Two cheers for the fact that Americans are divorcing less.
Claire Cain Miller reports that Americans are staying married longer. The wave of divorces that began in the 1970s is tapering off.
Statistically, this means that instead of a divorce rate of approximately 50% we anticipate a divorce rate of 33%.
It’s getting better, but still the rate is far too high.
Miller also points out that Americans are marrying less. Thus, many Americans lack the stability that a long term marriage would provide.
The less educated among us have discovered that it is perfectly OK not to marry, but to have children with different partners. The resulting social chaos ought to bother everyone. It is not a formula for social harmony.
All of this is what it is. It is not the reason I was intrigued by Miller’s story.
Miller also raises a more interesting issue: Was feminism responsible for the wave of divorces that washed up on our shores in the 1970s? Or was it all the fault of men who refused to buckle under to their wives’ new demands?
Were feminists really home-wreckers or did American men fail to adapt to changing mores?
Following the lead of researchers Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolpers, Miller attempts to absolve feminism of responsibility for the chaos it produced:
The people who married soon before the feminist movement were caught in the upheaval. They had married someone who was a good match for the postwar culture but the wrong partner after times changed. Modern marriage is more stable because people are again marrying people suitable to the world in which we live.
This is seriously disingenuous, though it does show that feminists are incapable of taking responsibility for what their movement produced.
Marriage is a contract. Some of it is explicit; some of it is implicit; some of it is customary. Once a couple establishes a domestic division of labor, it becomes part of the contract.
People who marry agree to live by the terms of the contract. When second-wave feminism convinced large numbers of women to break their part of the contract, to go back on their word, it produced an upheaval. It had to.
The result was a large number of divorces and what was called the feminization of poverty. Airy visions notwithstanding, divorce is not good for women… or for anyone else, either.
It was more about the culture than about equal legal rights. It was about the way women conducted their lives. Feminism declared that traditional ways of dating and mating, or courting and marrying were oppressive to women. They had a right to their opinion. But then, they told women to opt out of traditional marriages and traditional courtship. The result: more divorce, more unwillingness to marry, more hooking up, more sexual abuse… and so on.
Feminists take grievous offense at any suggestion that their movement might be responsible for the ensuing chaos. They do not like being called home-wreckers.
And yet, as Colin Powell famously said: you break it; you own it. Those who broke the old ways of dating and mating are responsible for what ensued… even if it was not what they intended.
Shifting the blame by accusing people of having married unsuitable mates is absurd. The point is not whether your mate is suitable or not. The point is that a lot of women changed the rules… unilaterally.
When someone breaches a contract you do not say that she made a deal with someone who was unsuitable. When someone decides to change the rules you do not accuse her mate of being overly rigid.
Following Stevenson and Wolpers, Miller refuses to blame feminism for anything that has gone wrong since women started living by its dictates.
Instead, in an impressive sleight-of-hand Miller suggests that feminism really saved marriage… by making it all about love.
Or better, she follows the lead of the researchers who declare that marriage has evolved:
Women entered the work force, many of their chores in the home became automated and they gained reproductive rights, as the economist Betsey Stevenson and Mr. Wolfers have argued in their academic work. As a result, marriage has evolved to its modern-day form, based on love and shared passions, and often two incomes and shared housekeeping duties.
“It’s just love now,” Mr. Wolfers said. “We marry to find our soul mate, rather than a good homemaker or a good earner.”
In fact, this was always the feminist promise. It’s good to see it stated so explicitly and so mindlessly.
In the feminist fiction a woman who ran out on her husband and children to go to graduate school will find her soul mate, discover true love and live happily ever after. See Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.
Feminism did not concern itself with whether or not it was morally reprehensible to abandon husband, home and children.
In another feminist fiction a woman should delay marriage in favor of career. Then she will be so independent that she will not depend on a man for anything. Thus, when she chooses to get married in her mid-thirties she will find a man who can love her for herself alone… and not for her tuna casseroles. Since she does not depend on him they can love each other as equals.
By now most women know the foolishness of this life plan. But, the reproductive endocrinologists have certainly profited from it.
We did not need second-wave feminism to give us love marriage. By my count it originated in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation and became institutionalized in Great Britain in the seventeenth century.
To be clear, it meant that civilization had advanced beyond arranged marriage. As I discussed in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, the important part about love marriage was that it gave a woman a free choice of a husband and held her responsible for the way she conducted herself in her marriage.
Anyone who believes that marriage is simply the union of two soul mates is either an adolescent or a propagandist. Witness the fate of Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde.
One reason people marry less is that some women refuse to be homemakers and some men do not want to marry until they can support their families. Also some women refuse to marry men who cannot provide for them.
Ignoring these things when you choose a mate is a formula for trouble. One suspects that some young people think that it’s all about love. That’s the reason why, even in a culture where marriages are not arranged, parental guidance often plays a role in the selection process.
And, lest we overlook it, some research has shown that a couple that shares household chores is 50% more likely to divorce. A marriage where both members of the couple contribute equally to the family coffers is twice as likely to contain abuse.
Moreover, when a couple shares all household chores and childrearing tasks equally, one or both will be sacrificing career advancement. This too is not a formula for a happy and durable marriage.
Finally, when estimating the divorce rate we must keep in mind parents today know that feminists were lying to them. They know that children suffer from divorce. Thus, they often try to keep their marriages together while their children are growing up. Responsible adults, they make choices based on the best interest of someone other than themselves.