Academic journal article Demographic Research

When Harry Left Sally: A New Estimate of Marital Disruption in the U.S., 1860 - 1948

Academic journal article Demographic Research

When Harry Left Sally: A New Estimate of Marital Disruption in the U.S., 1860 - 1948

Article excerpt

Abstract

The divorce rate is a poor indicator of marital instability because many marital disruptions never become divorces. This paper provides the first estimate of the rate of marital disruption in the U.S. in 1860 - 1948. In the long run, the cohort rate of marital disruption increased from about 10% in the mid-1860s to about 30% in the 1940s. Marital disruption rate was similar to the divorce rate after the Civil War but the two rates diverged wildly in the early 20th century. In 1900 - 1930, the disruption rate was as much as double the divorce rate, implying that perhaps half of all disruptions never reached the court.

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1. Introduction

Divorce and widowhood are two relatively public ways that a marriage can end. For a long time in American history, they have been subject to at least some level of public record keeping - even if the accuracy of the resulting statistics has been debated (U.S. Bureau of Census 1909:6; Reiss 1976:308; Haines 1998, 2006). Overwhelming historical evidence suggests, however, that many marriages ended long before the coroner or the divorce judge became involved2 and that frequently, both parties had their reasons to keep silent about their marital disruption (Porter Benson 2007; Schwartzberg 2004, 2007).3 The general recognition among social scientists that a large number of failed marriages passed "under the legal radar" is accompanied by an equally widespread skepticism about the retrievability of any reliable estimate of the actual rate of marital disruption (Brandt 1972:10; Crosby 1980:54; Eubank 1916:22; Plateris 1973:15; Price-Bonham and Balswick 1980:966; Igra 2007:75). Without a more precise idea about the prevalence of desertion and separation, the analysis of many aspects of marriage is left incomplete. The greater the number of desertions and separations that never achieved divorce status, the less reliable current divorce statistics are as a gauge of overall marital instability. Thus an estimate of the rate of marital disruption inclusive of desertion and separation is a critical research question.

This paper offers just such an estimate. My cohort-specific rates capture the proportion of each marriage cohort from 1860 to 1948 that ended in eventual disruption - whether through actual divorce, through mutually agreed separation, or through the unilateral "poor man's divorce", i.e. desertion and abandonment. From the cohort-specific proportions, I also impute annual rates of disruption and compare them to annual rates of divorce. The main conclusions emerging from this estimation are that the marital disruption rate was relatively close to the divorce rate immediately following the Civil War, but that the two rates wildly diverged in the early 20th century until the Great Depression. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the disruption rate was as much as double the divorce rate, implying that perhaps half of all marital disruptions during this time never reached the court. The two rates then converged again by the time the Second World War broke out. The long-run trend of the cohort rate of marital disruption was to increase from about 10% in the mid-1860s to about 30% in the 1940s. The estimates are constructed using data on mortality, size and age composition of individual marriage cohorts, and on information, obtainable from the censuses of 1900, 1910 and 1950, regarding the survival of marriages from each marriage cohort - all demographic variables. No economic or social variables are directly used in the estimation. Whatever sensitivity the disruption estimates may have with respect to such variables, is not a product of the estimation methodology but rather a reflection of actual influence that economy and society had on the success of individual marriages.

2. Direct historical evidence on marital disruption

The two main sources regarding marital instability between 1860 and 1948 were charity studies4 and official divorce statistics (U. …

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