When I was 10, my parents bundled up my brothers and me into the car one evening and took us to the drive-in, where Divorce American Style was playing. It was a satirical comedy about a bickering couple, and their desire to divorce. My brothers fell asleep shortly after the hot dog sang in the previews, but I stayed awake and watched the film. In it, the newly separated husband Richard befriends Nelson, a divorced man played by Jason Robards. I distinctly remember how absolutely broke the Robards character is. He drives around in a run-down VW Beetle, and lives in a tiny space, surviving on $87 a week. He’s been financially ruined by the alimony payments to his ex. The comedy comes into play as he tries everything he can think of to get Richard to marry her so that he’ll finally be off the hook. Only Richard is now too poor himself to be a viable match. Hilarity ensues.
This portrayal of divorced life for men haunted me, even as a child. It terrified me to think of own father in such straits, and I became quite preoccupied with worry that my parents might split up. (They didn’t in the end.) What does this have to do with you?
The state of marriage in the U.S. is troubled, and divorce both reflects that, and perpetuates the problem. The climate for marriage has deteriorated significantly in the United States in the last 50 years:
The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia addresses this 50% decline in its 2009 The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America:
Much of this decline—it is not clear just how much—results from the delaying of first marriages until older ages: the median age at first marriage went from 20 for females and 23 for males in 1960 to about 26 and 28, respectively, in 2007. Other factors accounting for the decline are the growth of unmarried cohabitation and a small decrease in the tendency of divorced persons to remarry. The decline also reflects some increase in lifelong singlehood, though the actual amount cannot be known until current young and middle-aged adults pass through the life course.
Of course, this is not necessarily all bad. The data is clear that marrying later leads to more successful marriages. People may also delay marriage while living together first, and there may be an increase in the number of people who choose to remain single throughout life. Still, the questions need to be asked:
- What about the institution of marriage is making it a less appealing option than cohabitation?
- Why are divorced persons less likely to remarry?
- How does the decline in marriage affect the birth rate, and what are the economic and societal impacts of that?
- What percentage of those who never marry choose it?
W. Bradford Wilcox is a Professor of Sociology at UVA and is the Editor of the UVA Report. In his Wall St. Journal piece To Have, To Hold, For a While, he observes that this problem is exacerbated by particularly American behavior. Quoting Andrew J. Cherlin, author The Marriage-Go-Round:
Virtually no other nation in the West compares with the U.S. when it comes to divorce, short-term co-habitation and single parenthood. Americans marry and co-habit at younger ages, divorce more quickly and enter into second marriages or co-habiting unions faster than their counterparts elsewhere. In other words, Americans step on and off the carousel of intimate relationships.
Wilcox goes on to explain that Mr. Cherlin points to competing “models” or ideas of marriage:
On the one hand, he notes, most Americans believe that marriage is the best social institution for bearing and rearing children and that marriage should be grounded in a permanent, faithful and loving relationship. On the other hand, Americans celebrate individualism more than people in other Western societies and so believe that they are entitled to make choices that maximize their personal happiness. When a marriage becomes unsatisfying, difficult or burdensome, according to this model, it can be dissolved — it even should be dissolved.
Such contradictory impulses push the vast majority of Americans into marriage and then push a large minority out again when their dreams of marital bliss go unrealized. It does not help that Americans in recent years have come to see marriage as a symbol more than a covenant — as a kind of “capstone” signaling that they have arrived at a certain position in the world, with a good job, a good résumé and now, it is hoped, a soulmate who will make them happy.
Aha, there’s a problematic word.
I. The Soulmate Problem
What constitutes a soulmate? Just how perfect does that person need to be? And what tradeoffs are we willing to make? Elle magazine recently ran an article by Elizabeth Wurtzel, the author of Prozac Nation. It’s another confession in the “spinster lit” genre as she shares the story of two decades of poor life choices. She did have one great relationship with a man who was wonderful and massaged her feet at the end of the day. She left him, though, and here’s why:
I became seasick with contentment. It was nauseating daily, and I couldn’t still myself against a funny feeling that there had to be more to life than waking up every day beside the same person.
Seasick with contentment. That is quite a phrase!
Does America’s high divorce rate reflect something similar? A certain boredom, a general sense of disappointment in what marriage delivers emotionally and physically against some pretty exacting standards? Wilcox writes in The Evolution of Divorce:
The psychological revolution of the late ’60s and ’70s, which was itself fueled by a post-war prosperity that allowed people to give greater attention to non-material concerns, played a key role in reconfiguring men and women’s views of marriage and family life. Prior to the late 1960s, Americans were more likely to look at marriage and family through the prisms of duty, obligation, and sacrifice. But the psychological revolution’s focus on individual fulfillment and personal growth changed all that.
Increasingly, marriage was seen as a vehicle for a self-oriented ethic of romance, intimacy, and fulfillment. In this new psychological approach to married life, one’s primary obligation was not to one’s family but to one’s self; hence, marital success was defined not by successfully meeting obligations to one’s spouse and children but by a strong sense of subjective happiness in marriage — usually to be found in and through an intense, emotional relationship with one’s spouse.
Not only that, but divorce began to be viewed as a kind of path to enlightenment. Social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead has observed of this period:
Divorce was not only an individual right but also a psychological resource. The dissolution of marriage offered the chance to make one-self over from the inside out, to refurbish and express the inner self, and to acquire certain valuable psychological assets and competencies, such as initiative, assertiveness, and a stronger and better self-image.
II. The No-Fault Divorce Problem
Meanwhile, in 1969, Governor Ronald Reagan signed into law the nation’s first no-fault divorce law in California. Nearly all states followed suit in the next 15 years. (By the way, he reportedly did this in anger over having been divorced for “mental cruelty” by Jane Wyman. He later regretted it.)
This legal transformation was only one of the more visible signs of the divorce revolution then sweeping the United States: From 1960 to 1980, the divorce rate more than doubled. This meant that while less than 20% of couples who married in 1950 ended up divorced, about 50% of couples who married in 1970 did.
The sexual revolution, too, fueled the marital tumult of the times: Spouses found it easier in the Swinging Seventies to find extramarital partners, and came to have higher, and often unrealistic, expectations of their marital relationships. Increases in women’s employment as well as feminist consciousness-raising also did their part to drive up the divorce rate, as wives felt freer in the late ’60s and ’70s to leave marriages that were abusive or that they found unsatisfying.
Of course, women should be free to leave abusive marriages, but something much bigger than that happened. The number of women feeling unsatisfied in more nebulous terms skyrocketed. Research has shown that adults who initiate divorce do quite well and have few complaints down the road.
Two-thirds of divorces are initiated by women.
The ill effects of divorce for adults tend to fall disproportionately on the shoulders of fathers…as men are more likely than women to be divorced against their will. State courts no longer take into account marital “fault” when making determinations about child custody, child support, and the division of marital property. In the wake of a divorce, these men will often lose their homes, a substantial share of their monthly incomes, and regular contact with their children.
That’s divorce American style.
Wilcox makes the following concluding recommendation:
State divorce laws should also allow courts to factor in spousal conduct when making decisions about alimony, child support, custody, and property division. In particular, spouses who are being divorced against their will, and who have not engaged in egregious misbehavior such as abuse, adultery, or abandonment, should be given preferential treatment by family courts. Such consideration would add a measure of justice to the current divorce process; it would also discourage some divorces, as spouses who would otherwise seek an easy exit might avoid a divorce that would harm them financially or limit their access to their children.
III. The Societal Problem
Interestingly, the divorce rate has declined since 1980, from 50% to 40%. Wilcox attributes much of this to the increased age at first marriage, when people are mature enough to navigate successful marriages. However, he goes on to point out one very troubling development, which is that working-class and poor Americans are no longer marrying in great numbers.
Marriage is increasingly the preserve of the highly educated and the middle and upper classes. Fewer working-class and poor Americans are marrying nowadays in part because marriage is seen increasingly as a sort of status symbol: a sign that a couple has arrived both emotionally and financially, or is at least within range of the American Dream. This means that those who do marry today are more likely to start out enjoying the money, education, job security, and social skills that increase the probability of long-term marital success.
When it comes to divorce and marriage, America is increasingly divided along class and educational lines. All that remains unique to marriage today is the prospect of that high-quality emotional bond — the soulmate model. As a result, marriage is now disproportionately appealing to wealthier, better-educated couples, because less-educated, less-wealthy couples often do not have the emotional, social, and financial resources to enjoy a high-quality soulmate marriage.
Obviously, this has enormous implications for every aspect of American life.
It occurs to me that at approximately the same time that women stopped looking to men to be the sole providers financially, we started demanding more of them in every other way. We want the positive Alpha characteristics of dominance, leadership, physical size and strength. But we also demand all the positive traits more frequently found among Beta males: loyalty, emotional intelligence, creativity, wit. We want all of that in one man, our soulmate. And it had all better come in a pretty package with a built in capability for giving amazing orgasms.
Maybe our sense of entitlement is a problem. Maybe it’s producing some very unfair no-win dilemmas for the men in our lives.
Maybe “seasick with contentment” is enough. It sounds pretty damned good to me.
Hat tip to VJ for pointing me to both the National Marriage Project and the E. Wurtzel article.
Recommended further reading: The Misandry Bubble by blogger The Futurist (link here).