Study: Marital Unions in U.S. More Fragile than in 1970s

Here’s an interesting article about an even more interesting study (Huffington Post, 12/6/10).

The study is entitled “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat From Marriage in Middle America.”  It was edited by W. Bradford Wilcox who, to my mind, is one of the more sensible and fact-based of our social scientists.

The study, edited by W. Bradford Wilcox, brings together the latest findings from “The State Of Our Unions,” an annual report produced jointly by the two organizations which monitors the health of “marriage and family life” in the U.S., with a focus on determining the ways “children, race, class, immigration, ethnicity, religion and poverty” shape marriage today. The results–culled from three nationally-representative surveys conducted between 1972 to 2008–paint a bleak picture for most American families.

Actually, that picture is accurate for the 58% of couples in the U.S. who have completed high school, but not college.  It turns out that their marriages and those of people who haven’t completed high school, are markedly less stable than those of the more affluent and better educated.

The study found that these adults are more likely to divorce now than they once were. Indeed, middle Americans have a 37 percent chance of divorce or separation within 10 years of first marriage, compared to 36 percent in the 1970s. By contrast, highly educated Americans (those holding a bachelor’s degree or higher) are less likely to divorce than before: they have a mere 11 percent chance that their marriages will dissolve–a drop from 15 percent in the ’70s.  The least educated segment of the population, defined by the study as anyone who doesn’t have a high school degree, were also less likely to split from their partners than they were previously, though at 36 percent, the chances of their marriages ending are almost identical to that of Middle Americans.

I don’t know about the Huffington Post, but to me that looks like slight improvement.  The educated and those without a high school diploma tend to stay married longer while the rest have remained about the same.

Still, when it comes to marital satisfaction, there’s been a marked drop for the moderately educated whereas the well-educated report high levels of marital happiness.

When it comes to marital satisfaction, the statistics were also alarming: 57 percent of middle Americans reported they were ‘very happy’ in their marriages, down from 68 percent in the 1970s. Again, the numbers are closer to the lowest socio-economic segment of the population than the highest–52 percent believe themselves to be in happy unions. The highly-educated remained just as satisfied with their marriages as they had been previously–69 percent consider themselves to be happily married.

The study argues that, while moderately-educated people traditionally mimicked the behavior of the upper class, they are now in the midst of a “historic reversal” insofar as they are mirroring the attitudes and actions of the lower class. So what’s to blame? According to the study, these new statistics reflect a shift in values, both marriage-related and otherwise. The study measured those values by a diverse set of beliefs, from religious attendance to birth control usage to the number of sex partners they’d had in their lifetime.

The data sparked the conclusion that “the United States is devolving into a separate-and-unequal family regime, where the highly educated and the affluent enjoy strong and stable households and everyone else is consigned to increasingly unstable, unhappy, and unworkable ones.”

That’s not good news.  In some countries, the lack of formal marriage has been replaced by stable non-marital unions.  But in the United States, the institution of marriage remains important as a building block and stabilizer of society. 

And non-marriage tends to be detrimental to children since it tends to mean the separation of children from their fathers. 

In, as far as I know, every state, fathers have presumptive parental rights only to children born during marriage.  The fact of  greater marital fragility therefore means greater fragility for fathers’ rights.  Divorced fathers have a hard enough time maintaining contact with their children, but for never-married ones it’s even more difficult.

State legislature and family courts are lagging far behind the times.  Keeping both parents in the lives of children post-divorce/separation means honoring fathers’ rights irrespective of whether he’s married to the mother of the children or not.  Laws that require marriage to presumptively establish a father’s rights themselves presume a day and time that sadly are in our past.

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