The Marriage-Go-Round The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today

Format: Paperback
Pub. Date: 2010-04-06
Publisher(s): Vintage
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Customer Reviews

Great read  August 3, 2011
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Researcher and sociologist Cherlin has discovered that Americans marry and divorce at higher rates than anywhere else. Likewide, no country promotes marriage like the U.S., nor is same-sex marriage as much of a political powderkeg as here. Contributing to marital instability is the fact that cohabitation rates in the U.S. are shorter than elsewhere. The textbook contains interesting stories. I am glad I read it, and I have recommended it to others.

The Marriage-Go-Round The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today: 5 out of 5 stars based on 1 user reviews.


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.

Author Biography

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.

From the Hardcover edition.


chapter 1


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.

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