Divorce Dilemma: The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today Is Fear of Its Dissolution

By Tushnet, Eve | The American Conservative, March 2012 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Divorce Dilemma: The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today Is Fear of Its Dissolution

Tushnet, Eve, The American Conservative

If America has endured a "divorce revolution" since California passed no-fault divorce in 1969, we've now entered the counterrevolutionary phase. Divorce rates have fallen from their peak in the early '80s, the deep pain often felt by children of divorce is openly acknowledged, and young Americans typically express both fear and a moral horror at divorce. They are determined not to repeat the mistakes of previous generations; avoiding divorce is a constant anxiety, even obsession.

But as with most purely reactionary cultural movements, the revolt against divorce has been much better at targeting what it rejects than figuring out what it's for. In a strange, sad twist, the divorce counterrevolution has only weakened our marriage culture more.

Here are three things we've ignored as we make divorce (and divorced people) the scapegoat for broader problems of family breakdown.

Presence of Marriage, Not Absence of Divorce

Kids, you tried your best, and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.

--Homer Simpson

The divorce rate hasn't fallen because Americans are better able to make and keep strong marriages. It's fallen because many Americans, especially those in the middle class and lower, have given up on marriage entirely. The National Marriage Project's 2010 "State of Our Unions" report found that while only 6 percent of highly educated mothers had their children out of wedlock, 44 percent of children of "moderately educated" women and 54 percent of children of the least educated women were born outside marriage. The "marriage gap" has made marriage a luxury good, the Ivy League of social institutions.

Fear of divorce is one major factor in the decline of marriage. A 2011 study by researchers at Cornell University surveyed 122 young cohabiting men and women and found that two-thirds cited worries about divorce as factors in their decision not to marry yet:

   Most frequently mentioned was a desire to 'do it right' and marry
   only once, to the ideal partner, leading some to view cohabitation
   as a 'test-drive' before making 'the ultimate commitment.' The
   belief that marriage was difficult to exit was mentioned nearly as
   frequently, with examples of how divorce caused emotional pain,
   social embarrassment, child custody concerns, and legal and
   financial problems.

As this study suggests, terror at the thought of divorce has produced a strong cultural script for how to make a good marriage. Attempts to suggest that cohabitation or premarital sex are problems (rather than solutions), or that marrying when you're in your early twenties lets you start your real life of love and family-making when you're at the peak of your fertility, are met with cries of, "Oh, sure, do you want me to get divorced?"

The script requires a long waiting period before marriage. Twenty-seven is typical, as Rachel Jacoby wrote in a starkly judgmental December 29 piece at the Huffington Post; thirtysomething is better. Unsurprisingly, this long wait makes premarital chastity extraordinarily difficult. Perhaps less obviously, premarital chastity is actively discouraged. Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, in their recent Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, And Think About Marrying, quote psychologist Jeffrey Arnett: "Those who do not experiment with different partners are warned that they will eventually wonder what they are missing, to the detriment of their marriage."

Cohabitation is also strongly encouraged. How can you marry someone if you don't know what it's like to live with her? There's a sense that cohabitation allows the relationship to be tested and to build slowly over time--as you learn to care for her when she's sick, or resolve arguments rather than going to bed angry--that you learn the skills of marriage before you reach the altar.

There's one other way in which fear of divorce makes marriage an endlessly receding goal: the cost of weddings.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Divorce Dilemma: The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today Is Fear of Its Dissolution


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?