Family and Marriage in America
Author Sees Notable Differences From Other Countries
By Father John Flynn, LC
Family life in many countries has undergone radical changes in the last few decades. The situation in America is, however, substantially worse compared to other countries, argued Andrew J. Cherlin in a book published earlier this year.
According to the arguments in “The Marriage Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today,” (Alfred A. Knopf) Americans have embraced contradictory models of personal and family life. The first involves a commitment to share one’s life with another; the second emphasizes personal growth and development.
Cherlin is the Benjamin H. Griswold III professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University and has spent the last three decades analyzing family life.
Marriage as a cultural ideal is a strong force in America, he points out. In fact, there are government programs promoting marriage and the fierce debate over proposals to introduce same-sex marriage testifies to the way marriage is strongly defended by many.
Nevertheless, Cherlin comments that in no other Western country is the waiting period for a no-fault divorce so short. One study he read said that children living with two married parents in the United States have a higher risk of experiencing a family breakup than do children with two unmarried parents in Sweden.
Cherlin recalled the experience some years back of some states that introduced a “covenant marriage” option for couples getting married in a civil ceremony. In such a marriage both spouses agree to restrictions on how quickly and easily they can obtain a divorce.
At the time, Cherlin recalled, he thought that maybe up to a third of couples would choose this option. Experience showed this to be a wild overestimate. Several years later, less than 2% had opted for a covenant marriage in Louisiana and Arkansas.
So even though the covenant marriage option was introduced in Arkansas in 2001, in 2004 it had the second-highest number of divorces per person of any state — coming after Nevada, a notorious divorce destination for people from other states.
At the same time, in 2004, Arkansas also had the third highest per capita rate of marriage. Arkansas is part of the U.S. “Bible Belt,” with above average church membership. In fact, six of the 10 states with the highest divorces rates are in the South — the other four are in the West — and all of them tend to be socially conservative.
Thus, while marriage is held in high esteem in America, Cherlin pointed out that the postmodern cultural trend to self-expression and personal growth is also very influential.
There are societies with strong marriage values, where few children are born outside marriage and there are low levels of cohabitation. Italy is such a case, said Cherlin. Then there are countries with a culture that places a high value on individualism, such as Sweden. Only in the United States, however, do both these cultural tendencies co-exist.
As a result, Americans value the stability and security of marriage, but they also believe that individuals who are unhappy with their marriages should be allowed to end them. “What Americans want, in other words, is for everyone else to have a covenant marriage,” he concluded.
This is reflected in the statistics on marriage in the United States, Cherlin pointed out. The percentage of people who aspire to marriage is close to 90%, higher than in other countries. Yet America has the highest divorce rate in the Western world, higher even than countries such as Sweden.
Half of all first marriages occur by age 25 in the United States, compared to 29 years-of-age in Italy, 30 in France, and 31 in Sweden. Cohabitation also commences earlier for Americans than in many European nations.
Marriages in America also break down at a higher rate. Nearly half of all American marriages end in divorce. In fact, after only 5 years more than one-fifth of Americans who married are separated or divorced. Among those who began cohabitating over half had broken up 5 years later, a substantially higher figure than in many other countries.
In the United States, 40% of children born to married or cohabitating parents experience a breakup by age fifteen. In Sweden the rate is 30%, and in other countries it is in the high or low 20s.
After their breakups, Americans are also more likely to seek a new partner. Nearly half of children who experience a breakup see the entry of another partner in the household within three years, a much higher proportion than in other countries.
Frequent marriage, frequent divorce, more short-term cohabitation, this is what creates great turbulence in American family life, according to Cherlin. What he calls “this merry-go-round” of American families is more than a statistical quirk, he continues.
The impact on children is of particular concern. Some children experience great difficulty in adjusting to a series of partners. Children whose parents have remarried do not have higher levels of well-being than children in lone-parent families, despite the addition of a second parent. This is in spite of the fact that remarrying brings with it an increase in income and an additional person to parent the children.
New stepparents disrupt the existing relationships between lone parents and their children and repeated changes of parents or partners affects a child’s emotional development.
Looking back over the last 50 years or so, Cherlin commented on the dramatic changes in family and marriage. In the 1950s, having children out of marriage was a shameful experience, while today it is commonplace. Living together before marriage was a rarity, but today not living together before marriage is the exception.
Marriage is still considered as something important, Cherlin admitted, but it is now seen as an option. Moreover, we have seen an unprecedented decline in marriage being considered as the only acceptable arrangement for having sexual relations and for raising children.
Cherlin points out he is not arguing for a return to some idealized 50s model of family life, nor is he against the trend to individualism. What he does conclude is that Americans need to slow down and take more time to consider their decisions about marriage and family life.
At the same time, he isn’t hopeful for any big immediate changes. Cherlin also points out that while the United States is a strongly religious nation, divorce has always long been a part of the culture and it was legal in America long before it was allowed in Europe.
The challenge, he continues, is to find a way to minimize the unwanted effects of individualism. How to this is not obvious, he concedes. Stable two-parent families provide better environments for children than do other arrangements.
The problem is that many people today see marriage in a different light, viewing it as a private relationship centered on the needs of adults for love and companionship. “This postmodern, relationship-based view of marriage has carried the day,” Cherlin admits.
As a result, it is doubtful that government promotion of marriage or changes to welfare programs will be able to make a substantial impact on the structures of families.
No doubt Cherlin’s urging that people slow down and take more time to make their choices when it comes to marriage is good advice. One can only wonder, however, how much difference that will make. The real solution is to change the cultural and social expectations and values that orient people’s priorities. Achieving that sort of transformation of society is indeed a challenge.