I was twice divorced. I didn’t know if I was ever going to give it a third try. But if I did, I thought I might want to figure out what people like me had done wrong, and try not to do that.
There was no end to the list of things I could read. I realized that there would be an indefinite amount of material that would refine and sometimes reverse the impressions reached here. This post just reflects an effort to make a start in the literature. Note that my interest was in heterosexual rather than homosexual marriage. I did not add the many expressions of clarification or uncertainty that would have been needed to extend the following interpretations to same-sex relationships.
I started by trying to get a sense of what people were saying. So in these first two sections of this post, I mostly just reported what my sources said. Commentary came later.
I had noticed that people said Baby Boomers (of which I am one) had continued to experience especially high divorce rates, so I began with that. A search for information on that led to CNN (Schwartz, 2013), which suggested that this was traceable primarily to the Boomers’ “relatively pampered” roots in the 1960s and 1970s, when an environment of experimentation upset traditional gender roles and expectations (e.g., who does the housework, how often we have sex, what makes a good marriage, whether marriage is even necessary). Schwartz said that, over time, Boomers had converted “older traditions of duty, loyalty and lifetime marriage at any cost” into “more of a voluntary association” subject to the demands of “self-fulfillment.” According to Schwartz, Boomer divorce rates continued to be high, on into late middle age and beyond, because “they are still making it up as they go along . . . redefining the parameters of personal relationships and reinventing what different stages of the life cycle could look like.” Schwartz went on to describe how Boomers “regard their 50s and 60s as every bit the opportunity for love and sexual attraction that their 20s and 30s were.” Moreover, she said, even at this age, they are still “ready to walk if things aren’t up to their hopes, dreams or delusions about marriage.”
My search also led to Fox Business (Dowd, 2011), which offered a somewhat similar take. Dowd interviewed Karen Stewart, who ran a divorce resolution firm. Stewart said that divorce rates rise when couples become either wealthy or poor: poor, because of financial stress, and wealthy, because there’s enough to make it financially appealing to both parties. Stewart also suggested that “Kids getting older and leaving the nest is another main driver of the increasing divorce [rate].” She said that “lack of communication” was “by far the universal response” to the question of why Boomers divorce. She characterized infidelity as “a catalyst” that is often “labeled as a reason”; she seemed to feel it would matter most for couples on “somewhat-shady ground.” Stewart suggested that
What is happening in Hollywood is almost sexfying [sic] divorce. Maria Shriver is the perfect example: the preppy girl who went off to school, married someone who is a little bit of a bad boy, but very successful. Arnold wasnt [sic] all brawn, he also had brains. This is the fairy tale of your average baby boomer and now Maria has just found that her marriage has been basically a bit of a facade. . . . I am worried that we might be creating a victim sex appeal divorce baby boomer trend.
Others offered additional theories. After50Living focused on “the rise in feminism” and the constant search for “the BBD or Bigger, Better, Deal,” arising from a preoccupation with “the pursuit of the idealistic ‘soul mate'” in the 1980s that “made many couples second-guess their partners” because s/he might not be “The One.” A Pennsylvania law firm attributed the rise in “gray divorce” to the causes mentioned above, and also to “increasing life expectancies, divorce becoming more of a social norm and the rise in financial independence among women.” A Florida law firm agreed: Boomer couples grow apart, the empty nest leads to communication breakdown, and cheating thus becomes a mere catalyst for a divorce that has been brewing for some time; Boomers see marriage as being about happiness, suggesting divorce is appropriate if you are not happy; they don’t see themselves enduring decades of retirement under the same conditions. That law firm cautioned, however, that while Boomers may feel they have financial security going into old age, that may not be the reality.
On a different note, a Phora discussion thread offered the views that Boomers get so many divorces when they try to “have their cake and eat it too” because they want “a stable society” while they “mess around like lifelong teens”; that “degeneracy was becoming more accepted in the baby boomer generation” and “Boomer culture celebrates the anti-social, marginal and alienated”; that Boomer women “were loose and slept around before marriage, and practiced contraception after marriage”; that Boomer counterculturalism was due to their parents’ desire that they “question everything so they wouldn’t march into machine gun fire or push Jews into gas chambers”; that “Generally, women are the ones that instigate the divorce because the initially have the most to gain from it” but “in the end, they are shooting themselves in the foot.”
A Quora discussion yielded much seconding of various views already cited, clarified in some regards. There was, for instance, the dramatic exclusion of women from many forms of economic activity, before the 1970s: “If you were a middle class woman, you’d sooner chew your right arm off than exit a marriage that was providing you and your kids material benefits.” Another pointed out that the Boomers challenged not only societal norms, but also the religious institutions that supported them. Another raised, implicitly, changes in law and culture regarding fathers and ex-husbands: the kids might not be safe with either parent, if mom “was terrified of what my father would do to us.”
At this point in my inquiry, I wasn’t sure I had reached saturation. But I had been hearing some of the same theories repeatedly. It seemed to be time to turn toward more scholarly literature that might shine a light on Boomer divorce rates.
Some of the foregoing sites cited research supporting various points. The following paragraphs summarize sources that I reviewed in some detail.
I started with a search for recent scholarly articles on the causes of divorce. That search led to a Harvard study (Rotz, 2015) whose literature review identified numerous theorized causes of rising divorce rates between 1950 and 1979. Those alleged causes included major improvements in birth control, an improved social safety net for single women, improvements in household technology contributing to increasing female labor force participation, reduced occupational gender segregation, higher wages for female workers, changing social attitudes toward divorce, and changes in family law. But after 1979, according to Rotz, many of those same factors worked in the opposite direction, contributing to reduced divorce rates. Moreover, she said, from 1980 to 2004 (the period covered by her data), those factors were important because of their indirect rather than direct effects on the divorce rate. That is, divorce rates were reduced because those factors tended to raise the age at which women first married. For instance, higher wages for female workers may well have made it easier for women to get divorced, contributing to high rates of divorce in the 1970s especially; but for a younger generation of women, those same higher wages made it less financially pressing to find a husband immediately — and regardless of what causes it, higher age at first marriage is directly linked to reduced risk of divorce. Rotz cites the examples of shotgun marriages and marriages involving large age differences between husband and wife, both of which tend to be associated especially with teenage brides, for whom divorce rates are much higher. Rotz finds that couples who marry later are more likely to spend quality time together, argue less, and are more likely to talk calmly than to yell during arguments. Women marrying at a later age who do seek employment are also more likely to seek benefits intrinsic to the work (e.g., desire to be around people, to have a career, to feel a sense of accomplishment) rather than extrinsic (i.e., money).
Citing a variety of researchers and theorists, Hackstaff (2010, ch. 2) identified numerous causes of the higher divorce rates seen in the 1960s and 1970s, with effects potentially lingering today (especially for Baby Boomers). For one thing, she said, that peak was accentuated by atypically low rates in the postwar years of the 1950s, attributable perhaps to the appeals of domestic life after the war years of the 1940s. She suggested that rising numbers of divorces in the 1960s led to a general change in public attitudes toward divorce around 1970 — which then encouraged a broader swath of the population to seek their own divorces, and reduced the expectation that one’s marriage would last throughout one’s lifetime. In addition, the “no fault” divorce innovation, started in California in 1970 and now available in all 50 states, greatly reduced the deterrent prospect of an ugly court battle, airing dirty laundry; divorces were now available whenever one spouse wanted out, for whatever reason, and that reason did not need to be stated, much less proved. This development went hand-in-hand with a more individualistic attitude encouraging partners in a marriage to develop self-sufficiency and generally to invest in themselves rather than in their relationship. Hackstaff suggests this lesson was especially persuasive to housewives who saw their peers getting dumped with little if any skills or experience in the workplace. Occupational relationships (e.g., among coworkers) increasingly supplied some forms of emotional gratification previously sought at home. Society also became increasingly accepting of premarital sex and cohabitation before or in lieu of marriage: by the mid-1980s, only 6% of married people over 60 had cohabited at some point, as compared to half of those aged 30-34. Being single also became more acceptable. Women disagreeing with the view that parents should stay together, even if they don’t get along, “for the sake of the children,” rose from 51% in 1962 to 80% in 1977. Hackstaff attributed divorce trends, in part, to two conflicting ideologies: the pro-marriage tendency of traditional American society, dominated by men and churches, and the “divorce culture” that was hostile to male dominance and that rejected religious strictures against divorce. In marriage culture, she said, marriage existed for purposes beyond individual gratification, so there was more sympathy with divorce when continued marriage would interfere with “the larger purposes of life” or with obedience to God, and less sympathy with divorce sought for reasons of individual freedom and equality (e.g., dissatisfaction with poor marital communication). Hackstaff suggested that a third trend, a “therapeutic culture,” also tended to take the side of divorce culture. She said that therapeutic culture prioritized “a psychological and individual perspective” and a belief in “expressive individualism” manifested in self-help, self-oriented, frequently introspective language (e.g., rejecting authority and duty in favor of “self-fulfillment” and “emotional growth” to unfold or express one’s personal uniqueness). Therapeutic culture was visible in an explosive rise in relationship-related therapeutic services (e.g., a 367% increase in the number of marriage and family therapists between 1975 and 1985), mostly directed especially at women. Therapeutic culture was criticized for its hostility to commitments or shared purposes whenever one party’s personal preferences vary. Hackstaff linked this hostility to the long-term subordination of women’s preferences, and observed that of course some therapy does prioritize love, affection, commitment, and interdependence, perhaps as preconditions to true self-development.
I came across a few New York Times articles of interest, and decided to report their relevant contents, most but not all of which consisted of summaries of research. In one, Angier (2013) updated some of Hackstaff’s remarks and provided additional insights. First, the birthrate has dropped: 36% of Americans were under 18 years old in 1964, whereas only 24% were under 18 in 2012. Based on the Census Bureau’s calculation (2015) that 32.7% of women have at least a bachelor’s degree and another 27.4% have at least some college education, Angier’s figures and related graph suggest that unmarried women rarely gave birth circa 1940, while in recent years about 37% of American women were unmarried when they gave birth to their first child. Women without any college are about six times more likely to do so than women with at least a bachelor’s degree. More than 40% of babies are now born to unmarried women — about four times the rate of 1970. About 2.7 times more people cohabited in 2012 than in 1996. Women are about four times as likely to have at least a part-time job, compared to the 1950s, and 40% of women are their families’ primary or sole breadwinner (vs. 11% in 1960). Wives are now more likely than husbands to be the party with more education. Rates of both marriage and divorce have been falling since the 1970s. There are now far fewer marriages per capita than at any time in the last 140 years. Divorce rates remain higher than at virtually any time in the century between 1880 and 1980, but have dropped to account for about 40% of first-time marriages (vs. more than 50% in 1979). Here, again, marriage is for those who are relatively privileged: divorce rates for middle- and upper-middle-income couples with college degrees are less than 33%. The average age of men at first marriage is now about 29; of women, nearly 27; of new mothers; nearly 26 — all of which have risen four to six years since 1970. Until at least the 1950s, it was assumed that there must be something wrong with you if you weren’t married by a certain age. Angier suggests that, especially for more privileged people, marriage has changed from a starting point of young adulthood to “a crowning event of later adulthood,” thereby making marriage “the mark of established winners rather than of modestly optimistic beginners,” with “high expectations of where they should be at economically or emotionally.” Angier quotes an expert who contrasts the increasing simplicity of middle-class family life against the increasing “complexity and churning of households among the poor.” A child is now five times more likely to have a parent in prison than in 1990; a black child in a lower-income neighborhood is 7.5 times more likely than a white child to be in that situation; and by age 14, more than half of black kids in such neighborhoods and having at least one low-education parent will have a parent in prison. For all races, divorce is especially likely in the first ten years, but that’s where the similarities end. Among women whose first marriages end in divorce, the divorce rate is about 22% for Asians, 34% for Hispanics, 40% for whites, and 49% for blacks. Angier quoted an Indian immigrant who said he would not have wanted to marry an American woman and who observed that Americans “are not very tolerant of their spouses . . . . They want the chemistry to be perfect, and if it isn’t, pfft, they split up.”
Another New York Times article (Miller, 2014) offered a graph showing Boomer divorces (more precisely, divorces for those marrying in the 1980s) spiking at around 26 years of marriage, while previous generations had finished most of their divorcing by that point. A closer look suggested that divorces for those marrying in the 1990s were spiking at around that same time — for them, after ~16 years of marriage — suggesting that those spikes may have been driven by the Great Recession that began in 2007. Miller said that 45% of marriage begun in the 1970s and 1980s ended in divorce by their 15th anniversary, versus 30% of marriages begun in the 1990s. She quoted one authority for the view that women initiate two-thirds of divorces, and that changes in divorce rates therefore reflect changes in women’s expectations. People with college degrees account for most of the drop in divorce rates overall; the rates remain near their peak for people with less education. People without degrees who married in the early 2000s were about 50% more likely to divorce by their seventh anniversary than people who had degrees. Miller attributed some of this contrast (and the reduced marriage rate) to economic changes that have undermined traditional working-class expectations of male breadwinners. Miller suggested that high divorce rates circa 1980 were a long-term anomaly due largely to the feminist movement. Miller said those who married in the 1970s “had married someone who was a good match for the postwar culture but the wrong partner after times changed” due to feminism, whereas “Modern marriage is more stable because people are again marrying people suitable to the world in which we live.” She quoted an economist who said, “It’s just love now. We marry to find our soul mate, rather than a good homemaker or a good earner.” Miller credited cohabitation for helping to weed out relationships that would not produce a good marriage.
Pew Research (Wang & Parker, 2014) reported that, since 1960, Americans have been growing steadily less likely to marry, and that this change has been particularly noticeable for men: 23% of men and 17% of women had never married in 2012, as compared to only 10% and 8%, respectively, in 1960. Wang and Parker attributed the overall trend to several factors: later marriage, rising cohabitation, rising nonmarital childrearing, economic difficulty, changing attitudes, and changing demographics. Among people of age 25+, blacks were significantly more likely than whites to have never married (36% vs. 16%), and their percentage had exploded: in 1960, only 9% of blacks vs. 8% of whites were unmarried. For Hispanics, the increase has been only somewhat less dramatic (12% in 1980, 26% in 2012). About 24% of never-married people aged 25-34 now cohabit. After three years, 58% of cohabitants marry (but only 30% of women without a high school diploma vs. 53% of college-educated women), 19% break up, and 23% remain in the relationship. Pew projects that 25% of today’s young adults will never marry, as compared to only about 5% of those who were aged 25-34 in 1960 and 1970 and 15% of people aged 25-34 in 1990. On the choice between (a) “Society is better off if people make marriage and having children a priority,” and (b) “Society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children,” option (b) was preferred by 67% of survey respondents aged 18-29 and 53% of those aged 30-49, while 55% of those over 50 preferred option (a). But 47% of Americans believe it is very important for couples to marry if they plan to spend the rest of their lives together, and another 21% consider that somewhat important. Blacks are much more likely than whites to consider that very important (58% vs. 44%). Among never-married adults, 53% would like to marry eventually (vs. 61% in 2010), 32% are not sure, and 13% do not want to marry. Among the never-married who would eventually like to marry, the main reasons for not yet marrying (for both men and women) are that they have not yet found someone who has what they are looking for (30%), they are not financially prepared for marriage (27%), and they are too young or not ready to settle down (22%). Never-married men and women are mostly fairly close in what they consider “very important” in a spouse or partner: having similar ideas about children (62% of men, 70% of women), having the same moral and religious beliefs (31% vs. 38%), and having similar education (28% for both). But men and women differ significantly on whether it is very important that their potential spouse have a steady job (46% vs. 78%). In the 25-34 age group, women’s hourly earnings were 93% of men’s in 2012 (vs. <70% in 1980). Labor force participation has dropped sharply for men aged 25-34 (93% in 1960 vs. 82% in 2012). Wang and Parker did not report data on how many of those 2012 jobs would qualify as “steady.” Among never married adults aged 25 to 34, the number of employed men per 100 women has dropped dramatically (139 in 1960 vs. 91 in 2012), and more so for blacks (51 per 100 now, vs. 90 per 100 “several decades ago”). Few never-married men (7%) and women (10%) claim it is very important that their partner be of the same racial and ethnic background, but 85% of new marriages involve people of the same race and ethnicity.
In yet another New York Times article, Miller (2014) cited additional Pew Research findings. One was that, combining Americans of all age groups, there are 65 employed, unmarried men for every 100 unmarried women. Also, blacks (both male and female, apparently) are more likely than whites to consider it very important that a potential mate have a steady job. Miller suggested that “marriage has gone from being a way that people pulled their lives together to something they agree to once they have already done that independently.”
Finally, Wallerstein (2004) found that the renaming of a “broken home” as a “single-parent home” shifted responsibility for the children’s mental resilience away from the parents and onto their own personal resilience, and that more than half of such children “are so damaged they never marry.” Wallerstein’s (2004) 25-year study of such children identified a welter of disturbing findings: that, among other things, “less than 10% of the children [of divorce] had parents who established stable, lasting second marriages in which the children felt fully welcome and included”; that children were distressed “well into adulthood” by frequent discrepancies between how their parents adjusted to divorce; that, decades later, children cried, or remembered going for days with nobody to talk to or play with, or being angry at everyone; that they (especially those younger than 7) recalled the fear that their preoccupied parents would forget them, or remembered the last time they saw their lost parent; that nearly 25% of them vividly recalled violent episodes or recurrent nightmares of such episodes; and so forth.
At this point in my reading, I decided to pause and regroup. Unlike the situation with the lay perceptions cited in the first section, my look into these scholarly sources did not seem to be yielding saturation. As I continued looking at these articles, I became increasingly aware that there was a ton of research, and that I could continue on into it for weeks, continuing to learn about various aspects of divorce, and about things that might reduce its likelihood.
Digesting the Data
The foregoing sources raised a number of questions and thoughts. This section presents some of those reactions. Note: research findings cited below come from the preceding section unless otherwise indicated.
CNN (Schwartz, 2013)
I agreed that Boomers had been pampered compared to their parents, but felt they were less pampered than the younger generations — bearing in mind that this, like many other comments in this sort of discussion, can depend on the demographic subgroup (e.g., working class, middle class) that one has in mind. So pampering, by itself, did not seem to explain Boomers’ exceptional divorce rates. Nor did I think pampering explained their social experiments. The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s were led by people (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden) who were older than the Boomers. The better claim would be that the relative wealth and geopolitical stability of America during that era (notwithstanding the everpresent threat of nuclear war) made it possible for young people to attend to social concerns, and to consider possibilities, that would have been considered trivial, if not actively suppressed, during a less secure era, such as that in which our parents grew up. Where those leaders’ views resonated with the public, they found traction and entered the mainstream, while other forms of experimentation (e.g., 1 2 3 forms of dress; bizarre dances; high-profile endorsements of LSD; Yippies; the back-to-the-land movement) were fading novelties. Among those various experiments, what found traction tended to entail credible rejection of tradition on the part of powerful groups. For instance, it was understandable that gays would reject discrimination, but they were far less influential than feminists; hence, it has taken decades for them to achieve changes in views on marriage, whereas the feminists achieved many of their desired changes in views of marriage (notably, those imposed upon men in divorce courts) within relatively few years. Schwartz credits Boomers generally for experimentation, but that is not right: her examples (regarding housework, sex, marriage) are examples of upheaval wrought by feminists — whose leaders (e.g., Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan), again, were not Boomers. (For Schwartz and other sources, some of the points summarized in the preceding section are deferred for later discussion, below.)
The Phora Discussion Thread
This source was the most openly hostile to Boomers. Some of that was perhaps to be expected: one banner appearing on the Phora website says, “The Phora: Spirited Discussion without PC Censorship.” (See also its Rules page.) But, for starters, it was anachronistic of one participant to suggest that we Boomers opted for counterculturalism because our parents didn’t want us to be Nazis or cannon fodder. That explanation might make sense now, when kids seem relatively obedient to and trusting in their parents, and parents seem relatively motivated to help kids adapt to a changing world. In the 1960s, parents did not necessarily assume that their world was changing, or agree that it should change, or accept that their children would be involved in any such thing. Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 campaign slogan was “Some People Talk Change, Others Cause It” — and he lost the popular vote, and a large majority of states, to Richard Nixon. The pressure to conform resulted in a military draft, and tens of thousands of dead soldiers, in Vietnam, due to the Domino Effect theory, in which it was believed the Communists would take over Southeast Asia and then Australia. That theory made sense to our parents, because they were imagining a replay of Japan’s takeover of that region in WWII. In their minds, they were refighting the last war. They were not listening. Young people came to see themselves as a sociopolitical force for the usual reason: nobody else seemed to be presenting their views. Ironically, the Phora thread and others suggest that Boomers (as a group; exceptions noted) are inviting similar distrust and hostility from today’s change-seeking young adults for a somewhat similar reason, namely, a conservative desire to preserve policies that seem to be working for (or are at least familiar to) them, despite the effects of such policies on younger people. Hence, I also question the Phora suggestion that Boomers celebrate “the anti-social, marginal and alienated.” They do, but mostly just now and then, nostalgically or ostentatiously. They aren’t consistently celebrating marginality or alienation in contemporary America. They’re watching mainstream TV, buying mainstream products, and living mainstream lives in mainstream homes — although, granted, there is a certain marginality and alienation in that scenario too. What Boomers really celebrate, in their jobs and investments and other aspects of their daily lives, is what they have hypocritically carried forward from their parents (e.g., plastics; profit-fixated corporations; consumer-oriented environmental destruction; a tone-deaf elite). The Phora thread also seemed to overstate the case where it held that Boomer women are more promiscuous than women of other generations. Twenge et al. (2014) found that numbers of sexual partners rose in each generation, from those born in the 1900s through those born in the 1960s, and then declined somewhat for those born in the 1980s and 1990s — but that the latter still reported more sexual partners than those born in the first half of the 20th century.
The core of this study was the finding that divorce rates have dropped since 1979 in direct connection with the rising age of women at first marriage. The point wasn’t that no other factors would have an effect, even if age at first marriage had stayed the same. It was that divorce rates are likely to drop when women can take their time and choose without being compelled (by e.g., pregnancy, finances, societal expectations), and when they have also matured and have accumulated more education and experience in relationships (e.g., tending toward more civil disagreements). Implicitly, it would help that their partners, typically a few years older, would also have matured in the meantime. Male maturation may truly be the most important factor of all. For aging Boomers, of course, the age-at-marriage factor might explain many of their youthful divorces; but it would not explain a continuing high divorce rate in their 50s and beyond.
This chapter was very informative on the historical background of high divorce rates in the 1960s and 1970s. It appeared that the atypically low rates of the 1950s may have created a backlog — may, in fact, have fed into the creation of an unprecedentedly oppressive concept of the housewife. Matthews (1987, chs. 2 & 8) contrasts the status of the homemaker in the mid-19th and -20th centuries:
When the home acquired so diverse and expanded a set of roles in the early nineteenth century – political, religious, emotional, and social – it ceased to be automatically taken for granted by men. Indeed, by 1850 the home had become a mainstay of the national culture. . . . [The home] provided a touchstone of values for reforming the entire society. The epic style of domesticity then resonated in the minds of middle-class women and impelled them to participate in crusades outside the home. . . .
[By the 1930s,] housewives were being told to abjure any interest in changing the world . . . [and also] much more explicitly than ever before to render personal service to their husbands and to be dependent . . . . Pearl Buck was shocked by the low status of American women when she arrived in the United States [in 1935] after having spent most of her life in China. . . . [Her 1941 book] anticipated many of the points that Friedan would make some twenty years later. . . . She began by asserting that “women’s influence is almost totally lacking in the centers of American national life.” A woman’s feminine qualities were “despised” . . . . “More serious to woman even than the removal of the need for her physical labor is the fact that she is no longer the spiritual and moral influence she was once to man and child in the house.”
In another post, I contrast the market’s treatment of housework circa 1980 against the words of women who were calling for a revaluation of domesticity. One quote in that post (supplied by Federici, summarizing conditions circa 1975) says,
It is not an accident that most men start thinking of getting married as soon as they get their first job. This is not only because now they can afford it, but because having somebody at home who takes care of you is the only condition not to go crazy after a day spent on an assembly line or at a desk.
In their early years, most Boomers may have been raised in an untenable domestic environment that put fathers in a position of excessive power, latitude, and responsibility — in effect, making them into machines whose need for marital partnership would be replaced with the spoiling, ersatz consolation of servitude from wives and children alike. I suspected, but did not investigate, the possibility that male entitlement of the mid-20th century derived in part from subordination of so much of society to the demands of two world wars, in which what men did, and what they needed, took precedence over everything else. Matthews ascribes similar weight to industry — which, like war, was preoccupied with expected male contributions to national priorities.
Looking back, it is unsurprising that the reactions of young people (above) and feminists would be so severe. Young women, taught that wives can be treated as baggage, predictably overreacted — sometimes to the detriment of their own cause, undermining (among other things) claims of superior female emotional capacity — with a comparable hostility to the concept of partnership with a husband. Young men, attempting to proceed within what they were taught of the traditional role that (abuses aside) many women expect of them even today, variously responded to feminists’ frequently harsh attitudes with an incoherent mix of resistance, disorientation, and, ironically, submissive acceptance of what women felt men should say and do. In short, to varying degrees, both men and women of the Boomer generation got much of what they thought they wanted, or were supposed to want. They got deliverance from some parts of the traditional program — at the cost of having to patch together a crazy quilt of things their parents taught them, that they decided not (or were unable) to reject, and things they truly rejected from their parents’ example, where their alternative was not necessarily workable. To an extent unmatched by other generations, Boomers have had to make it up as they go along — not necessarily because they actually prefer being lost, as some sources (above) imply, but often just because their lives have served as the testing ground for the feminists’ understandable but nonetheless radical lurch into a new world. Seen thus, it is not surprising that divorce rates for subsequent generations would drop, as some traditions and expectations become settled again, resolving some of the uncertainty, confusion, and bad ideas sewn into Boomer perspectives.
In light of updates to Hackstaff’s historical account, marriage in America appears to be like a slow-moving multicar auto accident, with the parties and their machines getting knocked in one direction by one historical cataclysm, only to be banged back in a different direction by some new force entering the scene. Somewhere in the middle of that pileup, the male-centrism and psychological scarring of cumulatively extreme experiences with war and the workplace, bringing new benefits and harms to American life, ran into the female-centrism and social scarring of extreme feminism. That collision smashed midcentury traditional marriage; pieces went flying off in random directions. The good news is that, in a number of ways, men and women alike have benefited. Most notably, women (and to some extent men) have been liberated from domestic abuse previously considered normal; people are no longer condemned to spend the rest of their days in tragically unsuitable conditions. Unfortunately, some of the pieces broken loose in the collision are still in motion; we have yet to see what condition they will be in, when they finally come to rest. It presently appears good that one piece sent flying is that of celibacy and/or singlehood — the reduction, that is, of the expectation that everyone must pair up and/or be having sex regularly. It also appears good that women can get jobs and make money — although my other post presents quotes from women who do not consider that liberating at all, in an economy that loots workers. It is good that so many women are able to function as their families’ primary or sole breadwinners — especially if society in general, and the relevant women in particular, prefer socioeconomic circumstances in which the relevant males can be so widely unwelcome in such families, or unable to obtain or retain employment paying enough to make them the primary or sole breadwinners.
In response to several of those points, unfortunately, Angier portrays a growing dichotomy between marriage for college graduates and marriage for everyone else. For college grads, marriage has increasingly become a capstone event. The woman with a college degree has rarely had a child before marriage; the man has even more rarely served time in prison; more than ever, both are typically white; both are relatively likely to have put their finances in order before deciding to marry. According to Pew Research Center (Wang, 2015), the probability that a first marriage will survive at least 20 years is higher for men with a college degree than for men with a high school education or less (65% vs. 50%); the contrast is much sharper for women (78% vs. 40%). Perhaps reflecting the educational factor, Asian women (of any education, on average) have a 69% probability of reaching their 20th anniversary, as compared to 37% of black women.
It is important to understand that, as with other statistics cited in this post, these numbers do not mean that education causes improved marital outcomes. These are correlations. People who happen to have a college degree also happen to have a better chance of staying married. That could be because the people who go to college tend to be better suited for marriage in the first place — more diligent, responsible, cautious, or whatever it takes to stay married. But in that case, even if you aren’t personally diligent, responsible, or cautious, perhaps you could still improve your odds of avoiding divorce by going to college, where at least you could meet a partner who is. Note also that the percentages cited in the preceding paragraph come from a statistical estimation technique that assumes future marriage patterns will be similar to those of today.
Having a first child while unmarried is much more likely for women without college degrees. From this college graduate’s perspective, that is unfortunate in multiple ways: such women tend to earn less than women with degrees; they are apparently less likely to have a reliable long-term partner with whom to share the burdens of raising the child; and their childcare burdens give them less opportunity to work toward a degree or other career advancement. Lower-income children are also more likely to have a parent in prison, and to wind up in prison themselves. Hence the “complexity and churning of households” Angier mentioned for lower-income parents.
The difference in projected 20-year marriage survival rates, between college-educated men and women (Wang, 2015, above), is presumably possible because many of their first-time marriages involve partners for whom this is not the first marriage. It appears college-educated women are doing a better job than college-educated men, and non-college women are doing a worse job than non-college men, in choosing a partner with whom they can make it work. Given that the percentages of those who never marry are noticeably higher for men than for women, it appears that, for college-educated women, making it work is more likely to entail rejecting a never-married man in favor of a previously married man. That would be consistent with the option, traditionally more appealing to women, of marrying a noticeably older partner. On that subject, a search leads to an analysis finding a median age difference of just two years, between husband and wife — but also a graphical skew suggesting that substantial numbers of women do choose husbands somewhat older than that, though rarely (~9%) more than ten years older. This leads to a question of whether never-married women are more likely than never-married men to poach on someone else’s marriage. If the answer is yes, it presently seems the percentages would not be large — that a potentially small minority of women would resort to (or, at least, would succeed in) this strategy. Such a scenario would nonetheless be consistent with the general impression that husbands are more likely than wives to cheat on their spouses. There is usually a woman involved in such cheating. A reasonable surmise would be that occasionally such a pattern pays off for the interloping female.
I found Miller’s article occasionally elitist. For instance, she said, “Modern marriage is more stable because people are again marrying people suitable to the world in which we live.” First, “modern marriage” (whatever that is) is not more stable when, in Miller’s own words, “[D]ivorce rates are closer to those of the peak divorce years” of the 1970s and 1980s, for people who don’t have college degrees. Her reference to “people suitable to the world in which we live” actually seems rather offensive. It simplistically assumes that the person doing the picking has the knowledge and wisdom necessary to decide who is “suitable” to this complex world — more specifically, to imply that the working-class males she describes are particularly unsuitable. Her phrasing suggests a belief that neutral, nondescript “people” (in Miller’s position, perhaps) are qualified to accept or reject “people” (such as those working-class males). Such beliefs would be more convincing if Miller’s own chart did not show that the divorce rates of people who married in the 2000s are still a bit higher than the divorce rates of people who married in the 1960s, at the same point in their marriage, or if white women like Miller did not continue to have higher divorce rates than Asian women.
Wang & Parker (2014)
When Miller referred to “modern marriage,” she may have intended the view of an economist she quotes: “It’s just love now. We marry to find our soul mate, rather than a good homemaker or a good earner.” That view would not be consistent with the finding that 78% of never-married women (vs. 46% of never-married men) considered it “very important” that their prospective spouse have a steady job. In response to that finding, Wang & Parker cited certain economic realities facing women. They noted the near-parity of women’s wages with men’s, such that women do not appear to have a vastly greater need for a financially stable partner; the radical drop in men’s participation in the labor force in recent decades; and the fact that there were now only 91 young, employed, never-married young men per 100 never-married young women. There was also the increasingly tenuous nature of much contemporary employment. To get past the limited number of men considered acceptable, some of those unmarried young women could choose older and/or previously married men. But that route would have even more severe limits. Combining all age groups, the other Miller article reports only 65 employed, unmarried men for every 100 unmarried women. Similarly, employment aside, Time indicates that, among Americans with a college degree, unmarried women outnumber unmarried men throughout most of the country in every age group — sometimes substantially so. Among Americans without a college degree, that is true only among those who are middle-aged or older. Another source provides a nice map confirming that, for women, the pickings grow increasingly slim after age 40. While it can help to marry at a more mature age, there is the countervailing concern that, at some point, all the good ones are taken — that, for men and women alike, the choices are better when you don’t delay the choosing too long.
Those considerations might not matter to a woman who did not plan to marry. But Wang & Parker reported that 53% of never-married adults did want to get married eventually, that another 32% were not sure, and that the current projection is that, in fact, about 75% of today’s young adults will marry eventually. The numbers could nearly sort themselves out if, by some magic, the eligible, employed males all went to the women who considered a steady job very important. But it probably won’t work that way. Some employed men may not wish to be viewed as a meal ticket, may not want kids, may not wish to support a housewife, may gravitate toward women of comparable ambition, or may not have enough of the other things women want. It seems, in short, that a substantial number of young women who presently consider it very important that their partner have a stable job — who are still insisting upon a traditional criterion that, nowadays, seems potentially exploitative — are as much out of touch with contemporary realities as the men who are so often maligned for failing to adapt to the modern economy.
Among the overwhelming majority of women who feel that a potential husband must have a steady job, those who don’t find a desirable candidate will face a choice. Ultimately, either they will marry or they won’t. Some won’t — due, perhaps, to the pop wisdom that “no relationship is better than a bad relationship,” where “bad” is defined as including a steady job. Those who do “settle” for a man without a steady job may do so for a variety of reasons: they may come to prefer a house husband, may decide they have adequate funds of their own, may believe that a presently underemployed man will probably find a job eventually, or may decide that love is the main thing — that, financially speaking, they will figure out a solution along the way.
There is, in other words, the prospect that what never-married women claim is “very important,” when window shopping, may not prove to be what their choices finally say. There is support for this possibility. Pew Research Center (Wang, 2013) found that adults under 30 strongly favor a dual-income marriage over a breadwinner/housewife marriage (72% vs. 22%). That is more true of women than men (78% vs. 67%, averaging out to 72%). But where the wife is under 30, marriages are actually less likely to be dual-income than where the wife is between 30 and 50 (57% vs. 62%). The reason appears to be that the younger marriages are more likely to have young children at home, and that one parent (usually the wife) chooses to stay home with them. In other words, the ideal seems to allow for exceptions. Similarly — leaving aside the case of the young unmarried male who plans to never work again — one would expect realistic young women to recognize a difference between present unemployment and unemployability.
Wang & Parker found varying opinions on the importance of marriage. Less than half (47%) of Americans felt that it was very important for couples to marry if they planned to spend the rest of their lives together; another 21% felt that was somewhat important. Those numbers imply that almost one-third of Americans feel that it is not particularly important to marry if you plan to spend your lives together. Given a choice between two propositions, 55% of people aged 50+ preferred this one: “Society is better off if people make marriage and having children a priority.” By contrast, 53% of those aged 30-49, and 67% of those aged 18-29, preferred the alternative: “Society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children.” The latter conclusion appeared to represent an outcome of the feminism of the 1970s — which, according to Hackstaff, encouraged wives to become self-sufficient, so as not to be left in poverty if their husbands abandoned them.
Cohabitation may be more suited than marriage to an environment favoring investment in oneself rather than in one’s relationship. Nolo advises that state laws typically assume separate assets unless cohabiting partners have deliberately combined their assets. Alimony is unlikely, but child-related issues (e.g., custody, child support) are the same as for married couples. Nolo encouraged cohabiting couples to sign “living together” agreements. The Christian Science Monitor (Hanes, 2013) noted that conditions were generally better for kids and parents in traditional families — but also pointed out that, of unmarried women who had given birth within the year prior to one survey, 30% said they were a partner in an unmarried partner household.
Wang & Parker noted that cohabitation has become increasingly common: nearly three times more people were doing it in 2012 than in 1996; cohabitation now accounts for about a quarter of never-married young adults. Hackstaff notes that, already by the mid-1980s, married people aged 30-34 were eight times more likely than married people over 60 to have cohabited. At present, within three years after starting cohabitation, 58% of cohabiting couples have married, 23% continue to cohabit, and 19% break up. Miller’s (2014) graph indicated that a 19% breakup rate, within the first three years, was about five times worse than the ~4% of marriages that have ended in divorce within three years — for any generation since the 1960s. Rosenfeld (2015) found that that breakup rates per year were 1.2% for married couples, 9.4% for cohabiting couples, and 30.3% for unmarried noncohabiting couples. Guzzo (2014) found that, “Compared to earlier cohabitations, those formed after 1995 were more likely to dissolve, and those formed after 2000 were less likely to transition to marriage.” Among numerous sources on termination of cohabitation, the Washington Post (2011) cited a report finding that children are far more likely to spend time in cohabitation than to see their parents divorce, and that they achieve significantly worse results on “many social, educational, and psychological outcomes” in cohabitation than in a marriage (see also Princeton/Brookings 2015). Musick & Michelmore (2015) found that cohabitation not followed by marriage is much less stable and increasingly the best available option for lower-income people. It appeared, in short, that the second-wave feminism of the 1970s had resulted, over the long term, in a situation in which children were increasingly at risk of the psychological damage of divorce described by Wallerstein (2004).
College-educated young women are 77% more likely than cohabiting young women without a high school diploma to progress into marriage by the three-year mark. Given the trend toward treating marriage as a capstone project most available and successful for the college-educated, these numbers suggest two somewhat distinct philosophies toward cohabiting: go into it with the planning and seriousness needed for a successful marriage, or just try it to see what happens. At their extremes, these philosophies would juxtapose the young person who enters into cohabitation with a person s/he would probably marry right now, if necessary, against the young person who is basically shacking up with the first halfway decent candidate who came along. The choice of philosophies is probably influenced by the number and quality of available candidates. For instance, the prospects of successful cohabitation, for a person of high quality but low education or income, may be lower than the prospects of successful cohabitation for a person of poor character but high education or income — because, regardless of one’s own qualities, it takes two, and money and status count. Wang (2015) observed that the probability that a first marriage would survive 20 years was 46% for women who cohabited first vs. 57% for those who did not. Again, that number would not prove causation. Those who chose to cohabit first may have done so because of reasonable uncertainty that they and/or their partner were mutually committed and otherwise ready for marriage.
Some of the foregoing observations were different for minorities. Wang & Parker said that Hispanics over 25 were 63% more likely than whites to have never married; for blacks, it was 125%. Blacks were 32% more likely than whites to consider marriage very important, for couples who planned to live their lives together. While blacks are more likely than whites to consider a steady job very important, there were only half as many never-married young black men with a steady job as never-married young black women. The rates at which first marriages end in divorce were 2.2 times higher for blacks, and 1.8 times higher for whites, than for Asian-Americans (which group notably includes South Asians favoring at least semi-arranged marriages). While the vast majority of whites claim some not to care about their partner’s race, their actual marriage choices demonstrate an overwhelming preference for their own kind. White women seemed more discriminatory than white men: 70% more likely to insist on a partner with a steady job (above), 23% more likely to require a partner who shared their moral and religious beliefs, and 43% more likely to say they prefer someone of their own race.
It occurred to me that, combining the never-married and the divorced and widowed, there must be quite a few unmarried Americans at present. To clarify that issue, the Washington Post (DePaulo, 2016) said that 45% of the adult population is now unmarried, and that 47% of households are maintained by unmarried people. Both of those numbers rose by about one-sixth in the past decade. Never-married people account for nearly two-thirds of all unmarrieds. The Post cited Pew and other sources for the claim that most unmarried people do not live alone, but instead live with friends, family, or others. The Pew source (Fry, 2016) found that roughly a third of adults aged 18-34 lived with their parents, another third were married or cohabiting in their own household, and the final third were living alone, were single heads of household, or were in other (e.g., roommate) situations.
Overall, the situation for marriage thus appears to be that people are less likely to ever get married now than at any time in the past 140 years; that men are about 35% more likely than women to never marry, and that nearly a quarter of all men now fall into that category; that people who don’t marry have much greater social freedom to cohabit or, instead, to remain single; and that cohabitation eventually leads to marriage for a majority of participants, favoring those who take it seriously as a major step toward marriage. Factors contributing to the reduced rate of marriage appear to include the reduced birthrate, to the extent that people marry rather than cohabit in order to lay a long-term foundation for childrearing; fear of divorce, often born of personal experience or observations of divorcing friends or their parents; increased education, deferring marriage to a more mature age and exposing the individual to other possible life plans; cohabitation as another way of deferring if not replacing marriage; and financial difficulty, given a growing impression of marriage as something that one prepares for over a period of years.
Intimate Partner Violence
At this point in my inquiry, I had not entirely finished reviewing the material set forth in the preceding section. But I saw that my review was moving past the stage of just understanding and reacting. I did want to continue to work through the rest of what the foregoing sources had said. But I also wanted to start pulling together some more general impressions. Therefore, I decided to turn to specific issues, drawing upon all of the preceding sections, and also upon materials that add to the foregoing sources.
Originally, I hoped to explore several of the major reasons for divorce. Various informal and scholarly sources listed a variety of such reasons (e.g., Scott et al., 2013; Hawkins, 2012; Huffington Post (Payne et al., 2015). Those reasons, with or without empirical support, included being unable to communicate, money issues, domestic abuse, infidelity, lack of commitment, substance abuse, marrying for the wrong reasons (e.g., money, sunk costs), submersion of one’s own identity into the other, pursuing one’s own role (e.g., husband) to the point of neglecting the couple relationship, change of expectations upon marriage, pulling back from shared intimacy, expecting the other person to change in order to restore one’s happiness, and failure to agree on ground rules for conflict. It appeared that the dominant reasons could vary according to the couple’s particular situation. For instance, the CNN article written by Schwartz (above) was focused on Baby Boomers’ reasons for divorce; for European immigrants into the U.S., Furtado et al. (2013) found that home-country culture (e.g., high-divorce Russia vs. low-divorce Italy) affected likelihood of divorce in the U.S.; and McNulty (2014) concentrated on causes of divorce among expatriates in Singapore (notably, existence of a core issue before going abroad (e.g., alcoholism) that becomes exacerbated later, and negative influence of an expatriate culture resulting in behavior that neither partner would have indulged back home (e.g., infidelity)).
Unfortunately, at this point, I found myself running short of time to continue that investigation of multiple reasons for divorce. From my exploration of one such reason — namely, domestic abuse, discussed in this section — I saw that a careful exploration of reasons for divorce could require extensive time and attention. The resulting material would probably be better placed into one or more separate blog posts or articles, part of which would have to grapple with definitional problems of causation. Did the infidelity cause the loss of communication, or was it the other way around? and so forth. As such, I seemed to be arriving at a focus, or a set of foci, that departed from the general-purpose reading for which this post was intended. But I did decide to keep this section’s review of domestic abuse in this post, because I had written it as a piece of this post and because it did offer some insights contributing to this post’s purpose.
So at this point, I turn to that specific topic. From the start, in my reading, I saw that a variety of terms — including domestic violence, domestic abuse, intimate partner violence, battering, and wife beating — have been used, since the 1960s, to describe overlapping aspects of the general problem of physical, psychological, or other forms of harm caused to one’s partner or to others in one’s household. As discussed in a previous post, women’s advocates have been known to indulge definitions that grossly overstate or distort what the ordinary reader might assume such terms mean. In some cases, it appears that the real goal is not necessarily to reduce or end harm done by one spouse to another. The real goal may be to use a real social issue as an excuse to build a nonprofit advocacy organization, or to advance some other agenda from which one can draw a salary. For example, Tierney (1982, p. 210) examines “how social movements can construct social problems” — specifically, how “wife beating has been transformed from a subject of private shame and misery to an object of public concern.”
Without denying that there have been many instances of domestic violence, and that many have been horrible, it does seem reasonable to ask whether that particular problem has been hyped. For instance, Glamour (Brody, 2011) describes “relationship violence” as “the secret that kills 4 women a day” in the U.S. That article launches immediately into the story of Alexandra Briggs, whose boyfriend hit her with a bat and strangled her. But let us back up to the number: four women a day. That would be 1,460 women per year. That’s 1,460 too many. But in the grand scheme, 1,460 is not a big number, as causes of death go. That would be about 0.06% of the 2.6 million deaths in 2014, and about 10% of the homicides committed that year (Kochanek et al., 2016, table 10). Men were the victims in almost 80% of that year’s total number of homicides (table 12). Of the 6,681 murders in 2013 for which the FBI was able to identify a relationship, only 992 (15%) were wives or girlfriends of their killers. Brody indicates that her data come from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). BJS (Catalano, 2013, pp. 1, 3) states that “From 1994 to 2011, the rate of serious intimate partner violence declined 72% for females,” and that, in 2010, only 1,192 (i.e., 39.3% of 3,032) female homicide victims were known to be intimate partners of their killers. According to Kochanek et al. (table 13), that’s about the number of women who die from a hernia. Perhaps the primary difference is that, in a typical hernia death, there is no male to blame. That 1,192 figure implies an average of about three victims per day. So Brody’s “every day” claim is false, and her number exaggerates by 33%: “The truth is, four women are killed every single day in the United States by someone they’re involved with” (her emphasis).
That discussion focuses on homicides. But the point is general. Truman & Morgan (2014, p. 3) report that rates of domestic violence are now one-third what they were in 1993 — and (although good data prior to 1993 are evidently limited, see Wilt & Olson, 1996), the 1993 level itself was apparently lower than that of prior years, thanks to feminist efforts (e.g., making divorce easier to obtain; achieving passage of major legislation in the 1980s). It appears that mass interventions (e.g., changes in laws) did discourage domestic violence. But the continuing preoccupation with intimate partner violence suggests that, by their own standards, the solutions favored by feminists — predictably oriented toward ending relationships — did not effectively resolve the problem for those who wish to be in a relationship. Even if domestic violence were a thing of the past, one might consider that it is possible to “solve” a problem in the wrong way (e.g., shooting drivers who run red lights). In such cases, the cure can be worse than the disease.
Definitions of third-wave feminism differ. But to the extent that one can consider bell hooks a key figure, for present purposes there were two core problems with the second-wave feminism of the 1970s. One of those problems was that second-wave feminism contained a radical and sometimes very influential hostility to men. Hooks (2004, pp. 6-11) puts it this way:
The reality is that men are hurting and that the whole culture responds to them by saying, “Please do not tell us what you feel.” . . . Most women do not want to deal with male pain if it interferes with the satisfaction of female desire. When [the] feminist movement led to men’s liberation, including male exploration of “feelings,” some women mocked male emotional expression . . . . To create loving men, we must love males. . . . Caring about men because of what they do for us is not the same as loving males for simply being.
The other problem was that, as Wikipedia puts it, second-wave feminism “focuses on white, East Coast, and predominantly middle-class women . . . disregarding the experiences and contributions of women of color, working-class and lower-class women, as well as lesbian women.” Slate (Miller, 2016) quotes bell hooks’ “famous 1984 denunciation of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique“:
[Friedan] did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women.
Those two problem areas — hostility toward men and indifference toward minorities and the poor — are relevant, in the present context, because second-wave feminism became a destroyer of black marriages. At the very time when black women were observing and variously adopting the demands made by white feminists, essentially making themselves less accessible, black men were becoming the perfect storm of the second wave: not white, not female, and not always calm. The Justice for Men website expresses a perspective that seems most applicable to the black men targeted by the second wave:
[F]emale displays of anger, sexual aggression, promiscuity and even physical violence, are completely tolerated and encouraged in modern society. Should a Man display any of these traits, they will be deemed antisocial and illegal. . . . Family laws, domestic violence laws and sexual assault laws highly favor women both on their face and in their enforcement. Women are rarely prosecuted for domestic violence and when a Man uses any force, even in the heat of self defense or a mutual fight, it is deemed abuse and prosecuted under the full extent of the law. . . . While many men remain jobless and unable to gain decent wages or promotions at work, even the slightest offense taken by a woman at the workforce creates the basis for an employment discrimination or unequal wage claim.
Jacobin (Law, 2014) defines “carceral feminism” as “an approach that sees increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solution to violence against women.” Law says this brand of feminism victimizes minority women as well as men in several ways: violence inflicted by police and prisons on minorities; the de facto rejection of community interventions and other solution-focused efforts to address the roots of the criminalized behaviors; and the indifference, by laws and courts, to the real-world situations of minority women (e.g., those imprisoned for violently resisting violent abuse). Kim (2013) criticizes the social work profession, in particular, for its “criminalisation of social problems” via participation in “the current policy of mass incarceration” that has
crowded out more imaginative and potentially effective responses to violence, particularly those accessible and appropriate to marginalised communities that are disproportionate targets of state violence. Despite the anti-violence movement’s commitment to social justice, the emancipation from gendered violence has become bound to the ceding of feminist power to the patriarchal and racially biased authority of the state.
In effect, the domestic violence cause célèbre has become a monster. It appears to function as a high-profile generator of funding for nonprofit organizations, book sales, and academic positions; it also gives women extraordinary and frequently unjust leverage against men throughout spheres of daily life. Men dare not do anything that would arouse the latent presumption of male power, anger, and violence. Feminists have used the supposed threat of domestic violence as a rationale for abandoning their alleged principles — for supporting the tyranny of society’s most powerful men over the least powerful men and women. Second-wave feminism has contributed greatly to various facts cited above: among other things, there are only half as many never-married, employed, young black males as black females; blacks are four times more likely to have never married, now, than they were in 1960; they are 125% more likely than whites to have never married; black children in conditions of low education and/or low income are vastly more likely to have a parent in prison.
Intimate partner violence is an issue. It does warrant serious attention and appropriate responses, calculated to achieve sensible and humane long-term solutions. But Kim is right: instead of responding to this issue with a knee-jerk anti-male agenda favoring hatred and, if possible, imprisonment for every man who can possibly be tarred with the “abuser” label, an overwhelmingly white and female profession like social work should have been true to its own supposed principles, adopting a biopsychosocial perspective that would have been emphasizing multifaceted attention to the mental health, social conditions, and physiological responses of men accused of domestic abuse. Such a perspective would have included evenhanded attention to the possibility that, in a given situation, the woman may have provoked or manipulated the situation to engineer such accusations for ulterior purposes. If feminists had taken that approach to the topic over the years, intimate partner violence might now be constructively seen as, in many cases, a symptom of one or more underlying issues, and thus as a problem capable of long-term resolution conducive to a happy married life — not as a tripwire automatically warranting immediate termination of any present or future relationship, for women who had not necessarily prioritized marital success in the first place.
The Traditional Marriage Contract
At this point in my reading, I began to realize that I might be re-encountering the view that all the good ones are taken — that the pile of young unmarried adults I encountered circa age 18 had been resolving itself, over the years, into those who were willing and able to make marriage work, and those who weren’t. Sadly, some who were suited for marriage paired up with some who weren’t, perhaps got themselves a bit scarred, and found themselves somewhat unfairly ejected onto the “loser” pile. Then again, perhaps that outcome suggested that being willing and able weren’t enough in themselves; one also needed the wisdom, luck, parental guidance, or whatever else it took to choose a partner who was equally willing and able.
As the flip side of the previous section’s lists of factors leading to divorce, a search led to sources attempting to identify factors contributing to long-term marital success. For instance, the Huffington Post (Scherker, 2014) offered a list of eight behaviors that, they said, were demonstrated to yield a lasting marriage: having a cheaper wedding; meeting online; not living on social media; watching movies together; responding to your spouse’s random, distracting comments; using the word “we” during arguments; putting your partner on a pedestal; and doing things that you both enjoy. It was not clear how many of these a person would need, in order to achieve a successful marriage. I suspected that several, at least, were shorthand for something else — that having a cheaper wedding, for instance, would be correlated with a longer marriage because these would be partners who would not tend to be trying to prove anything, looking at their marriage as a shared experience rather than a statement to the world, thinking practically about money, being considerate toward whoever was paying the bill, etc.
In their review of scholarly literature, Kaslow & Robison (1996, pp. 154-157) found multiple lists of factors contributing to healthy couples or families. Among those many factors, the authors concluded that “commitment to the continuation and growth of the marital relationship predominates in the self-reports of satisfied couples.” Amato (2014, p. 44) likewise suggested “commitment is as central to marital quality as is happiness.” Commitment to marital success did seem to be a part of many other supposedly favorable factors. For example, it made sense that partners who were determined to make marriage work would communicate, be adaptive and encouraging, express appreciation, stay connected with potentially meaningful persons in their lives, share their time with each other and enjoy doing so, cooperate, respect the spouse as a best friend, be open with each other, trust and feel safe with each other, be loyal, and so forth.
There was at least one regard in which commitment to marital success did not seem to constitute the ultimate principle of actual marital success. Several of the sources cited by Kaslow & Robinson found that a religious or spiritual orientation — also characterized as involving “faith in God” or having a “shared value system” — was an important factor. In their own study, Kaslow & Robinson similarly found that “religious convictions about the sanctity of marriage” was one of the top five or six reasons that lasting couples identified as reasons why they had stayed together. As someone who had arrived at a rather skeptical view of religion, I was not particularly eager to endorse that particular factor. It did seem plausible, nonetheless, that people might be better behaved if they believed that someone (most notably, a supreme God) was watching. For example, Scientific American (van der Linden, 2011) said that people tended toward more ethical behavior, not only when they believed a living human was watching them, but even when they were within eyeshot of a mere image of human eyes. Walters & Godbold (2014) cited the well-known Hawthorne effect, in which research subjects behave differently (usually better) when they are aware of being observed. And, of course, there was the content of religious teaching, such as Jesus’s widely quoted “What God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:6), as well as the influence of peers at church and elsewhere (Ellison et al., 2012, pp. 302-303).
But there seemed to be limits to the efficacy of religion, for purposes of marital longevity. Glass & Levchak (2014) noted a “puzzling paradox of higher divorce rates in more religiously conservative states” (p. 1002) but also found an explanation: those higher rates were linked with several factors identified (above) as contributing to higher divorce, at the county level: earlier age of marriage, lower education, and lower income. The authors observed (p. 1034) that the combination of higher rates of marriage and lower rates of cohabitation in counties dominated by conservative Protestant churches (e.g., evangelical, pentecostal) “actually serves as a pathway to lower divorce rates, not higher” — suggesting that (perhaps contrary to my interpretation, above) prior cohabitation may itself be a risk factor for eventual divorce. Glass & Levchak commented that the combination of early childbearing (including rejection of abortion and some forms of birth control), low education, and low rates of maternal employment “leads to financial difficulties that can seriously strain marital relationships” (p. 1034; see p. 1003). A high concentration of conservative Protestants within a county seems to affect community norms and institutions (e.g., schools, employers), so that conservative Protestants as well as non-religious individuals within such counties experience higher rates of divorce than in counties dominated by mainline denominations (e.g., Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian) (pp. 1034-1035). The authors noted, however, that in the counties where conservative Protestants achieved a “moral cartel” (i.e., at least two-thirds conservative Protestant), divorce rates dropped — possibly because of benefits from the resulting homogeneity in marriages and communities, or perhaps because there were fewer alternatives to the kind of marriage one is currently experiencing. Possibly that would help to explain the high marital success of Mormons (see Douthat, 2012). The upshot seemed to be that religious commitment and similarity between partners contributed to marital stability, but were not sufficient to overcome the more powerful impacts of other adversities (e.g., early marriage).
I came to the topic of the traditional marriage contract, of the kind that one might expect to be especially emphasized among religious conservatives, through Hackstaff’s (2010, p. 29) quotation of Weitzman’s (1985, p. 368) Divorce Revolution:
The new rules shifted the legal criteria for divorce — and thus for viable marriage — from fidelity to the traditional marriage contract to individual standards of personal satisfaction. They thereby redefined marriage as a time-limited, contingent arrangement rather than a lifelong commitment.
Hackstaff cautioned that no-fault divorce followed social trends; it did not, in itself, cause the rise in divorce rates, so much as affirm them. Nonetheless, she said, Weitzman was correct in identifying, as noted above, the rise of a divorce culture that prioritized gender equality, individual freedom, and personal gratification, and a therapeutic culture that prioritized self-fulfillment and private emotional growth, over the traditional marriage culture in which religious and social beliefs linked marriage with religious obedience, duties and commitments to others, and other alleged larger purposes. As an illustration of this contrast, Hackstaff cited the 80% of women in 1977 (as compared to 51% in 1962) who disagreed that parents should stay together, even if they don’t get along, for the sake of the kids. This new American marital landscape was the place in which Angier’s (2013) immigrant observed that Americans split up as soon as they feel the chemistry isn’t right. Harvard Political Review (Posada, 2012) agreed: women no longer need remain in “troubled or devitalized marriages,” nor need they feel obliged to fix them; now “they face no such constraints” to abandoning them. Posada offered the dubious consolation that rates of remarriage in the U.S. are much higher than in European countries — neglecting to mention estimates that 67% to 80% of second marriages fail, and that third marriages fail at even higher rates. Time (Scarf, 2013) attributes those higher “retry” failure rates to the challenges of blended families and to “unrealistic expectations” that the new bond will replace the lost one — but the latter criticism seemed to be another way of saying that these tend to be people who have not been good judges of character, have not understood commitment, or have otherwise lacked the essentials. Posada’s argument appeared to be, in effect, that of the merchant who loses money on each sale, but hopes to make up for it in volume. One Baby Boom crooner suggested a different philosophy: “Get it right the first time / That’s the main thing . . . You get it right the next time / That’s not the same thing / Gonna make the first time last.” The voice of experience, it seems.
In place of Posada’s belief that marriage in America is “viable, yet fragile,” it appeared that marriage in America is bifurcated: that is, the word seemed to have two different meanings. Both were different from cohabitation, insofar as Nolo indicates that marriage is a licensed albeit controversial status in every state. As noted above, state laws may treat marital property differently from property held in a non-marital relationship. There would also be the matter of a marriage ceremony, often very expensive and highly visible. But within the realm of marriage, there appeared to be a rather stark difference between the kind of marriage that would be planned and pursued with intense commitment, as one might pursue an education or a career in which one intends to excel, and the kind of marriage that one might acquire, as one might acquire a cat or a computer. Granted, there can be a lot to know about cats. But a cat remains an acquisition — at best, a limited although potentially meaningful companion, and that is not generally true of a human being chosen as a partner.
A search for insight into the difference between a relationship and a partnership led to indications that a partnership tends to be a more serious and mature undertaking: created over time; less about personal pleasure or getting what you want, and more about supporting each other; focused on trying to make something together; and based on trust, honesty, and knowledge of the other person, rather than feelings and emotional upheaval. More searching led to interesting suggestions about forming a business partnership: 1 2 3 sources advised asking questions that might be appropriate for a romantic partnership as well (e.g., Do you share similar values? Are you both moving in fundamentally the same direction? Is your partner as committed as you are? How have they dealt with past conflicts? Have they consistently met their past commitments? Will they do what’s right, especially when it’s hard?).
The problem with the partnership model was that it could be boring. For purposes of achieving a lasting marriage, it seemed the goal would be, not only to find someone with whom you could spend the rest of your life, but also someone with whom you would want to do so. Ideally, perhaps, while you were young and still had lots of prospects — that is, before all the good ones were taken — you would narrow down the search to those who would be good partners, and then see if one of those seemed capable of making a shared life worth living. For that purpose, possibly it would be helpful to start within a traditional setting, where parents, community, religion, or some other traditional persons, group, or entity would impose expectations that could screen out particularly unsuitable candidates. For example, Ramsheena & Gundemeda (2015, p. 145) indicated that Indian university students continued to value formal approval from caste and religion, as to the person they will marry, and that female students were especially likely to “look at marriage as a group or a community affair.” The innovation of “semi-arranged marriage” appeared to offer a variation in which parents or others did some initial screening, but the man and woman were allowed to verify that they actually liked each other.
But it seemed Weitzman meant something different when she referred to the “traditional marriage contract.” Further searching brought me to Singer (1997), who explained the historical difference between seeing marriage as a contract or as a status. It seemed that status, not contract, was the real “tradition”:
Traditionally, American law treated marriage as a distinct and exclusive legal status. What this means is that, by virtue of entering into marriage, individuals automatically acquired a distinct set of legal rights and obligations. . . . [Quoting the Supreme Court in Maynard v. Hill,] “Marriage is something more than a mere contract. . . . [A] relation between the parties is created which they cannot change.” . . . [Quoting Blackstone,] “By marriage the husband and wife are one person in law.”
The idea seemed to be that a married couple became a type of entity, with legal rights and characteristics unique to that entity — as would be the case with, for instance, a corporation. More accurately, marriage was literally an institution. Wikipedia explained that marriage was a primary or meta-institution, like the family, not a formal institution such as those created by government. Other institutions included religion, academia, the legal system, and the military. Rules that might apply in some parts of society would not necessarily apply in others; instead, each institution had its own peculiar rules. As Singer went on to explain, marriage was the place for sex and cohabitation; laws prohibited such behaviors outside of marriage (see Sweeny, 2014). Parties who interfered with marriage could be sued for doing so (for e.g., “alienation of affections”). A child born out of wedlock was truly and legally “illegitimate.” In the marital status, spouses could not sue or testify for or against each other. Marriage was a contract in the sense that it was something you agreed to enter into, and the unwritten spousal obligations (e.g., that the husband would provide financial support and the wife would provide household services) were contractual in the sense that you gave something and, in exchange, you got something back. But they were not contractual in the sense of being something the parties could agree to alter. Singer gave the example of a husband who tried to get something from his wife in exchange for a promise to support her. The court said there wasn’t a valid contract; he wasn’t giving anything because the law already required him to do that. Finally, Singer explained that, to terminate marriage, there had to be a reason. The law would determine whether the reason was adequate — whether, that is, one party was at fault. If both were at fault, there would be no divorce: the parties would have to remain together. The party at fault, causing a divorce, could be prohibited by law from remarrying for a certain number of years.
In short, marriage as status depended upon state intervention to enforce the key rules, while marriage as contract would leave it up to the parties to file their own lawsuits, just as if a merchant failed to deliver the goods paid for. The prevailing view seemed to be that contemporary marriage is mostly but not entirely contractual. Ertman (2015, pp. 485-486) spoke, for example, of the feelings of legitimacy and social recognition experienced by same-sex couples who were finally able to become legally married. According to Scott (1998, pp. 1227-1229), critics of contract marriage consider it “destructive of the values of caring and commitment that contributed to the stability of traditional marriage” and believe that this “limited conception of marriage leaves women vulnerable, harms the interests of children, and undermines social welfare,” while others think the problem is not with the idea of contract but rather with what no-fault divorce makes of it: the marriage vows produce an illusory contract, in the sense that there is no remedy for those whose spouses violate them. Scott said that Louisiana law had recently offered the option of choosing “covenant marriage,” which could be terminated by one party only after a substantial waiting period. Wikipedia elaborated that covenant marriage requires premarital counseling, offers limited grounds for divorce, and has been chosen by very few couples in the states offering it — raising the question, for another day, of what, exactly, people do want from marriage.
Cherlin (2004, p. 851) described two major 20th-century changes in the meaning of marriage. One was the rise, in the 1950s, of companionate marriage — of, that is, the expectation that marriage would position husband and wife as friends and lovers “to an extent not imagined by the spouses in the institutional marriages of the previous era.” This development, he said, made emotional satisfaction an important part of marital success, although that satisfaction was still largely based on the partner’s success in performing his/her marital role. But then, starting in the 1960s, companionate marriage gave way to individualized marriage, in which the notion of sacrificing oneself to one’s partner was replaced by an emphasis on self-development, expression of feelings, and open communication. These emphases had been especially visible in the 1900s and again in the 1950s, but in one study were encountered about twice as frequently in the 1970s. (Note: Amato (2014, p. 42) suggests that companionate marriage actually originated in the late 19th century, and that truly institutional marriage was epitomized in the pre-industrial rural American household, where parents and children alike worked together to survive.)
Cherlin suggests the development of individualized marriage pointed toward the pursuit of the “pure relationship.” Sokolski (2015, pp. 67-68) summarized that concept, from Giddens (1992), as a relationship based on agreement, always open to renegotiation, between free agents seeking to achieve their own aims, with no expectation of permanence and no tolerance of domination or submission. Sokolski contrasted that “confluent love” against the “romantic love” championed by Bourdieu (2001). While Giddens considered romantic love a matter of “neurotic co-dependence” (Sokolski, p. 68), Bourdieu considered Giddens’ views “absolutely unworkable” (Sokolski, pp. 70-71):
One cannot create a balanced relationship just by asserting his will to do so, and no amount of therapeutic work can help individuals to change the habitus instilled into their bodies. The only possible breach in the rights of male domination can be made by love, pure and simple. . . . [Bourdieu’s] ‘Postscript on domination and love’ contains an almost ecstatic apotheosis of the selflessness, reciprocity and trust achievable only by two loving individuals.
Sokolski (pp. 71-75) seemed to capture the quandary (above) involving the choice between the solid but boring marriage partner and the ill-advised but intensely romantic urge — and also, perhaps, the difference between marriage as a flexible, individualized, and self-serving contract or as an enduring, shared, and private institution:
[B]oth Giddens and Bourdieu claim that love presumes hard work. . . . [Giddens emphasizes] developing the self and maintaining intimate communication with the other . . . . [while, for Bourdieu,] [p]ersonal boundaries are not to be established but abolished, as the main focus rests on removing the very possibility of [taking advantage of one’s partner] by attaining the unity of loving subjects. . . . The true [Giddensian] lover expects his partner, first and foremost, to offer him a ‘fair deal’. . . . [I]n theory, at least, everyone can be a good partner/lover if (s)he is willing to work hard enough. . . . [Underlying Giddens’ views is the assumption that one’s humanity depends on] freedom from any relations with others except those relations which the individual enters voluntarily with a view to his own interest. . . . [T]he unique, charismatic traits of the beloved individual should be treated, at best, as some kind of extra romantic ‘flavour’. . . . [From Bourdieu’s perspective, Giddens’] pure relationship is still a market relationship masquerading as love. . . . [The romantic alternative is] the gift of self and of one’s body, a sacred object, excluded from commercial circulation.
Well. That was some heady material. When I started reading about marriage and divorce, I certainly didn’t expect to get distracted by talk of love. Seriously, there did seem to be a question of what, exactly, is being preserved and encouraged in one’s preferred form of marriage. This thought reminded me that, as I was reading these materials, I became increasingly aware that perhaps what was wrong with marriage, for at least some of us, wasn’t us: it was the system in which we had to try to make marriage succeed. Unless there could be multiple approaches to marriage — offered, perhaps, in the experimental laboratories of different states with different laws — there might always be a certain percentage of us for whom marriage just didn’t work. The earlier discussion of divorce rates in the most highly evangelical counties suggests that states reinstitutionalizing marriage might have to do a rather thorough job of it, if they were to create conditions sufficiently conducive to the fostering of Bourdieu’s intensely dyadic form of love.
Cherlin (2004, pp. 853ff), who got me into all that, was puzzled as to why marriage remained so popular, such that 90% of Americans would still get into it eventually. I suspect he wonders that no longer: as noted above, the rates are projected to drop to 75% for today’s young adults. He did seem nonetheless to present some accurate impressions: that marriage retains a symbolic significance; that it has evolved (or at least is evolving) “from a marker of conformity to a marker of prestige”; that it remains particularly valued among people of lower income. Cherlin attributed that to their desire for social status, but it also seemed that lower-income people might lack enthusiasm for the Giddensian market mentality, clinging instead to the traces of security offered by marriage as institution. He was not sure “why affluence should lead to more religious weddings” (p. 857). One sad possibility was that people would want to buy as many markers of authenticity as possible.
Later reading seemed to suggest that traditionalism is resurgent — that traditional marriage may be resuscitated, that it may prove incorrect to project that 25% of today’s young people will never marry. Twenge et al. (2014) had found that, even in the 1970s, very few (apparently less than 5% of) Americans felt that extramarital sex was “not wrong at all,” and that this percentage had dropped to roughly 1% by 2012. Van Hooff (2016) spoke of “the recent hardening of attitudes toward infidelity” and described infidelity as “the lone area of adult sexual practice that is disapproved of under any circumstances,” within the interviews she conducted. (Compare e.g., Psychology Today, 2015; London & Wilmoth, 2014.) Van Hooff suggested that this attitude arose from views regarding “the ‘specialness’ of sex and the centrality of trust and communication” in contemporary relationships.” She construed this as an indication that relationships have not necessarily been as “detraditionalized” as one might expect from articles on the spread of “hookup culture” (e.g., Garcia et al., 2012; Treas et al, 2014). Traditional marriage seemed to get an unexpected boost by the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. According to Pimentel (2016),
Justice Kennedy’s opinion in the case provides great support to the concept that marriage is something to be encouraged, revered, and protected, and that families benefit from the security that marriage provides. The proliferation of alternatives to marriage—e.g. civil unions, domestic partnerships and designated beneficiaries—has contributed to the ongoing erosion of marriage as a meaningful legal institution, but because these options were created mostly to accommodate same-sex couples, who now have full access to marriage, they may now be swept aside. Clarity in the law will benefit from a return to bright-line rules, where nothing less than marriage itself qualifies individuals to enjoy and claim (1) legal status as a couple, gay or straight, and (2) the benefits that come with such recognition. At the same time, this would better serve the state’s stated interest in promoting the security and stability of family relationships. In this sense, the Obergefell decision may not signal traditional marriage’s demise as much as its rebirth, in an incarnation that is at once more inclusive and more robust.
Hong (2015) seemed to say that, until Obergefell, the right of privacy — the right to be free from governmental interference — was essentially an excuse to leave gay couples alone, to fend for themselves in states that refused to recognize same-sex marriage. Hong said Obergefell recognized that the harm done to gay couples was actually a lack of governmental interference: “Under the guise of privacy, State intervention then becomes a
powerful tool to obtain needed benefits and protections.” Taken together, these sources raised the prospect that the idea of treating marriage as a consumer good had been tried and was in the process of being rejected — that no-fault divorce might be more restricted, that it could eventually join other 1970s experiments that taught us some things, changed some things, but could not be fully sustained forever.
Areas Needing Further Exploration
The foregoing readings and inquiries taught me a great deal. At this point, it seemed that my future reading in the area of marriage and divorce would tend to be more focused on single issues, as these last few sections have been, and as such might be more usefully be divided out into separate posts. I did have some remaining notes and questions, though, and I wanted to wrap those up.
I did not get to the questions of who initiates divorce, and what that tells us. Sources (e.g., Miller, 2014; LaBier, 2015) said that women initiate two-thirds of all divorces. Rosenfeld (2015) said wives have predominated in seeking divorces since data started being kept in the 1940s. He said this was not because women were more sensitive to difficulties in the relationship. If that were true, he said, women would also initiate most nonmarital relationships. But they don’t: only in marriage do women initiate breakups more frequently than men. Rosenfeld said wives have also consistently reported lower marital satisfaction than husbands over the past several decades, and suggested that the problem arose from the “stalled gender revolution” theory identified by Hochschild & Machung (1989). Cotter et al. (2011) summarized that theory as the view that progress toward gender equality stalled in the 1990s in a variety of areas, including “employment, earnings, occupational and educational segregation, gender attitudes, housework, and political office holding.” Cotter et al. proposed, instead, that a new “egalitarian essentialism” was emerging, in which “equality meant the right of women to choose – so choosing a stay-at-home mother role could represent as much of a ‘feminist’ choice as pursuing an independent career.” Later, however, Cotter & Hermsen (2014) observed a resumed rise in public attitudes favoring gender equality in several such areas. I noticed that their research focused on attitudes as distinct from manifested realities. Two examples of what I mean:
- They asked whether people felt that a preschool child would suffer if the mother has a job. That is a worthy question, but it is different from the question of whether the child actually does worse. The authors seemed to assume that it was just a question of how long it would take various types of people (e.g., less-educated) to catch up to the widely reported findings that children of working mothers actually do better. But they don’t. For example, Psychology Today (Cummins, 2015) criticized our good friend Miller (2015) at the New York Times for misstating research findings, and summarized the research as demonstrating, in fact, that “daycare is beneficial during the first year of life only for low-income single mothers who are overwhelmed from trying to do it all themselves.” Miller acknowledged but did not seem to apply another Times piece (Wolfers, 2015) suggesting that “when parents spend high-quality time with their children, their children are more likely to succeed.” Hence Cotter & Hermsen were wrong in approving the change in attitudes on the preschool question. Research presently seems to indicate that preschoolers do suffer if their mother works.
- They asked whether people consider it better if the man works at a job and the woman stays home and takes care of the family. Here, again, they spoke as though it was good that people are steadily less likely to prefer that situation. But this is a question of values. Its answer can depend on factors beyond the gender relationship between man and woman. For instance, several sources quoted earlier in this post suggest that it may in fact be better for the children, the marriage, and/or the community if women’s lives are not subjected to depredations of the workplace. The feminist insistence on getting women into the workforce may ultimately prove damaging to women and to the society in which they live. This concern has a pedigree. Influenced by his exposure to Nazi Germany, Fromm (1955, p. 15) referred to what he called “the pathology of normalcy” in a sick culture: “the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.” Fromm (1944, p. 383) quoted the view of Spinoza (1677, Part IV, Prop. XLIV) regarding the “socially patterned defect”: we would consider someone mentally ill if s/he has a gross preoccupation with something — but we make an exception if that preoccupation is greed or ambition. Ratner & El-Badwi (2011) suggest that the wide acceptance of female subjugation in contemporary Saudi Arabia is an example of social pathology. But we need not go so far afield. When large majorities of Americans are persistently concerned that things are not going well in the U.S. (Gallup, 2016), it may be reasonable to ask whether majority attitudes on social values provide reliable guidance to desirable outcomes. In other words, Cotter & Hermsen may be simply wrong in implying that real progress for women requires a more pervasive insistence that women should not choose to be homemakers.
I got into all that because Rosenfeld referred to the stalled gender revolution theory. That theory implies that revolutions are best continued indefinitely. That is not intuitively obvious. One would expect, rather, that revolution would create damage and chaos on the road to change, and that those involved in such matters would pause at some point to review what they have done, and to decide whether the wreckage should continue. For instance, the American revolution of 1776 led, within a short time, to a decidedly non-revolutionary governmental establishment replacing what went before. Rather than continue to glorify the feminist revolution of the 1970s on to its 50th anniversary, it seems more plausible that society would eventually regroup around a new conception of what is desirable. There are many reasons, some advanced in this post, why a simplistic continuation of second-wave feminism would be undesirable. In Rosenfeld’s specific argument, women have substantially remade marriage and, more to the point, divorce. Shouldn’t we stop and look at what has resulted? For instance, we hear talk of reinstitutionalizing marriage because women, themselves, have been harmed in some ways by the brave new world of no-fault divorce. LaBier (2015) praises younger couples for forming “more egalitarian” cohabitations in place of the older generations’ marriages — but, as noted above, those cohabitations break up more easily. No doubt it does often feel oppressive to have to take care of a husband as well as a baby. But we can’t have everything. If you want the baby and you want to be funded while you take care of it, it is not unreasonable to hope for socialized child care. I presently suspect that should be wrapped into the universal basic income. But until that materializes, the traditional (and, in most cases, the apparently superior) solution has been: the family. Not just the woman and the child, and the guy off on his own somewhere.
On a related note — continuing, here, to burn off the remaining sources and questions I didn’t have time to explore in detail, in this post — it would be refreshing to encounter a scholar who actively considers the possibility that today’s women suffer from feminist expectations. In the era of “peak divorce” — used, as with other similar terms (e.g., peak oil) to indicate the time of maximum divorce output, circa 1979 — there may have been a need for (or it may have been impossible to avoid) a tidal wave of divorces; it may have been necessary to process them in rapid if haphazard fashion, through innovations like no-fault divorce. It may also have been unavoidable, and in many ways it has been undeniably good, that women would not be automatically expected to prioritize “our marriage” over “my career,” in an environment that would not reliably reward them for doing so. But the wrenching change from traditional marriage to the new world sought by feminists has long since been largely complete. With continuing but relatively small improvements since the 1980s, women have been free to prioritize their own careers and to seek divorces as they see fit. Many important messages have been sent to men and to society as a whole; many major changes have been made. And yet the outcomes raise questions about the route taken. Women want good marriages, but they can’t have them — not only because of flaws in men or changes in society, perhaps, but also because they have developed, for themselves, a culture highly critical of men, pessimistic about marriage, and often quite hasty about bailing out. It is not clear, at this point, that women benefit from continuing in words and behaviors that discount commitment in practice.
I did wish I had more time to investigate the possible consequences of Hackstaff’s remarks (above) regarding the impact of therapeutic culture indulged primarily by women. It seemed it might not be a coincidence that women were the primary consumers and producers of that culture, and that they were also the primary seekers of divorce. As a former student of law and religion, I did believe it was possible for people to talk themselves into almost anything. For instance, there seemed to be a strong female assumption that the only respectable response to a cheating husband is to abandon one’s marriage. I can’t explore it in this post, but to illustrate the attitude I had toward my own wife’s infidelity, Bielski (2016) presents the story of Cristina:
She would soon learn that her husband of 10 years had been seeing another woman for five of them. . . . For the sake of their two children, the spouses sought couples’ therapy . . . . Her husband’s therapist had given him three choices: to divorce, or remain in the marriage and not mend anything, or rebuild the marriage entirely. Husband and wife chose No. 3: to construct a new marriage out of the rubble of their first.
“I didn’t feel a shame in staying,” Cristina explains. “It was a place in life where you re-evaluate everything and realize if something makes you unhappy, do something about it. . . .
Cristina and her husband are two in a growing cohort of couples for whom infidelity is proving not to be a dealbreaker. But rather than staying together for the sake of the kids, adopting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach or going full-on polyamorous, these spouses are putting in the work to rebuild marriages.
Along with them, a community of researchers, authors and therapists now hazards that extramarital affairs – long considered the greatest betrayal – don’t have to be intolerable, but can in some cases strengthen a marriage, jolting spouses out of bad, familiar habits. While it’s not an approach for everyone (and not when an incorrigible cheater is involved), marital reinvention is a consoling option for spouses who want to return to monogamy after it’s been ruptured.
More broadly, a number of thinkers are beginning to reconsider how, culturally, we process infidelity. They are calling on couples to get more realistic about the viability of long-term monogamy. Shining a harsh light on how starry-eyed we are, they argue that our expectations of absolute fidelity are mounting, even as new threats proliferate.
It was ironic that this long discussion never got around to a focus on infidelity. The topic is mentioned, here and there, in the foregoing materials, and I did think I would ultimately get back to it — it was, after all, the reason for my own second divorce — but my exploration of intimate partner violence (above) persuaded me that infidelity, and other reasons for divorce, could be quite complex and, as such, would grow beyond the time I presently had available for writing this post. So, for now, I will close that topic with brief mentions of a few sources that emerged along the way. One was the large-scale genetic analysis by Larmaseau et al. (2013) finding that, contrary to the hypothesis that infidelity could have superior evolutionary outcomes, extra-pair paternity (i.e., female infidelity) has accounted for only about 1% to 2% of births in Western Europe over the last few centuries. Another subtopic of note is that there is some variation in the estimated rates of, and reasons for, marital infidelity. Munsch (2012) attributes this variation to differing research methods and to differing concepts of what counts as cheating. For example, YouGov (2015) found that 21% of men and 19% of women admitted cheating on their partners (not answering the question: 12% of men and 10% of women), but also found that men were at least 10% less likely than women to consider it cheating if they kissed someone, had webcam sex with a stranger, sexted, or had a purely emotional relationship with someone else. Men were far more likely than women to cheat due to dissatisfaction with their sex lives, while women were somewhat more likely than men to cheat because they felt flattered by the attention or emotionally deprived in their relationships; few of either sex admitted cheating for the thrill or because of an inability to commit to one partner. Contradicting that last point, the Huffington Post (Gallagher, 2014) cited research finding that many wives cheat due to sexual boredom. Bloomberg (Bass, 2013) cited an established national survey for the conclusion that about 21% of husbands and 15% of wives admitted having had an extramarital affair. But Munsch (2012) pointed out that people often feel pressure to understate behavior considered socially undesirable; he cited a study finding that married women (Whisman & Snyder, 2007) were nearly six times more likely to admit having been unfaithful during the past year when the question was presented through a computer-based survey than in a face-to-face interview (which is what that established national survey uses). Munsch suggested that good studies have found that 20% to 25% of American men, and 10% to 15% of American women, admit having engaged in extramarital sex at some time during their marriages, and that less than 3% of adults say they have done so within the past year. Munsch recommended that research in this area would be improved if researchers focused on subgroups (e.g., age, race, education, income, culture, opportunity), because subgroup rates of infidelity vary considerably.
In connection with the stalled gender revolution theory (above), it was intriguing to encounter occasional indications that woman do not necessarily want fully domesticated guys. For instance, the Washington Post (Schulte, 2014) cited a study finding that sexual satisfaction declines when the guys do the bulk of the housework. The ceaseless whining about getting men to do more of it may be a reflection of an intellectual (or at least media) failure to consider alternate hypotheses, such as the possibility that both parties subconsciously resist full domestic equality because, for most American adults, it would signal an undesirable kind of maleness. A Reddit post said, “Women want men who are better than them, superior to them, otherwise they do not find him attractive – a guy at the same level can sometimes be tolerated, usually met with hate or indifference, a guy beneath her is detested.” I felt there was some truth to that. (See Roosh (2012) for an account of his own alleged seduction techniques, in various countries, to underscore what he seems to consider the pathology of American female preferences.) With a particular interest in Baby Boomers, I also wondered if the sometimes feminized hippie males of the 1960s were in various regards especially unmoored or alienated from their fathers’ views and examples and, as such, might be overmatched by particularly persuaded by and/or vulnerable to feminist attacks, in a sort of betrayal of or poor advocacy for the kinds of men that they, themselves, would ultimately want or prove to be. Again, unfortunately, there was not sufficient time to explore those thoughts in this post.
Pending a detailed re-reading of the foregoing remarks in the areas of tradition and conservatism, it seemed to me that there was room for further exploration of an approach to marriage that one might call Tradition 2.0, representing a combination of what worked in traditional marriage plus reforms aimed at the dysfunctionalities that produced the women’s movement of the 1960s. Among other things, I did not fully understand a concept of marriage that would entail careful preparations for everything except the quality of the relationship itself. It seemed obvious that marriage would succeed only if its participants were demonstrably determined to make it succeed. While the sources reviewed above seemed impressed by the relatively high rate of success achieved by marriages of the more privileged classes, it seemed to me that they were still failing at an appalling rate. Commitment to one’s partner and to one’s marriage as an institution — as distinct from commitment to one’s personal advancement — seemed essential to achievement of marital success. While there were obviously major problems with traditional marriage, it seemed that a great many relationships of trust would be undermined by a legal arrangement in which the spouse to whom you had entrusted your most personal information would be very likely to turn against you, and would find it advantageous to use that information to your detriment.
I wondered whether experts had considered treating marriage as a sort of professional status, where one accumulates additional certifications or higher levels of licensing as one passes certain milestones, defined in terms of years of experience, training courses completed, or tests passed. I could imagine a sort of Boy Scout merit badge scenario in which some wives or husbands would have the Infidelity Survivor award, some would have earned the Ten-Year Pin, and so forth. The accumulation of relevant credentials could be relevant to the pursuit of more advanced marriage licenses, to reduced health insurance costs, to eligibility for marriage insurance, and to qualification for certain kinds of employment. Such treatment could help to regularize such marital crises, in the sense of removing them from the chaos and amateurism of random chit-chat with persons of dubious expertise, and putting them rather on a more solid footing. We have empirically supported treatments for alcoholism; we have empirically supported treatments for infidelity. Such approaches might also provide perspective on such crises, placing them in context within a larger preoccupation with making marriages work, as distinct from glorifying cheating, scorning abusers, and otherwise responding as a child might. Within such a focus on marital success, it might be possible to incorporate attention to risk factors (e.g., marrying too young; marrying in conditions of financial risk; marrying without a sense of connection to one’s community, one’s God, or some other party whose judgment one respects and whose position enables direct observation of what is going on).
I didn’t get back to the particular situation of the Baby Boomers that had been on my mind at the start of this post. That was OK — I was learning a lot about aspects of marriage that would apply to them as much as to anyone else. It did seem that Schwartz and others cited at the outset were wrong in placing the blame for the Boomers’ marital confusion solely on the Boomers themselves. I did mention that their leaders were older, and that to some extent they had the misfortune of coming of age at a time of massive cultural clash between marriage as status vs. marriage as contract, and between philosophies of selflessness embodied in the ideal of traditional marriage vs. philosophies of selfishness arising in response to the realities of traditional marriage as a raw deal for abused or jilted women. At this age, I could see that Boomers were in a bind. It wasn’t so much that they were just “messing around like lifelong teens,” as the Phora discussion thread put it. It was that they had always been a generation oriented toward youthfulness — specifically, their own — and they were having a hard time conceptualizing that in light of an old age that might last a very long time, and for which their parents’ example had not always prepared them very well. None of this excused the fact that the Baby Boomers had always been a cluster, and were now approaching the moment of their consummation. Nor did it really help me very much. I do remember thinking, as I went through some of the foregoing materials, that maybe I should learn to put up with more crap in a relationship, though there was also reason to think that I had already overdone that.