This post reviews Andrew J. Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today (New York: Knopf, 2009). [Read an interview with Cherlin here. Publisher's summary here. Buy it here.]
Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins, here presents a masterful synthesis of the historical and sociological scholarship on American and European families to explain why Americans marry more and get divorced more than other industrialized countries. This book is the result of Cherlin’s long-term quest to figure out why Americans have such different attitudes toward marriage than do Europeans, and especially why Americans seem both to value marriage more and to divorce more. Many scholars have looked at parts of this phenomenon, but Cherlin thinks a more comprehensive look is needed that connects our “frequent marriage, frequent divorce, more short-term cohabiting relationships” (p. 5) to broader social trends. The topic matters, for our high rates of divorce and serial partnerships are having detrimental effects on children.
In sum, Cherlin’s explanation is that Americans have inherited two contradictory beliefs from our history. On the one hand our Christian founding and religious traditions have bequeathed a profound respect for and belief in the sanctity of the marital bond as the best (for many, the only) system for household organization and childrearing. One the other hand that same religious tradition (revivalist Protestantism) has given us a deeply held commitment to individual fulfillment. “Marriage and individualism form a contradictory pair of models” that co-exist within the American psyche.
The correlation between emotional, revival-style religion and divorce is striking. Cherlin notes that “six of the ten states with the highest divorce rates are in the South, and the other four are in the West. George W. Bush carried all ten states in the 2004 presidential election…” People in these high divorce States tend to have “less education, to marry earlier, and not to be Catholic.” (14)
Cherlin’s basic thesis didn’t really need book length treatment. At first I worried that this was going to be way longer and more repetitive than it needed to be. But as I got into the book I found to my delight that it actually got better. Cherlin’s book is in fact something of a synthesis of nearly everything there is to know about marriage and divorce in America, all clearly expressed and based on the best available social science. Here are some of the tidbits I found particularly fascinating:
- 19th century Americans were so committed to the sanctity of marriage that husbands found guilty of murdering their wives’ lovers were often exonerated by juries (36-38).
- Prior to Vatican II (1962-1965), the American Catholic Church granted on average about 400 annulments per year. By the 1980s it was granting over 50,000 per year (111).
- A Christian denomination’s official stance on divorce has no correlation with how frequently its members divorce. Except for Mormons (who have very low divorce rates) American religious groups have pretty similar rates whether they’re conservative or liberal (111).
- Having no religion makes one even more likely to divorce. About 41% of marriages among religious Americans end in divorce after 15 years, yet among the non-religious the figure is about 56%. For international comparison, Sweden, which is far less religious than the U.S., has a divorce rate of about 28% in the first 15 years. (112)
- Americans are far more vocal about the issue of gay marriage than European nations, but far less vocal than Europeans about allowing gays and lesbians access to adoption or reproductive technologies (124-125).
- For all the talk about the decline of marriage, in the United States, about 90% of people marry at some point in their lives (136).
- Areas of the country with lots of people moving in and out (migrations) also tend to have higher divorce rates (150-151)
- One key reason for the rise in inter-racial and same sex partnerships is the emergence of what Michael Rosenfeld calls the “independent life stage,” the time after a child leaves home but before he or she marries, a time when a child is less constrained by parents’ typically more conventional wishes (154-155).
- Marriage patterns differ markedly by education level. College educated people postpone marriage and childbearing until they are financially stable and marry other college educated people. People with lower levels of education also wait to marry, but since they have a harder time developing financial security they tend to have children out of wedlock at much higher rates, have multiple partners, and divorce more frequently (159-169).
- African Americans have the most fragile marital bonds in the country. Higher numbers never marry (about 33%), and 70% of those who do will divorce (the white rate is 47%). The key factor in these race and class issues is the loss of family-wage jobs for American males who lack college education. These are the jobs that have been shipped overseas or taken over by automation in recent decades.
None of this bears directly on homeschooling. Cherlin does mention at one point how the home was the center of education in the Colonial period (a topic you can read much more about in my book), but this is not a book about about childrearing. Nevertheless, it is a topic that I imagine anyone reading a blog on homeschooling would find as interesting as I do. The bulleted items listed above are just a sampling of the many fascinating details Cherlin’s pages are stocked with, and his analytic framework is equally fascinating.
If there is a weakness in the book it is in its final chapter, which lays out Cherlin’s own attempt at a policy implication of all of his data. The proposal is basically to encourage government to spend less time trying to prop up marriage as such and more time getting people in stable relationships for the sake of children. The conservative message often preached to the poor to get married is bad advice if education levels remain low and joblessness high. Marriages without these foundations are much more likely to fail. It would be better to encourage poor people to act more like the upper-middle classes: to wait to marry and have children until they have secured a college education and have a steady job. He calls this the “slow down” policy: “the slow-down message shifts the focus from promoting marriage to supporting stable care arrangements for children.” (196)
The potential problem with this proposal Cherlin himself identifies earlier in the book when discussing marriage patterns of the college educated. Waiting until one has degrees and jobs often means postponing childbearing until the 30s or even the early 40s for many women. It might also mean, as Barbara Whitehead has put it, that there will be no good men left when a woman is finally ready to marry and start a family. American birth rates are currently at replacement level for the population, but were poorer, less educated women to postpone childrearing like their better educated sisters, that level might drop as it has in most European countries. These are ramifications Cherlin might easily have anticipated, for he discusses all of these trends in his book. But for whatever reason he does not deal with them when laying out his “slow down” message.
This minor quibble aside, I offer nothing but high praise for this beautifully written and fascinating look at marriage and divorce in America.