Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marriage in a Culture of Divorce

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marriage in a Culture of Divorce

Article excerpt

Marriage in a Culture of Divorce. Karla B. Hackstaff. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1999. 278 pp. ISBN 1-56639-724-3. $59.50 cloth, $22.95 paper.

Change in American marriage over the past 50 years is taken for granted by family scholars and laypersons alike. At issue, and heatedly debated, are three matters: precisely how marriage has changed, the extent to which marriage has changed, and the identification of the social forces underlying the change. The debate, as is well known, has often been fraught with ideological fervor as the larger "family values" conflict continues.

Informed by a social constructionist and a feminist perspective, Karla Hackstaff steps into the fray and attempts to address all three major issues. She bases her responses on interview data by comparing two generations of primarily middleclass married couples, one cohort that married around 1950 (n = 26) and another that married after 1970 (n = 37). As a survey researcher, I am normally highly skeptical of arguments built on so few respondents, whose typicality is always in question. But Hackstaff uses the interview data quite effectively, liberally quoting from the interviews to illustrate and support her points and going into depth in describing couples from each generation, noting how they have and how they have not changed in the configuration of their relationships and the meaning their marriages have for them.

Hackstaff contends that the social context of marriage has changed for everyone. The essential change is that many, but not all, no longer perceive marriage as a given, assume it will last forever, and see divorce as absolutely the last resort. Instead, she suggests, alternative meanings have emerged: Marriage is seen as an option, its duration is contingent, and divorce is a ready gateway if the contingencies do not work out.

Driving this change in the meaning of marriage, according to Hackstaff, have been two essential forces: the emergence of a "divorce culture" and the push for gender equality. The divorce culture is "a set of symbols, beliefs, and practices that anticipate and reinforce divorce," a culture that emerged with the "marital watershed" of the 1970s as divorce replaced death as the principal cause of marital dissolution. …

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