Marriage and Partnership Turnover for American Families

(June 2010) Marriage is an integral part of American culture and no other Western country has such a high degree of marriage promotion as the United States. At the same time, the United States has one of the highest divorce rates in the world and American children are more likely to see their parents’ marriage break up than children in most other developed countries.

These trends lead to an interesting contradiction in a culture that highly values both marriage and individualism. Andrew Cherlin, Griswold Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University, explored these conflicting patterns at a recent PRB policy seminar.

The American public is receptive to marriage promotion messages. Particularly over the past 10 years, public service campaigns have focused on the benefits of marriage and emphasized it as a preferred status in the lives of adults. Americans marry and move in together for the first time sooner than people in most other Western countries. According to the Fertility and Family Surveys, a higher proportion of Americans marry at some point in their lives than adults in most other developed countries. In the 1999-2002 World Values Survey, only 10 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “Marriage is an outdated institution.” This figure is considerably lower than for most European countries. In France, 36 percent of respondents agreed with the above statement, while around 20 percent concurred in the majority of the other Western European countries. In addition, 76 percent of Americans agreed that “marriage is a lifetime relationship that should never be ended except under extreme circumstances.” Americans are more likely to say that marriage is very important to them.

In practice, however, unions are significantly more fragile in the United States than in most other developed countries. There is no other place in the developed world where marriages and cohabitations are more likely to come to an end in a short period of time: In the United States, about 23 percent of marriages and 55 percent of cohabitations end in divorce or separation within five years. Additionally, children in the United States experience a higher rate of parental partnership transition and turnover: Eight percent of children living with their mothers encounter three or more maternal partnerships by the time the children are 15 years old. This figure represents three times as many children as the second-place country in this category, Sweden, where 2.6 percent of children go through the same experience. This high frequency of turnovers and transitions is a distinctive aspect of American families.

Researchers speculate that the reason for the unique contradiction between marriage aspiration and partnership disruptions and transitions lies in the way Americans view marriage and themselves: While marriage is very important to them, Americans are also highly individualistic and believe it acceptable to leave a union when it becomes a source of personal unhappiness. According to Cherlin, the origins of both trends were evident in the teachings of Martin Luther, the initiator of the Protestant Reformation. For Luther, marriage was the preferred status for citizens and also one of the foundations of a civil society. At the same time, the Protestant religion allowed for divorce in very specific cases, which represented a major break from the beliefs in Europe and in the Catholic Church. Protestantism came to the early United States with the first colonists and later spread across the country. In the United States today, more than half the population believes that religion is very relevant to their daily lives, while this is much less the case in European countries. Sixty-one percent of Americans, the highest proportion among Western countries, agree that “churches in the country are giving adequate answers to the problems of family life.” In fact, religious Americans are considerably less likely to get divorced or separate from their partner within 15 years than nonreligious couples. Although religious couples have a significantly lower divorce rate than nonreligious couples in the United States, their separation rates are still above those of most European countries.

The American legal system also supports the dichotomy of marriage and divorce. Favorable tax laws, including tax breaks for married couples, provide financial benefits and encourage formal unions. On the other hand, the waiting period for no-fault divorce in the United States is relatively short compared with Italy, for example, where parties have to stay legally married for years before finalizing a divorce. It is not surprising that with all the different messages Americans receive, both marriage and individualism coexist. The constant search for partnerships and the low tolerance for unhappiness lead to the unique concurrence of marriage and divorce trends in the United States.



Kata Fustos is a communications intern at the Population Reference Bureau.

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