The new divorce divide

There is good news and bad news on the marriage front in America, and the poor are having the worst of it.
W. Bradford Wilcox | 17 September 2009
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Along with other social goods, stable marriages are becoming the preserve of wealthier and better educated Americans. In this interview with MercatorNet, Professor Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, gives an overview of divorce trends and explains why strengthening marriage in working-class and poor communities is the biggest challenge now confronting America (and much of the West) when it comes to family life. For a fuller discussion of the subject we recommend Professor Wilcox’s essay, The Evolution of Divorce, published in the inaugural issue of the journal National Affairs last week.

MercatorNet: What is the big picture for divorce in the United States? Are the statistics getting better or worse?

Bradford Wilcox: When it comes to divorce, I report in “The Evolution of Divorce” that the statistics are getting better in the United States. Divorce has fallen modestly since 1980, after more than doubling from 1960 to 1980, and it continues to fall. Couples who marry today have a divorce risk that is estimated to be in the low 40s in percentage terms (up from about 20 per cent in 1960, and down from about 50 per cent in the late 1970s). This means that children who are born today in marriage have better odds of growing up with both of their parents than did children born in the 1970s.

That is the good news. But there are two important pieces of bad news to report on the marriage and divorce fronts.

The first piece of bad news is that marriage is becoming more and more selective, with the well-heeled and the religious still marrying, and the poor and working-class and the more secular-minded steering clear of marriage in larger numbers. Consequently, more and more children are being born outside of wedlock. Approximately 40 per cent of American children are now born outside of marriage. The future facing these children born out of wedlock is often bleak. Because most of their parents will not stay together, a clear majority of these boys and girls will grow up without the benefit of being raised in the same home with both of their parents. They will face higher risks of depression, delinquency, dropping out of high school, and the other problems associated with being reared apart from one parent, usually their father.

The second bit of bad news is that divorce has continued to rise since 1980 among those couples without college degrees (even as it has fallen dramatically among couples with a college degree over this same period).

So, we have a “marriage gap” emerging in the U.S. between relatively well-off adults (and their children) fortunate enough to be tied together by lifelong marriage and relatively disadvantaged adults (and their children) who are not enjoying the benefit of a stable family life centered around lifelong marriage.

MercatorNet: Why do so many marriages fail; what are the main drivers of divorce today?

The main drivers of divorce today are diverse: infidelity, dissatisfaction with the level of emotional or sexual intimacy in one’s marriage, a desire to get a new start in mid-life, financial problems (including male unemployment), difficulties juggling work and family, abuse, and so forth. Many of the challenges facing couples are perennial challenges that have confronted spouses since the beginning of human history. Some of them revolve around different approaches taken by men and women to relationships, some of them revolve around the financial challenges facing couples (especially low-income couples) in the new economy, and some of them are related to navigating the challenges our culture throws at contemporary marriages—from internet pornography to a desire to “have it all” in work, family life, and leisure.

The bottom line here is that the West’s current preoccupation with personal happiness often conflicts with the value of marital permanency.

Bradford Wilcox: But if we step back from the particulars here and reflect on the deeper cultural and economic forces driving divorce (and the retreat from marriage among the working class and the poor), I think two developments are particularly important.

First, as I point out in my National Affairs article, wages for men without college degrees have fallen since the 1970s, even as wages have risen for college-educated men. This means that working-class and poor men are less attractive as husbands, are less likely to see themselves as husbandly material, and are less likely to be effective providers for their families if they do marry. This economic dynamic helps to explain the growing “marriage gap” in America.

Second, much of the West was transformed by the psychological revolution that washed over our societies in the late 1960s and 1970s. Now, more and more men and women expect their marriages to deliver personal fulfilment and to meet their deepest needs for purpose and happiness. Of course, many marriages and spouses do not measure up in the face of these rising expectations for marital intimacy and happiness. And so a lot of spouses start heading for divorce court when they think they are no longer happy in their marriages, or when they think someone else will deliver more wedded bliss to their lives. The bottom line here is that the West’s current preoccupation with personal happiness often conflicts with the value of marital permanency.

MercatorNet: The idea of "staying together for the sake of the children" seems to have disappeared. Is divorce always bad for children? Is there evidence that children from broken homes do worse than those from intact families?

Bradford Wilcox: Yes, it is true that most adults today do not think that spouses should stay together for “the sake of the children.” They think their children will do best if they are happy, even if that means divorcing the mother or father of their children.

But this self-serving view of (married) life typically does not fit the facts. According to research by Paul Amato and Alan Booth at Penn State, about one third of divorces involving children are associated with high levels of marital conflict—screaming matches, physical abuse, etc. In these divorces, children do better when their parents part ways.

But two thirds of divorces involving children are associated with low levels of marital conflict—one spouse is unhappy, both spouses have drifted apart, or one spouse thinks the grass would be greener with someone else. In these cases, children are more likely to suffer from a range of maladies—from depression to drug abuse. Moreover, their faith in marital permanency is often shattered, as well as their ability to trust others, because they have watched their parents break their wedding vows for what seems to them no good reason. Consequently, children from these homes are much more likely to divorce themselves, compared both to their peers from high-conflict marriages that end in divorce and to their peers from intact, married homes.

Overall, children of divorce are 89 per cent more likely to divorce than their peers who come from intact, married homes. So one of the sad legacies of divorce is that it dramatically increases the odds that one’s children and one’s children’s children will suffer the sting of divorce.

MercatorNet: The adults are happier, though, when they get out of a failing marriage?

Bradford Wilcox: It depends. As I point out in the piece, the spouse who leaves a marriage on their own accord often ends up happier. But the spouse who is left behind—especially when that spouse has committed no major breach of their marital vows—is often unmoored by the experience of divorce.

And the emotional and financial stress associated with divorce takes a toll on all parties to a divorce. The science is clear about this. Men and women who divorce often take a serious financial and medical hit from the divorce and all of its consequences.

MercatorNet: Advocates of easy divorce used to argue that it would boost the general quality of married life, as abused, unfulfilled, or otherwise unhappy spouses were allowed to leave their marriages. Has this actually happened?

Bradford Wilcox: No, marital happiness has fallen since the 1970s, when the divorce revolution got into full swing, even though we have supposedly been “weeding” out all the bad marriages. The reason? Many married couples now face a cloud of uncertainty, distrust, and insecurity hovering over their marriages, as easy divorce, or unilateral divorce, has become the rule of the land.

Many married couples now face a cloud of uncertainty, distrust, and insecurity hovering over their marriages, as easy divorce, or unilateral divorce, has become the rule of the land.

Studies indicate that husbands and wives now invest less financially and emotionally in one another in the wake of the no-fault divorce revolution. It makes sense, of course. The average person, for instance, is less likely to put his or her spouse through graduate school, knowing that he or she could leave without cause at any point in the future, and do so without too much hardship to himself or herself.

But lower marital investments bring lower marital returns. In other words, because spouses are more likely to hold something back in contemporary marriages, they are also less likely to enjoy the full level of trust, emotional security, and financial partnership that a strong marriage can deliver. And so we have seen average reports of marital happiness fall in the wake of the divorce revolution.

MercatorNet: What is it that wealthy and educated Americans can see about marriage that the less privileged cannot?

Bradford Wilcox: I think many younger, college-educated Americans have gotten the message from studies, their own family experiences, and the elite media that divorce is costly for themselves and their children. They realize that a divorce puts their home, their children’s collegiate future, and their retirement at real risk. So more and more of these middle and upper-class Americans are taking more care with their marriages than the Boomers did in the 1970s. And we are seeing the fruit of this cultural shift in more advantaged communities. This is encouraging.

But we now need to think about how to encourage working-class and poor Americans to strengthen marriage in their communities. This is the biggest challenge now confronting America (and much of the West) when it comes to family life.

MercatorNet: Do you think, like some marriage advocates, that no-fault divorce laws should be overturned? What else can be done to strengthen marriage?

Bradford Wilcox: There is no going back to the divorce laws of yesteryear. No-fault divorce will not be repealed. But I think we can make divorce law more just by factoring in marital conduct into decisions about custody, property division, and alimony on a more consistent basis. What is crazy about our current system is that one spouse can, for instance, commit adultery and then walk away with primary custody of the children and a substantial share of the marital property. This is patently unjust. Some lawmakers, jurists, and family lawyers are beginning to think about ways to make the divorce process more just. If they succeed, this would also have the indirect effect of reducing divorce because people would be less likely to divorce in an opportunistic fashion if they know they will pay a serious price when it comes to child custody or the division of marital property.

I present other cultural and policy suggestions to strengthen marriage in my National Affairs essay. But let me also add, given the growing marriage gap between the rich and the poor in America, that we need economic or tax policies that will strengthen the financial fortunes of poor and working-class families. After all, strong marriages are built on strong values and a strong financial foundation. This is something that conservatives—who usually think only about the cultural dimensions of our contemporary family challenges—need to be particularly attentive towards.

W. Bradford Wilcox is Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and Senior Fellow at the Institute for American Values.

 

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