Rewriting the script for divorce

“Generation Gap in Values, Behaviors” screamed the headlines regarding the Pew Research Center report on attitudes toward marriage and parenthood. The younger generation is more accepting of cohabitation, pre-marital sex and same sex “marriage.” But one of the most promising “generation gaps” in attitudes didn’t make the news: the younger generation is more tough-minded about divorce than its elders.

The executive summary of the report summarizes the findings on divorce this way: “Americans by lopsided margins endorse the mom-and-dad home as the best setting in which to raise children.  But by equally lopsided margins, they believe that if married parents are very unhappy with one another, divorce is the best option, both for them and for their children.”   Well, this summary certainly fits with the media’s cultural script of marriage being a desirable but probably outmoded institution. But that doesn’t accord with what I have seen of the young.

As I go around giving speeches and participating in debates on campuses, I have been stunned by how many young people are fed up with divorce. They approach me after my speeches to tell me about their parents’ four divorces. I get emails from young people telling me how horrid it was when their mom kicked their dad out of the house and describing the humiliation of watching their mom’s parade of boyfriends. Even students who disagree with me about things like same sex “marriage,” admit I’m right about the problems of children of unmarried parents. These young men and women want lifelong marriage for themselves, and for their children.

So, I downloaded the Pew Center Report, printed it out and looked up the detailed tables. Sure enough, in the back on pages 43 to 46, I found what I was looking for. The table entitled “Who’s been divorced: A Profile” clearly illustrates that the Baby Boomers created the bulge in divorce. Among those who had ever been married, the age group 50–64 had the highest percentage ever divorced: 45%. Do the math: those are the Boomers, born between 1943 and 1957.

The really telling table was “Views About Divorce, by Gender, Race and Age,” which asks this question: “Which statement comes closer to your views about divorce? Should be avoided except in an extreme situation, or preferable to maintaining an unhappy marriage?”  A strong majority of all adults, 58 per cent, said that divorce was preferable to an unhappy marriage.  But breaking the responses down by age shows the generational impact of the Divorce Revolution. Of the Boomers, 66 per cent preferred divorce over an unhappy marriage. Those aged 65 and over gave similar answers: 58 per ent thought divorce is better than an unhappy marriage.

This is not entirely surprising: these two generations institutionalized the Divorce Revolution. The immediate post WWII generation implemented no-fault divorce. The Boomers practiced it with a vengeance.

Their children, and their younger siblings are not so enthused. Of those born between 1958 and 1977, 42 per ent believe divorce should be avoided except in an extreme situation. And the youngest generation surveyed, those between the ages of 18 and 29, were even more likely to believe divorce should be a last resort: exactly what my ear-to-the-ground surveys told me.

Unfortunately, some of the other attitudes of the younger generation will not serve them well in their ambitions for life-long married love. The tolerance for cohabitation is particularly counter-productive. Women who cohabit before marriage are more, not less, likely to divorce.  Multiple sexual partners before marriage increases the probability of divorce.  The younger generation’s liberal attitudes toward sex sets them up for marital failure. Even the much-vaunted shift from children to chores bodes ill for successful marriage.  The Pew Survey noted with concern that only 40 per cent of their survey thought that children are very important to a happy marriage, while fully 62 per cent believe “sharing chores” is very important. Studies have shown that the happiest marriages are not those in which men and women share every duty exactly down the middle. The happiest wives are those who believe the overall division of labor is “fair,” but their definition of fair includes an expansive view of supporting the household. And women are happiest when they feel appreciated, not necessarily when they’ve turned their husbands into Assistant Moms.

Common sense and rigorous honesty reveals that we are all perfectly capable of overstating our own contributions, and understating our partners’, particularly when we are trying to extract extra effort from them.  Yet these very situations cause the most lasting bitterness.  We don’t appreciate what our spouse does, while demanding everlasting gratitude for what we do.  Not exactly a recipe for marital bliss.

Today’s young people want life-long married love. But as the saying goes, You Can’t Get There from Here. Their priorities about sex, children and chores are certainly counter-productive. Those of us who survived the Sexual Revolution owe it to the young to give them more accurate information and steer them in more constructive paths. They won’t succeed unless we do.

Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D. is the author of 101 Tips for a Happier Marriage, and a Senior Research Fellow in Economics at the Acton Institute.


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