Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Changing Partners: Toward a Macrostructural-Opportunity Theory of Marital Dissolution

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Changing Partners: Toward a Macrostructural-Opportunity Theory of Marital Dissolution

Article excerpt

We merge marital history data for respondents in the National Survey of Families and Households with census data describing the sex composition of their local marriage markets and occupations to examine the impact of the availability of spousal alternatives on marital dissolution. Proportional hazards regression models that adjust for left truncation reveal that the risk of divorce is highest in geographically defined marriage markets where either husbands or wives encounter numerous alternatives to their current partner. Couples are also more likely to divorce when the wife works in an occupation having relatively many men and few women, but husbands' occupational sex ratio has no effect on the risk of marital dissolution. The destabilizing effects of the availability of spousal alternatives in the local marriage market and in wives' occupations are equally strong among couples with many and few other risk factors for divorce. Our findings suggest that spouses' structural opportunities to form alternative opposite-sex relationships are an important factor in explaining why some couples divorce.

Key Word: alternatives. divorce; occupation, sex ratio.

Despite recent declines, the current divorce rate in the United States remains quite high relative to both earlier in the century (Goldstein, 1999) and to other countries (Goode, 1993). The vast social science literature on the determinants of divorce and separation has generally taken four approaches. Demographers tend to focus on the influence of sociodemographic factors and family background characteristics, particularly as these might indicate successful preparation for marriage (Bumpass, Martin, & Sweet, 1991), and on how divorce rates vary across individual and historical time (Thornton & Rodgers, 1987). Economists explore the effects of a couple's financial situation, especially wives' labor-force participation and earnings, frequently with the goal of testing hypotheses derived from the New Home Economics (Becker, 1991). Sociologists also tend to emphasize the impact of economic factors (Brines & Joyner, 1999), as well as characteristics of the couples themselves, such as the presence of children (Waite & Lillard, 1991) and the types of marital problems and internal marital dynamics that might precipitate a divorce (Amato & Rogers, 1997). Psychologists focus on how personality variables, marital processes, and conjugal interaction styles influence marital happiness and, through this, the risk of divorce (Gottman, Coan, Carrere, & Swanson, 1998).

What all of these empirical approaches-and the theories that guide them-have in common is an emphasis on the characteristics of couples (and individual spouses) as predictors of marital dissolution. By and large, each of these perspectives locates the main causes of divorce in factors intrinsic to the couple. Thus, generally absent from these frameworks is a consideration of features of the social structural environment that might affect marital disruption. One characteristic of the marital environment that might be particularly destabilizing for marriages is the relative number of attractive marital partners who might serve as alternatives to one's current spouse. There is some evidence that the number of spousal alternatives in the local geographic area influences the risk of divorce (South & Lloyd, 1995). However, prior research has ignored the supply of spousal alternatives in environments other than broad geographic areas or marriage markets. Furthermore, no study has attempted to determine under what conditions, and for what types of couples, the supply of spousal alternatives is most likely to influence marital disruption.

In this article we develop and test a perspective on marital dissolution that gives primary emphasis to the volume of attractive spousal alternatives as a key determinant of the risk of divorce. We label this approach a macrostructural-opportunity perspective because it directs attention to the opportunities for spouses to form potentially destabilizing opposite-sex relationships that are embedded within macro social structures. …

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