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Across the United States, adults are partnering and re-partnering at unprecedented rates. Sociologist Andrew Cherlin is alarmed by the impact this “marriage-go-round” is having on America’s children.
On a recent afternoon in Northern California, under a bright blue sky, Anya Emerson and Jonah Staw got married. She wore mismatched socks and a whitelace gown. He held her hand and together they stood as straight and tall as the Redwoods surrounding them and recited their vows. Afterward, wedding guests dined on tacos and tamales, toasted the happy couple, and watched as the newlyweds donned white blindfolds and took turns swinging at a wedding-cake piñata with a stick.
Perhaps you were one of the 175 guests invited to their quirky celebration. Most likely you were not. That's okay, because the tale of the couple's union was recounted in great detail on the pages of the Sunday New York Times on June 6 in the Vows column. One of the most widely read features in the paper, Vows offers millions of readers a glimpse into how two people met, courted, and married. Here in black and white on the pages of the nation's biggest, most respected newspaper is a 1,000-word weekly confirmation that the institution of marriage in the United States is alive and well.
Or is it?
Elsewhere in the online version of the Times and in other media outlets at about the same time as news of the Emerson/Staw nuptials were a slew of other stories that painted a much darker picture of American marriage. From the most recent confession of infidelity by a high-profile politician, to news stories about the latest state battling over the right for same-sex couples to tie the knot, to reviews of a book alleging that marriage and its shared mortgage payments and child-rearing responsibilities kill passion, to think pieces encouraging readers to "avoid marriage--or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love," the news isn't good. American marriage, like that wedding-cake piñata, is in big trouble.
How can two such different portraits of marriage be true? Easy, says Andrew Cherlin, author of the new book The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and Family in America Today (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009). Americans love the institution of marriage, says Cherlin, the Benjamin H. Griswold Professor of Sociology and Public Policy in the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. But that doesn't mean we're any good at it. In fact, we're terrible.
Americans get married more, get divorced more, and have more live-in partners than people in any other Western nation, according to Cherlin. Some 90 percent of Americans are projected to marry in their lifetimes, yet about half of these marriages will end in divorce. (One-fifth of American marriages will end in divorce within five years.) Our marriages are weaker than others' live-in relationships. (American children of married parents are more likely to experience a parental breakup than Swedish children of cohabitating parents.) And when we live together without marrying, our unions are more fragile than those in other countries. One out of 12 American children experiences three or more maternal co-residential partnerships by the age of 15—that's three times higher than in any other Western country.
It's as if Americans are on a marriage-go-round that's spinning faster and faster out of control. "Americans step on and off a carousel of marriages and partnerships more often than people in other countries," Cherlin says. "We partner. We unpartner. Then we re-partner faster than people in other countries. We have more spouses and live-in partners coming in and out of our households than people in any other country."
Carousels are usually fun for children. The marriage- and cohabitation-go-round is not. Children who have experienced multiple transitions at home due to their parents' partnerships tend to have more behavior problems in school, have sexual intercourse at an earlier age, are less likely to graduate from high school, and are more likely to have a first child outside of marriage than children raised in stable two-parent households or in stable single-parent families, according to large-scale national surveys.
This isn't some statistical anomaly. It's genuine cause for worry, Cherlin says. "What I'm concerned about at heart is the well-being of American children," he says. "What distinguishes American kids from kids elsewhere in the Western world is the sheer number of partners who come into their homes. It may be difficult for children to adjust to all of this coming and going."
When Cherlin talks about changes in family life, it makes sense to listen. A social demographer who has studied trends in the American family for more than 30 years, he's written five books and numerous journal and newspaper articles on how marriage, divorce, and remarriage affect families. His research is widely respected as thorough, balanced, and bold, says Frank F. Furstenburg Jr., the Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. "Without a doubt Andrew Cherlin is the leading authority on marriage and its broader effects on children's well-being," he says.
When he first began studying stepfamilies a quarter of a century ago, Cherlin, like other sociologists in the field, was familiar with the data that divorce caused problems for some children. At the time, social scientists hoped remarriage would improve the overall well-being of children whose parents had divorced. Because another adult was joining the household and income would rise, that child's risk factors would go down, and quality of life would increase, they reasoned.
It wasn't true. "Remarriage is not the solution we once thought," Cherlin says. "Kids in remarriages don't seem to do much better than those in stable single-parent families."
Now he and other social scientists have broadened their focus to examine how instability caused by divorce and remarriage and cohabitation affects children. "Every time a new parent or partner enters or leaves a home it prompts a need for a child to have to adjust to the new situation," says Cherlin. "What I'm suggesting is that the real issue could be the cumulative effect of all of these changes, that instability itself is what's difficult for children."
Cherlin, who is 61, is not placing himself outside the changes in American family life of the past 50 years. As a Baby Boomer, he knows he's part of them. His parents, who are now deceased, celebrated 53 years of marriage together. But he knows that's an achievement that neither he nor many others of his and future generations will ever match.
His first marriage lasted 17 years and ended in 1990 when his son, Reid, was 9 and his daughter, Claire, was 11. Cherlin and his ex-wife shared custody of the children. "I think my former wife and I had a good working relationship that allowed us to continue to parent our kids pretty well," he says. "We managed the joint custody well, and the kids did better for that." Then after 10 years as a single father, just as his son was leaving home for his first year of college, Cherlin remarried. His second wife, Cynthia Osborne, is vice president of Lutheran Services in America and a psychotherapist on the clinical faculty of the School of Medicine. "I'm not trying to be moralistic about divorce. I've experienced it," he says. "But in an odd sort of way my professional interests and my personal life have been very similar."
Long interested in researching urban problems and their effects, he was drawn to the study of families as the result of the many changes in family life that occurred as he was growing into adulthood. "Probably the most tumultuous 20-year period in American family life was between 1960 and 1980," he explains. "Divorce rates doubled. Birth rates, which had been high in the 1950s, were plummeting. The birth control pill was introduced. I was interested in looking at the enormity of these sometimes bewildering changes and their effects on children."
Cherlin's findings about how partnering and re-partnering can lead to instability in children rings true to Nicole Munoz, a Towson, Md., psychotherapist who has counseled many families through divorce during her 15 years in practice. Although there are other social and psychological factors at work when it comes to how children cope with divorce and re-partnering of parents, the transitions can be difficult. "Every child needs consistency, predictability, and a strong attachment to their parents," Munoz says. "And all of that falls into question when a new partner moves into the home."
That's exactly what Beverly Edwards discovered when she and her husband separated in 2005 after 23 years of marriage. Edwards has two children: Tess, who was 13 at the time of the separation, and a son who was 8. At first it was difficult for the children to adjust to their father moving out of the family home. "My son would come to me in tears saying, 'When I'm with Dad I want to be with you, and when I'm with you I want to be with Dad.'"
Things eventually settled down until about a year after the divorce was finalized in 2007, when her ex-husband announced to the children that he planned to get married to a woman he had met online whom they had never met. "My son was traumatized when the marriage first took place," Edwards says. "His dad had been giving him full attention on his weekend visits, and now he had to share that with somebody else," says Edwards, who is 49.
Tess, who had always been her father's confidante, was hurt by how little her father seemed to care about her feelings. "I got upset with the way my dad handled it," she says. "He didn't tell me what was going on. And when I would start asking him, he would argue and tell me, 'You don't want me to be happy.' I started to see a different side of him and it made me so upset."
The relationship deteriorated as Tess tried to sort out her emotions about her father's remarriage. Her schoolwork suffered. Soon after the wedding, the teen stopped the weekend visits with her father. Now she is no longer speaking to him. "I never thought that the divorce would lead me to cutting off relations with my Dad but that's what's happened," says Tess, now 15. Maybe someday they'll be speaking, but it will be on new terms. "I don't think I could ever have a relationship with my father as a parent again."
Stopping the marriage-go-round isn't as simple as advocating that cohabitating couples go get married like those "Marriage Works" billboards advertise. And Cherlin doesn't think the answer involves returning to the traditional marriages of the 1950s where couples stayed together no matter what. "We're too enamored of personal choice to recreate the 1950s," he says. "We're never going to go back to a time where everyone is in lifelong marriages. And we're going to continue to have a high divorce rate in the United States. That's why I think our best hope is to find better ways of coping with the culture we have."
His message is simple: Slow down.
If you have children and you're looking at remarrying or taking a new partner into your home, don't rush into the relationship, Cherlin says. "If you've already broken up with the father or mother of your child, take your time before moving somebody new into the home," he says. "Make sure the relationship is good for your kids before you cohabitate. And don't be so distracted by the new relationship that you give less time to your kids. "
He laughs when he considers how he unwittingly followed the advice he is now offering. "Here I am saying take your time, and I took 10 years. So I followed my own advice."
Marriage is good for kids, Cherlin says. In fact, marriages are great for children if they involve two committed parents. But stability is critical, too. "If you are a single parent, giving your kids a stable environment is probably more important than giving them a stepparent. It's best if you can do both, but that's not always possible."
For Edwards, stability for her children is her primary goal. "I'm hurting and would love to have someone to be with to ease that burden, but right now my kids are my priority," she says.
No matter what, she is definitely going to take her time.■
Maria Blackburn is a frequent contributor to Arts & Sciences Magazine.
In his attempt to provide a contemporary portrait of marriage and the family in the U.S., Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin discovered two strong, competing cultural models present here that don't exist together in any other Western country.
On the one hand, there's the cultural ideal of marriage—the public, formal lifelong commitment to share your life with another person. On the other, there's a strong sense of individualism, that most American of ideals.
"Marriage matters to Americans and always has. Early colonists put marriage at the heart of civil society, and it's still there today," says Cherlin, who points to a recent National Survey of Families and Households in which 76 percent of 13,000 Americans polled agreed that marriage is "a lifelong relationship" that should never be ended "except under extreme circumstances."
However, the meaning of marriage has shifted. "People used to marry so they could have an economic partnership that put food on the table," he says. "Now they marry for companionship and love but only when everything else is going well in their lives. Marriage has become a status symbol."
In the 1950s, marriage was the first step on the path to adulthood. Now it's one of the last. "People are using marriage as a way of showing their friends and families that they've made it," Cherlin says. "They have good jobs. They have cars. They've lived with the person. They may even have children together. And now that they've decided everything is going well they're going to have a big wedding to celebrate."
Individualism matters to Americans, too. Over the last 50 years, however, this spirit has been transformed from "Go West, young man" to "Go quest, young man," Cherlin notes. Americans place a high priority on their own personal happiness and fulfillment and in doing so they create a tug-of-war between marriage and individual satisfaction that many find impossible to win.
"We get married because we love marriage, but we evaluate our marriages in what I think is a very self-centered way," he says. "We ask ourselves, 'Am I getting what I need from this person? Am I growing and developing as a person in my marriage?'" Ask these questions often enough and sometimes the answer will be "No." And when it is, people are more likely to call it quits in search of a "Yes."
"Americans feel justified in leaving a relationship or marriage if it's not personally satisfying," Cherlin says. "That's less true in other countries.'"