Marriage, divorce and solitude3/5/2014
Marriage and divorce have inspired comedians for centuries, for good reasons. In his “Act of Creation,” Arthur Koestler explained that all jokes are creative inventions that must end in surprise. What other institution provides as many unexpected developments as marriage and divorce? Almost no one enters a marriage with the expectation that it will end in divorce. Yet, since the 1970s, American divorces have numbered half that of marriages. It’s not cheap to end a marriage either. Another old joke goes: “Marriage is grand; Divorce starts at about 20 grand.”
In 20th-century America, new threats to long-term marriage came to be. For the first time in history, a new class of people developed — large numbers of those who chose to live alone, not as hermits or monks, but as fully integrated citizens who simply preferred to live without partners. The previous century also witnessed acceptance of couples cohabiting outside of marriage. Social media became both a leading catalyst of hook-ups and cause of divorce. Weddings became so expensive and vulnerable that wedding insurance policies became essential. Pornography also gained legitimacy, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Is marriage doomed as the institution of the majority? Benjamin Disraeli said, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” That sums up most studies on marriage and divorce, too. People who investigate such things, self-styled “social demographers,” often come to conflicting conclusions about what the same statistics mean. For instance, because total divorces in America number half as many as matrimonies, most people assume that half of all American marriages end in divorce. Others say that assumption does not account for the fact that a higher percentage of people who dissolve their marriages are serial divorcees, so the percentage of lasting marriages is actually higher.
Two things are certain, though: The 20th century was a much better time for divorce attorneys than it was for merchants selling the traditional anniversary gifts for marriages lasting 10 years or more; and both marriage and divorce have changed irrevocably.
Before the 20th century, most people married for different reasons — namely compassion rather than passion. In his diary, American patriot John Adams wrote:
“People wanted a spouse who did not pry too deeply. The ideal mate was willing to palliate faults and mistakes, to put the best construction upon words and actions, and to forgive injuries.”
Henry James advised his daughter to only marry a man about whom she could affirmatively answer three questions: First, is he kind? Second, is he kind? And last, is he kind?
Psychologist Elaine Hatfield explains. “Compassionate love is characterized by mutual respect, attachment, affection and trust. It usually develops out of feelings of mutual understanding and shared respect for one another. Passionate love is characterized by intense emotions, sexual attraction, anxiety and affection,” she wrote.
The last 60 years witnessed many milestones of passionate love. Some seem almost unbelievable by today’s standards. In 1948, California became the first state to declare laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional. It would be another 19 years before the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit and made interracial marriage the law of the land. Thirty-six years would pass before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that anti-gay sodomy laws violated the U.S. Constitution’s right to privacy. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. Five years later, Iowa became the third of now 14 states to legalize it.
The history of divorce also changed dramatically in the 20th century. Before no-fault laws were enacted, it was not easy to get a divorce in America. In Alabama, it was actually easier to overturn the governor’s veto. That required a majority of both houses of the state’s General Assembly. A divorce required a two-thirds majority of both. No-fault divorce was pioneered in the Soviet Union after the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. In 1969 California adopted statutes very similar to those of the Soviets. You may insert a “left coast” joke here, if so inclined, but remember that California law was signed into effect by Ronald Reagan, who had endured an infamous divorce. In 1985 New York became the 50th state to adopt no-fault divorce. Action was slowed there by feminist opposition. Marriage and divorce are never as black and white as the little bride and groom models on top of traditional wedding cakes.
After 1960, divorce rates soared in the U.S., from 2.2 per thousand population in 1960 to an all time high of 5.3 in 1981. (Most stats count divorces instead of people getting a divorce, because it’s impossible to count people who get divorced more than once in the same year, a number estimated to be in the thousands.) After 1994, divorce rates began dropping significantly, from 4.6 percent to 3.5 percent in 2009. Not so coincidentally, marriage rates (which hit their all-time high in 1940) have been dropping consistently since 1982, from 10.8 to 6.8 percent in 2009, which is the last year with complete stats.
As of 2006, less than 56 percent of Americans older than 18 were married. Another survey in the same year found that 96 percent of Americans age 70 and older had been married. Clearly, it’s not the 1940s any more.
Marriage, divorce and the economy
Marriage and divorce rates almost always rise and fall together. One explanation for that became more obvious the last five years. The average cost of a wedding in 2011 was $25,630, according to www.costofwedding.com. The old joke about divorce has held up. The website Ask.com reports the average price of a divorce in America is 20 grand.
Sociologist Philip N. Cohen studied the effects of the economy on the U.S. divorce rate and published his findings in “Recession and Divorce in the United States.” He found that divorce rates declined after the stock market bust in 2007, concluding that couples simply could not afford a costly divorce. That refuted a claim other social demographers were making that tough times inspired stronger marriages through trial by fire. Cohen estimated that 150,000 extra divorces would have happened between 2008-2011 had the economy been better. Divorce rates began climbing slightly in 2011. Cohen suggested that, as the economy improved, so did the divorce rates. There is historic backup to Cohen’s argument. Marriage rates also dropped considerably during the 1930s, and divorce rates either fell or remained stagnant during the Great Depression.
Local caterers and wedding planners have noticed big cutbacks the last five years. Jennifer Strauss of Carefree Patisserie said Pinterest and other social media sites have encouraged a lot more do-it-yourself weddings. Cyd Koehn of Catering by Cyd said buffets and appetizer-only receptions replaced sit-down dinners after the recession hit and that weddings are smaller.
“Quantity is not as important as quality now,” she said. “Brides more often opt for unique, non-traditional venues that save on location costs.”
Role models aren’t what they used to be
“I grew up in a typical mid-century two parent family. All the families I saw on TV were that way from ‘Father Knows Best’ to ‘Leave It To Beaver.’ I really couldn’t imagine anything else,” explained AIB professor Lynn Clark. “So I tried marriage three times, and I went 0 for 3.”
Clark’s marriages between 1977 and 1989 lasted a total of eight years. He made a decision then to live alone for the next 26 years to date.
“Smartest decision I ever made. I wasn’t good at marriage,” he admitted.
Today’s TV role models are different. ABC mega hit “Scandal” features a single woman who juggles affairs with a dashing CIA agent and the President of the United States, while remaining indispensable to the First Lady. Her character is so influential with young women that actress Kerry Washington was Glamour magazine’s Woman of the Year, one of Vanity Fair’s 10 Best Dressed Women and on Forbes’ list of the top 20 earners in entertainment. Cable hits “Being Mary Jane” and “Single Ladies” feature casts of super chic, very successful black women, none of whom need, nor much care to find, a husband. The actresses playing them have also become glamour and fashion icons. In a life-imitates-art moment, Gabrielle Union, who plays Mary Jane, made the news recently for demanding that basketball superstar Dwayne Wade sign a prenuptial agreement with her.
Katherine Bindley wrote in the Huffington Post about sociologist Sharon Sassler’s study of marriage and cohabitation. Data indicated that marriages have been lasting longer in the 21st century than they did in the 1990s. Yet marriage rates are flirting with all-time lows. Sassler said that young women don’t hear the good news, though.
“What they hear are the scare stories — the Kim Kardashians who are on their second divorces. They don’t realize that things have changed across the board,” Sassler told Bindley. “It was just a lot of this free-floating anxiety about divorce.”
Still two million marriages take place each year in the U.S. That’s a deceiving number, though. According to the United States Census Bureau, every year more than 450,000 U.S. citizens marry foreign-born individuals and petition for them to obtain a permanent residency. That’s more than 22 percent of the weddings in America. Mail-order brides have become big business over the Internet. They have been around since the 1700s, but in earlier centuries they usually came from the homeland of the American immigrant. Today they mostly come from Asia and Eastern Europe and are apt to marry interracially.
Like Clark, nurse Stephanie Jewett has tried life from both sides of marriage. She made her decision quicker than he did.
“Technically I was married for a year, but it was really only about six months before I knew I never wanted to be married at all. That was 35 years ago,” she explained.
Neither she nor Clark has any regrets.
“Living alone is simpler. It’s easier, more orderly and uncluttered,” Clark said. “The biggest benefit is in making decisions. I hate committees for the same reason: They inhibit decision-making.”
Jewett, who raised two children by herself, admits it wasn’t easy economically and that she probably could not have managed without her father’s help. Yet she is positive she would do it again.
“It’s so easy to pick up and do what you want to do. If I were married, I would not have been able to go back and get my master’s degree, I would not now be able to take so much time to help people who really need help,” she mused.
Clark claims a similar advantage. “I would never have been able to spend so much time with my students if I had been married,” he said, citing extracurricular activities like announcing AIB sporting events and raising money for business management student organizations, booster clubs and AAU teams of disadvantaged kids.
Solitary lifestyles have gained acceptance. If you remember “spinster” being a shameful word, you are probably eligible for social security.
Handicapping your odds
What do social demographics tell us about the odds a marriage will last? Religion matters. Roman Catholics have commonly believed that marriage is a sacrament. Protestants have not and get divorced more frequently. Chances are, young people today will be married later in life than their parents. A Pew Institute report recently found that the median age for Americans’ first marriages is rising. In the early 1970s, it was 21 for women and 23 for men. In 2009, it had risen to 26 for women and 28 for men. That Pew report also found that the number of people who do actually make it down the aisle recently hit an all-time low.
A 2005 report by U.S. Health and Human Services researchers found that 29 percent of first marriages among women aged 15 to 44 ended in separation, divorce or annulment within 10 years, and 43 percent would not last 15 years, according to a National Survey of Family Growth forecast.
Many factors change the odds. The chances of a person being married longer are directly increased by higher income and more education. Some sociologists believe that marriage is now a “luxury good” in America. A 2011 study by Stephanie Marcus at the University of Iowa found that loss of virginity before age 18 correlated with increased odds of divorce within the first 10 years of marriage.
A 2008 study by Education Resources Information Center found that overall interracial couples have higher rates of divorce, particularly for those who married during the late 1980s. The most vulnerable of such couples are white females paired with non-white males, faring twice as likely to divorce in less than 10 years of marriage compared to white-on-white couples. Marriages of white men and non-white women, however, last much longer. Black wife-white husband unions are 43 percent more likely to last 10-plus years than white-on-white unions.
African Americans have the lowest rate of marriage, 29.9 percent. They also have the highest separation rate, 4.5 percent. Native Americans have the second lowest marriage rate, 37.9 percent. Hispanics have a 45.1 percent marriage rate. For whites the marriage rate is 52.9 percent, and for Asians in the U.S., it’s 58.5 percent. Asians also have the lowest rate of divorce, 1.8 percent.
Staying off social media can improve your chances of avoiding divorce. ABC News reported a study by Divorce Online that found “Facebook” mentioned in one-third of all divorce filings. More than 80 percent of divorce attorneys in the U.S. said the presence of social media in divorce proceedings is increasing, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
For a final word on beating the odds against a lasting marriage, one man who is so happily married that he still goes on dates several times a week with his wife of 61 years said this: “It’s simple: Mind your own business, and marry your best friend.”
Ingersoll philosopher Jack Sink, you’re sounding a lot like John Adams and Henry James. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.