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marriage matters
The Divorce Paradox

Over at the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell highlights an interesting and unexpected trend in new federal survey data on marriage, sex, and other social questions: As young Americans have grown increasingly liberal on issues like pre-marital sex, single-parent families, and cohabitation, they have also grown increasingly conservative on the question of divorce:

Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement that “Divorce is usually the best solution when a couple can’t seem to work out their marriage problems.” In 2002, about half of Americans disagreed. Within a decade, the share had risen to more than 60 percent. In the most recent data, younger Americans — a cohort with the lowest marriage rates on record, mind you — were especially likely to perceive divorce as an unacceptable response to marital strain.

Rampell plausibly interprets this as evidence of a type of latent cultural conservatism within the famously progressive Millennial generation. This may well be the case—as we’ve noted before, there is good evidence that Millennials are increasingly waiting to get married before having children, and opting for a more or less traditional division of work and family responsibilities with their partners. So it could be that Millennials are like the Baby Boomers from the 1960s and 1970s: They are experimenting with new, progressive social attitudes, but they will ultimately tie the knot and live relatively conventional, nuclear-family lifestyles. On this reading, the fact that Millennials are delaying marriage for economic reasons obscures some of their underlying traditionalist impulses.

But there is also a less optimistic (for social conservatives) way of reading the data. It could also be that the two trends Rampbell describes—increasing liberalism on the majority of “familial and procreative arrangements,” and increasing conservatism on divorce—are not conflicting, but complementary. Maybe young Americans are putting marriage on a pedestal, and holding married people to high standards, precisely because marriage as an institution seems so abstract and distant to them. This could be a self-reinforcing mechanism: The more young people adopt a permissive lifestyle where marriage is not a precondition to sex or cohabitation or childrearing, the more they imagine marriage—for people who do enter into it—as a sacred and restrictive institution. And the more they sacralize marriage, the more likely they are to stay away from it. In that sense, it’s possible that the data on divorce are not an exception to young peoples’ otherwise broad-based cultural liberalism, but a natural corollary to it. As the importance of marriage diminishes, it may be that the (hypothetical) norms attached to marriage are tightened.

Of course, neither we nor Rampell have a definitive explanation for the data, which clearly complicates many popular assumptions about America’s young people. Other commentators and social scientists should weigh in.

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  • Anthony

    “The retreat from marriage plays a central role in the changing economic landscape of American families.”

  • qet

    Millennials’ views could also be the result of so many of them coming from broken homes themselves, and therefore having the first-hand, first-person experience of being the child in that scenario. I scanned the underlying survey report and could not see that this circumstance was addressed in the data. I saw questions only about marriage per se and not marriage plus children. But it is plausible that one’s experience as a child of divorced parents would color one’s view of divorce long before one married and had children oneself; that one’s view of the matter has far less to do with any appreciation of the sanctity of the institution of marriage or of the economic consequences of leaving a two-income situation for a single-income situation than with the implicit assumption that children are present and the known impact on them of their parents’ divorce.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Spot on….unlike most of the things that Millennials are so ‘liberal’ about, this is something that they actually have direct experience with the consequences of. Their parents (and grandparents!) got to do the experimenting…the kids got to see the results. No wonder they are rejecting it…
      They are likely to become just as skeptical of the other ‘advances’ that Boomers and GenXers have made as they become more intimate with the consequences…

      • Jim__L

        The Victorian Era was to a great extent a result of Victoria’s and Albert’s direct experience of Regency mores — which very closely resemble our own era.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Yes, but while Victoria and Albert embraced their virtues, the rest of their society did not (stereotypes notwithstanding)….

          • Jim__L

            You’ve been reading too much Flashman…

          • f1b0nacc1

            Though there is no such thing as ‘too much’ of Sir Harry

          • Jim__L

            They’re far and away the funniest books on Ghastly Victorian Military Disasters I’ve ever read, certainly. =)

            If you’re truly desperate, a quick google search shows some enterprising folks over at Fanfiction dot net have decided that the only place dangerous enough for old Flashy is Westeros. Personally, I suspect that’s about the only way to make Martin’s “torture porn” anything resembling palatable.

            It’s a bit derivative — a sufficiently advanced AI fed with the Flashman Papers and a biography of Burton may be able to put together work of this caliber in the next ten years or so, in all probability — but the first chapter at least (as far as I’ve gotten so far) was better than “Flashman and the Sea Wolf”.

            Anyway, here it is.


          • f1b0nacc1

            Many thanks, I look forward to reading it tonight!

          • Jim__L

            Ended up reading through it myself — he does a rather good job of Flashman’s engaging, confidential narration. Even if he re-uses various phrases a little too much, he does manage to salt in a bit more well-researched Victoriana in later chapters.

            The grinning flights of amoral high-spiritedness aren’t really present, and I miss those. (To paraphrase Chesterton, Flashy does not have the Faith, but surely has the Fun). The high-flying mischief might be a unique talent of Frasier’s.

            Both extremes are missing in fact. The brutal graphic hell that’s present in both the Frasier (in small doses) and the Martin (what else does the man have?) isn’t really in this fanfic either. Tyrion’s slyness he captures, but it comes off far too dry and disappointing next to Flashy’s — Tyrion isn’t deliberately a Higgins-type heathen (again see “Song of the Strange Ascetic”), but he certainly doesn’t manage to have the Fun. To be honest, once I decided Martin was a Higgins-type, I stopped reading his books.

            If you’re motivated to find one that has that kind of dynamic range — and properly weights it on the high side, as Frasier does — let me know. =) Especially if there’s a scene where Flashman sends Baelish (screaming) to Hell, he’s definitely the right man for that much-deserved role.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I enjoyed it (and thank you again for sharing it with me!), but I believe my concerns here are similar to yours. There is an unrepentant joy in Flashy, even while acknowledging that his limitations, and I find that most appealing. Most fanfic that I see has a hard time capturing that…
            I would be intrigued to see anything else you have that you feel is wortha look, apparently we have some similar tastes (this should worry you!…)

      • FriendlyGoat

        Divorce hurts. It is financially unproductive and causes most participants to experience some kind of familial awkwardness for life. Young people increasingly “get this.” But your last sentence? Nah.

  • Boritz

    The same teenagers who rebelled in the 1950s against their nuclear family’s conventions rebelled against their second nuclear families in the 70s by divorcing in great numbers. Let’s see if the Millennials continue to put marriage ‘on a pedestal’ when they have skin in that game and the going gets tough as it can at times.

  • Fat_Man

    My daughter married at 29. Her brother is now 28, he and his girl friend just started graduate school, and they seem to want to wait a couple more years.

    That is fine by me. I think that today’s kids have seen how destructive divorce can be, especcially when kids are involved, and they are deferring marriage until they are certain about their prospective spouse, and about children.

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