over six years between the two; in 15 per cent the woman was older than the man.

Other differences which should find mention under this heading are those that arise when the environment is changed by immigration. The man who precedes his wife by many years in coming to America has often outgrown her when she finally joins him, even if he has formed no other family ties. The handicap is not wholly overcome when the couple come to this country together, for the much greater opportunities of the man to learn American ways may drive a wedge between him and his wife. On the other hand it is a popular saying, particularly among young Italian immigrants, that girls who have been in America too long do not make good wives, that when a man wants to marry he had better send for a girl from the old country; and these marriages seem on the whole to turn out well.

4. Wrong Basis of Marriage. Included here should be hasty marriages, mercenary marriages, marriages entered into unwillingly after pregnancy had occurred, as well as marriages where coercion was a factor for other reasons.

When there have been sex relations before marriage, unless the custom of the community sanctions such intimacy, there are likely to develop jealousies, quarrels, and ill feeling. “He do be always castin’ it up at me, but sure, ’twas himself was to blame” is one version of the age-old story.

There should also be included here those irregular unions called “common law marriages,” which are still permitted in many of our states. The protection supposed to be afforded to the woman by this institution is mainly fictitious, as it is practically impossible to secure conviction for bigamy if one of the marriages was of the common law variety. A common law husband who deserts, even if he admits his wife’s legal claim upon him, does not feel morally bound; and this fact undoubtedly plays its part in the causation of such desertions.

5. Lack of Education. More is included under this title than scanty “book-learning.” Not only the morally undisciplined child but the mentally undisciplined youth is handicapped as spouse and parent. Ignorance of the physical and spiritual bases of married life is a potent cause of desertion. So also is a limited industrial equipment. Irregular school attendance, early “working papers,” a dead-end job with no educational possibilities in it these form a frequent background for later unsuccess in life and in marriage.

There seemed at first no good explanation for the desertion of Alfred West. Both his record and his wife’s were good, and their mutual fondness for the children seemed a strong bond. They constantly bickered, however, over the small income Alfred was able to earn, and his wife and her relatives “looked down” upon him as being lower than they in the social scale. Inquiry into past history showed that he had grown up in a southern community where there were no facilities for education, and that he could not even read and write until after his marriage. Although of average capacity, he was restricted by his early lack of training in his choice of a job; and the mortification and sense of inferiority which his wife fostered led to discouragement and indifference, which ended in desertion. A thorough understanding of the two backgrounds involved enabled a social worker to effect a real reconciliation, with the woman’s eyes opened to her ungenerous behavior and the man taking steps to improve his education in a night school.

6. Occupational Faults. Closely allied to the foregoing, and in some respects growing out of it, are the shortcomings on the employment side that contribute to marital instability. Most of these can be referred back to lack of education or opportunity in youth, or to defects of character. Laziness, incompetence, lack of skill in any trade, lack of application, or, on the other hand, the possession by a man with no business “stake” in the community of a trade at which he can work wherever he takes a fancy to go, or of a trade which is seasonal and shifting all these have a direct relation to desertion.

The wife’s competence and willingness to earn often seems to have a causal connection with the man’s failure as “provider."

Corresponding to and complementing the man’s industrial defects, and springing from the same causes, is the woman’s failure in the business of being a housewife. The wife’s laziness, incompetence, lack of interest, and lack of skill and knowledge create, as one case worker puts it, “the sort of home that tends to get itself deserted.” These faults of the wife are responsible for as many desertions, probably, as are the faults of the husband. When the man and the wife are both industrial failures we get the extremity of family breakdown to be found in records of “chronic non-support” cases.

7. Wanderlust. As a cause of family desertion this has probably been overestimated. Some item of this sort appears in every list of causes of desertion which has ever been compiled, and there are more or less exceptional cases in which it probably plays a part. The boy who becomes a vagabond in childhood and early takes to the road does not, however, seem to be a marrying man; and the instances from case work in which it is clear that the thirst for adventure was at the bottom of desertion are rare. The man whose line of work before marriage led him from place to place seems, in fact, hardly to contribute his quota to the ranks of wife-deserters, and it is unusual to find sailors or other wanderers from force of circumstance figuring among them.

8. Money Troubles. As has already been said, it is impossible to show any direct relation between small incomes and desertion. The connection between low wage and non-support is of course a great deal closer. The inadequate income unquestionably acts indirectly to break down family morale in much the same way as does lowered physical vitality.

But marital discord that springs from the handling of the family finances is another matter, and it recurs regularly in the history of what went on prior to desertion. One deserter, traced to a southern city, returned voluntarily and begged the assistance of the social worker interested to reform his wife’s spending habits. “I made good money and I never opened my pay envelope on her,” said he, “but the week’s wages was always gone by Thursday.” Many men, however, who make a boast of turning over unbroken pay envelopes to their wives borrow back so much in daily advances that their net contribution is only a fraction of their wages.

Some desertions brought about by financial difficulties are not, strictly speaking, marital problems at all. Debts resulting from his own extravagance or dishonesty may cause a man to leave home to escape prosecution or disgrace. One such man kept in touch with his family, sending money at irregular intervals for some years, but always moving on to another place before he could be found. It proved impossible to get in communication with him, and finally he stopped writing and disappeared.

9. Ill Health: Physical Debility. All social workers agree that physical condition plays a part, though usually only indirectly and secondarily, in causing desertion. In the man, it may lower his vitality, cause irregular work, and superinduce a condition of despondency and readiness to give in. In the woman, it brings about careless housekeeping, loss of attractiveness, and disinclination to marital intercourse all factors which contribute directly to desertion. Continued ill health of the wife brings burdens, financial and other, which may help through discouragement to break down the husband’s morale.

There should be included here some consideration of one of the most puzzling types of abandonment the “pregnancy desertion.” Attempts have been made to explain it on the ground of the instinctive aversion of the male sex for domestic crises. But the impulse that causes the prosperous householder to move to his club when house-cleaning time arrives will hardly serve to explain such a custom, and as a matter of fact other domestic crises, such as illnesses of the children, do not have any such effect upon the man who habitually absents himself from home before the birth of each child. Other possible reasons for it are the well-known irritability and “difficulty” of women in this condition, and their aversion to sexual intercourse. Some pregnancy deserters take the step in the hope that their wives will bring about an abortion; but this is a modern and sophisticated development and the institution of “pregnancy desertion” is one of undoubted antiquity. Its prevalence among certain European immigrants would almost point to its being a racial tradition. Ethnologists who have studied strange marriage customs, such as the “couvade,” ought to turn their attention to discovering the causes of this other and socially more important marital vagary.

10. Temperamental Incompatibility. It is difficult to catalogue and appraise the causal factors in desertion that lie in personality. They are closely related to differences in background and are intimately involved with the sex relations of the pair. We cannot, however, admit that they are identical with the latter, as some students of the subject claim; or that the only incompatibility in marriage is sex incompatibility. Indeed, two people may be so incompatible as to find in sex their only common ground.

The commonest of these temperamental differences center about standards of right and wrong or proper and improper conduct. Especially is this manifested in the bringing up of the children. Extreme self-righteousness on the part of one or the other, nagging and petty criticism, unreasonable jealousy, “sulking spells,” violent quarrels, are some of its manifestations. The idea of possession exercised by either of the couple, and especially a tendency to dominate or try to control on the part of the woman, may be a causal factor in desertion. The lack of a saving sense of humor in one or both is often a complicating factor. These comparatively minor differences take on a serious complexion in the minds of the couple; and it is surprising how often a deserting man will give promptly and with every appearance of feeling justified some cause for his desertion which falls clearly under this head. “People forgive each other the big things; it’s the little things they can’t forgive.”

11. Sex Incompatibility. There comes under this heading a wide range of causative factors which play an important part in marital discord. Some of them are better understood by the social worker than was formerly the case; but many of them are obscure even to the practitioner of mental medicine, to whom their results come daily. Distasteful as the task may be, the social worker should familiarize herself, through reading or through instruction by a qualified physician, in the commoner forms of these maladjustments. This is not urged because it is part of the social worker’s task to make detailed inquiry into such matters or to pass judgment upon them, but because they often clamor for attention and need to be recognized by the first responsible person to whose notice they are brought. Unless she knows, for instance, what constitutes excess in sex relations, a worker may misunderstand the situation described to her and condemn a man for being a selfish brute, when the trouble is really sexual anæsthesia in the wife. It is well known that this single cause operates disastrously to disrupt many marriages or else to render them insupportable. The warning should be added, however and it cannot be added too emphatically that the social worker must scrupulously refrain from making diagnoses in these cases, even tentatively; she must refer such data as come to her either to the general practitioner or to the psychiatrist, selecting one or the other as the symptoms presented may indicate.

Less well understood by the lay worker are actual maladjustments, both physical and mental (or spiritual), which prevent the complete satisfaction of one or both. Some of these are curable by medical care, others by instruction and education. This instruction should be given, needless to say, by the physician and not by the case worker. If uncorrected such maladjustments are apt to result in marital shipwreck.

No attempt can be made here to discuss actual sex perversions in their relation to desertion. Their effect is obvious; and the social worker should be sufficiently well informed, not only from a few standard books on the subject, but from a knowledge of the phrases which are used in the tenements, to understand them, so that significant symptoms are not overlooked. So intimately are sex difficulties connected with the neuroses that the lay social worker should consult the psychiatrist freely wherever one is available, before attempting to deal with them.

12. Vicious Habits. Sexual immorality, through its degenerative effect on personality and the lowered ideals of marriage it induces, has a real effect in bringing about desertion. The “other man” and the “other woman” type of desertion, however, is often itself only a consequence of a previously existing state of temperamental or sexual incompatibility. If these underlying causes can be attacked and changed such a desertion may be “repairable.”

A young man deserted his wife and three children and eloped with an eighteen-year-old girl who had made his acquaintance in a street car flirtation. He had been “an obedient boy with good principles,” and his later record showed steadiness and ability; but he and his wife had been drifting apart their marital relations had not been “quite the same” as formerly. Arrested and brought back, he did not impute any blame to her, however, but said he “must have been crazy.” In spite of the circumstances, the judge decided to give him six months in the penitentiary; and a man visitor from the family social agency interested began at once to try to secure an influence over him. On his release the couple again went to housekeeping. The wife had been cautioned on how to receive him; but things went badly at first, and the man began again insisting that they were mismated. (He “had the other girl still considerably on his conscience and heart.”) Tangles continually arose which the society’s visitor was hard put to it to straighten out. Once the wife found a letter from the girl; but finally, after the charity organization society in the city where he had left the girl reported that she was doing well and not breaking her heart about him, the man decided to “cut out” the correspondence. A little later the girl eliminated herself by marrying. A year after the reconciliation the wife told the friendly visitor that the trouble was gone between them, and “it was just like a new life.” For another year efforts were continued to strengthen the attachment and make the home more attractive, at the end of which time it was felt that the home was stable enough to need no further supervision.

For reasons of convenience we may include here the causal relations between venereal disease and desertion. In so far as syphilis brings about mental and physical deterioration, the relation between the two is obvious. The presence of the disease in the man, if known to his wife, may lead her to sever relations with him in self-protection, and this severance, in turn, may lead ultimately to desertion or complete separation. Often separation is desirable, but the syphilitic who is on the whole a good family man raises some of the most difficult questions with which the social worker has to deal. Whether to try to force him out of the home and thus make an unwilling deserter; whether to violate the diagnosis given in confidence by passing it on to the wife for her protection these are only two of the puzzles that may arise.

The relation of alcoholism to non-support and desertion is too well known to require discussion. The causative relation between alcohol and desertion is so direct that it probably ought not to be included under contributory causes at all. As it is an active poison to the cells of the nervous system, it may bring about détériorations of mind and character that are directly to blame for such anti-social acts as desertion. The same is true in less degree of the use of narcotics; though drug habits are far less common in connection with desertion than alcoholism. What relation drugs and alcohol will hold to desertion after July 1, 1919, remains to be seen. Alcoholism in the woman is, however, a real contributory factor, and one frequently met with. The experience of social workers leads them to believe that alcohol is more devastating in its effects on character with women than with men, and that there is less hope of a cure. The great majority of so-called “justifiable deserters” are the husbands of alcoholic women.

Gambling in its effect on family income will be discussed in connection with non-support, to which it bears a much more direct relation than to desertion. In its degenerative effect upon character it may have, however, a real causal relation to the latter.

The habit of desertion itself is a degenerative one, not only upon the deserter but upon his home. The “intermittent husband” often weakens and demoralizes his wife in almost the same ratio as his own progress down-hill.


1. Interference of Relatives. The tendency of relatives to take sides against their “in-laws” is a matter of everyone’s observation. It is frequently found as a serious factor in desertion. Many case stories which will be used in the following chapters to illustrate other points show also the harmful interference of relatives in what might otherwise have been a fairly stable home. Relatives can be a factor in marital discord without actively interfering. One high-tempered young couple formed what amounted to a habit of frequent quarrels and temporary separations simply because the parents of both stood ready to take them back whenever they chose to live apart. Relatives within the home as well as outside it may exercise an unfortunate influence on marital relations. The desertion of a middle-aged man who married a widow was found to be directly caused by the antagonism which grew up between him and his grown step-children.

2. Racial Attitude toward Marriage. The racial factor is important in desertion. Not only the individual’s own background, but the attitude of the people whence he sprang toward the sanctity of marriage, toward the position of women, and toward the importance of restraint in sexual relations, will have an effect upon the desertion rate of a given racial group. A study was recently made of 480 deserters known to the New York Charity Organization Society in 1916-17 whose nationality was given. The results in percentage form are given for what they may be worth, compared with the same percentage in 2,987 families of known nationalities which were under care for all causes during the same year.

3. Community Standards. It cannot be too emphatically stated that any tendency in the community to belittle or ridicule the estate of matrimony has a definite cumulative effect on desertion. The “when a man’s married” series in the comic supplements, certain comic films in the moving picture shows, the form of drama popularly called “bedroom farce” are examples of these destructive forces. Most of the people who laugh at them accept them as a humorous formula and are not seriously affected by them; but their educational effect on young people is bound to be bad and false to the last degree. In so far as they overemphasize romantic love and disparage conjugal love, the theater and the popular press do this generation great disservice.

Another way in which the community may affect the popular conception of marriage is in the administration of civil marriage. Lack of care in enforcing the laws and lack of gravity in performing the ceremonies may have a decided reaction on respect for those laws and for the institution itself. Similarly, the administration of divorce laws may affect the popular conception of marriage. One entire neighborhood condoned the situation in which a deserted wife immediately went to live with another man, on the ground that “if they had been rich, they could have got a divorce.”

4. Lack of Proper Recreation. This may seem a subject to be discussed under personal factors; but proper recreation, after all, depends in large measure upon what the community provides or makes available. The American tendency for the man to get his recreation apart from his family, in saloons and social clubs, is responsible for many family maladjustments. Any change in family habits of recreation which means that the man and wife enjoy fewer things together is a danger signal the seriousness of which is not always appreciated. Social workers are inclined to undervalue not only the influence of faulty recreation as a factor in family breakdown, but also the possibilities of good recreation as an aid in family reconstruction.

5. Influence of Companions. As a factor in desertion this is closely connected with the two just discussed. Neighborhood standards, as they affect individuals, are apt to be transmitted through the small group that stands nearest, and a man’s companions have the freest opportunity to influence him during their common periods of recreation. The influence of companions is not often met as a force deliberately exerted to bring about desertion; but, on the other hand, a man’s own mental contrast between his condition and that of his unmarried companions often plays a definite part in his decision to desert, if he has begun to yearn for freedom. The influence of companions is particularly connected with the “wanderlust” type of desertion.

6. Expectation of Charitable Relief. It used to be held that many men who would otherwise remain at home and support, might be encouraged to desert if they had reason to believe that their wives and families would be cared for in their absence. This was no doubt often the case before social workers had learned to discriminate in treatment between deserted wives and widows, or to press with vigor the search for deserting men. At present, it is the experience of social workers that few men deliberately reckon upon transferring the burden of their family’s support to others, or are induced by these considerations to leave.

In trying to determine the cause for any given desertion it is well to keep in mind from the beginning that there is probably more than one, and that the obvious causes that first appear are almost certain themselves to be the effects of more deeply underlying causes. A young vaudeville actor of Italian parentage married a Jewish girl, a cabaret singer, and took her home to live with his parents. Was his subsequent desertion to be ascribed to difference in nationality and religion, to interference of relatives, to irregular and unsettling occupation, or to a combination of all three? Would all marriages so handicapped turn out as badly? If not, what further factors entered to lower the threshold of resistance to disintegration in this particular case?

This last question is after all the most important one of the foregoing series. It is one which the social case worker must never be content to leave unanswered.