We don’t hear much about divorce these days, except to celebrate news that it’s trending downward. In light of the most recent American Family Survey, observers have noted that many Americans are too pessimistic about divorce, still thinking that marriages everywhere are falling apart at unprecedented levels.
Academic and cultural attention to divorce is probably at an all-time low. In the 1980s and 1990s, researchers tempered the early, optimistic notion that the divorce revolution of the 1970s would fix the problem of unhappy marriages and that divorce merely cleans up a mess and enables a fresh start. Now, however, even faith-based communities have softened their concerns about divorce, as other alarming issues, from nonmarital births to opioid addiction, threaten family stability and reframe the divorce scenario, of weekend visitation and monthly child support, as a common contingency that resolves an untenable situation.
While a decline in the divorce rate merits a parade that we’re loath to rain on, two other trends deserve a less triumphal reception.
First, the specter of divorce continues to haunt young adults in ways that discourage marriage and encourage cohabitation. While the passage of no-fault divorce laws in the 1970s made ending harmful marriages easier, it also contributed to a wholesale legal and social rejection of a strategic pillar of marriage: permanence. Divorce rates skyrocketed in the 1970s and then stabilized in the 1980s. They have receded somewhat over the past 30 years. Today demographers estimate that about 40 percent of first marriages and 60 percent of second marriages will end in divorce. But the divorce rate, while no longer in the stratosphere, never quite came back down to earth either.
And rates remain high enough that the specter of divorce still hovers in the public consciousness. The divorce phantom especially affects younger men and women, many of whom lived through their parents’ break-ups, in a way aptly phrased by NR’s Kyle Smith: “Warning: Do. Not. Get. Divorced. But since you can never be sure your partner won’t dump you, really, you shouldn’t get married. Or fall in love in the first place. Best bet: Don’t be born.”
While divorce angst and its accompanying postponement of marriage paradoxically contributes to today’s lower divorce rates, it doesn’t keep young adults from romantic relationships. Instead, viewing marriage as fragile and divorce as a common and random accident waiting to happen, younger Americans, a recent study found, were more likely to remain unmarried and cohabit, a scenario that researchers have linked to increased odds of a future divorce. For younger adults, high expectations of divorce significantly decrease their odds of being married, yet the odds of divorce are hardly fixed. Relationship skills that significantly increase chances for marital success help even those with risk factors for divorce achieve healthy marriages.
Just as disturbing as divorce anxiety spawning young adults’ postponement or evasion of marriage, however, is a second concern: Lower divorce rates aren’t uniform across the population. The disadvantaged, the poor, and the less educated apparently never got the memo — their divorce rates have been climbing and are now well north of half. Meanwhile, those in the upper echelons gaze down, as Atlantic writer George Packer puts it, on the “dim world of processed food, obesity, divorce, addiction, online-education scams, stagnant wages, outsourcing, rising morbidity rates — and they pledge to do whatever they can to keep their children from falling,” pledging to stay married and give their children a stable home to boost their life chances.
Divorce for the disadvantaged, unfortunately, has consequences much more serious than the consumption of uncouth processed food. The norm now among the less educated, who deeply respect the institution of marriage and fear disrespecting it through divorce, is to postpone the wedding but not the kids. The average age of first birth is now earlier than the average age of first marriage in the United States, a phenomenon that fuels high levels of child poverty.
Divorce is, unquestionably, here to stay, offering extrication from deeply troubled, abusive, or necrotic marriages. Yet the most common reasons for divorce — lack of commitment, too much conflict, unrealistic expectations, lack of equality — are all amenable to help and resolution. Most divorces, in fact, are preceded by moderately happy, low-conflict marriages, not dangerous, miserable, or high-conflict relationships. Nevertheless, our legal and cultural directives de-emphasize permanence and prioritize the present level of emotional satisfaction, ignoring the research-backed reality that healthy marriages have ups and downs and often go from unhappy to happy with time and some effort.
Society can do more to restore the sense that we can deposit our hearts in a reliable institution that offers not only safekeeping but also a lifetime of emotional, economic, and even physical-health dividends. Support for relationship education for youth, greater economic and vocational education opportunities for young adults, the reduction of marriage penalties facing lower-income Americans, and other sensible, feasible policies could go a long way in helping those with risk factors enter the institution of marriage with greater confidence.
On an individual level, young adults can grasp that marriage is more of a learned skill than a wheel of chance, a living entity that shrinks and grows, changes and stays the same, and more often than not requires a marathon rather than a sprint mentality. And they don’t have to accept the common notion that marriage should be the capstone of young-adult life; it’s fine to make it the cornerstone when you fall in (mature) love and want to build a life together.
The prescriptions for a strong marriage, while not easy, are at least not complicated. Be kind. Be grown up. Make some sacrifices. Forgive. Pay attention. Listen. Be friends. Be lovers. Be faithful. The promise to love and cherish in good times and bad represents more than a laudable sentiment: It can restore the pillar of permanence to marriage that even society’s divorce-angst clouds can’t rain on.
—Alan Hawkins is director of the Brigham Young University School of Family Life and author of Should I Try to Work It Out. Betsy VanDenBerghe is a co-author of the 2019 National Marriage Project State of Our Unions report, “iFidelity: Interactive Technology and Relationship Faithfulness.”