About this Issue

Marriage isn’t what it used to be. Though divorce has declined from its peak, marriage certainly is no longer considered an unbreakable covenant. For millions of cohabiting couples, marriage seems optional, or distant. With gay and lesbian couples demanding their own nuptials, marriage isn’t even just for straight people anymore. Family is a crucial building block of a decent society, but marriage has always been at the center of family formation. If marriage-as-we-know-it is on the rocks, can the family, and society, be far behind?

Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage kicks off this month with a learned lead essay. Reacting to Coontz, we’ve lined up the Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz, author of Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age; economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania; and Norval Glenn, professor of sociology at the University of Texas.


Lead Essay

The Future of Marriage

Any serious discussion of the future of marriage requires a clear understanding of how marriage evolved over the ages, along with the causes of its most recent transformations. Many people who hope to “re-institutionalize” marriage misunderstand the reasons that marriage was once more stable and played a stronger role in regulating social life.

For most of history, marriage was more about getting the right in-laws than picking the right partner to love and live with. In the small-scale, band-level societies of our distant ancestors, marriage alliances turned strangers into relatives, creating interdependencies among groups that might otherwise meet as enemies. But as large wealth and status differentials developed in the ancient world, marriage became more exclusionary and coercive. People maneuvered to orchestrate advantageous marriage connections with some families and avoid incurring obligations to others. Marriage became the main way that the upper classes consolidated wealth, forged military coalitions, finalized peace treaties, and bolstered claims to social status or political authority. Getting “well-connected” in-laws was a preoccupation of the middle classes as well, while the dowry a man received at marriage was often the biggest economic stake he would acquire before his parents died. Peasants, farmers, and craftsmen acquired new workers for the family enterprise and forged cooperative bonds with neighbors through their marriages.

Because of marriage’s vital economic and political functions, few societies in history believed that individuals should freely choose their own marriage partners, especially on such fragile grounds as love. Indeed, for millennia, marriage was much more about regulating economic, political, and gender hierarchies than nourishing the well-being of adults and their children. Until the late 18th century, parents took for granted their right to arrange their children’s marriages and even, in many regions, to dissolve a marriage made without their permission. In Anglo-American law, a child born outside an approved marriage was a “fillius nullius” – a child of no one, entitled to nothing. In fact, through most of history, the precondition for maintaining a strong institution of marriage was the existence of an equally strong institution of illegitimacy, which denied such children any claim on their families.

Even legally recognized wives and children received few of the protections we now associate with marriage. Until the late 19th century, European and American husbands had the right to physically restrain, imprison, or “punish” their wives and children. Marriage gave husbands sole ownership over all property a wife brought to the marriage and any income she earned afterward. Parents put their children to work to accumulate resources for their own old age, enforcing obedience by periodic beatings.

Many people managed to develop loving families over the ages despite these laws and customs, but until very recently, this was not the main point of entering or staying in a union. It was just 250 years ago, when the Enlightenment challenged the right of the older generation and the state to dictate to the young, that free choice based on love and compatibility emerged as the social ideal for mate selection. Only in the early 19th century did the success of a marriage begin to be defined by how well it cared for its members, both adults and children.

These new marital ideals appalled many social conservatives of the day. “How will we get the right people to marry each other, if they can refuse on such trivial grounds as lack of love?” they asked. “Just as important, how will we prevent the wrong ones, such as paupers and servants, from marrying?” What would compel people to stay in marriages where love had died? What would prevent wives from challenging their husbands’ authority?

They were right to worry. In the late 18th century, new ideas about the “pursuit of happiness” led many countries to make divorce more accessible, and some even repealed the penalties for homosexual love. The French revolutionaries abolished the legal category of illegitimacy, according a “love child” equal rights with a “legal” one. In the mid-19th century, women challenged husbands’ sole ownership of wives’ property, earnings, and behavior. Moralists predicted that such female economic independence would “destroy domestic tranquility,” producing “infidelity in the marriage bed, a high rate of divorce, and increased female criminality.” And in some regards, they seemed correct. Divorce rates rose so steadily that in 1891 a Cornell University professor predicted, with stunning accuracy, that if divorce continued rising at its current rate, more marriages would end in divorce than death by the 1980s.

But until the late 1960s, most of the destabilizing aspects of the love revolution were held in check by several forces that prevented people from building successful lives outside marriage: the continued legal subordination of women to men; the ability of local elites to penalize employees and other community members for then-stigmatized behaviors such as remaining single, cohabiting, or getting a divorce; the unreliability of birth control, combined with the harsh treatment of illegitimate children; and above all, the dependence of women upon men’s wage earning.

In the 1970s, however, these constraints were swept away or seriously eroded. The result has been to create a paradox with which many Americans have yet to come to terms. Today, when a marriage works, it delivers more benefits to its members — adults and children — than ever before. A good marriage is fairer and more fulfilling for both men and women than couples of the past could ever have imagined. Domestic violence and sexual coercion have fallen sharply. More couples share decisionmaking and housework than ever before. Parents devote unprecedented time and resources to their children. And men in stable marriages are far less likely to cheat on their wives than in the past.

But the same things that have made so many modern marriages more intimate, fair, and protective have simultaneously made marriage itself more optional and more contingent on successful negotiation. They have also made marriage seem less bearable when it doesn’t live up to its potential. The forces that have strengthened marriage as a personal relationship between freely consenting adults have weakened marriage as a regulatory social institution.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the collapse of the conditions that had forced most people to get and stay married led to dramatic — and often traumatic — upheavals in marriage. This was exacerbated by an economic climate that made the 1950s ideal of the male breadwinner unattainable for many families. Divorce rates soared. Unwed teen motherhood shot up. Since then, some of these destabilizing trends have leveled off or receded. The divorce rate has fallen, especially for college-educated couples, over the past 20 years. When divorce does occur, more couples work to resolve it amicably, and fewer men walk away from contact with their children. Although there was a small uptick in teen births last year, they are still almost 30 percent lower than in 1991.

Still, there is no chance that we can restore marriage to its former supremacy in coordinating social and interpersonal relationships. Even as the divorce rate has dropped, the incidence of cohabitation, delayed marriage and non-marriage has risen steadily. With half of all Americans aged 25-29 unmarried, marriage no longer organizes the transition into regular sexual activity or long-term partnerships the way it used to. Although teen births are lower than a decade ago, births to unwed mothers aged 25 and older continue to climb. Almost 40 percent of America’s children are born to unmarried parents. And gay and lesbian families are permanently out of the closet.

Massive social changes combine to ensure that a substantial percentage of people will continue to explore alternatives to marriage. These include women’s economic independence, the abolition of legal penalties for illegitimacy, the expansion of consumer products that make single life easier for both men and women, and the steady decline in the state’s coercive power over personal life. Add to this mix the continuing rise in the age of marriage, a trend that increases the stability of marriages once they are contracted but also increases the percentage of unwed adults in the population. Stir in the reproductive revolution, which has made it possible for couples who would once have been condemned to childlessness to have the kids they want, but impossible to prevent single women or gay and lesbian couples from having children. Top it off with changes in gender roles that have increased the payoffs of marriage for educated, financially secure women but increased its risks for low-income women whose potential partners are less likely to hold egalitarian values, earn good wages, or even count on a regular job. Taken together, this is a recipe for a world where the social weight of marriage has been fundamentally and irreversibly reduced.

The decline in marriage’s dominating role in organizing social and personal life is not unique to America. It is occurring across the industrial world, even in countries with less “permissive” values and laws. In predominantly Catholic Ireland, where polls in the 1980s found near-universal disapproval of premarital sex, one child in three today is born outside marriage. China’s divorce rate has soared more than 700 percent since 1980. Until 2005, Chile was the only country in the Western Hemisphere that still prohibited divorce. But in today’s world, prohibiting divorce has very different consequences than in the past, because people no longer feel compelled to marry in the first place. Between 1990 and 2003, the number of marriages in Chile fell from 100,000 to 60,000 a year, and nearly half of all children born in Chile in the early years of the 21st century were born to unmarried couples.

In Italy, Singapore, and Japan, divorce, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock births remain low by American standards, but a much larger percentage of women avoid marriage and childbearing altogether. This suggests that we are experiencing a massive historical current that, if blocked in one area, simply flows over traditional paths of family life at a different spot.

The late 20th-century revolution in the role and function of marriage has been as far-reaching — and as wrenching — as the replacement of local craft production and exchange by wage labor and industrialization. Like the Industrial Revolution, the family diversity revolution has undercut old ways of organizing work, leisure, caregiving, and redistribution to dependents. It has liberated some people from restrictive, socially imposed statuses, but stripped others of customary support systems and rules for behavior, without putting clearly defined new ones in place. There have been winners and losers in the marriage revolution, just as there were in the Industrial Revolution. But we will not meet the challenges of this transformation by trying to turn back the clock. Instead we must take two lessons away from these historical changes.

First, marriage is not on the verge of extinction. Most cohabiting couples eventually do get married, either to each other or to someone else. New groups, such as gays and lesbians, are now demanding access to marriage — a demand that many pro-marriage advocates oddly interpret as an attack on the institution. And a well-functioning marriage is still an especially useful and effective method of organizing interpersonal commitments and improving people’s well-being. But in today’s climate of gender equality and personal choice, we must realize that successful marriages require different traits, skills, and behaviors than in the past.

Marriages used to depend upon a clear division of labor and authority, and couples who rejected those rules had less stable marriages than those who abided by them. In the 1950s, a woman’s best bet for a lasting marriage was to marry a man who believed firmly in the male breadwinner ideal. Women who wanted a “Mrs. degree” were often advised to avoid the “bachelor’s” degree, since as late as 1967 men told pollsters they valued a woman’s cooking and housekeeping skills above her intelligence or education. Women who hadn’t married by age 25 were less likely to ever marry than their more traditional counterparts, and studies in the 1960s suggested that if they did marry at an older age than average they were more likely to divorce. When a wife took a job outside the home, this raised the risk of marital dissolution.

All that has changed today. Today, men rank intelligence and education way above cooking and housekeeping as a desirable trait in a partner. A recent study by Paul Amato et al. found that the chance of divorce recedes with each year that a woman postpones marriage, with the least divorce-prone marriages being those where the couples got married at age 35 or higher. Educated and high-earning women are now less likely to divorce than other women. When a wife takes a job today, it works to stabilize the marriage. Couples who share housework and productive work have more stable marriages than couples who do not, according to sociologist Lynn Prince Cooke. And the Amato study found that husbands and wives who hold egalitarian views about gender have higher marital quality and fewer marital problems than couples who cling to more traditional views.

So there is no reason to give up on building successful marriages — but we won’t do it by giving people outdated advice about gender roles. We may be able to bring the divorce rate down a little further — but since one method of doing that is to get more people to delay marriage, this will probably lead to more cohabitation. We may also be able to reverse last year’s uptick in teen births and return to the downward course of the late 1990s and first few years of the 21st century — but not by teaching abstinence-only to young people who, if they do delay marriage, are almost certainly going to have sex beforehand.

The second lesson of history is that the time has passed when we can construct our social policies, work schedules, health insurance systems, sex education programs — or even our moral and ethical beliefs about who owes what to whom — on the assumption that all long-term commitments and care-giving obligations should or can be organized through marriage. Of course we must seek ways to make marriage more possible for couples and to strengthen the marriages they contract. But we must be equally concerned to help couples who don’t marry become better co-parents, to help single parents and cohabiting couples meet their obligations, and to teach divorced parents how to minimize their conflicts and improve their parenting.

The right research and policy question today is not “what kind of family do we wish people lived in?” Instead, we must ask “what do we know about how to help every family build on its strengths, minimize its weaknesses, and raise children more successfully?” Much recent hysteria to the contrary, we know a lot about how to do that. We should devote more of our energies to getting that research out and less to fantasizing about a return to a mythical Golden Age of marriage of the past.

Stephanie Coontz teaches history at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and is Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families (www.contemporaryfamilies.org). Her most recent book is Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage.

Response Essays

The Marriage Gap

Let me begin with a slightly different description than the one given by Stephanie Coontz of where we are marriage-wise in the United States today. She alludes to the fact that almost half of all marriages end in divorce. She also points out that close to 40% of children – 38% — are born to unmarried mothers. What she does not mention is that there is a yawning class divide hidden inside these numbers. The large majority of individuals who are divorced or who are never-married parents are low-income and lacking a college, and in many cases a high school, degree. The large majority of middle-class men and women, on the other hand, marry before having children and stay married while raising them. When she assures us that marriage is not on the verge of extinction, she’s right – if you’re white and went to college.

This marriage gap, as I call it, has profound implications for our political, social and economic prospects for one simple reason: overall, children do better in life if they are raised by their own married parents. Believe me, social scientists didn’t want to reach this conclusion and throughout the 1970’s and 80’s they blithely assured us it couldn’t be true. But as research methods have become more sophisticated and as studies have poured in, there has been no escaping it: even controlling for race, income, and maternal education, children raised by single mothers are more prone to school failure, delinquency, emotional problems, alcohol and drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and becoming single parents themselves. Put together these two facts – a breakdown of marriage among low-income men and women and worse outcomes for children of single parents – and what you have is a recipe for entrenched, trans-generational poverty, inequality, racial disparities (the black extramarital birth rate is over 70%, almost twice as high as the national average), reduced social and economic mobility, and – libertarians take note! – demands for government taxes to fund programs to correct the mess.

The fact that even in an age that celebrates family diversity kids are better off growing up with their married parents points us to the glaring omission in Coontz’s thumbnail history of marriage: children. She states that “marriage has been about picking the right in-laws”; wealthy families sought advantageous connections and the middle class sought respectability. This thesis is like confusing shopping for a car with transportation. It vaults past the obvious fact that unless you had a son and your chosen in-laws had a daughter or vice versa, there was no picking to be done. Evolution has presented societies with three fundamental problems: one, humans’ favorite activity, sexual intercourse, leads to babies; two, those babies are helpless for years, leaving their mothers in need of help if both are to survive; three, men have a tenuous tie to those babies. Marriage was the institution designed to solve this predicament; as the anthropologist Malinowski best described, it tied a man to a woman and their children.

Yes, marriage has had other social purposes. Depending on the culture, it provided companionship, it organized kinship groups, it regulated inheritance of property; as reproduction-is-basic-to-marriage skeptics often observe, many cultures have allowed older women, generally widows, to marry if they had enough wealth to attract a suitor. (Less liberal cultures declared them useless and had them burn themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres.) Yet there were many other conceivable ways to regulate property or provide companionship; it was the inevitability of children in a sexual union that made marriage the universal human institution that it became.

If this theory is correct, then Coontz’s analysis of what happened after “the Sixties” or what Francis Fukuyama calls “The Great Disruption,” also misses the big picture. No question about it, Coontz is correct that love — actually I would put it more generally as personal fulfillment — became more central to our understanding of marriage. No question also that after The Disruption people began marrying later than they had in earlier decades, that they starting living together outside of marriage, and that more decided to opt out of wedded bliss altogether. And yes, women’s liberation, affluence, and technological advances created the conditions that enabled these choices. But the chasm that separates the post-sixties and the rest of human history is the belief that marriage and childbearing /childrearing could go their separate ways. Working mothers are not new; marrying at later ages is not new. A large population of single mothers and fatherless children? Now, that’s new.

This history is worth so many pixels because Coontz’s presumption that marriage is not fundamentally linked with reproduction and childrearing has become commonplace in American society. In surveys half of young women say they might consider having a child outside of marriage. Courts are putting the idea into law. Yet here we are almost 40 years after the children-are-one-thing-and-marriage-is-another revolution began and even with mass affluence that relieves us of some of evolution’s burden by making single motherhood more economically viable, we find that kids growing up with their married parents are still in a better place in life’s sweepstakes. Doesn’t that suggest that the revolutionaries were — are — missing something?

Now, as Coontz observes, this is an international revolution. In much of Western Europe, out of wedlock childbearing is even more commonplace than in the United States; in 2007 more than half of French babies were born to unmarried women. Growing affluence, women’s independence, a global media, the de-stigmatization of sex outside of marriage, and increasing expectations for self-fulfillment are accompanying skyrocketing divorce rates in more unlikely places like Japan, China, and the former countries of the Soviet Union, though out-of-wedlock childbearing remains rare, likely because it constitutes the most radical rejection of human custom.

But I would suggest that the de-linking of marriage and childrearing is a particular dilemma in the United States for reasons that libertarians should find compelling. In America, marriage has been inextricably entwined with national ideals of political and economic freedom. Following the theories of the Enlightenment and John Locke, the founders rejected the clannish, patriarchal arrangements of the old country and placed their hopes in what we might call republican marriage. The self-choosing, nuclear couple was to be an economically self-sufficient unit; it was also supposed to socialize the next generation of independent, upstanding republicans, an endeavor that the founders understood to be labor-intensive. Contemporary affluence does not ease the inherent difficulty of raising children in America; in fact, given the intense educational preparation required for success in a knowledge economy, it has made raising kids harder. The founders certainly wouldn’t be surprised to hear that children growing up with their married parents are more likely to graduate from high school and to go to and graduate from college than their single-parented peers. The marriage gap, in other words, produces a human capital gap.

Coontz says we “know a lot… about how to help every family build on its strengths, minimize its weaknesses, and raise children more successfully…” Actually, we don’t. The United States has spent billions trying to prop up fatherless families through welfare payments, nutrition programs, early childhood education, Title 1, child support, and a teeming, maddening family court system. We don’t have much to show for it. I have no idea whether it is possible to restore our understanding of the core meaning of marriage, or to put it in more concrete terms, to increase the percentage of American children growing with their married parents. This is a cultural problem and it’s hard to see that outside warnings from the bully pulpit, government can do very much about it. But I do know that a future that accepts the separation of marriage and childrearing will severely challenge some of America’s core ideals, not least of them, limited government.

Marriage and the Market

Stephanie Coontz’s careful and persuasive history of marriage adds some much needed factual background to an over-politicized debate. And her scholarship yields an important insight: marriage has historically been the product of the economic environment of the time. Moreover, family institutions are dynamic, and marriage has evolved as economic opportunities have changed. Our aim in this essay is to re-frame Coontz’s careful history of the family in the language of economics, in the hope that this will yield useful insights about the future of marriage.

While Coontz describes the variety of forms of family life through history, the commonality uniting them is particularly significant: families have always played a role in “filling in” where incomplete market institutions would otherwise have hindered economic development. For example, even in the absence of well-functioning contract law, families found ways to enforce agreements among kin. This naturally gave the family a role as an organizing device for economic activity, and the limits of the firm often coincided with the limits of the family. Thus marriage also provided the key means to strategic “mergers” — a way to form alliances and boost the financial welfare of the household.

Similarly, prior to the expansion of the welfare state, the family had been a key provider of insurance, as spouses agreed not only to support each other “through richer, through poorer, in sickness and in health,” but also extended this guarantee to parents, children, and siblings. Before modern credit markets arrived, access to capital was often facilitated through family ties.

A number of goods and services, such as freshly cooked meals, or childcare, were historically not sold in the market sector. Thus, the family became the firm producing these household services. Just as Adam Smith observed that specialization by workers in the pin factory yielded more efficient production, so too families were organized so as to reap the benefits of specialization. Thus households came to involve the specialization of one spouse, typically the husband, in the market, and the other in the domestic sphere.

The forces shaping family life have changed with the development of the market economy. An increasingly sophisticated system of contract law has made possible enormous economic benefits, but in the process the modern corporation has come to supplant the family firm as the key unit of production. The development of social insurance has spread greater security to many but has reduced the role of the family as a provider of insurance. Most recently, technological, social, and legal changes have reduced the value of specialization within households.

While the political emancipation of women is surely a key factor in their movement from the home to the market, deeper economic forces are also at play. Services previously produced in the home are now freely traded in the market. Accordingly, there are fewer reasons for households to employ a domestic specialist. With cheap clothes available at Wal-Mart, it makes more sense for women to earn money to buy clothes than to make them at home. Other innovations have allowed technology to substitute for specialized domestic labor, as dishwashers, washing machines, and the more recent invention of the Roomba have made housework so easy that even a (non-specialist) husband can do it.

While the benefits of one member of a family specializing in the home have fallen, the costs of being such a specialist have risen. Improvements in the technology of birth control have made investing in a wife’s human capital a better bet, and this has been abetted by a decline in discrimination and improved wages. These greater opportunities also connote a greater opportunity cost for a couple contemplating a stay-at-home spouse.

Advances in medicine have yielded rising life expectancy, and the average woman will now spend less than a quarter of her adult life with young children in the household. By increasing the number of potential years in the labor force, the opportunity cost of women staying out of the labor market to be home with children is higher. Rising life expectancy also reduces the centrality of children to married life, as couples now expect to live together for decades after children have left the nest. Other marriages are occurring when women are in the post-fertility part of their lives. Only 41% of married couples currently have their own children present in their household (down from 75% in 1880). Not surprisingly then, modern marriage is somewhat less child-centric than it once was.

So what drives modern marriage? We believe that the answer lies in a shift from the family as a forum for shared production, to shared consumption. In case the language of economic lacks romance, let’s be clearer: modern marriage is about love and companionship. Most things in life are simply better shared with another person: this ranges from the simple pleasures such as enjoying a movie or a hobby together, to shared social ties such as attending the same church, and finally, to the joint project of bringing up children. Returning to the language of economics, the key today is consumption complementarities — activities that are not only enjoyable, but are more enjoyable when shared with a spouse. We call this new model of sharing our lives “hedonic marriage”.

So is marriage doomed? Marriage in which one person specializes in the home while the other person specializes in the market is indeed doomed. The opportunity cost of having women stay out of the labor force is likely to continue to rise — particularly as young women are surpassing men in educational attainment and higher education is becoming more important for market success. The reach of markets will continue to expand, allowing individuals and families to reap the returns to specialization through market-mediated trade with other specialists, rather than requiring a domestic specialist in each home.

Yet while the changing marketplace may have made marriage a bit more fragile, it is also key to its survival. Rising productivity has given all Americans more leisure time while simultaneously raising standards of living. As consumption increases, so too will the demand to have someone with whom to share these pleasures.

Thus marriage isn’t dead, it is, again, transforming. Hedonic marriage is different from productive marriage. In a world of specialization, the old adage was that “opposites attract,” and it made sense for husband and wife to have different interests in different spheres of life. Today, it is more important that we share similar values, enjoy similar activities, and find each other intellectually stimulating. Hedonic marriage leads people to be more likely to marry someone of their similar age, educational background, and even occupation. As likes are increasingly marrying likes, it isn’t surprising that we see increasing political pressure to expand marriage to same-sex couples.

At this juncture it should be clear that any sensible theory of marriage has to acknowledge that it is a responsive and adaptive institution, changing as circumstances change. Why then is the debate about family policy so polarizing? We suspect that much of the disagreement is driven by a failure of political advocates to adapt their understanding of marriage even as circumstances have changed.

Many have cited high and rising divorce rates as pointing to the collapse of the family, and Kay Hymowitz’s essay reprises these themes. Yet the high divorce rates among those marrying in the 1970s reflected a transition, as many married the right partner for the old specialization model of marriage, only to find that pairing hopelessly inadequate in the modern hedonic marriage.

Divorce rates have actually been falling since reaching a peak thirty years ago. And those who have married in recent years have been more likely to stay together than their parents’ generation. These facts should be emphasized and bear repeating — divorce has been falling for three decades — since this important fact is often ignored in the discussion of the current state of the family.

Hymowitz also bemoans the fact that the demographics of marriage are changing. Again, the facts warrant closer scrutiny: College-educated women used to be the least likely to marry, and today they are about as likely as those without a college degree to marry. Several decades ago, a woman earning a graduate degree was unlikely to find the old specialization model of marriage to be useful, and many therefore chose to remain single. But today’s hedonic marriage is likely more enticing for educated women.

On the flipside, the decline in marriage among less-educated women would be an important concern if we were still in the world where women needed a husband for financial security. Less educated women have their own market opportunities available to them and have less to gain from marrying today than in the past. The new hedonic model of marriage thrives when households have the time and resources to enjoy their lives. This suggests that increasing the financial stability of these households will lead to marriage rather than marriage leading to financial stability.

Trends in marital behavior reflect a common-sense response to the economic and social circumstances surrounding us. Just as we have deregulated the economy so that firms and businesses can deal with changing conditions, the long-run trend in U.S. family policy has been to deregulate the marriage market, and the book of rules governing who can get married or divorced where and when has become much thinner. Yet much of the current political debate is precisely about re-regulating marriage. Our concern is that this re-regulation may actually be a force undermining the dynamic institution that is the modern U.S. family.


Against Family Fatalism

With the publication of The Way We Never Were in 1992, Stephanie Coontz became a major spokesperson for the family-change-is-irreversible school of thought. That school includes the view that attempts to retard, stop, or reverse any major aspect of recent family change are futile and thus are at best a waste of effort and at worst downright harmful because they tend to stigmatize persons in single-parent and other increasingly prevalent kinds of families. There are different forms of the irreversibility thesis, and Coontz’s 1990s version of it was one of the less extreme ones, in that Coontz acknowledged that there have been some distinctly negative consequences of family change and took a less absolutist view of irreversibility than did some other commentators. However, she, in common with others of the irreversibility school, argued that the only reasonable way to deal with any negative consequences of family change was to adapt other institutions to the newly prevalent family forms and to ameliorate those consequences by extending the services of the welfare state. A major part of Coontz’s book was devoted to attacking alleged nostalgia for the American family of the 1950s and an alleged desire of many people to recreate that family in the present.

I have major problems with the family-change-is-irreversible school of thought and with Coontz’s 1990s writings, and those are relevant here because near the end of the generally sensible essay by Coontz in this exchange, there is a reprise of some of the more questionable aspects of The Way We Never Were.


For instance, after apparently moving away from a hard-line position that we should do nothing to try to reverse any of the important recent trends in marriage, and after acknowledging that some of those trends have reversed already, she writes,

The right research question today is not “what kind of family do we wish people lived in.” Instead, we must ask “what do we know about how to help every family build on its strengths, minimize its weaknesses, and raise children more successfully?”

To me, putting these different questions in opposition to one another, as though they were mutually exclusive, makes no sense and is inconsistent with what Coontz says earlier. Is there only one right research question? Why not ask both? To follow Coontz’s advice is to put all of one’s policy-relevant eggs in the “cure” basket and none in the “prevention” basket. To ignore family structure, as Coontz apparently would, is to ignore the huge amount of recent social scientific evidence, from hundreds of studies, that family structure matters, and matters to an important extent, especially for children but for adults as well. This evidence, while not absolutely conclusive, is about as nearly conclusive as social scientific evidence ever is, and it is more nearly conclusive than the evidence for any of the causal conclusions that Coontz draws from the social scientific literature. (Her conclusion about the effects of late marriage is based on the findings of only one study.)

The fatalistic position concerning family change that Coontz apparently still embraces is a curious one for liberals to take, because they do not take it in regard to most other kinds of change that can be attributed ultimately to such master trends as industrialization, urbanization, and economic development. Take the case of climate change and environmental degradation — changes attributable ultimately to the same major influences that led to recent family changes. Some commentators do say that those changes are part and parcel of economic development and should be adapted to rather than resisted, but I know of no liberals who take that position. While acknowledging that there is no pre-industrial environmental Golden Age to which we can return, liberals generally believe that some of the negative environmental trends ensuing from economic growth can be and should be slowed, stopped, or reversed. A reasonable question is why liberals don’t consistently take a similar stance in regard to family change.

A second criticism I have of the final paragraphs of Coontz’s essay is that Coontz reverts to her old practice of attacking straw men — that is, of criticizing positions that very few people hold. Her entire major emphasis on alleged nostalgia in The Way We Never Were is of that nature, not because there isn’t considerable nostalgia, especially among persons who experienced the fifties and had a reasonably good family life then, but because the nostalgia usually doesn’t translate into the belief that we can or should try to recreate the family of the fifties in the present. No sophisticated family scholar or commentator could take that position, but Coontz, at least by implication, attributed that view to persons who simply wanted to reverse or retard some specific family trends that they perceived to be destructive. I’ve spent a great deal of time examining survey data collected in the 1980s and early 1990s to see if there is evidence of widespread adherence in the general public of that time to the goal of recreating the fifties family, and I’ve found no such evidence. It seems to me, therefore, that Coontz used an inordinate amount of space to criticize a position that was rather uncommon. In the essay in this exchange, Coontz continues her straw man tradition in such references as those to “fantasies about returning to a mythical Golden Age of marriage in the past” and “the assumption that all long-term commitments and care-giving obligations should be or can be organized through marriage.” Who has the fantasies, and who makes the cited assumption? I’m sure that examples could be found, but I’m equally sure that their numbers are small.

A third problem I have with the Coontz essay is its implication that the historical evidence leads logically to the hard-line family-change-should-not-be-resisted position with which the essay seems to conclude. It is of course true that no exact configuration of family characteristics that existed in any society in the past is going to be replicated in any society in the future and that it is impossible to impose a pre-industrial or early industrial family system on a post-industrial society. However, there are numerous historical examples of reversals in specific marriage and family trends, including, for instance, in trends toward either permissive or restrictive sex norms. In recent decades there has been a resurgence of the ideal of marital fidelity in American society, and while I suspect that Coontz is correct in not expecting a similar resurgence of the ideal of premarital chastity, even that is not inconceivable. Coontz talks about the recent increase in the success of marriages of well-educated persons in this country but does not mention that anyone who took seriously even the relatively soft version of the family-change-is-irreversible thesis in The Way We Never Were would not have expected such a change. History tells us, among other things, to expect the unexpected.

My view of the future of marriage in this country is not radically different from Coontz’s but is more optimistic. Coontz mentions some favorable trends, such as a decline in divorce, during the past decade or so but seems to think that they will not go much farther. I’m beginning to think that they probably will. No one knows for sure why marriages have recently become more successful among highly educated Americans, but there is at least tentative evidence of a re-institutionalization of marriage at that level of society. The old norms based on a rigid gender division of labor are gone, but new egalitarian norms have emerged that are in some ways just as constraining. As previously mentioned, the ideal of marital fidelity has staged a comeback, as has the ideal of marital permanence and even the once rapidly disappearing view that under certain circumstances unhappily married parents should stay together for the sake of their children. These attitudes are now considerably more prevalent among well-educated persons than among others, but they are likely to be disseminated downward to the lower socioeconomic levels where, in spite of negative economic influences on marriage, they should have more than a negligible effect. Space limitations preclude a detailed discussion here of the marriage education movement and the associated national and state healthy marriage initiatives, but I predict that they will be at least moderately successful unless the marriage initiatives fail to survive the current wave of political change. If moderate liberals can get over feeling that they must oppose anything associated with the Bush Administration and will inform themselves of what the marriage initiatives are really doing — which doesn’t include trying to recreate the fifties family — they will find a lot to like about those programs and are likely to support them.

Overall, the essay by Coontz shows that she has modified her views in response to very recent trends in marriage, and has done so more than have some of the more dogmatic adherents of the family-change-is-irreversible school. However, I don’t think that she has modified her position enough.

Norval D. Glenn is the Ashbel Smith Professor of Sociology and the Stiles Professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin

The Conversation

Minding the Marriage Gap

Some of the responses to my article contribute to clarifying the areas of agreement and disagreement surrounding contemporary family trends, and some of them really don’t. On the positive side, Stevenson’s and Wolfers’ piece shows how researchers working with very different data and methodologies can produce similar analyses. Their description of the nature of modern marriage rests, in part, on an economic model of the returns to marriage. I got to a similar place by looking through diaries, oral histories, and ethnographies to trace the contradictions, ambivalent feelings, trade-offs, and unanticipated consequences that emerge as people struggle to reconcile personal values and childhood expectations with the constraints and options produced by changes in class, race, and gender relations. I hesitate to use the word “hedonic” to describe modern marriage, because most stable marriages today are based on a high degree of altruism and compromise — more so than in the old days when the sacrifices that couples made for each other were rooted less in altruism than in a lack of alternatives. But Stevenson and Wolfers identify a central feature of modern marriage: that it must be based on closer friendship and more shared interests than in the past precisely because it is no longer held together by social pressures, restrictive laws, and the economic dependence of women on men’s wages.

I also agree with Stevenson and Wolfers that in America today, “increasing the financial stability of … households” is more likely to “lead to marriage rather than marriage leading to financial stability.” As I noted in my first article, the transformation of marriage has “increased the payoffs of marriage for educated, financially-secure women but increased its risks for low-income women whose potential partners are less likely to hold egalitarian values, earn good wages, or even count on a regular job.”

So I was surprised that Kay Hymowitz thinks I ignore “the yawning class divide” between the low rates of marriage among low-income, poorly educated Americans, and the higher rates of marriage among financially stable, well-educated couples. But on the whole, the marriage divide is a reflection, not a fundamental cause, of our class divide. This differs from the past because the class divide of post-industrial societies has interacted with the transformation of modern gender relations in ways that fundamentally change the functions of marriage.

Until the 1960s and 1970s, the gender regime that prevented most women from earning a living wage, and subjected divorced or unwed mothers to severe legal and social handicaps, meant that poorly-educated and low-income women had more to gain from entering and staying in marriage, than from striking out on their own, even if their husband was unkind or dictatorial. Marriage was a woman’s best bet for establishing financial security, especially in the decades when their likely mates, equally poorly-educated men, still had good prospects of securing a living-wage job. By contrast, educated women, or women who aspired to careers, found that marriage exacted costs that sometimes exceeded its benefits. Social customs and legal practices such as the “head and master” laws that remained on the books in most American states until the 1970s gave these women less room to demand the equality and self-development within marriage that their education and skills often led them to expect. Hence the discontent that Betty Friedan famously summed up as “the problem that has no name.”

Today, however, changing laws, economic options, and social norms give an educated woman a greater chance of holding out for a mate who will respect her, and also of exercising more influence within marriage. But for a poorly-educated or low-income woman, getting married is a riskier step than in the past, even if she finds herself pregnant. Over the past several decades, the potential male partners of such women have experienced falling real wages and greater job insecurity.

Women who live in areas of concentrated poverty, the place where young unwed births are most likely to occur, find their marriage prospects especially slim. In many such communities, incarceration rates and low chances of employment make marriageable men scarce. Men in such communities may feel less pressure to settle down, or as Elijah Anderson’s work poignantly shows, may compensate for their inability to play a stable breadwinning role by deciding that only suckers do that anyway. When couples do get together, the pressures of dangerous neighborhoods and chronic income insecurity lead to stresses that often erupt in domestic violence, substance abuse, infidelity, desertion, or divorce.

Poor women who do marry and stay married are better off economically, and their children benefit by having more than one parent in the home. But those who marry and later divorce tend to end up worse off financially, while their children have experienced the kind of disruptions and conflict that pose a much higher risk for bad outcomes than life in a stable single-parent family. Poverty, unemployment, or having children by a previous relationship (as almost 40 percent of low-income partners do) all raise the risk of such marital failure.

So, I agree that there is a yawning class divide in marriage rates and that the inability to build a secure marriage exacerbates economic and social disadvantage, but I disagree that lack of marriage is the central cause of social inequality or that promoting marriage is a realistic way to fight poverty. Hymowitz urges libertarians to support her marriage promotion and abstinence-education agenda by arguing that if poor unwed women would stop having babies we could get rid of intergenerational poverty, reduce social inequality, prevent school failure, delinquency, and drug abuse, increase social and economic mobility, and lessen the demand for taxes “to correct the mess.” This pipe dream underestimates the difficulties of sticking to a middle-class “life script” in a world where the pages are often ripped out of people’s hands by the storms of real life. It exaggerates the intrinsic protective functions of marriage and the dangers inherent in any other family type.

Hymowitz (followed by Glenn) claims that “sophisticated” research studies reveal the causal role of family structure in determining bad outcomes for children. But Hymowitz confuses the correlations these studies document with cause and effect. Rigorous analyses of the impact of single-parent families and teen births find that their strong association with poor outcomes for children is largely (though not wholly) explained by background effects that help produce both the original family situation and the later bad outcomes for children. Poverty, untreated medical or psychological problems, low educational achievement, poor impulse control, and exposure to stressors such as neighborhood violence are all factors that make unwed births or divorce more likely. But each also raises the likelihood of low achievement or maladjustment in children even if their parents are married. The majority of teens who exhibit serious behavior problems have five or more separate risk factors in their lives. And extreme neighborhood poverty (usually coupled with substandard schools) is a particularly potent risk factor for dropping out of school or having a teen birth, whether or not the child was raised by married parents. It also makes it harder for their parents to stay married.

When two exceptional individuals can hold a good — or even satisfactory — marriage together in a severely deprived and stressful environment, that’s certainly an extra protection for their children. But the “good-enough” couples who can do this in more secure environments often fail under these challenges. And unless you believe that a marriage education class can inoculate couples against all the pressures that make a marriage go bad or a parent begin to fail, let’s stop pretending that marriage is some panacea. On average, children from single-parent families have more substance abuse problems than children of two-parent families. But levels of substance abuse are even higher among children of two-parent families who have a poor relationship with their father or experience high conflict between their married parents. I’m all for developing programs to help couples sustain healthy relationships, and there are some tested programs that seem to be quite effective. But they are also very intensive, requiring ongoing interventions that are unlikely to lead to the tax reductions Hymowitz dangles in front of us.

Preventing teen pregnancy is a worthwhile goal for many, many reasons. But it is no cure for poverty. Sociologist Frank Furstenberg conducted a 30-year study of impoverished women in Baltimore. He found that “having a child as a teen… had only modest effects on [women’s] educational and economic achievement in later life, after taking into account their economic circumstances prior to becoming pregnant….Whether they become teen mothers or not, few women in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods and families of the United States experience much mobility, because they are frequently unable to stay in school or obtain well paying and stable employment. Even when their first child is born later in life, such women are rarely able to rely on a stable marriage for long-term economic support.” Indeed, Furstenberg found that only 20 percent of the women who married the father of their child, and just 10 percent of the women who married another man, remained married throughout their children’s lives.

For readers who don’t think that the promise of a marginal decrease in their tax rates is worth climbing into bed with the religious right or the so-called “family values” camp, it is worth noting that the poverty rate of single mothers with a college degree who work fulltime is only 1.2 percent. (Nationally, the poverty rate of families headed by a male breadwinner is 14 percent.). Single-mother families where the woman has some college and a fulltime job have a poverty rate of 7 percent. Marriage education and counseling are worthwhile projects, but they are no substitute for improving public education and providing the child care and after-school programs that allow low-wage mothers to work.

I share libertarians’ disdain for untested social programs that have “blowback” effects, such as many liberal anti-gang initiatives did in the 1960s and many conservative sex education programs do now. And America, more than other advanced industrial nations, has a long history of investing in programs whose main effect is to create new middle-class career paths for bureaucrats or self-appointed experts, rather than directly aiding their intended recipients. But it has been shown time and time again that providing high-quality childcare to impoverished parents is one social program that really works. It reduces children’s likelihood of drug abuse, arrest, teen pregnancy, and school drop out, while freeing their mothers up to work fulltime or earn a college degree. Our choice is between paying some taxes now for a worthwhile program, or paying more taxes later to clean up the mess.

Two short final comments:

1. Hymowitz raises some interesting points about the historical role of childbearing in the definition of marriage, which I suspect she included to justify her opposition to same-sex marriage. She is right to note that through most of history the validity of a marriage depended upon its function in producing children. Christianity, however, broke with all previous religions in repudiating that tradition. The Catholic Church refused to allow a man to divorce his wife or to take a second wife if the marriage was barren. Following that precedent, secular Anglo-American law has never made the validity of a marriage dependent on the ability to procreate.

2. I am not sure why Norval Glenn spent so much time trying to establish that I belong to some school of “irreversibility,” when he ends by noting that his view of the future of marriage “is not radically different” from mine. And it’s always good advice to avoid putting all our eggs in one basket. I’d be delighted to work with anyone who wants to combine tested programs to support healthy marriages with equally rigorously-designed programs to deliver advice and resources to unwed and divorced parents.

But I was puzzled by Glenn’s global warming analogy, which I think actually bolsters my position. As Glenn notes, global warming stems from the same creative forces that unleashed and sustained the industrial revolution and its global spread. Trying to re-establish a global agrarian economy is not the way get rid of the pollution that has accompanied industrialization. Instead, we must retool our industrial practices to develop sustainable agriculture and minimize the environmental impact of further economic expansion.

Shouldn’t it be the same with marriage? Can’t we welcome the gains that have come with the expanded opportunities and status of women, the abolition of harsh penalties for illegitimacy, and the freedom to remain single or divorce, while trying to preserve sustainable couple relationships and minimize the negative consequences that can accompany family transitions? Family diversity is here to stay, no matter what proponents of “re-institutionalizing” marriage may wish. Not only can we learn to live with family diversity, but diverse families can thrive.

Toward More Rational Discourse about Marriage

This exchange has been useful, in my opinion, because it illustrates that much of the public discourse about marriage is based on the illusion that there is more disagreement about marriage-related issues than there really is, or at least than there really is among some of the major participants. This illusory disagreement makes for some interesting, though not very constructive, debate and provides grist for the journalistic mill, but it isn’t conducive to development of effective public policies and programs or private efforts to deal with family issues.

For instance, I, a member in good standing of the so-called “marriage movement,” find little of substance in Stephanie Coontz’s latest comment with which to disagree, but that comment contains several gratuitous slams apparently aimed at that movement and thus indirectly at anyone involved in it. These include the references to the “family values crowd” and “climbing in bed with the religious right.” In fact, most pro-marriage activists never speak of “family values” (even politicians seem to have moved away from use of that term) and are not part of the religious right. Can Coontz seriously argue that support by some members of the religious right of such programs as the governmental marriage initiatives means that anyone who disagrees in any way with the religious right should therefore oppose those programs? The illogic of such a position is obvious. The programs should be judged by their merits, not by the characteristics of a small proportion of their supporters.

Vagueness and lack of specificity in the discourse contribute to the participants’ talking past one another rather than engaging in constructive discussion of the issues. I may very well have been unnecessarily vague in some of my comments, but I’ll let others judge that. I of course can more easily detect this deficiency in the writing of others, especially that of Coontz but to a lesser extent in that of Stevenson and Wolfers as well. I’ll address the latter first.

The essay by Stevenson and Wolfers is generally insightful and well reasoned (although, like all rational choice models, the one they present leaves out important influences, such as altruism, as Coontz points out), but to me it ends with a frustrating lack of clarity. The authors write:

…much of the current political debate is precisely about re-regulating marriage. Our concern is that this re-regulation may actually be a force undermining the dynamic institution that is the modern U. S. family.

What precisely do the authors mean by “re-regulation?” What policy proposal is now on the table that stands any reasonable chance of adoption that would constitute “re-regulation?” The only possible candidates for that are proposals to change the provisions for divorce. A few persons want to roll back all provisions for no-fault divorce, but that is a fringe position that stands no chance of success. A less extreme proposal is to limit no-fault divorce to couples who have no children under age 18, but that has gained hardly any traction. Proposals with a greater chance of implementation are to extend the waiting period between filing for a divorce and the granting of the divorce (from 60 days to six months in my state, Texas) and to add fault grounds for divorce in those states that now have only a no-fault ground, the main purpose of the latter proposed change being to give ex-wives more favorable divorce settlements. It is not apparent how either of these proposed changes would undermine the modern U. S. family. My point is that Stevenson and Wolfers end their otherwise nice essay with a jab at shadow opponents and with vague, meaningless rhetoric that doesn’t contribute to rational discourse.

Coontz does the same in her most recent comments. “Family diversity is here to stay…” Well, yes, but what’s the point? Is the implication that no efforts should be made to increase the prevalence of the kinds of families that, according to the preponderance of the evidence, are best for everyone concerned, everything else being equal? If not, what is the purpose of the statement? Cutesy, sum-it-all-up concluding statements are useless or worse unless they convey a very clear and specific meaning.

It seems to me that constructive debate about marriage needs to deal explicitly with the issues that are on the table and about which policy decisions need to be made in the foreseeable future, and it needs to involve real persons who are at the table. Attacking marginal and fringe positions is not helpful, nor are slams and slurs against unidentified persons deemed guilty of nostalgia, hysteria, hand-wringing, or similar sins and shortcomings. In other words, let’s be done with the name calling and get down to evaluating the specifics of what important players are advocating.

Let’s continue the discussion, but let’s do it in a way that promotes the finding of common ground and movement toward solutions to problems that most of us agree exist.

The Possibility for Fruitful Collaboration

Sharp debates over questions such as the potential impact of marriage promotion in reducing poverty or the effect of single parenthood on child outcomes are sometimes necessary, because our political climate is filled with simplistic claims that ignore complex family interactions, confuse correlations with cause and effect, promise one-step solutions for social ills, and ignore the fact that in the real world divorce or single parenthood may be preferable to a corrosive marriage. But for the record, let me state clearly that I support efforts to create solid foundations for healthy marriages and two-parent families.

Helping people form and sustain healthy marriages and co-parenting alliances is immensely important, and I respect the work that many people in the marriage movement do. Psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan have designed superb, scientifically-conducted, programs to foster healthy marriages and other partner relationships, with impressive results. Research institutions such as Mathematica have produced outstanding data on the strengths (and limits) of different ways of conducting such programs. The PREP marriage education program has been shown to be very effective. Norval Glenn is a serious researcher whom I have always respected even when we disagree.

And many participants in the loose alliance of groups lumped together as “the marriage movement,” especially those sometimes labeled “marriage plus,” recognize that marriage preparation, education, and counseling must be combined with concrete support systems for impoverished families, including trying to create living-wage jobs for men and women in impoverished communities.

The possibility for fruitful collaboration is clear. A recent ethnographic study by Paula England and Kathryn Edin points out that traditional liberal and conservative approaches are each half right and half wrong in their analysis of why relationships between impoverished unwed parents are unstable. Lack of resources, not values, is the main barrier to marriage for these folks, but lack of relationship commitment and skills is what breaks them up. England and Edin conclude that both economic reforms and relationship counseling are needed to increase the stability of relationships in distressed and impoverished communities.

So I am sorry if my remarks distressed any of the sincere and capable people attempting to promote healthy marriages. But let’s be clear. Large sections of the religious right most certainly do flaunt the “family values” mantle. They push marriage as the solution to all our social ills and refuse to accept that any family form except their own ideal can work effectively. They are wrong. Their ideas are dangerous and counterproductive. The point of my last blog post was to caution libertarians against unprincipled alliances with such groups just because they oppose taxation for welfare, job creation, or public projects.

I hope this clarifies my rejoinder. Now I will get out of the way and let other people discuss these issues.

Marriage Has Changed, but Is That Good for Children?

Alas, Norval Glenn is correct that our debate thus far has contained some gratuitous “slams.” Still, I’m not as sanguine as he is that our disagreements are illusory. True, we all agree that marriage has become a locus for self-fulfillment. We also all agree that women are no longer of necessity tied down to what Coontz calls “the gender regime” or what Stevenson and Wolfers describe as specialized labor.

No, our disagreement is not whether marriage has changed, but whether that change is worth critiquing. Stevenson and Wolfers say the shift to “hedonic marriage” is a common sense response to economic and social transformation. I would agree again — if, as they do, I were to limit my discussion to adults. But once we talk about the children that continue to appear in the vast majority of marriages the answer is rather different. The new marriage regime – I’m going to reject the term “hedonic marriage” for reasons that will become apparent – has not been so great for kids. (I won’t rehearse all of the research, which is undoubtedly familiar to my interlocutors, but the interested reader can find a good summary of the state of knowledge in the Fall 2005 issue of The Future of Children.) We can argue whether the downside for children is big enough to merit our concern, whether a (putative) increase in adult happiness is worth the price of some decline in child wellbeing, whether, as Coontz tackily insinuates, grappling with the issue is tantamount to joining the religious right, (in addition to even shabbier speculation about my personal motives), but what is inarguable is that the new marriage regime has had a real downside for children.

Stevenson and Wolfers simply do not address this issue perhaps because they share with Coontz the assumption that tying children to their parents is not, and has never been, a defining purpose of marriage. In fact, they seem to imply that viewing marriage this way is “political” (though it’s hard to tell, since they respond to a caricature of a “family values” argument rather than the one I actually made.) In their analysis, childrearing was one of many functions of marriage, no more or less significant than sewing clothes or baking bread. Once the market could provide meals and childcare, marriage no longer required domestic specialists and could become defined by mutual pleasure-seeking.

The most curious thing about this (political?) description is how little it corresponds to the actual experience of contemporary middle-class couples. Stevenson and Wolfers tell us that marriage is no longer child-centric, yet with their tutors, soccer leagues, 5 a.m. hockey practice, and overall helicoptering, this is probably the most child-focused generation in human history. Nor is there anything particularly hedonistic about their obsession; Kahneman and Krueger’s work suggests that people do not particularly enjoy time spent with their children.

No, what’s driving this mania should be obvious to economists above all: parents are preparing their kids for a highly competitive, globalized economy. Stevenson and Wolfers’ economic model can make sense of a “household service” like “childcare” but cannot come to grips with what social scientists, when they thought about such things, used to call socialization. Parents do not simply “provide childcare;” they shape children to become spouses, parents, citizens, and workers adapted to their specific cultural and economic world. Stevenson and Wolfers say that “marriage has historically been the product of the economic environment of the time.” This is true as far as it goes. But by socializing children to be self-sufficient, entrepreneurial, flexible workers as they are doing so intensively today, parents are also creating that economic environment. Imagine, for a moment, that more of today’s parents disdained academic achievement and taught their kids, say, to raise goats rather than chauffeuring them to computer classes and SAT tutors. How long would the very economic conditions that make “hedonic marriage” possible last?

And this takes us back to the marriage gap. Coontz asserts, and I suspect Stevenson and Wolfers would agree, that the gap is a “reflection, not a cause of class divide.” It’s impossible to do justice to this debate in the space we have here. But a few points: Robert Lerman’s research comparing low-income married and unmarried couples raises important counter evidence for this belief. And Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods shows the profound differences between middle-class couples and low-income single-parent families in their approach to their children’s overall development. We could chalk this up to poverty, but then how do we explain that middle class kids’ achievement is also compromised by growing up in a single parent family? (Stevenson and Wolfers might want to repeat Cornell’s Jennifer Gerner’s experiment and ask how many of their students were raised by their married parents. Her answer: 90%) Marriage is not simply an economic arrangement nor is it only an arena for companionship; it carries with it all sorts of tacit information about how to organize our lives, not least, how to raise children. That is why, as I said in my earlier post, the marriage gap means a human capital gap.

All of this points to the limitations of Stevenson and Wolfers’ marriage dualism. First we had productive marriage; now we have hedonic marriage. Cultural history reveals a far more complex evolution. Since the Enlightenment when Western thinkers introduced the idea of “companionate marriage,” Western marriage, particularly as imagined by the founders, has tried to balance the human desire for love and affection with respect for the discipline of an ancient and complex institution. The Great Disruption marked the moment when people decided they no longer needed to be part of any balancing act. As Coontz shows, marriage was to be simply about love. Stevenson and Wolfers describe the economic conditions behind this transformation, but they fail to see that the shift in marriage was not as adaptive to new realities as they would have us believe. Interestingly, survey data suggests while today’s young people want to find a “soulmate,” they’re more likely than their own boomer parents to believe that divorce should be harder to get and that parents should stay together for the sake of the children. Do they know something about marriage that the economists don’t?

Of course, many couples today either can’t, or choose not to, have children. To be blunt about it, they, and more generally hedonic marriages, are of minimal interest to society. On a societal level, it doesn’t matter whether people have someone to go to the movies with or even whether they have someone to love. But the state has always had, and will always have, a powerful interest when people have children together. For all its changes, marriage is still the only civil institution we have to organize their venture.

Divorce and Children: What Do We Know?

Our job as social scientists is to help disentangle causation from correlation. This can be a very difficult, and sometimes impossible, job. Sometimes it is a matter of the chicken and the egg. For instance, we know that divorced people are more likely to drink, use drugs, have lower income, and be less happy. But did divorce cause these bad things or did these bad things in fact cause the divorce? The latter phenomena — what social scientists call reverse causation — is easy to understand. For example, most people would understand if someone dealing with a spouse with a chronic drug or alcohol problem was more likely to seek a divorce or that depression could spill over into marital difficulties. In fact, research has implicated some of the negative outcomes observed among the divorced in the divorce itself. For example, when a man is laid-off the couple is more likely to divorce in subsequent years. Other research has shown that the happiest people are the most likely to get married, while those divorcing are less happy than the average married person. Moreover, people who divorce are actually happier a few years after the divorce compared with their happiness in the years prior to the divorce.

Disentangling causation from correlation is not only about accounting for reverse causation. The second difficulty is the possibility of a third factor that is influencing both the likelihood of divorce and other outcomes about which society cares. The most obvious example here is to talk about children and divorce. It is clear that children from divorced households fare worse along a range of outcomes than those from intact households. However, this does not imply that these children would be better off if the divorce had never occurred. Children of divorced families may have worse outcomes because the type of parents and households that end up divorced are different from those that do not. As just discussed, drug or alcohol abuse, depression, and financial difficulties might both lead to worse outcomes for children and increase the probability of divorce. Even if the divorce is simply the result of the selfish, narcissistic preferences of the parents, it is likely that kids being raised by such adults will have worse outcomes compared with kids raised by a devoted altruist. Accordingly, even if policy forced the parents to remain married, we might not see better outcomes for these children.

The reason it can be so difficult to disentangle causation from correlation is because divorce does not happen randomly in the population. Rather divorce occurs in couples who are typically worse off than the average married couple before the divorce occurs. We would all like to believe that we can be safeguarded against disease, death, poverty, unhappiness, and insanity by finding someone to love and holding on tight. But the data suggests that while love may conquer some adversities, it flourishes without them.

This brings us to an even harder question: What are the differences between married and separated life for those whom policy can affect? It is clear that children do better in a loving marriage than a messy divorce. But few families face this choice. When asking whether the children of divorced parents would have been better off if their parents had not divorced, we are usually asking whether conflict or separation is in the kids’ best interests. Thus far, the empirical research provides little evidence that stopping these divorces would benefit the children. Research by Mark Hoekstra at the University of Pittsburgh followed families on the brink of divorce comparing those who filed and then reconciled with those who filed and then divorced. He found little difference in the academic and behavioral outcomes of the kids in each of these types of families. While this may not be the perfect test — after all these marriages were pretty far along the process before they reconciled — it does indicate that at least for some couples reconciling is not very likely to help the kids.

While advocates hide behind correlations, the evidence that preventing divorce would benefit children is weak at best. Given that there is little evidence that the government can do a better job determining which marriages will be best for the children, a reasonable default rule might be to leave Mom and Dad to make the best decisions for their kids. As others in this forum have noted, altruism is an important part of families and parents who love their children just might make the right decision.

(De-)Regulating the Family

We have previously noted the deregulation of family life that began in the middle of the last century, and thought it worth thought that it would be useful to summarize what happened and what social scientists have learned about the effects of these changes. To be clear about terminology, by “deregulation,” we are referring to the diminution in the role that government plays in deciding who can marry, who can divorce, and under what circumstances.

In the 1950s some state legislatures began to repeal laws restricting marriage between racial groups. These anti-miscegenation laws were eliminated nationwide in 1967 by the Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia (388 U.S. 1), which argued that marriage was “one of the ‘basic civil rights of man.’” This ruling was just as important not only for laying a legal foundation for inter-racial marriage, but also because in this decision the Supreme Court stated that marriage was a fundamental right. This set the stage for further deregulation of marriage.

Soon thereafter laws were struck down barring those deemed “unsuitable,” from marrying. For example, Texas had refused to grant a marriage license to anyone behind on child support payments. Subsequent Supreme Court rulings eliminated many of the legal distinctions that had previously given children born in marriage greater rights and connection to their parents.

States also began to reduce their role in divorce proceedings. In the 1950s, most states required evidence of marital fault before allowing a marriage to be dissolved. Couples who both wanted to divorce could usually divorce even without a marital fault-they would simply agree to fabricate evidence of such a fault. Truly adversarial situations were more difficult. A judge might have found been persuaded by a robust defense, finding no evidence of fault when there truly was a marital fault, or might have found evidence that both parties were at fault and thus, in the absence of an innocent party, disallow the divorce.

Rather than simply allowing consenting parties to divorce without requiring evidence of fault, many states, somewhat unintentionally, moved to allowing unilateral divorce-a situation where a divorce could be grant upon the request of either spouse, regardless of the wishes of his or her partner. Many states also removed fault as a consideration in property division and some states changed laws governing property division subsequent to divorce.

Researchers have now had decades to study the effects of such policies. Somewhat surprisingly there has been little empirical analysis examining the effects of the right to marry on marriage or the equalizing of rights between illegitimate and legitimate children on the growth in out-of-wedlock childbirth. Most of the research has focused on the change in divorce laws. One reason for this is that the move to unilateral divorce provides a useful “natural experiment”, as research compare family outcomes in states that changed their divorce laws at different points in time. Since experiments provide the best test grounds for disentangling causation from correlation it is no surprise that many empirical researchers started plowing these grounds.

This research finds that restricting access to divorce by requiring evidence of fault or mutual consent had little impact on the divorce rate. This is surprising to many, but less surprising to economists, who are well-schooled in thinking about efficient bargaining. Most couples, even in the midst of acrimony, want to find a way to reconcile if they can, or divorce if they should. While thinking about marriages as involving bargaining may seem odd to some people, the insights are quite simple: it is easy to imagine that most people do not want to stay in a marriage when their spouse really wants out. Similarly, it seems plausible that a spouse who is interested in leaving could be convinced to stay by their spouse’s effort to improve the marriage. Returning to the language of economics, this suggests that the couple stays together if it is efficient for them to do so.

While the empirical literature on the effects of divorce reform has been quite heated, it is worth emphasizing that the similarities in all of this research: the debate in the empirical literature was whether unilateral divorce had no effect on the divorce rate or a small effect on the divorce rate.

But even if there were only small effects on divorce rates, there the movement to unilateral divorce may have had big effects on other outcomes. In the few cases where spouses cannot come to agreement on their own, when one spouse holds out no matter what, there is often a dysfunctional or even violent relationship at the heart of the problem. Indeed, our research finds that the movement to unilateral divorce laws caused an important decline in domestic violence and female suicide. Prior to unilateral divorce women were literally dying to get out of their marriages. Given that fault-based divorce always allowed women to present evidence of domestic violence, we can conclude that the reduction in violence was fundamentally about the movement toward unilateral rather than mutual consent divorce.

This distinction between the average married couple, the average divorced couple, and the couple whose divorce would be impacted by a requirement of mutual consent divorce is important. Couples in the latter group are likely very different than even the average couple divorcing. Yet if children are likely to benefit from any marriage being held together it is likely to be a marriage where both parents are amicable, communicate easily, and are willing to negotiate. However, these couples are less likely to be affected by a removal of unilateral divorce.

It is easy to see why some advocates want to repeal unilateral divorce-after all, unilateral divorce renders the marriage contract unenforceable. And without binding contracts couples face a different set of incentives. Research has shown that couples who marry under unilateral divorce invest less in their marriage-an outcome that is particularly problematic for those interested in promoting marriage! Yet, one of the investments that they cut back on, or at least postpone making, is children. This means that children are less likely to experience a divorce since many of these couples will now divorce before having children rather than after having children. Indeed, since the late 1960s the average number of children involved in each divorce has fallen sharply.

Forcing couples to honor their contract to stay together unless both parties want out is not the only way to protect “innocent” parties from losing their investment. Property settlement laws can take fault into account even when fault is not needed to grant the divorce. Judges can recognize investments that are made such as spousal support during the early years of a career when hard work and sacrifice are rewarded by higher salaries later in life. Couples can write explicit contracts discussing how they plan to make their investments and share the returns down the road.

We thereby stick by our claim that re-regulation of families-referring to the proposals to change divorce laid out by Norval Glenn and other advocates-could do more harm than good to American families. Moreover, this is a conclusion driven by careful empirical research, and not the conclusion of any specific theories of how families can or should work.

Reply to Stevenson and Wolfers

I appreciate the fact that Stevenson and Wolfers get down to specifics in their latest post. That is constructive. However, I don’t appreciate their saying that I am an advocate of changes in divorce law. I am not and never have been. In my second set of comments in this exchange, I said that the only proposals for re-regulating marriage that stand a good chance of success–a moderate lengthening of the time between divorce filing and the granting of divorce, and the adding of fault grounds in the states that now have only a no-fault ground for divorce-are unlikely to have the destructive consequences that Stevenson and Wolfers say that re-regulation of marriage would have. My point was that the authors ended their essay with a vague, hyperbolic statement that was not supported by the preceding discussion. My view of the proposed changes that I mentioned is that they would make little difference one way or another, and I neither advocate nor oppose them. The point of my second post in this exchange was not to advocate anything except clearer, more precise communication.

The Next Question: How Can We Improve the Lives of America’s Children?

As I have argued in this forum and in my recent book, good marriages today are fairer, more intimate, and more likely to improve the well-being of their members (husbands, wives and children) than ever before — indeed, part of today’s gap between child outcomes in one and two-parent families may be due to the improvement of two-parent-family functioning in marriages that last. But the same things that make marriage more potentially beneficial make it more optional, and less bearable when it doesn’t deliver the benefits that people have come to expect. And they have also made singlehood a more rewarding alternative than ever before. It appears that we mostly agree that the increase in choice and gender equity has, on average, been a good thing for adults, despite the difficulties for some populations, which we have all acknowledged.

We also agree that some of America’s children are in trouble, and while we disagree on the causal role of divorce and single-parenthood, no one denies that such family situations often magnify children’s problems, especially in highly-stressed communities where it is hard for even the most well-functioning family alliance to protect a child. Of course, two dedicated parents with a good parental alliance are good for kids. But since we all seem to agree that this isn’t always what you get, and that we are unlikely to be able to restore marriage to its former role in organizing the lives of all Americans, young or old, maybe it’s time to have a more specific, data-driven discussion of how we can improve the lives of America’s children.

The United States has higher child poverty rates — even among two-parent families — than almost any other advanced industrial society. Our teens are no more likely to have premarital sex, but some of them start earlier, and fewer of them engage in safe sex, than teens in other advanced countries. While it is mostly impoverished American teens who take a pregnancy to term, even affluent Americans teens are more likely to have abortions and to get STD’s than teens in countries with more permissive attitudes toward teenage sexuality and alternative family forms. So family values and forms cannot be the exclusive cause of these problems. And we know for sure that divorce and single parenthood are not necessarily sentences of doom. Between 1992 and 2002, for example, even as marriage continued to recede in the U.S., teen birth rates fell by 30 percent and teen violence rates and homicide rates hit their lowest level since the late 1960s (a time when there were many more two-parent families).

The last two years, however, have seen an uptick in some indicators of child and youth problems. Our common concern about that should allow us to move toward a serious and concrete discussion of the various options we have to address these issues.