Fairly often I find myself asking “How do these people miss the obvious?” This book review in the Wall Street Journal discusses the behavior of Americans when it comes to marriage, divorce, cohabitation and related topics (WSJ Online 4/13/09). The review provides a conduit for the thoughts of Andrew J. Cherlin, author of “The Marriage-Go-Round.” And he has some interesting things to say.
According to Cherlin, Americans, when compared to people of other first world western nations, marry and cohabit earlier, divorce more quickly and jump back into marriage more readily. When children are involved, as they so often are, that results in a whirlwind of adults passing into and out of their lives. And that in turn creates a sense of upheaval that is bad for children’s sense of and need for stability.
Cherlin calls this the “Marriage Go-Round.” He rightly points to the value of stable, two-parent families. He’s concerned that poorer parents are more likely to divorce than their more affluent counterparts, which adds a financial dimension to the instability of divorce. Cherlin also recognizes that the behavior he describes has basically come about over the past 50 years or so.
So it is strange to say the least that Cherlin lays our marriage and commitment problems at the feet of American individualism. According to him, it’s our individualistic sense that we can do better “on the far side of the hill” that leads us to separate from existing arrangements like marriage.
But if individualism were the cause, the ‘marriage-go-round’ would be a colonial antique. American individualism is as old as the country and yet, until the mid-sixties or so, the institution of marriage was largely untroubled. As late as the Kennedy Administration, out of wedlock childbearing ran well under 10% of all births, and people’s attitudes were firm that children should be born to married parents.
American individualism is an impressive thing. The history of the country until the end of the 19th century shows the readiness with which our ancestors abandoned civilization for the unsafe, unsettled (by white Europeans) frontier. And yet, for three centuries or so, divorce was a rarity. So individualism is not the problem with marriage and childrearing.
How Cherlin manages to miss these simple, obvious facts, I don’t know. What we’ve been experimenting with over the past 40-50 years is, I believe, the by-product of a general move toward greater equality of the sexes. As with any such broad-based and profound change in societal relations, this one came with a lot of rhetoric that bore little relationship to reality. Marriage, we were told, was another aspect of oppression of women by men. Children did just as well with one parent as with two. Easy divorce was good because no relationship at all was better than a conflicted one.
I suppose that any period in which we were adjusting to new sex roles for men and women had to come with extreme and untrue rhetoric like that. Now we’ve found out just how untrue that rhetoric was and we’re trying to figure out how to keep women’s gains toward equality, and at the same time ensure that children are cared for properly and grow up to be healthy productive adults.
The recognition that fathers can be as good as mothers at caring for children with the concomitant expansion of fathers’ rights will be a big part of that process. Changes to family law to accomodate that will be necessary. A popular culture that treats men and fathers as normal human beings as opposed to dangerous thugs and incompetent morons will be necessary too.
I think the “arc of history” bends in that direction. But whether it does or not, American individualism will survive it all.