So Much for the Death of Marriage

So Much for the Death of Marriage December 4, 2014

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.

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  • Crimson Clupeidae

    Has the marriage rate increased, decreased, or stayed the same? That statistic might be skewed a bit, if less people are actually getting married these days.

    I know quite a few couple who, for reasons of their own, choose not to get married, even though they have been together longer than many married couples I know.

  • Marriages are really lasting longer now, not because of ladyrights or The Gays, but because Conservatives such as myself are holding on to ours out of spite.

    Come to think of it, we do most things out of spite.

  • The fundies will whine because it’s not going down for the right reason. The fact that people are voluntarily staying in marriages longer isn’t their goal. Their entire goal is to control people. It’s no fun if people do the right thing without being forced into it.

  • anat

    To Crimson Clupeidae: I think there are different trends in different segments of society. There is a segment in which marriage strengthened by becoming driven more by shared interests and goals – this includes the high education, upper-middle class and above, with reasonably good prospects for future income – and then there is a segment of society where marriage is down, even once children are born – these are the segments with low income and low prospects for future income (so no expectation for spousal support). Both trends drive divorce down. It is a good thing people aren’t stuck in unhappy relationships, but it is a problem that entire sectors of society are in dire economic straits with little chance of improvement (obviously marriage won’t solve the problem, better jobs would).

  • NONO! There is a long 30 year lag from when something fixes marriage to when it shows results. These new figures are due to Ronald Reagan being so great. Just wait, in 2045 marriage will be destroyed. Thanks, gays!!

  • David Eriksen

    …despite the oft-cited statistic that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, the divorce rate has been dropping since its peak…

    To be fair, 50% of my marriages have ended in divorce.

  • matty1

    I don’t think I understand traditional marriage. It seems to involve spending the majority of your life with someone you neither like or have anything in common with just so you don’t have to do your own laundry.

  • @matty1

    I don’t think I understand traditional marriage. It seems to involve spending the majority of your life with someone you neither like or have anything in common with just so you don’t have to do your own someone else’s laundry.

    FIFY so you could see what it looks like from the other end.

  • congenital cynic

    My wife and I spent nearly two decades together, raised a family, and then got married. And try as I might, I can’t seem to find a way that gay marriage has affected us or our relationship in even the slightest way. Realistically, apart from some sound legal reasons related to inheritance, delay of life insurance payouts, and the like, there was no particular reason to get married. We weren’t going to split up because of a lack of paperwork, a lack of church blessing (it was a JoP wedding anyway), or because 5 million gay couples on our block got married and adopted kids. The Christian right is so full of shit.

    If there is a reason for more marriages lasting longer these days, I’m betting that it’s because they are more equal, less gender-rolled enterprises. In our house we each do whatever needs doing as we go along. I cook more than she does. She takes out the garbage more often than I do. In my parents’ house those roles NEVER deviated from the sex-role stereotypes.

  • matty1

    @8 Fair point, very fair point. Just what is in those sorts of marriage for the woman?

  • davefitz

    My marriage started to decline when Prop 8 in CA was overturned. Thanks, homos!!!

  • Rick Pikul

    I have to wonder how much of the ‘crisis’ of soaring divorce rates was from divorces getting easier and a backlog of cases going through the system. Once all the people who would have gotten a divorce a decade earlier had theirs, things would naturally go down to the ‘natural’ rate, (sort of like removing a dam, you get a flood but only as long as the lake lasts).

  • Citing the decreasing divorce rate as if it signals that marriage is flourishing is misleading. The marriage rate for adults is at an all time low and the age of first marriage has risen considerably.

    For reasons others have mentioned, we’d expect that among those who tend to marry at higher than average rates (better off, better educated), the rate is lower than the rate for the less affluent, who also happen to be the group that would be more likely to divorce. Also, the age increased age of first marriage lowers the divorce rate.

    But bottom line is that fewer adults are married.

  • Matt G

    Who can afford to get divorced these days? Your rent (if you rent) doubles, along with a bunch of other basic costs, when one person moves out.

  • U Frood

    If less people are getting married, being unhappy and divorcing, then that is good for marriage.

  • doublereed

    You know, I’m starting to think the real cause of divorce rate drops, teen pregnancy drops, violent crime drops, recent corruption of politics, etc. all stem from the shitty generation before us. It’s not that our generation is better and different, it’s that the previous generation was just so much worse.

  • Vicki, duly vaccinated tool of the feminist conspiracy

    Matt G.: Irrelevant, because it was just as true twenty and thirty years ago. It’s not as though landlords, utility companies, and the like in the 1970s and ’80s gave newly divorced people half-price apartments. You couldn’t get cheaper phone or electrical service by calling and telling someone “please give me the divorce discount, my wife left last week.”

  • Matt G

    Vicki@17, do you really think that people have the same wherewithal to pay their basic expenses today as they did 20, 30, 40 years ago? If you paid, let’s say, 30% of your income in rent then and 30% today, then I’d agree with you. But what if your rent were 40% of your income today? Would it be as easy to live as well apart as together? The apartment I had in Brooklyn 24 years ago was $1000 a month. Today it’s probably $3-4000 (and salaries sure haven’t tripled or quadrupled).