LOVE AND MARRIAGE: Marriage in Modern America

Monday, April 18, 2005

Most people would agree that families and the institution of marriage are not what they were fifty years ago. Many couples are cohabiting without marriage, and many children are being raised in single-parent homes or other nontraditional family arrangements. Is the traditional model of marriage and family superior to these other arrangements, as some would argue? If so, why have marriage and family relationships changed so much over the past half-century? And what should the government do, if anything, to strengthen families and the institution of marriage? Peter Robinson speaks with Jennifer Roback Morse and Stephanie Coontz.

Recorded on Monday, April 18, 2005

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: do they really go together like a horse and carriage?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: love and marriage.The institution of marriage isn't what it used to be just say five decades ago. Divorce rates are dramatically higher. Many more children are being raised in single parent homes and lots of couples are choosing simply to live together without bothering to get married at all. Why have patterns of family life and marriage changed so much in five decades? What should the government do? What can the government do to strengthen the institution of marriage?

Joining us, two guests. Stephanie Coontz is a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College. She's the author of the new book Marriage: A History. Jennifer Roback Morse is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. She's the author of the new book Smart Sex: How to Find Lifelong Love in a Hook-up World. And now,love and marriage...

Title: Hope Springs Eternal

Peter Robinson: Dr. Samuel Johnson referring to the remarriage of a friend after the death of the friend's first wife. "The triumph of hope over experience." As we begin the twenty-first century and all that we know about divorce rates, shifting marriage patterns, is it fair to say that the--that retaining the ideal of marriage as a happy and stable relationship between one man and one woman would amount to a triumph of hope over experience? Stephanie?

Stephanie Coontz: Well I think one of the reasons that our divorce rate is so high is because we have so much higher hopes than people had of marriage in the past.

Peter Robinson: Jennifer?

Jennifer Roback Morse: I think we should be hopeful for lifelong married love. I think it's worth being hopeful for.

Peter Robinson: The essence, the nature of marriage. Jennifer Roback Morse, I quote you to yourself, "Marriage is a naturally occurring pre-political institution that emerges spontaneously from society. Western society is drifting toward a redefinition of marriage as a bundle of legally defined benefits bestowed by the state." Explain yourself.

Jennifer Roback Morse: Marriage has existed in some form or fashion in every known human society. If you think of marriage as being the normative institution where people have sex and raise children, every society has some preferred place for people to have their babies and have sex. And that…

Peter Robinson: It is not a creation of the law--of the legal structure?

Jennifer Roback Morse: It's not a creation of the state. It's a creation--it's an organic institution that flows from the fact that men and women naturally are drawn to one another and couple and have an interest in their own children and so on.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Now let me quote you to yourself. Stephanie Coontz, "Marriage has taken so many different forms in history that trying to define it does not really help us understand what any particular society's marriage system is or how and why such a system changes over time." Now to me the interesting--for the purposes of this discussion--the interesting part of that quotation is "changes over time". Do you accept Jennifer's notion that marriage is pre-political, that it's organic or would you argue more that society gets to make up or define marriage as it goes along?

Stephanie Coontz: Well my research suggests that it certainly--marriage developed before politics but one of the most amazing and interesting things to learn about marriage in history is that throughout most of history until very recently, marriage was more about finding in-laws than it was about finding love between two individuals and raising the kids. Lots of kids were raised out of marriage in the past. Lots of sex certainly took place out of marriage in the past. More actually probably than today. But throughout most of history, marriage was an institution that was really important to social solidarities because it was the way you turned strangers into relatives. And women were referred to--and some men too--as peace weavers. They were the ones who made peace between people.

Peter Robinson: Now let's examine marriage in modern America more closely.

Title: Marriage, American Style

Peter Robinson: Let me describe two developments of the twentieth century, one legal and one demographic. I'll go as fast as I can here. And then I'd like to ask you to tell me what they mean, how we should understand them. The legal event is the advent of no fault divorce. Throughout most of American history, divorces could be obtained only when one party was pronounced guilty of serious misconduct, adultery, abandonment, that sort of thing. Then in the 1970s, divorce law changes quite radically permitting no-fault divorces. That is to say if a couple wants to dissolve its marriage, it can simply claim that the marriage is broken down, there's no need for a court to engage in the finding of fault. The marriage is simply dissolved. The demographic event, rising divorce rates. Divorce rate is for a long time--decades. When I say a long time, I mean decades. When you say a long time you mean millennia. It's relatively stable. Just under two divorces for each one thousand Americans. During World War II, the divorce rate jumps--almost doubles--sinks back. By 1960, it's almost back where it started. Then it begins a very sharp climb, peaking in 1980 at more than five divorces for every one thousand Americans. What do we make of these two developments? The obvious question here is is there some causality? Is the new and easier divorce regime in some way connected to a cause of the rising divorce rate that you see in the '70s and '80s? Go ahead Stephanie.

Stephanie Coontz: Well first of all, your graph is not quite accurate. Divorce has been rising steadily since the 1870s. No sooner did people begin to believe in the idea that you should marry for love than many people began to say well if you fall out of love, you should have a right to divorce. As early as 1891, a professor at Cornell…

Peter Robinson: You see a kind of steady climb from 1870?

Stephanie Coontz: Yes. It goes like this. Here I can do it for you.

Peter Robinson: Go ahead.

Stephanie Coontz: It goes like this from the 1870s. It triples in the 1920s.

Peter Robinson: You see a jump in the '20s.

Stephanie Coontz: It goes down in the 1930s. It spikes in 1946. It goes down in the 1950s but listen to this.

Peter Robinson: But it does rise sharply during the Second World War?

Stephanie Coontz: Oh absolutely. It never in the 1950s goes below its high point in the 1920s. It resumes its rate starting in about 1955.

Peter Robinson: So everything you've stated so far is pre the new no-fault divorce regime?

Stephanie Coontz: Yes. Right. So what I'm suggesting and what I think the evidence supports is that no fault divorce was a reaction to other social changes that were increasing the divorce rate. What is interesting is that in the first five years after every state that adopted no-fault divorce did so, there was a spike but then it faded.

Peter Robinson: Subsides. When you say it's falling, it's still much higher today than it was…

Stephanie Coontz: Oh absolutely. Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: …say in 1960.

Stephanie Coontz: We're saving--yes. We're saving more marriages than we did in 1981. And my argument as a historian is that we can probably save a few more but we will never, ever, get back to the point where we can afford to ignore the fact that people are going to be parting, whether we like it or not.

Peter Robinson: Whatever graph you subscribe to, the divorce rate rises in the twentieth century. What do you make of it?

Jennifer Roback Morse: I'm not so worried about the graph, the blips on the graph. The interesting point to me about the no-fault divorce innovation is two points. The first interesting thing is that I think no-fault is a kind of a misnomer because I think it's more accurate to say unilateral divorce meaning one person can end the divorce for any reason or no reason, against the wishes of the other party. And that really is I think something new and there are many injustices…

Peter Robinson: New as of the 1970s…

Jennifer Roback Morse: Yeah, that's a relatively new way to approach it, you know, that one person can end the divorce without--end the marriage, sorry, without the consent of the other person, without even really offering an account of themselves. And there are many injustices and problems that form from that but I don't think we're fully taking into account. So there are many reluctantly divorced people out there. And I think people, you know, we just need to--just--simple justice says that we ought to pay more attention to them.

Peter Robinson: What about the notion--Stephanie's notion that the divorce rate rises through--well you begin toward the end of the nineteenth century and continues rising through the twentieth century. There's quite a lot of increase in the divorce rate, very substantial increase in the divorce rate, before the so-called no-fault.

Jennifer Roback Morse: Exactly. Exactly. I think that's…

Peter Robinson: So what's going on there?

Jennifer Roback Morse: I think that's right. I think--I suspect a number of things are going on. I mean one is the change in the idea that you're supposed to be happy and we have rising expectations and then therefore we're disappointed and we think it's time to end the thing. A lot of those blips you can attract each one to a specific kind of demographic event like World War II. But I think probably the main thing is the mechanization of the economy and families kind of not working together as an economic unit.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask Stephanie to explain how the romantic ideal of marriage has fueled rising divorce rates.

Title: What's Love Got To Do With It

Peter Robinson: Stephanie makes this very arresting assertion. I'm going to quote you again Stephanie. "The very things that," and ask you to explain it, "The very things that made marriage more satisfying and increasingly fair to women are the same things that have made marriage less stable." Explain that.

Stephanie Coontz: Well for centuries, marriage was an authority relation not a love relationship. It was defined by law right up until--1979 was the year that the last American state repealed its head and master law. Before that, until the twentieth--early twentieth century, women were considered almost literally the property of their husbands. They didn't fight much. They didn't have anything to fight about. They didn't have any right to fight. Furthermore, they were economically dependent. As women have become--have had more fairness in marriage, as there really is a more intimate and loving relationship and as women have developed the economic independence which incidentally gives them more clout within marriages and actually increases the happiness of many marriages, it makes it more possible to leave a marriage that they feel is unsatisfying.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so one part then is that women don't have to put up with bad marriages in the way that they once used to. They have recourse now. Don't you want to argue that men also get to just leave their wives?

Jennifer Roback Morse: There's also the other side of it which is that the new innovations in divorce law make it possible for a vulnerable home-making wife to be abandoned for basically no reason or any reason. And so that…

Peter Robinson: For the trophy wife.

Jennifer Roback Morse: For the trophy wife. And both of those kinds of stories happen every day in our society.

Stephanie Coontz: Can I say one thing about…

Peter Robinson: Sure. Of course.

Stephanie Coontz: Because as a historian, I think that there's always trade-offs in things. I agree that homemakers in particular were really made vulnerable, although I would not want to over-estimate how happy they were under the fault based divorce which could have terrible, terrible abuses. But, you know, one thing that people forget is that in the--every state that adopted no-fault divorce in the five years following, the suicide rate of wives fell by twenty percent. So, you know, some women were better off as a result of it. Some were worse off. My argument would be that this is a long range historical trend but we will not wish away so we'd better learn how to build on its benefits and minimize its weaknesses.

Jennifer Roback Morse: But it's also the case that today divorced people have triple the suicide rate of married people. So that's not really enough of an answer I don't think.

Peter Robinson: All right. So we have divorce. Now let me ask what we ought to do about it. I'll quote you again Jennifer. "Admit that unilateral divorce has undermined marriage, current divorce law allows people to divorce for any reason or no reason so lots of marriages dissolve against the wishes of one person. Many divorced people could be described as reluctantly divorced." So you want to reform divorce law. Right?

Jennifer Roback Morse: Yes. And there are many ways at the margin that one could do that. You don't have to go back to a full fledged, fault based system to alleviate some of the issues.

Peter Robinson: Give us one reform.

Jennifer Roback Morse: Well, for instance, you can change with the custody laws. You can have a rebuttable presumption of joint custody. And the reason that's an important issue…

Peter Robinson: Hold on. Explain what that means.

Jennifer Roback Morse: Okay. Joint custody means that both parties--that there's a presumption that both parties are going to be equally involved in the rearing of the children.

Peter Robinson: As opposed to the current presumption which is that the woman…

Jennifer Roback Morse: Which varies state by state. Okay. So this is…

Peter Robinson: Oh I see. Isn't it--the usual tendency is that the children stay with the mother.

Jennifer Roback Morse: That's the tendency.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Jennifer Roback Morse: That's the tendency.

Stephanie Coontz: The idea of joint custody has definitely gained ground.

Jennifer Roback Morse: And the reason that's important is because it means that somebody can't just--this gets to the issue of wives initiating divorces--they can't just say okay, I'm taking the kids. Maybe I'll get some child support and some alimony but I don't have to put up with that guy anymore.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Jennifer Roback Morse: Because if you have joint custody, you've got to put up with the guy. You have to still work together…

Peter Robinson: Oh I see.

Jennifer Roback Morse: …you see, you can't just have a free hand in the rearing of the kids. And so that--I mean, that's one type of thing that you can do…

Peter Robinson: So the notion is that--the law says to people once you have children, you are engaged in a joint enterprise. You don't have to live with that man any longer or with that woman but you've got to get these kids through high school.

Jennifer Roback Morse: That would be a very different kind of a message I think--in some states. Again, this is…

Peter Robinson: Stephanie, you say making divorce laws stricter would have little effect on the number of marriages that break down and might actually discourage some people from getting married in the first place. What do you think of the reform she just mentioned?

Stephanie Coontz: Well I think that sort of reform is quite possible. I'm in favor, you know, people say oh we have to re-institutionalize marriage, well I think we also have to institutionalize divorce. We have to say to couples who divorce, you may be parting ways, but if you have kids together, you cannot walk away from those obligations. You both have to be involved. We should have…

Peter Robinson: So you're a bit of a toughie yourself then.

Stephanie Coontz: We should have as high expectations of divorced and unwed couples as we do of married couples.

Peter Robinson: Next, the problem of broken families.

Title: Working Hard or Hardly Working

Peter Robinson: We're dealing now with the question of broken families. Two specific questions. Welfare reform. The welfare reform that the Rpublicans in Cngress enacted and Bill Clinton signed in 1994 says to working mothers--excuse me, says to single mothers in a way that the law did not before--you're going to have to get out and do your best to find a job, taking you away from your kids. Are you in favor of that reform or should moms--single moms, many of them divorced, many of them never married in the first place--should they be permitted to stay home with their kids? How do you address that one?

Stephanie Coontz: I think that's a really tough issue. I think that's a very tough issue. I think it's good for kids to have their parents have a work ethic and we see it particularly with the welfare reform that sending the mothers to work actually helps the preschool students.

Peter Robinson: Oh it does?

Stephanie Coontz: Yes it does.

Peter Robinson: Oh we have some data on that now?

Stephanie Coontz: We have some data on that.

Peter Robinson: Kids are better off.

Stephanie Coontz: On the other hand, we have some other data which is that at the older ages when the kids are usually in very impoverished, high crime neighborhoods and lose the supervision of the mom, that it may be a problem.

Peter Robinson: Older ages is teens?

Stephanie Coontz: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Jennifer Roback Morse: Or preteens or latchkey kids. It's a bad thing.

Stephanie Coontz: So these are all really complex problems. I'm not saying that we should just say oh boy, this change is all for the good.

Peter Robinson: But what about this notion to which I think you've both now signed on--that if you've got kids, you need to be responsible for them. So would it not then follow that you ought to go out and earn the money to put the bread on the table? Jennifer, what is your view of the welfare reform?

Jennifer Roback Morse: I think on the whole that it was a good thing to insist on work as a condition of welfare or to introduce that as part of the ethos. But I also think that it's important to reintroduce marriage as part of the ethos because I think that is a key to getting people out of poverty. A single person trying to do this on their own--it's really, really hard. And, in fact, I would go so far as to say that there's no such really as a single mother, that every mother has to have somebody helping her, whether it's the person she's married to or whether it's the state. And because it's just too hard to do by yourself. And so…

Peter Robinson: So how to you reintroduce marriage into the ethos? How do you do it?

Stephanie Coontz: That's the big question.

Peter Robinson: How do you do it?

Jennifer Roback Morse: Well, you know, one hates to say in the old days…

Peter Robinson: Prayer and fasting but I mean…

Jennifer Roback Morse: In the old days, social workers actually encouraged people to get married. You know, I mean they actually said, you know, you kids need to get married. But they don't talk to people like that anymore. In fact, we're tongue-tied about this. We're afraid to talk about this.

Stephanie Coontz: Well actually that's not true. We're spending millions of dollars now promoting marriage. And…

Jennifer Roback Morse: And not a moment too soon.

Stephanie Coontz: And I have nothing against helping people get married, encouraging people to make better commitments and have healthier relationships. I do worry about this marriage…

Peter Robinson: What about the government doing that?

Stephanie Coontz: Well I think it's fine if the government encourages--what I would say the government ought to promote is healthy relationships. I think really healthy relationships do tend to lead to marriage. But I think when you turn marriage into a fetish and you say, you know, everybody has these correlations. Kids, you know, people--married people are happier than divorced people. You're comparing apples and oranges. Happily married people don't divorce. Okay. So unhappily married people are not happier than divorced people. Kids of married parents do better. That's because most married parents are cooperating parents.

Peter Robinson: Now wait. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on.

Stephanie Coontz: The kid of an unhappily, conflict ridden marriage does not do better. So promoting marriage in the abstract…

Peter Robinson: You're saying promote healthy relationships. And Jennifer I believe is saying no. Not good enough. There is something distinctive about marriage. Is that not correct?

Jennifer Roback Morse: And I think that's right. And I think that's right. I think what you just said is really quite misleading if I may say so. I think that the people who do these statistical studies, take into account the income levels and health levels and other kinds of things to deal with the fact that yes you might have a different pool of people who get divorced rather than those who get married. Same with living together. It's a little bit different kind of person who lives together than who gets married. But even taking all that into account, there does seem to be something different about marriage versus cohabiting or versus divorce.

Peter Robinson: Let's see what our guests think of C.S. Lewis' proposal for two kinds of marriage.

Title: The Marrying Kinds

Peter Robinson: C.S. Lewis, famous British academic and also Christian apologist. Now Lewis is talking about Christian notions of marriage but I think we can substitute the word traditional and it works just as well. Quoting C.S. Lewis, "How far should Christians," or for our purposes say not Christians but those who believe in traditional marriage, "force their views of marriage on the rest of the community. My own view," says C.S. Lewis, "is that there ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage, one governed by the state with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the church," or we can say any other religious institution, "with rules enforced by the church on its own members. This distinction ought to be quite sharp so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian," or for our purposes traditional sense, "and which are not." So Stephanie gets healthy relationships. That's all the state asks for or encourages. And you get a separate system of widely recognized church or synagogue or mosque marriages which are held to a different standard?

Jennifer Roback Morse: I don't think that quite gets--I don't think Lewis' distinction gets quite at what Stephanie's concerned about or what the dispute between us has to do with because he's talking--he's still talking about marriage. He's not talking about cohabiting and she's talking about cohabiting being different even from a civil marriage if I understand her correctly. So I think we still have to deal with this question of cohabiting and we also have to deal with the question of conflict in marriage. And I think the real innovation in the last thirty years has been what people in low conflict marriages do. You see, if there's domestic violence, if there's infidelity, if there's alcoholism, those were grounds--those were traditionally grounds for fault-based divorces.

Peter Robinson: Those were always grounds for divorce.

Jennifer Roback Morse: Yeah. Yeah. Those were grounds for fault-based divor--and the research does show that in a high conflict marriage, the kids are better off if the parents divorce. That's for sure.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Jennifer Roback Morse: But it's the low conflict marriage where all the innovation I think has really happened, where there's kind of low level dissatisfaction between the parties. The research on that shows that when those marriages dissolve, it's very upsetting to the children. They half the time are clueless, don't even know their mom and dad are upset. It's an unwelcome intrusion into their lives. And those are the kids who when you say the kids do worse after a divorce, those are the kids where you really can parse out and see the hurt.

Peter Robinson: Tell me your reform. How do you change that?

Jennifer Roback Morse: Well you see, that's an area I think where the expectations, the social expectations, is really quite important because I think a lot of people don't just stay together because of what the law says but because--is it socially acceptable to get divorced? And I think now that both custom and the law more or less favors personal autonomy over the unit of the marriage. And that, I think, is a work not only of law but also of the culture.

Peter Robinson: So your answer to this--culture is something, of course, is extremely difficult for the government to get its hands on.

Jennifer Roback Morse: Of course.

Peter Robinson: You're not suggesting a plan on which George W. Bush can act? You're suggesting that people like you ought to state that the importance of marriage bit by bit…

Jennifer Roback Morse: That's a big part of it.

Peter Robinson: The culture needs…

Jennifer Roback Morse: You can also do modest reforms like waiting periods and things like that. You know, European countries, a lot of them, have waiting periods for divorce and so…

Stephanie Coontz: And we have several…

Jennifer Roback Morse: And that's not the end of the world.

Stephanie Coontz: We have several states in America that are experimenting with covenant marriages where people can choose to give up their right to a no-fault divorce. Now fewer than three…

Peter Robinson: What states have…

Stephanie Coontz: Oh Louisiana, Oklahoma…

Peter Robinson: Tell me how that works.

Stephanie Coontz: You can sign essentially a prenuptial saying I give up my right to a no-fault divorce. We will only get a divorce in the case of adultery, felony or a two year separation.

Peter Robinson: So you could say, in effect, I choose to--we choose to permit this marriage to be governed by nineteenth century divorce law is effectively what…

Stephanie Coontz: Exactly. Exactly. Now here's the problem…

Peter Robinson: Any research on how those marriages do?

Stephanie Coontz: Too early.

Jennifer Roback Morse: It's a little soon.

Stephanie Coontz: But there is research on how many people choose them.

Jennifer Roback Morse: Not very many.

Stephanie Coontz: And it's less than three percent.

Jennifer Roback Morse: Yeah, not very many.

Stephanie Coontz: And I guess my message here is, you know, in the ideal world everybody would just have these wonderful, lovely, healthy relationships that would probably end in marriage. In the real world, adults today spend half their life--adult life out of marriage. People--marriage no longer regulates the entry into sex. Your age at first marriage is over twenty-five for women, over twenty-seven for men. No society in history has ever kept that age group celibate. And in the real world, forty percent of kids will end up, whether I like it or not and I don't particularly like it, spending some part of their life in a family form that is not two parents.

Peter Robinson: So you want to just say look just accept it.

Stephanie Coontz: So I want us not to…

Peter Robinson: No fault divorce is here to stay.

Stephanie Coontz: I want us to say--not say in advance that okay, only married couples can make it. I think that we have to figure out a way of simultaneously helping people enter and sustain marriages and extending a helping hand to those people who are choosing or have been forced into other ways.

Peter Robinson: Finally, predictions on the future of the institution of marriage.

Title: State of the Union

Peter Robinson: Twenty-five years ago, roughly two marriages--this was 1980--roughly two marriages out of every five ended in divorce. Today that figure stands at about one in three--little over one in three. So it's down from 1980. 1980 was the peak. Twenty-five years from now, where will that figure stand?

Stephanie Coontz: I think it will be about the same but that instead of marriage coming back, you will continue to have cohabitation. I think that we are actually have the possibility of saving really healthy marriages, doing a better job of that but that we will never get rid of these cohabiting and other forms.

Peter Robinson: Then let me ask you second--actually go ahead. What's your answer to that? The divorce rate does what?

Jennifer Roback Morse: I think it will be lower because the young people coming of age today are sick of the divorce culture because they've already been through two or three divorces by the time they get to college. Their parents' divorces--they've lived through it. I hear from these people every day…

Peter Robinson: And the answer to that will not simply be that they refuse to get married?

Jennifer Roback Morse: They're sick of it. They're sick of it. They want to get married and stay married.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Jennifer Roback Morse: They don't know how but that's what they want to try.

Peter Robinson: Today in the United States by the age of sixty-five, ninety-five percent of Americans have been or are married. The question is ten years from now, what will that figure be? Are there going to be more Americans just staying out of marriage?

Stephanie Coontz: I don't think that the rate of non-marriage is going to rise significantly. Americans are a marrying people, much more so than many other countries. The Japanese, for example, have much higher rates of singles than we do. So do the Italians. In fact, one of the things that's interesting is that in many of the countries where divorce is hard to get, people are staying away from marriage in droves. So I think that that statistic will remain about the same.

Peter Robinson: Will we remain a marrying people?

Jennifer Roback Morse: I think so. Americans are hopeful people and so we will remain a marrying people.

Peter Robinson: Ah yes. All right. The triumph of hope at least, if not over experience. Hope is something…

Stephanie Coontz: Two or three times if necessary unfortunately.

Peter Robinson: Stephanie Coontz, Jennifer Roback Morse, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thanks for joining us.