This is the first of a series of occasional articles about marriage today. It is intended as a primer for young women who hope to marry.
“I don’t want to be married anymore.
In daylight hours, I refused that thought, but at night it would consume me. What a catastrophe. How could I be such a criminal jerk as to proceed this deep into a marriage, only to leave it? We’d only just bought this house a year ago. Hadn’t I wanted this nice house? Hadn’t I loved it? So why was I haunting its halls every night now, howling like Medea? Wasn’t I was proud of all we’d accumulated – the prestigious home in the Hudson Valley, the apartment in Manhattan, the eight phone lines, the friends and the picnics and the parties, the weekends spent roaming the aisles of some box-shaped superstore of our choice, buying ever more appliances on credit? I had actively participated in every moment of the creation of this life – so why did I feel like none of it resembled me? Why did I feel so overwhelmed with duty, tired of being the primary breadwinner and the housekeeper and the social coordinator and the dog walker and the wife and the soon-to-be-mother, and – somewhere in my stolen moments – a writer?
I don’t want to be married anymore.
…I will not discuss here all the reasons why I did still want to be his wife, or all his wonderfulness, or why I loved him and why I had married him and why I was unable to imagine life without him. I won’t open any of that. Let it be sufficient to say that on this night, he was still my lighthouse and my albatross in equal measure. The only thinking more unthinkable than leaving was staying; the only thing mor impossible than staying was leaving. I didn’t want to destroy anything or anybody. I just wanted to slip quietly out the back door, without causing any fuss or consequences, and then not stop running until I reached Greenland.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love
So begins Gilbert’s blockbuster memoir, a chronicling of the “healing journey” she undertook after leaving her husband Michael Cooper, who has said he thought his marriage was rock-solid, the divorce unexpected and the result devastating. With a sweet book deal from Viking, Gilbert set out with several hundred thousand dollars to gaze at her navel in Italy, India and Bali.
In a recent post I referred to the trifecta of doom concerning the future of marriage – declining marriage rates, declining male college enrollments, and overly optimistic female beliefs about fertility. Much of this is beyond any one person’s control, but if you hope to marry you must understand the contemporary environment for marriage, which includes considerable disincentives.
While the average age at marriage has been increasing for both sexes, the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia found evidence that men are more interested in delaying marriage than women are. From a study exploring men’s feelings about commitment:
The men in this study express a desire to marry and have children sometime in their lives, but they are in no hurry. They enjoy their single life and they experience few of the traditional pressures from church, employers or the society that once encouraged men to marry. Moreover, the sexual revolution and the trend toward cohabitation offer them some of the benefits of marriage without its obligations. If this trend continues, it will not be good news for the many young women who hope to marry and bear children before they begin to face problems associated with declining fertility.
The ten reasons why men won’t commit are:
1. They can get sex without marriage more easily than in times past.
2. They can enjoy the benefits of having a wife by cohabiting rather than marrying.
3. They want to avoid divorce and its financial risks.
4. They want to wait until they are older to have children.
5. They fear that marriage will require too many changes and compromises.
6. They are waiting for the perfect soulmate and she hasn’t yet appeared.
7. They face few social pressures to marry.
8. They are reluctant to marry a woman who already has children.
9. They want to own a house before they get a wife.
10. They want to enjoy single life as long as they can.
According to the study, “[Men] fear that an ex-wife will “take you for all you’ve got” and that “men have more to lose financially than women” from a divorce.
Like other young adults, these young men are highly critical of divorce. They think couples are too willing to call it quits without trying to work through difficulties in a marriage. As one observed:
“One fight, and it’s like ‘I’m out of here.”‘
Some attribute the readiness to divorce as part of a societal trend toward narcissism, consumerism, and “too many choices.”
“You used to fall in love with the girl in your high school English class. Now you have more choices and you get married and then three years later, a better one comes along,” commented one man.
Others believe that both men and women are more independent and need each other less:
“Now women are making as much as their husbands so they can say ‘see ya,’” one said.
Finally, these men cite the legacy of parental divorce as a factor con- tributing to a persistently high divorce rate: “We figure ‘hey my parents got divorced, so we can get divorced.’”
Clearly, men’s fear of divorce is real and is reflected in the falling number of marriages. To understand why, it’s helpful to look briefly at the history of divorce, beginning in the mid-60s. From Brad Wilcox’s The Evolution of Divorce at the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia:
The divorce revolution of the 1960s and ’70s was over-determined. The nearly universal introduction of no-fault divorce helped to open the floodgates, especially because these laws facilitated unilateral divorce and lent moral legitimacy to the dissolution of marriages. 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.
Divorce rates doubled between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s. In fact, divorce rates are lower today than they have been since 1970, but that’s on a smaller base of marriages.
In a study aptly named These Boots Are Made for Walking: Why Most Divorce Filers Are Women, Brinig and Allen (2000) stated that women file just over two-thirds of divorces. (They cite the anticipation of custody as the most statistically significant factor in women initiating divorce proceedings at any given point.)
Another study by Amato and Previti (2003) looked at People’s Reasons for Divorcing. It’s the only data I could find, which is not surprising, since no-fault divorce laws have been around since the 1970s and require no justification for filing. This study was done with 208 subjects (77M, 131F) over a 17 year period, 1980-1997. One limitation of the study is that they spoke with only one member of each divorced couple, so there is bound to be some personal “rewriting of history” that is embedded in the results. The table below shows how men and women reported the reason for their divorce. Please note that this data does not address who initiated the divorce.
Men % Cases
Women % Cases
|Alcohol or drug use||5.2||13.7|
|Physical or mental abuse||0.0||9.2|
|Physical or Mental Illness||1.3||3.1|
|Loss of love||6.5||3.1|
Lack of communication
Interference from family
Failure to meet family obligations
1. Because some individuals provided more than one cause, the percentages for individuals sums to more than 100.
2. The selection of Other reasons as frivolous, or EPL, is mine and is entirely subjective. Obviously, legitimate divorces can occur within these categories, YMMV.
From the study:
Consistent with expectations, women in this study were more likely to report problematic behavior on the part of their former husbands (infidelity, substance use, mental and physical abuse), and men were more likely to report that they did not know what caused the divorce. These gender differences replicate findings from several prior studies (Bloom et al., 1985; Cleek & Pearson, 1985; Kitson,1992; Levinger, 1966).
Contrary to expectations, however, men were no more likely than women to refer to external causes, and men were more
likely than women to report problems with communication. The latter finding appears to clash with the assumption that women are more relationship centered than men (Thompson & Walker, 1991) and that wives are more sensitive than husbands to marital problems involving emotions and communication (Cleek & Pearson, 1985). Nevertheless, this result is consistent with a study showing that communication problems (such as avoiding problem-solving discussions) predict marital unhappiness more strongly among husbands than wives (Roberts, 2000).
Although it is possible that men are becoming more sensitive to relationship dynamics in marriage, we suspect that some men used general references to poor communication and other relationship problems to avoid admitting that their own misbehavior undermined the marriage.
I assume, though I have no data to support my suspicion, that women are also using references to male misbehavior to obscure their EPL motives for initiating divorce.
Another important variable is socioeconomic status. The National Marriage Project puts the divorce rate among college educated couples at only 17% during the first decade, half the rate of their less educated counterparts:
College-educated Americans have seen their divorce rates drop by about 30% since the early 1980s, whereas Americans without college degrees have seen their divorce rates increase by about 6%. Just under a quarter of college-educated couples who married in the early 1970s divorced in their first ten years of marriage, compared to 34% of their less-educated peers. Twenty years later, only 17% of college-educated couples who married in the early 1990s divorced in their first ten years of marriage; 36% of less-educated couples who married in the early 1990s, however, divorced sometime in their first decade of marriage.
This growing divorce divide means that college-educated married couples are now about half as likely to divorce as their less-educated peers. Well-educated spouses who come from intact families, who enjoy annual incomes over $60,000, and who conceive their first child in wedlock — as many college-educated couples do — have exceedingly low rates of divorce.
Back to the Amato study on socioeconomic status:
Several studies suggest that socioeconomic status is correlated with people’s reasons for divorce. Kitson (1992) found that high-SES individuals, following divorce, were more likely to complain about lack of communication, changes in interests or values, incompatibility, and their ex-spouses’ self- centeredness. In contrast, low-SES individuals were more likely to complain about physical abuse, going out with the boys/girls, neglect of household duties, gambling, criminal activities, financial problems, and employment problems.
These results suggest that as SES increases, individuals are less likely to report instrumental reasons and more likely to report expressive and relationship-centered reasons.
It would appear, then, that the Eat Pray Love phenomenon is largely centered among the most educated and affluent Americans. Certainly Elizabeth Gilbert fits the bill. So do those who prioritize female concerns. Oprah Winfrey liked Eat Pray Love so much she devoted two segments to it, and has supported Gilbert with additional appearances since. Oprah has also supported frivolous divorce in other ways. Her website featured the article, She’s Happily Married, Dreaming of Divorce, which was linked by CNN.
Ex-blogger Novaseeker took her to task for championing a woman who decided to stay in her marriage while getting her own apartment at her husband’s expense:
What are the other compromises I’m questioning? I’m shy about telling you, because I’m afraid it sounds as if I’m looking a gift horse—my decent, basically good enough marriage—in the mouth. Maybe I am. But here goes: I want a physical space where I can see myself reflected without the influence (both aesthetically pleasing and overpowering) of my husband. I also want to create a distance between my husband and me specifically for the purpose of coming together with the intention of…being together.
Fifty years ago… divorce was taboo and few women had the guts, let alone the financial means, to brave the social stigma of walking out on a decent husband simply because she felt there must be “something more”. Until recently, with nearly half of all marriages ending in divorce, the most commonly cited reason was infidelity.
But times have changed. Last week, a survey of 101 family lawyers conducted by the consultancy firm Grant Thornton revealed that adultery was no longer the principal reason for break-ups. Instead, the most popular explanation was couples saying they were simply “no longer in love” and had “grown apart”.
That survey was done in the UK, and doesn’t necessarily reflect American divorce, but Smith believes that Eat Pray Love is at the root of it:
What does this say about our society? Is it a shocking indictment of our narcissism that we are ignoring “Until death us do part”? Or is it a triumph of feminism that women whose mothers would have put up and shut up in return for a roof over their heads have decided that they refuse to live out their years with a man whose idea of an enjoyable night is dinner on his lap in front of Top Gear?
Women initiate seven out of 10 divorces. Divorce is also soaring among the over-45s, with break-ups in that age bracket increasing by 30 per cent in a decade. The writer Fay Weldon recently said: “Women in their fifties instigate divorce because they are bored and want to be free and single again, not because they want the emotional and sexual excitement of another man.” They’re encouraged by a recent vogue of “finding-yourself” literature, headed by the international best-seller Eat, Pray, Love, which recounted author Elizabeth Gilbert’s decision to divorce her husband and embark on a round-the-world odyssey of – depending on your view – inspirational self-discovery or nauseating navel-gazing.
Some readers have suggested that in good conscience I should withdraw my support for marriage. I disagree, because I am a firm believer in the power of marriage. The National Marriage Project’s statement reflects my own support of the institution:
Marriage is a fundamental social institution. It is central to the nurture and raising of children. It is the “social glue” that reliably attaches fathers to children. It contributes to the physical, emotional and economic health of men, women and children, and thus to the nation as a whole. It is also one of the most highly prized of all human relationships and a central life goal of most Americans.
However, I do not pretend that all is well. In addition to the malignant Eat Pray Love trend, men fear the financial consequences of laws guiding custody, child support, alimony, and the division of marital property. There’s also the very real loss of economies of scale that occurs in every divorce, as one household splits into two.
Men will decide whether to marry based on their own personal assessment of the risks involved. Those risks are legal, financial, emotional and physical. A man contemplating marriage will bring his own tolerance for risk and uncertainty to bear on his personal risk/benefit analysis.
As a woman, it behooves you to be fully informed about about the risks men face, and the benefits you confer in your relationship. You will need to demonstrate that you are low risk, high value, and of sterling character. That means, among other things, willingness to take your wedding vows dead seriously, and to speak out against divorce as a means of personal growth and self-expression.