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Resources from Marriage Savers: Columns


A War: Marriage Vs. Individualism

Sept. 2, 2009
Column #1,462
Copyright © 2009 Michael J. McManus

  I often wonder why America, the most religious modern nation, has the highest divorce rate in the world - TWO to FIVE times that of Canada and Europe.

  An important new book, aptly titled The Marriage-Go-Round by Prof. Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University has a fresh analysis that I would summarize as a clash between America's commitment to both marriage and to individualism. 

In his words, "The United States is unique among nations in its strong support for marriage, on one hand, and its postmodern trenchant for self-expression and personal growth, on the other hand.

"You can find Western countries where marriage is strong, such as Italy, where few are born out-of-wedlock and relatively few people live together without marrying, and you can find Western countries with highly individualistic values, such as Sweden, where marriage and cohabitation are virtually indistinguishable.

"But only in the United States can you find both."

For example, he cites polls showing that 76 percent of Americans believe "Marriage is a lifetime relationship that should never be ended except under extreme circumstances."  However, if asked this question, Americans flip-flopped: "When a marriage is troubled and unhappy, it is generally better for the children if the couple stays together."

     Only 25 percent of the people who said marriage is for life, agreed that the couple should stay together; 40 percent disagreed and 36 percent were unsure!

    Consider Arkansas, which had America's third highest marriage rate in 2007, behind Nevada and Hawaii, states of "destination weddings."  It also had the second highest divorce rate, after Nevada, where people travel for quickie divorces.

    Why is Arkansas a state with a high marriage rate and a high divorce rate? Arkansas is in the "Bible Belt," with higher than average church membership.  In fact, Cherlin notes that six of the ten states with the highest divorce rates are in the South: Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. The other four are in the West. George Bush won all ten states.

    Thus, conservatism does not lead to marital stability. Why?  Southern and western states are also passionate believers in freedom of the individual.  The South is heavily Baptist  whose theology teaches that each person can understand God's plan by reading the Bible. 

   So if they read Jesus saying, "I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly" in John 10:10, and feel that their marriage is not happy and abundant, they rationalize ending the marriage, though Jesus condemns divorce in three Gospels.

    By contrast, states with low divorce rates, such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York whose divorce rates are half that of Arkansas - are heavily Catholic, whose church teaches that divorce is always wrong, pointing to the explicit teaching of Jesus, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her." (Mark 10:11).

   However, Cherlin goes beyond the issue of divorce.  He makes three profound points  that not only do Americans divorce more, but they also enter into more short-term cohabiting relationships and have more marriages.  "Together these factors create a great turbulence in American family life, a family flux, a coming and going of partners on a scale seen nowhere else."

  "Children living with two married parents in the United States have a higher risk of experiencing a family breakup than do children living with two unmarried parents in Sweden."

       U.S. cohabiting relationships are twice as likely to be disrupted as in Canada or Austria.  Nearly half of American children will experience a new partner moving into the house vs. less than a third in most European countries.

       What I found most shocking, eight percent of U.S. children by age 15 have seen their mothers live with three or more different men compared ONE percent or less in virtually every European country.

   Cherlin writes, "This merry-go-round property of American families" should be of profound concern.  "Simply put, some children seem to have difficulty adjusting to a series of parents and parents' partners moving in and out of their home.   Even transitions that bring a new partner or stepparent into the home may be difficult."

      Cherlin hints at one solution:: "I know that in no other Western country is the waiting period for a no-fault divorce so short…In England, France and Germany, for example, a person who requested a no-fault divorce without the consent of his or her spouse had to wait five, six and three years, respectively."

     Here it takes from one month in Alabama to a year.  Change that to stop the marriage-go-round. Either require that the parents of young children agree on a divorce, or require a separation of three to six years before a no-fault divorce is granted.