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.
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
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. …