Alternative family structures may be all the rage, but so are traditional ones. Where by traditional I mean “married with kids”.
While fewer and fewer families have a straight married couple at their center, those that do are more likely to stay together. A lot more likely. Divorce rates have been steadily declining since the early 1980s. They’ve now fallen to only eleven percent among the college educated.
A New York Times feature on what it’s like to be a divorced mom these days focuses on how few of them there are, and how socially isolating it can be. They’re looking almost entirely at affluent, educated women. The type who can afford to go to yoga five times a week to help them get over their divorce. The kind who have access to lawyers and therapists to help smooth things out for their kids. Whose major worries are being accepted by the other Park Slope moms.
These women report that they’re a rare breed amongst their progressive, feminist friends. While many of their friends struggle with their marriages, there’s a general sense that once you’re married with kids, you stay married with kids.
Why? Anecdotally, it’s because these people are the children of those awful 1970s and 1980s divorces. Our moms were liberated, our families were broken, we suffered for it. And we don’t want to do the same thing to our kids. All the women interviewed for the NYT piece talk about wanting to protect their children from growing up in “broken homes”. They echoed each other with sentiments like this one:
It’s as if the children of Manhattan and Roslyn, N.Y., and Bethesda, Md., reflected on their parents’ sloppy divorces and said, “Not me.” For Ms. Thomas, whose parents separated when she was 12, “Divorce had pretty much defined everything in my life.” In her divorce memoir, “In Spite of Everything,” to be published this summer, Ms. Thomas recalls telling her ex-husband many times during their 16-year marriage, “Whatever happens, we’re never going to get divorced.”
The anecdotal evidence here is at odds with statistics. Children of divorce are actually much more likely to divorce than people who grew up with married parents. They may wish to stay married because their parents split up, but statistically they’re less likely to. It’s not growing up in the shadow of their own parents’ divorce that’s keeping today’s parents out of divorce court.
So what is it? Jezebel has some interesting ideas about what’s keeping modern marriages together:
They chose marriage, and they chose it later. There is at least the acknowledgment that women are more economically independent now, as opposed to earlier generations: “Many of these marriages in the ’70s were fundamentally unequal. With the women’s movements, they learned that there were alternatives, and that made divorce kind of a liberation.” But it isn’t just that these marriages are based on at least an ideal of partnership; it’s that they’re chosen among a set of family options that exist on an acceptable spectrum and have been normalized (including the ones invisible in the piece, i.e., anything not strictly heterosexual). Marriage may be more socially acceptable, but it’s not obligatory.
Essentially, Jezebel seems to be suggesting that with other options on the table, people who get married at all are the ones who are more committed to the marriage and each other. They’re less likely to dissolve their marriage vows because they made them more intentionally.
That rings true with other marriage research, which shows that people who marry later in life are more likely to stay married. Another reason people may be staying together is that they have better marriages. Couples tend to be happier when they share housework more equal, when they both have satisfying careers and when they feel like equal partners in their relationships. In other words, the more dishes guys wash the happier their wives will be. There’s less incentive to leave if things are working out OK.
But what about those who get divorced anyway? Is divorce really so bad for kids?
Research is divided on this. Stable loving homes are good for kids. Some studies show that children suffer from divorce, but others suggest that being raised by parents who hate each other is just as bad. Amongst divorced parents, there’s often a huge sense of relief, and a belief that they’ve done the best they can for their children. They’re looking for what one expert calls a “humane” solution, and often finding it. Some have dinner together once a week, others spend birthdays and holidays together. They come up with alternatives that work for their families and do them as gracefully as possible.
What do you think? Is the divorce rate down because people have better marriages, or are they just afraid of hurting their kids if they split up?Has your family gone through a divorce? Was it hard on the kids or the best thing for them?
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