Turns out that, like violent crime, rates of divorce have been steadily declining for more than three decades as well. That stands in stark contrast to the message we hear continually from the Christian right about the “death” of marriage and family and how letting gay people get married will be the final straw that kills it off forever and destroys the whole world.
Marriage is dead, long live marriage: despite the oft-cited statistic that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, the divorce rate has been dropping since its peak, which came in 1979-1981. Of couples that wed in the 1990s, 70 percent are still hitched. Couples who married in the 2000s have even lower divorce rates—though, to be fair, they’ve had less time to split up—and, as Claire Cain Miller writes in The Upshot, “If current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce.”That bit of intel comes from Justin Wolfers’s data. Wolfers, an economist at the University of Michigan, talked with me by phone about how it is all these newer knots aren’t coming untied. I proposed a semi-founded thesis: though marriage is, almost by definition, a “traditional” institution, it’s marriages that adopt progressive attitudes, in keeping with our relatively progressive times, that can make it in the long haul.
Wolfers wanted to start with some context. “I think the institution of marriage is completely changed,” he said.
“So, traditional marriage made sense for the period in which it was popular: it was an appropriate adaptation for a world in which it made sense for mom to stay home and dad to go to work. Some of those reasons were purely technological: domestic life was complicated, and there were real returns to specialization.” Nowadays, with our newfangled washing machines (really!), our TJs for clothing and food (T.J. Maxx and Trader Joe’s, respectively), even our cleaning supplies (as Wolfers said, “Mom used to vacuum, and now we have a roomba“) domestic chores are so simple that just about anyone could do them. Even a man! “Traditional marriage was worth it for both parties because having those separate roles means both parties were better off together than they were apart,” Wolfers said.But some of the most seismic changes were progressive in nature; namely, women’s equality. “One of the most important [factors] is reduced discrimination against women,” he said. “In the old days, when there was a lot more discrimination against women and explicitly against married women. When you had to choose who would go to work, you’d never choose the woman, because she’d make a lower wage.” Good thing we don’t have that problem anymore!
Anyway, “The other progressive institutions that are certainly important: women getting access to the pill; access to abortion, meaning my partner’s career is a much better bet, because she won’t be interrupted by an unwanted or unexpected pregnancy; the increasing education of women. All those have meant the traditional model of marriage wasn’t delivering many benefits for people.”
“One prediction from what I said is: marriage is going to die,” said Wolfers. A person could look at all that data and determine the whole kit and caboodle of the thing is obsolete. “But what’s happened instead is that it’s become a fundamentally different institution. It’s about shared purpose and shared goals, rather than about shared productivity.”
So we’re holding on to part of that tradition — getting married — but changing the power dynamic and expanding the range of choices for both parties in a marriage, and the result is stronger, more lasting marriages. Sounds like a good thing to me.