Professor Lindsay Christopher
23 August 2013
Divorce: An American Tradition
On one of the most important days of Kris’ life, his friends and family gathered around him to celebrate. As they looked over photographs from his wedding day, they smiled. Kim was very beautiful and had been a gorgeous bride. Kris held up his glass of wine and made a toast. While his wine sloshed in his glass, his dad gave him a pat on the back as a gesture of encouragement. Kris recounted how, 72 days earlier, he had married one of the most beautiful women in the world, and how at this very moment he knew he had made the right decision. That right decision was not marrying Kim but coaxing her into signing a prenuptial agreement before they tied the knot.
Prenuptial agreements, also called prenups, are very common nowadays. They serve as contracts to divide property ahead of marriage, as a plan for divorce. As described in the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, prenups can be as common as wedding cake (“Divorce,” St. James). I consider prenups to be a symbol for modern divorce promoting practices.
What an interesting culture we live in, where so many Americans make plans for divorce before we are even married. It’s almost as if we know that our marriages are doomed from the start. In a world where over 40% of marriages end in divorce (“Predicting Divorce,” Mathematics and Society), one may wonder Why do people even get married? As marriage mentor and author Ramona Zabriskie writes, everyone needs a person to “cherish” unceasingly. She explains that to fully “experience the closeness of cherish,” a person must chose a life partner. It’s “the real why” folks get married (34-42). From this perspective, one might speculate that marriage has not lost its appeal to the majority of Americans. Along that line of thought, statistics show that 90% of all Americans get married at least once in their lifetime (Wolfinger 2). While many people might argue that marriage has become less alluring to the general populations, if we look at the high remarriage rates, we know for certain that marriage is still a favored institution among Americans. It seems more appropriate to identify the culprit of the high divorce rates in America as an alteration to accepted societal standards, drastic transformations in the economy, and individual circumstances. It is imperative that Americans are well informed as to their positions on matters of society, the economy, and their individual circumstances before they get married to help reduce the divorce rate.
Changes in Society:
Nicholas H. Wolfinger, the Assistant Professor of Family and Consumer Sciences and of Sociology at the University of Utah, enumerates many reasons why divorce rates are so high in his book, Understanding the Divorce Cycle. One reason, that I find most fascinating, is that divorce has lost its stigma. There are hardly any negative connotations associated with divorce. He persists that, “Americans’ acceptance, or at least tolerance, of divorce has increased to the point that generally it is no longer construed as a moral failing” (Wolfinger 2). The reason that this subject is intriguing is because the majority of people in our American society place blame on the individual. In the same terms, Americans traditionally place “a high premium on individual achievement” as well. In other words, it’s common for Americans to believe that a person earns his or her lot in life. Most Americans rarely look to our “sociological imagination” for clearer understanding of individual circumstances. When a culture places value on using the “sociological imagination,” that culture has the ability to see beyond individual circumstances for relation to “massive cultural or historical processes,” or essentially, the bigger picture (Newman 9). Is it not interesting that our society, who usually places blame on the individual, would look for a sociological explanation for divorce?
In those terms, I feel it is imperative to look at divorce from a sociological perspective. Returning to Wolfinger’s claim that divorce has lost much of its stigma, Wolfinger asserts that this is due, in part, to the mainstreamed “divorced characters… in today’s movies, literature, and television shows.” He rationalizes that the divorce self- help books in every bookstore contribute to society’s growing desensitization to the topic of divorce as well (2-3). There are thousands of books on coping with divorce, which is a sign that divorce is prevalent. The mainstreamed divorce- help books also prove how cyclical divorce is. The cycle seems to begin with a demand for information; our society suffers from high divorce rates, so our society needs books on coping. Then once our society has books on coping, there are now there are more resources available to everyone for navigation through divorce, making divorce more accessible.
If we look at marriage and divorce as they were in the beginning of our nation, they bear hardly any resemblance to modern American practices. Colonial America did not even practice divorce until the New England Settlers arrived with disdain for the Catholic Church. It’s known that the Roman Catholic Church was one of the first institutions to formally “outlaw” divorce, as stated in the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. The New England Settlers “sought to recreate society” and with their changes, they brought divorce to our country (“The New England Colonies,” US History Online Textbook). The authority of the Catholic Church has “carried into future centuries and influenced…” a large group of people (“Divorce,” St. James). Catholics today have been known for their low divorce rates in comparison to the mainstream society. Even so, the majority of the preponderating American communities now consider divorce as a form of empowerment.
It can be said, that the birthplace of such a notion of divorce being empowering, was World War II. As many women sought to help the war effort, they found new power. Women entered the workforce in unparalleled numbers and the sudden push to return home, in the 1950s, caused for some contention between the sexes. Most Americans tend to look at the 1950s as a time where few divorces occurred because, compared to today’s numbers, 1,070 divorces per 100,000 marriages, is comparatively low to modern times (“Divorce,” St. James). However, I would argue that the 1950s mark the beginning of an era. With the 1960s, came the great divorce boom. One idea that emerges is that as women graduated from higher education and gained steady employment, they no longer felt the need to remain trapped in their miserable marriages. While women leaving miserable marriages can be a great thing, the divorce rate perfectly correlated and loomed from the 1960s to 1979 (Wolfinger 2). In the midst of that timeframe, people demanded change. Some people would argue that the feminist and sexual revolutions where the vessels for that change.
Returning to the concept of stigma, the feminist and sexual revolutions “combined to give divorce a more positive image that reflected the right of women to be liberated and independent” (“Divorce,” St. James). As the popular belief of divorce increased, new laws were formed. In 1970, California endorsed the United States’ first “no fault divorce law” that allowed for couples to gain a divorce with less effort. Shortly thereafter, all 50 states adopted the law to allow for expedient separations (Wolfinger 5). The “no fault divorce law” permits couples to split for reasons of irreconcilable differences, which can interpreted to mean just about anything. Many researchers blame the “no fault divorce laws” for America’s high divorce rates. I believe that America’s thirst for change brought the cycle to start. The divorce boom caused the United States to enact such a law, and once the law was created, countless Americans followed suit and began divorcing more rapidly.
As many women felt compelled to act on their rights for spousal independence, the sudden outbreak of AIDs tamed the divorce rate back down in the early 1980s (“Divorce,” St. James). Most people wanted assurance that they wouldn’t contract AIDS, so many people made the decision to commit to one partner. While yes, it would be wonderful to tame the divorce rate again, I’m not a fan of the AIDs method.
Americans wanted monogamous relationships again to diffuse the rampant disease. And just as fast as divorce had lost its stigma, marriage found it and claimed the stigma as its own. While couples were still pairing off, a societal standard had drastically changed. Instead of marrying their partner, Americans decided that they needed to test drive their loved one first; to test for compatibility, if you will. The rates of cohabitation between 1960 and 2000 increased “tenfold,” according to the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. The encyclopedia goes on to read that “by the twenty-first century, the majority of couples were cohabitating before marriage. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2005 and 2007 more than twelve million unmarried couples were living together” (“Divorce,” St. James). This is an interesting statistic because the high rates of cohabitation prove that societal norms have changed.
The article entitled “Divorce” from the Encyclopedia of Gender and Society claims that “Although the divorce rate is high for married couples, the rate at which other romantic relationships dissolve, such as those who cohabitate, is even greater. This is likely the result of the less committed nature of cohabitation.” Americans want to test their relationship’s strength and because of the “less committed nature of cohabitation,” if there are signs of difficulty, the relationship is often discarded. And by way of standards created in the 1970s, if marriage can be dissolved after signing a contract, why can’t cohabitation be dissolved in its far less formal nature?
Alterations in the Economy:
An educational DVD, produced by Intelecom, on modern families enumerates the top reasons why families have changed over the decades. The number one reason for the transformations of families is listed as the “transition of the economy” (Our Families, Ourselves). Modernly, it is very expensive to simply survive. Many families have an extremely difficult time with paying bills. Most families in our society depend on both parents to bring home the bacon. However, in the 1950s, women stayed home with the children while the men worked and made money for the family. Both parents working has increased divorce rates because now many women no longer remain financially dependent on their husbands. Women working can be a good thing and a bad thing.
Take, for instance, The Encyclopedia of Gender and Society which references a study lead by Stacy Rogers. Rogers studied the correlation between wives’ income and divorces. Rogers, a renowned researcher, observed a group of wives’ financial earnings over 17 years and determined that as the women in her study earned more money, and contributed a larger percent to the family’s funds, those women were much more likely to get divorced. She also noticed that as men and women made the same amount, and agreed to a 50/50 split of bills, the likelihood of divorce was decreased. Rogers explains that when neither party depends solely on the marriage for financial stability, the odds for divorce are lessened (“Divorce,” Gender and Society).
The reason that I found this study interesting is because it shows both sides to the story on women in the workplace. Often times, some people will argue that a woman in the workplace is always a good thing because that means that there is a level of gender equality in the home. The counter argument is that a woman in workplace can be detrimental to the family and the mother may feel the need to assert her financial independence. Equality is wonderful and when couples each bring their own assets together and work as equals, divorce rates are known to decline. When one spouse carries too much of a burden, we know that families suffer. Women looking out for themselves is a good thing; however, society has linked divorce to liberation. Society has shown Americans that divorce is not bad, which means that divorce might be the ticket to a better life. The answer here is equality, not divorce. According to Our Families, Ourselves, “as men and women become more equal, divorce rates may go down.” The same DVD also claims, “The best predictor of family stability is economic stability” (Our Families, Ourselves, Intelecom). Americans are on the right track with seeking equality; I propose that we keep seeking economic equality with the purpose of ensuring the survival of the intact family.
Divorce and the economy are linked in many ways. One way is the potential benefit that people gain once they’ve become divorced. A study that took place during a rise in divorce found that “men’s standard of living increased by 42% after the release of his commitment to familial obligations.” The same report listed that divorced women’s “standard of living would fall 73% and often times fall below the poverty line” (“Divorce,” St. James). Now, divorce attorneys can help women seize control of 50% of her husband’s assets. The economic benefits of divorce can be an influence for both men and women to cut off their ball and chain, even if it’s despite their leg.
Believe it or not, the unemployment rate also plays a huge part in divorce. Families with too little an income struggle. When families struggle, people often times look to divorce as a fix all pill. Back in 2009, the national unemployment rate rose to 10% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While, thankfully that rate has decreased to about 7.4% today, the lack of economic stability causes stress on marriages (“Labor Force Statistics”). If one spouse is carrying the family, we already know that the family suffers. It’s safe to say that the economy is definitely a reason for the high divorce rates.
Divorce is not always a bad thing in some individual circumstances. Divorce can be beneficial when there’s abuse in the family or when spouses have conflicting beliefs. Individual circumstances contribute to the high divorce rate because many couples have issues that they consider unsolvable.
Biblically speaking, Adam and Eve were the first two humans on Earth. One woman and one man together. From that same perspective, we see that most people in western cultures have been pairing off since the beginning. We discussed at the start of this paper why couples pair off and we determined one of the biggest reasons; we learned from Ramona Zabriskie that we need to feel “cherished” (34- 42). That creates a lot of room for interpretation. A relationship built off of emotional bonds sounds very fragile and very unstable. If one spouse feels that their emotional needs aren’t being met, that would be grounds for divorce by today’s standards. While it may be true that people have been pairing off since the beginning, it’s not true that people have always married for love. By the same example of Adam and Eve, they were betrothed to each other because it was practical and not because they were in love.
Couples used to get married because it was beneficial, economically speaking, to become a union. According to the Encyclopedia of Sociology,
This text shares the insight that the “love and companionship” that used to be products of marriage, are now the reason for marriage. It’s very interesting that marriage has evolved in this fashion. It shows what we value as a society has changed. While we still value marriage and money, we now also value love. In the Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, it clarifies that marriage is now “more of a choice than a requirement,” which is why spouses require more than ever from their partners (“Divorce,” Gender and Society). There can be a lot of pressure associated with such high demands for companionship. While it’s great that marriage is a choice, if we return to the concept of equality that we discussed earlier, we remember that divorce occurs more often when one spouse is under enormous pressure. Due to this fact, I propose that we stop expecting our husband or wife to be a constant source of companionship and romance for our individual gain.
Marriage expert Dr. Robert Johnson, author of We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, states that romance is not the reflection of our love for another. Dr. Johnson explains that “the passion of romance is always directed at our own projection.” When we want to be romanced, we are thinking in terms of “our own fantasies” and our personal desires (Johnson qtd. in Zabriskie 112). In other words, Americans are seeking love and affection, but they want it in a specific way and all wrapped up with a pretty bow. Anyone who has ever experienced love before knows that love is messy! Love can’t be on your terms. Many individuals file for divorce because they are simply unhappy with the love they are receiving from their spouse. If everyone realized that our spouses are not supposed to do everything we want, we will all have much more realistic marriages.
I believe that the clinical psychologist, Juliana Slattery, says it best when she postulates that a spouse is “never meant to fully satisfy you” (Slattery qtd. In Zabriskie 125). No marriage is perfect. Nobody wakes up every single day and says to themselves, Boy, I want to do whatever my spouse wants and I won’t complain because I’m just so happy. But in retrospect, many people seem to expect their spouses to be what they want all the time. On occasion, a spouse will not measure up. And with “no fault divorce laws” and the looming possibility of divorce at our fingertips, getting divorced has never been so easy.
In terms of predicting divorce from the standpoint of individual circumstances, I feel the experts who wrote “Predicting Divorce” from the Encyclopedia of Mathematics and Society, arrive at their information the best. They explain that you can predict divorce in two ways: empirically using previously gathered data, or mathematically with “priori predictions.”
Empirical research uses two categories for predicting divorce: problems that the spouses brought in to the marriage individually and problems that occurred within the marriage once they became a union. The first indicator of divorce is examined by looking at the ages of the couple (the younger the individuals are, the higher the risk of divorce), the education levels of the couple (lower education attainment is associated with higher divorce rates), and their individual association with divorce (children of divorce are 50% more likely to get divorced) (Wolfinger 106). The second indicator of divorce is observed by couples’ communication methods (poor communication is correlated to divorce), commitment to the marriage (infidelity, lack of romance, and uncommon commitment goals direct to divorce), finances (a lack of similar financial goals and spending habits lead to divorce), and huge transformations in life events.
Researchers arrive at their “priori predictions,” which are predictions made using logic, using what Dr. John Gottman calls the “bitterness rating.” His rating system is comprised of six signs that he determined are the road to divorce. He created the “bitterness rating” scale after watching hundreds of hours of tapes on couples’ conversations together. The first sign is conversations that begin with accusations toward one another. The second sign is a pattern of communication that includes “criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.” Dr. Gottman argues that the third sign is when one spouse’s negative energy overpowers the other spouse to a point where neither person can muster up any positivity. Once couples hit stage three, they are well on their way to stage four. Stage four is described as noted “physiological changes” such as increased heart rate which can cause increased anger. The fifth sign is when one spouse cannot repair the damage in the relationship without causing the other spouse to withdraw even more. And the final stage is when the couple rewrites their history to reflect mostly negative experiences, even when the memories might be false. If couples hit sign six, they are “94%” likely to divorce (“Predicting Divorce,” Mathematics and Society).
The reason I find this study so fascinating is because it shows that individual circumstances are an immense factor in the high divorce rates. Returning to the topic of “sociological imaginations,” when a person is able to understand their individual role in the situation as well as the larger picture’s play into circumstances, more realistic ideas of marriage are the result.
The day is August 20th, 2011 and Kris takes a microphone from the stand. He’s standing on a stage looking into the eyes of his beautiful bride, Kim. As he smiles down at her, and the crowd surrounding her, he raises his glass for a toast. He shares his insecurities with Kim and his friends. He explains that while the world changes more and more every day, his love for his new wife will grow. Kris declares that even with the changing economy, he promises to always care and provide for his family the best he can. He vows to remember his love for his wife by watching his words and expectations. As he looks into the eyes of his lovely bride, he reveals to everyone that he just made the best decision of his life. That decision was marriage.
Kris knows that over 40% of marriages in America end in divorce (“Predicting Divorce,” Mathematics and Society), but he also knows that the main reasons for divorce are changes in the standards of society, a constantly transforming economy, and individual circumstances. Kris plans to work hard to remain a loving husband in the face of change so the entire world can cheer with his family as they stay together and beat the odds of divorce.
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“Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.” Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Department of Labor. 19 Aug. 2013. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.
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