To Have, to Hold, For a While


Amid divorce, remarriage and co-habitation, children do not do well.

Last week, Vermont became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage, setting off yet another round of celebration and hand-wringing in different quarters of American life. The debate over same-sex marriage -- showing so much intensity on both sides -- is but one sign that Americans take marriage very seriously indeed. From television specials featuring over-the-top Bridezilla weddings to the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative, which spends $150 million annually on marriage-related programs, no other Western nation devotes as much cultural energy, public policy or religious attention to matrimony as the U.S. And with approximately 90% of Americans marrying over the course of their lifetimes, the U.S. has the highest marriage rate of any Western country.

But there is a darker side to this exceptionalism, as Andrew J. Cherlin notes in The Marriage-Go-Round, his incisive portrait of marriage in America. Virtually no other nation in the West compares with the U.S. when it comes to divorce, short-term co-habitation and single parenthood. As Mr. Cherlin documents, Americans marry and co-habit at younger ages, divorce more quickly and enter into second marriages or co-habiting unions faster than their counterparts elsewhere. In other words, Americans "step on and off the carousel of intimate relationships."

The biggest problem with this aspect of American family life is that children often do not do well when parents and partners are whirling in and out of their lives. Children have difficulty adapting to changes in their routines or to step- parents who are not comfortable acting as authority figures or to nonresidential parents who see children only intermittently. The live-in boyfriend, who may well not have a child's best interests at heart, is an even greater problem. Such a mix of hybrid forms, according to Mr. Cherlin, is part of the reason that family instability is linked to higher rates of teen sex, teen pregnancy, teen drunkenness, truancy and behavioral problems in school.

By contrast, Mr. Cherlin writes, "stable, low-conflict families with two biological or adoptive parents provide better environments for children, on average, than do other living arrangements." Unfortunately, the family changes of the past half-century have left millions of American children vulnerable to one or more dizzying spins on the family merry-go-round.

Family instability, Mr. Cherlin shows, has been increasingly concentrated in poor and working-class households in recent years. Divorce is much more common in less-educated circles: 23% of women with only a high-school degree will divorce or separate within five years of marriage, compared with 13% of women who hold a college degree. Thus children at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder are now much more likely to be doubly disadvantaged by poverty and family instability.

How did the U.S. reach this state of affairs -- in which marriage is almost universally desired and yet more fragile than ever before, with almost half of all first marriages ending in divorce court and a series of hybrid family forms adding confusion and instability to children's lives?

How did the U.S. reach this state of affairs -- in which marriage is almost universally desired and yet more fragile than ever before, with almost half of all first marriages ending in divorce court and a series of hybrid family forms adding confusion and instability to children's lives? Mr. Cherlin points to competing "models" or ideas of marriage. On the one hand, he notes, most Americans believe that marriage is the best social institution for bearing and rearing children and that marriage should be grounded in a permanent, faithful and loving relationship. On the other hand, Americans celebrate individualism more than people in other Western societies and so believe that they are entitled to make choices that maximize their personal happiness. When a marriage becomes unsatisfying, difficult or burdensome, according to this model, it can be dissolved -- it even should be dissolved.

Such contradictory impulses push the vast majority of Americans into marriage and then push a large minority out again when their dreams of marital bliss go unrealized. It does not help that Americans in recent years have come to see marriage as a symbol more than a covenant -- as a kind of "capstone" signaling that they have arrived at a certain position in the world, with a good job, a good résumé and now, it is hoped, a soulmate who will make them happy. Meanwhile, poor and working-class adults -- especially men -- lack the cushioning financial assets of their privileged counterparts, so they are even less likely to get married or stay married.

Because Mr. Cherlin is reluctant to challenge the individualistic ethos of our day, the strongest advice he can muster -- when he steps back to consider the marriage portrait he has drawn so brilliantly -- is that Americans who aspire to be parents should "slow down" when they are entering or exiting a marriage or a co-habiting relationship, bearing in mind that children do best in a stable home. It is not bad advice, certainly. But some of us may wish to do more than put a yellow light in the path of parents who are tempted to hop onto (and off of) America's family merry-go-round. For the sake of the children, a red light may be better.



W. Bradford Wilcox. "To Have, to Hold, For a While." The Wall Street Journal (April 13, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


W. Bradford Wilcox is Associate Professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and a member of the James Madison Society at Princeton University. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia and his Ph.D. at Princeton University. Mr. Wilcox's research focuses on the influence of religious belief and practice on marriage, cohabitation, parenting, and fatherhood. His first book, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands examines the ways in which the religious beliefs and practices of American Protestant men influence their approach to parenting, household labor, and marriage.

Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, Mr. Wilcox is now researching the effect that religion has on relationships among low-income parents in urban America. Professor Wilcox has received the following two awards from the American Sociological Association Religion Section for his research: the Best Graduate Paper Award and the Best Article Award (with Brian Steensland et al.). His research has also been featured in The Washington Post, USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, CBS News, and numerous NPR stations. Professor Wilcox teaches courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels in statistics, family, and religion. Bradford Wilcox is a member of the Catholic Education Resource Center's advisory board.

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