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The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today

Written by Andrew J. CherlinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Andrew J. Cherlin

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On Sale: December 08, 2010
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-77351-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

The Marriage-Go-Round illuminates the shifting nature of America's most cherished social institution and explains its striking differences from marriage in other Western countries.

Andrew J. Cherlin's three decades of study have shown him that marriage in America is a social and political battlefield in a way that it isn’t in other developed countries. Americans marry and divorce more often and have more live-in partners than Europeans, and gay Americans have more interest in legalizing same-sex marriage. The difference comes from Americans’ embrace of two contradictory cultural ideals: marriage, a formal commitment to share one's life with another; and individualism, which emphasizes personal choice and self-development. Religion and law in America reinforce both of these behavioral poles, fueling turmoil in our family life and heated debate in our public life. Cherlin’s incisive diagnosis is an important contribution to the debate and points the way to slowing down the partnership merry-go-round.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

chapter 1

65

How American Family Life Is Different

On Valentine’s Day in 2005, Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who would gain recognition in 2008 as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and his wife, Janet, converted their marriage to a covenant marriage in front of a crowd of 6,400 at an arena in North Little Rock. The governor was aware that few Arkansas couples were choosing the covenant option—of the first hundred thousand or so marriages that had begun since it was introduced in 2001, about six hundred couples had chosen it. In Louisiana and Arizona, the other states that offered covenant marriages, the take- up rate wasn’t much better. Advocates for covenant marriage claimed that many couples were unaware of it and that the laws had been poorly implemented. Even so, the numbers were far smaller than anyone expected. Those who chose Arkansas’s option agreed to undergo premarital counseling. They also agreed that if either spouse ever requested a divorce, they would attend marital counseling before splitting up. And they agreed that neither spouse could obtain a quick divorce based on “no-fault” grounds such as incompatibility. Only if the other spouse had committed a serious transgression such as adultery or physical or sexual abuse could a covenant-married person ask for an immediate divorce. Otherwise, the person who wanted out had to wait at least two years for a divorce.

In order to breathe life into this moribund option, the governor had announced his intention to enter into a covenant marriage and invited others to join him. “This law allows couples to choose to be held to a higher level of marital commitment,” he said in a radio address promoting his rally. At the event, thousands of married couples, many bused by their churches, filed into the arena as love songs played on the public address system. After the governor and his wife exchanged vows, they asked the couples in the audience to stand and face each other, and they led a mass recitation of vows. Only the Huckabees’ ceremony legally counted as a covenant marriage, however, because couples who are already married must submit an affidavit to the county clerk in order to convert their marriages, and according to news reports the logistics had proven too complicated for the churches that were supporting the rally. Nevertheless, the governor, a former Baptist pastor, had made his point: there was too much divorce in Arkansas and people’s commitment to their marriages needed to be strengthened.

Governor Huckabee’s concern about the divorce rate in Arkansas, which led him to sponsor the Valentine’s Day covenant marriage rally, was well-taken. In 2004, for instance, Arkansas had the second-highest number of divorces per person of any state (after Nevada, a divorce destination that does a brisk business with out-of-state visitors). But Governor Huckabee may not have known that Arkansas also had a large number of weddings. In 2004, it had the third-highest per capita rate of marriage (after Nevada and Hawaii, two popular wedding destinations). With much divorce and much marriage, Arkansas exemplifies the American pattern.

That a state in the Bible Belt—Arkansas is well above average in church membership—has a high rate of marriage may seem unremarkable; by contrast, its high divorce rate may seem odd. Yet six of the ten states with the highest divorce rates are in the South, and the other four are in the West. George W. Bush carried all ten states in the 2004 presidential election, which suggests that having a socially conservative electorate does not insulate a state from divorce. It is true that people who are religious are less likely to divorce, but religious Americans still have high divorce rates by international standards. Moreover, people in high-divorce states tend to have less education, to marry earlier, and not to be Catholic—all of which are risk factors for divorce. That’s why Arkansas stands out: it has one of the lowest percentages of high school graduates and of Catholics, and one of the lowest median ages at marriage, of any state.

Both marriage and divorce contribute to the larger picture of a country in which people partner, unpartner, and repartner faster than do people in any other Western nation. They form cohabiting relationships easily, but they end them after a shorter time than people in other nations. They tend to marry at younger ages. After a divorce, they tend to find a new partner more quickly. In other words, having several partnerships is more common in the United States not just because people exit intimate partnerships faster but also because they enter them faster and after a breakup reenter them faster. We know these facts from the work of demographers using the Fertility and Family Surveys, a remarkable set of surveys conducted between 1989 and 1997 in European countries, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States (as well as from other surveys in Great Britain and Australia, two countries that were not included). In each nation researchers asked a large, random sample of individuals comparable questions about their marriages, divorces, and cohabiting relationships.

Why, you might ask, did researchers go to the expense and trouble of carrying out these surveys throughout Western Europe and overseas English-speaking countries? The answer is that enormous changes have occurred in family life not only in the United States but also throughout the Western world in the past half century (and in much of the rest of the world, too, for that matter). People everywhere are concerned about the future of the family as they know it. In the Scandinavian countries and in France, cohabitation is even more common than in the United States, and a large proportion of all births occur to cohabiting couples—more than half of first births in Sweden. Divorce rates have increased, too, although not to the height seen in the United States. But what drives European concern is not the decline of marriage but rather the decline in births. It’s hard for Americans to understand this concern because we don’t share it. American women have enough children to maintain the size of our population, even ignoring immigration. In many European countries, in contrast, women are having fewer births. Countries such as France and Germany have long been concerned with keeping their populations up so that they can field armies large enough to defend themselves. More recently, they have been concerned about having enough working-age adults to care for their growing elderly populations.

In the United States, however, the concern is about marriage, and the Fertility and Family Surveys have much to say about it. To compare, say, current divorce rates across countries, ideally we would interview a sample of people who get married this year in each country, follow them for the next several decades, and see how many become divorced. But no mere mortal has the time to wait that long. Instead, demographers use the “life table” method, so called because one of its first uses was to estimate how long people would live so that insurance companies could determine how much to charge them for life insurance policies. It can be used to estimate the expected “survival” time of marriages, cohabiting relationships, or periods of singlehood. Its estimates will be inaccurate if conditions change greatly in the future. Essentially, the life table answers this question: if conditions stay the same as they have been recently, how long would we expect a marriage, a cohabiting relationship, or a spell of being single to last?

The American Difference

Here are some comparisons that can be made between women in the United States (the American survey did not include men) and in other Western nations in the mid-1990s, when most of the surveys were conducted:

• Americans marry and cohabit for the first time sooner than people in most other Western nations. Half of all first marriages occurred by age twenty-five in the United States, compared to age twenty-nine in Italy, thirty in France, thirty-one in Sweden, and thirty-two in the former West Germany. In part, ages of marriage are older in Europe because in some countries more young adults cohabit prior to marrying. Yet even if we consider the age at which half of all first partnerships of either kind (marital or cohabiting) occur, American women were relatively young: age twenty-two, compared to twenty-one in Sweden, age twenty-three in France, twenty-six in West Germany, and twenty-eight in Italy.

• A higher proportion of Americans marry at some point in their lives than in most other Western nations: 84 percent of American women are predicted to marry by age forty. In contrast, the forecast drops to 70 percent in Sweden and 68 percent in France. (For technical reasons, all of these forecasts are likely to be somewhat lower than the actual percentages who will ever marry.) If we consider both marital and cohabiting relationships, however, over 90 percent of women in nearly all countries will eventually begin an intimate partnership.

So Americans begin to have partners at a relatively young age, whereas many Europeans wait longer. And Americans turn those partnerships into marriages—or marry without living together beforehand—much more quickly. In France and the Nordic countries, in contrast, young adults tend to live with partners for several years before marrying, if they marry at all. In some southern European countries, such as Spain and Italy, living together prior to marrying is less common, and many young adults live with their parents well into their twenties before marrying. Other English-speaking countries are more similar to the United States, but people there still marry at somewhat older ages and are less likely to ever marry over their lifetimes.

• Marriages and cohabiting relationships in the United States are far more fragile than elsewhere. After only five years, more than one-fifth of Americans who marry had separated or divorced, compared to half that many or even fewer in other Western nations. And among Americans who began a cohabiting relationship, over half had broken up five years later (as opposed to remaining together, whether they subsequently married or not), which is a substantially higher figure than in other nations. Whether they started a partnership by marrying or by living together, Americans were less likely to be living with that partner five years later.

• Because of these fragile partnerships, American children born to married or cohabiting parents are more likely to see their parents’ partnership break up than are children in most other countries. Forty percent experienced a breakup by age fifteen. About the same percentage experienced a breakup in New Zealand. In Sweden, the country with the next-highest rate, the comparable figure was 30 percent; it was in the high twenties in western Germany and Canada, and the low twenties in France and Australia. Children born to cohabiting parents in the United States and New Zealand faced exceptionally high risks of experiencing a breakup: about three- fourths no longer lived with both parents at age fifteen. But even if we look just at children born to married couples, American children were more likely to see their parents break up. In fact, children born to married parents in the United States were more likely to experience their parents’ breakup than were children born to cohabiting parents in Sweden.

Without doubt, then, there are more breakups of married and cohabiting couples in the United States than in any other Western country with the possible exception of New Zealand. So not only do Americans marry more, they also divorce more. Moreover, they end their cohabiting relationships more quickly. So they start and end partnerships with a speed that is virtually unmatched.

• After their breakups, American parents are more likely to repartner. Consequently, children in the United States who have seen their parents’ partnership end are more likely to have another adult partner (cohabiting or married) enter their household than are children living elsewhere. In the United States, nearly half of children who had experienced the breakup of their parents’ marriage or cohabiting relationship saw the entry of another partner into their household within three years, a much higher proportion than in Sweden (where one-third see a new partner within three years), West Germany

(29 percent), France (23 percent), or Italy (8 percent). In fact, American children spent more of their childhoods in stepfamilies than did children in continental Europe, Canada, or New Zealand. As a result, American children experienced not only more breakups but also more new adults moving in with the biological parent who cared for them.

• American women become parents at an earlier age and are much more likely to spend time as lone parents in their teens or twenties than are women in Western Europe. By age thirty, one-third of American women had spent time as lone mothers; in European countries such as France, Sweden, and the western part of Germany the comparable percentages were half as large or even less. But children born to lone parents in the United States are also more likely to experience a parent’s new partner moving into the household than in some other countries, including France, Sweden, and Germany. So more lone-parent families started, and more ended.

What all these statistics mean is that family life in the United States involves more transitions than anywhere else. There is more marriage but also more divorce. There are more lone parents but also more repartnering. Cohabiting relationships are shorter. Over the course of people’s adult lives, there is more movement into and out of marriages and cohabiting relationships than in other countries. The sheer number of partners people experience during their lives is greater. Jeffrey Timberlake has estimated the percentage of women in each country who had three or more live-in partners (married or cohabiting) by age thirty-five. These were women who may have lived with a man and then perhaps married him and had children, divorced him, lived with another man (partner number two), ended that relationship, and then lived with or married yet another man (partner number three). In most countries, the percentage of women who accomplished this feat by age thirty-five is negligible: almost no one in Italy or Spain, less than 2 percent in France or Canada, and 3 percent in Germany. The highest figures elsewhere were 4.5 percent in Sweden and 4 percent in New Zealand. But in the United States, 10 percent of women had three or more husbands or live-in partners by age thirty-five, more than twice the percentage in Sweden and New Zealand and several times the percentage anywhere else.

The Impact

From a child’s perspective, experiencing three or more parental partnerships would imply a scenario such as being born to a lone mother who later marries the child’s father, then divorces him and starts a cohabiting relationship, then ends that relationship and lives with someone else. The percentage of children who experienced three or more mother’s partners by age fifteen in the mid-1990s was less than

2 percent in every other country except for Sweden, where it was 3 percent. But in the United States, it was 8 percent. So about one out of twelve American children saw at least this many transitions in their living arrangements. The number of children who experienced exactly two parental partnerships (but not three) is considerably higher, and again the United States led with 21 percent, compared to 16 percent in Sweden, 11 percent in Canada, and 8 percent in France. Nowhere else did children see so many adults come and go.


From the Hardcover edition.
Andrew J. Cherlin|Author Q&A

About Andrew J. Cherlin

Andrew J. Cherlin - The Marriage-Go-Round

Photo © Will Kirk

Andrew J. Cherlin is the Benjamin H. Griswold III Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University and is the author of Public and Private Families. His articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, and on the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications. He has been a recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and the Distinguished Career Award from the Family Section of the American Sociological Association. He lives in Baltimore.

Author Q&A

Q: What led you to write THE MARRIAGE-GO-ROUND?

A: I had the sense that American marriage and family life differed fundamentally from the other Western countries—Western Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand—in a way no one was writing about. Some observers have focused on changes in marriage, others on divorce, and others on non-marital births. But I realized that you have to look at the whole picture—all of these aspects together—to appreciate what was happening. We have more marriages and remarriages, more divorces, and more short-term cohabiting (living together) relationships than the other countries. Put them together and you have more turnover, more movement in and out of relationships than anywhere else. As a result, Americans have more spouses and live-in partners over the course of their lives than do people in any other Western country. We step on and off the carousel of marriages and partnerships faster than anywhere else.


Q: You were already well versed in the subject of marriage in America, as you have been studying families and public policy for much of your career. Did any of your discoveries surprise you as you wrote THE MARRIAGE-GO-ROUND?

A: I knew that our divorce rate was higher than in other countries, but I didn’t realize how much higher than even in supposedly vanguard countries such as Sweden. One statistic that stunned me: take two children, one growing up with married parents in the United States, and one growing up with unmarried parents in Sweden—which child has the higher likelihood of seeing his parents’ relationship break up? Answer: the American kid, because children living with married parents in the United States have a higher probability of experiencing a break-up than do children living with unmarried parents in Sweden. That’s how high our break-up rates are.


Q: One of the main trends THE MARRIAGE-GO-ROUND discusses is that Americans have more long-term partners than the rest of the western world. Why do you think this is?

A: I think the reason is the nature of American culture, which is unlike the culture of any other country when it comes to marriage and personal life. Americans believe in two contradictory ideals. The first is the importance of marriage: we are more marriage-oriented than most other Western countries. The second is the importance of living a personally fulfilling life that allows us to grow and develop as individuals—call it individualism. Now, you can find other countries that place a high value on marriage, such as Italy where most children are born to married couples and there are fewer cohabiting relationships. And you can find countries that place a high value on individualism, such as Sweden. But only in the United States do you find both. So we marry in large numbers—we have a higher marriage rate than most countries. But we evaluate our marriages according to how personally fulfilling we find them. And if we find them lacking, we are more likely to end them. Then, because it’s so important to be partnered, we move in with someone else, and the cycle starts all over again.
Also, we start and end cohabiting relationships at an even higher rate. If you are living with someone outside of marriage, and you are personally unhappy, you are supposed to end the relationship. Our cohabiting relationships are shorter than in any other country. It’s not as though some Americans value marriage and others value individualism. Rather, we carry both ideals in our heads and switch between them without even realizing it. These ideals have been part of American culture since the colonial era. The early New England settlers believed that marriage was the center of civil society; but they also believed in individual initiative and, unlike the Church of England or the Catholic Church, they allowed divorce.


Q: When single parents have multiple relationships, what effect does the repeated coupling, breaking up, and re-coupling have on their children?

A: American children face much more movement of parents and parent-figures in and out of their households than do children anywhere else. Take children who see three different fathers, stepfathers, and/or mother’s boyfriends in their homes by the time they are fifteen. The percentage of American children who live with thatmany partners is 8 percent, which is three times as high as the next highest country (Sweden at 2.6 percent). In Canada and many European countries, less than 1 percent of children experience that much family turnover. Most children can cope with this much movement of people in and out of their homes, but some of them can’t. They show more behavior problems, such as being disobedient or, for older children, skipping school. Not only can it be difficult for a child to deal with a parent moving out of the home, but it can also be difficult to deal with the mother’s new boyfriend moving into the home. The new man may take some of the mother’s attention away from the child, and he may not invest much time and effort in caring for the child. We know that children living with remarried parents do not have a higher level of well-being than do children in single-parent families, despite the presence of a second adult. And children residing with a parent who is just cohabiting with a partner may have the lowest well-being of all.
In other words, the lack of stability, the number of transitions they have to adjust to, may not be good for kids. I would guess that children who live with a single parent who quickly re-partners but soon ends the partnership are often worse off than children who live with a single parent who remains single.


Q: Single parents now abound. Some women now choose to become mothers without mates; more still find themselves raising their children alone as their partners opt out of parenting (or take a much smaller role.) It’s well known that about half of all couples who marry end up divorcing. Is marriage still practical or necessary? Why is it still so common?

Fifty years ago you had to be married to be a respectable adult in the United States. Today, marriage is optional—you can get most of your emotional and economic needs by living with a partner—and single parents can also get by. But oddly enough, marriage is, if anything, more important than ever to people as a symbol of having made it in life—of having a successful personal life. Most young Americans still want to get married, but they do it onlywhen all the other steps to adulthood are in place—when they have completed their education, when they and their partners have jobs, when they have saved up enough for a down payment on a house, or even have had children together. Marriage used to be the first step into adulthood, but now it is the last. It’s the capstone of personal life—the final brick put in after all the others are in place.
So marriage is still important, but in a different way than in the past. It’s a symbol of personal achievement—the ultimate merit badge, the marriage badge.


Q: Why is same-sex marriage so debated in the United States? How does this compare to other countries?

A: Same-sex marriage has been more of a battleground in the United States than in most other countries because marriage is more important to Americans than to people in other countries. Same-sex marriage is sometimes portrayed as a legal rights issue—the right to file taxes together, visit partners in the hospital, etc. Those rights are important, but that’s not the main issue. If the fight were only about legal rights, then civil unions would be sufficient. They are not sufficient to gay and lesbian activists in the United States because of the great prestige of marriage. The real issue is symbolic: who gets to wear the marriage badge. In some European countries, gay and lesbian activists are asking instead: why, at this late date, should we buy into the oppressive, archaic institution of marriage? But in the United States many advocates say that only a marriage ring guarantees first-class citizenship. And they are right, because marriage matters more here than elsewhere.


Q: How has globalization (and the resulting shifts in employment in the US) affected family life and marriage? What (if any) effects do you anticipate as a result of the current economic meltdown?

A: Globalization has caused the loss of the kinds of jobs that a person could do without a college education, such as working on the assembly line at a factory. As a result, fewer young non-college educated men feel that they have the kind of decent-paying steady jobs that could help support a family. They are less likely to think that they have the earning power to get married, and their girlfriends agree with them. What we have seen, then, is a decline of marriage among blue-collar Americans and the rise of two-parent, cohabiting relationships where the partners have children together but are postponing marriage. These partnerships have a high risk of breaking up. I think that’s why we see more multiple partnerships among the working class than among any other group. Blue collar men and women are still trying to marry, to live the American dream, so they start more partnerships, and eventually enter into more marriages, but many of these relationships fail.
The current recession is only going to make this problem worse. Unemployment rates have risen the most for younger workers because firms can more easily let them go. As the job market for young, blue-collar workers crumbles, we will see less marriage and more cohabitation.


Q: It appears the Obama administration hasn’t decided whether they’ll continue the $5 million media campaign to promote marriage. Are they sending the right message and ultimately improving family life?

A: Marriage is important. But “get married” should not be our sole message to Americans. We should spend less time promoting marriage and more time supporting stable caregiving in children’s lives. The two are not the same. Let me explain: I agree that it makes sense to help young unmarried couples who have just had a child together get married if that is their goal. But it makes less sense to encourage a single mother to remarry because she probably won’t marry the father of her children—who she has already broken up with—but rather some other man.We know that the new stepfamily that would be formed would not improve the lives of children. And if that family breaks up, the children would be forced to adjust to yet another change in their households. So I urge us to supplement the “get married” message with another message: “slow down.” See the traffic light of singlehood as yellow rather than green. Don’t rush into having children with a boyfriend/girlfriend or a partner you’ve recently started living with. If you are already single and raising children, choose your next live-in partner or spouse carefully. Introduce your partner gradually to your kids; and don’t try to make him an instant parent.


Q: Why is this message to “slow down” so important when it comes to relationships and longterm partnerships?

A: Because I am convinced that it would be in the best interest of American children. Most children are resilient and can adjust to what life brings them. Most will do OK if they face a series of exits and entrances of adults into their households. But having three or four changes in who is living with you seems to raise the risk of unwanted effects such as behavior problems. If it were your child, you might not want to raise that risk, even if it’s still likely that your child would do all right. That’s why I think the “slow down” message is important.

Praise

Praise

“A landmark new book.” —Time

“Intriguing. . . . Provocative. . . . Cherlin has come up with an original thesis [to explain] this peculiar paradox—we idealize marriage and yet we’re so bad at it.” —The New York Times
 
“A masterful comparative analysis. . . . Cherlin argues that Americans have a distinctive pattern . . . which stems from our simultaneous commitments to marriage and to self-expression and personal growth.” —The American Prospect

“Cherlin is one of America's leading experts on the family. . . . His book delivers a stern warning to this fast-paced conjugal culture: ‘Slow down—watch out for the children.’” —Commonweal

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