The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today

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9780307266897: The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today
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From one of the nation’s leading experts on the American family, a book that explores the state of marriage in America today; its evolution culturally; and with regard to religion and the law, how and why the present state of marriage—a merry-go-round of partnerships—developed, and the implications for parents and children.

During Andrew J. Cherlin’s three decades of study and analysis of family life, he came to see that marriage in the United States was different than in other Western countries—Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—in a way that no one was writing about. He realized that marriage in America, unlike in other countries in the world, was seen as a cultural idael, and the U.S. government was spending money to promote its continuation. The institution of marriage had become a social and political battlefield.

Cherlin writes that Americans marry more repeatedly and have more live-in partners; that marriage and remarriage, frequent divorce, and short-term cohabiting relationships have resulted in a core upheaval in American family life; and that American children have been left to cope with the frequent and disruptive comings and goings of parents.

He writes that Americans have come to embrace two contradictory models of personal and family life: marriage, a formal commitment to share one’s life with another; and individualism, which emphasizes personal growth and development. The former promotes a lasting relationship; the latter encourages one to move on. Each model is culturally reinforced by two basic, powerful institutions: religion and law.

Cherlin writes about the inconsistency of American religion and law with regard to family life. He argues that contemporary religion, although supportive of marriage, embraces the quest for self-development. And he makes clear that family law, which used to be centered on marriage, is today focused on the individual and his or her obligations to children.

He discusses the movement and civil struggle for same-sex marriage in America as opposed to in many European countries, where marriage is seen by gay couples as an oppressive heterosexual institution.

A fascinating book that illuminates the shifting nature of America’s oldest and most cherished social institution, the subject of intense and ever-increasing national debate.

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About the Author:

Andrew J. Cherlin is the Benjamin H. Griswold III Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University and is the author of Public and Private Families. His articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, and on the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications. He has been a recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and the Distinguished Career Award from the Family Section of the American Sociological Association. He lives in Baltimore.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

chapter 1

65

How American Family Life Is Different

On Valentine’s Day in 2005, Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who would gain recognition in 2008 as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and his wife, Janet, converted their marriage to a covenant marriage in front of a crowd of 6,400 at an arena in North Little Rock. The governor was aware that few Arkansas couples were choosing the covenant option—of the first hundred thousand or so marriages that had begun since it was introduced in 2001, about six hundred couples had chosen it. In Louisiana and Arizona, the other states that offered covenant marriages, the take- up rate wasn’t much better. Advocates for covenant marriage claimed that many couples were unaware of it and that the laws had been poorly implemented. Even so, the numbers were far smaller than anyone expected. Those who chose Arkansas’s option agreed to undergo premarital counseling. They also agreed that if either spouse ever requested a divorce, they would attend marital counseling before splitting up. And they agreed that neither spouse could obtain a quick divorce based on “no-fault” grounds such as incompatibility. Only if the other spouse had committed a serious transgression such as adultery or physical or sexual abuse could a covenant-married person ask for an immediate divorce. Otherwise, the person who wanted out had to wait at least two years for a divorce.

In order to breathe life into this moribund option, the governor had announced his intention to enter into a covenant marriage and invited others to join him. “This law allows couples to choose to be held to a higher level of marital commitment,” he said in a radio address promoting his rally. At the event, thousands of married couples, many bused by their churches, filed into the arena as love songs played on the public address system. After the governor and his wife exchanged vows, they asked the couples in the audience to stand and face each other, and they led a mass recitation of vows. Only the Huckabees’ ceremony legally counted as a covenant marriage, however, because couples who are already married must submit an affidavit to the county clerk in order to convert their marriages, and according to news reports the logistics had proven too complicated for the churches that were supporting the rally. Nevertheless, the governor, a former Baptist pastor, had made his point: there was too much divorce in Arkansas and people’s commitment to their marriages needed to be strengthened.

Governor Huckabee’s concern about the divorce rate in Arkansas, which led him to sponsor the Valentine’s Day covenant marriage rally, was well-taken. In 2004, for instance, Arkansas had the second-highest number of divorces per person of any state (after Nevada, a divorce destination that does a brisk business with out-of-state visitors). But Governor Huckabee may not have known that Arkansas also had a large number of weddings. In 2004, it had the third-highest per capita rate of marriage (after Nevada and Hawaii, two popular wedding destinations). With much divorce and much marriage, Arkansas exemplifies the American pattern.

That a state in the Bible Belt—Arkansas is well above average in church membership—has a high rate of marriage may seem unremarkable; by contrast, its high divorce rate may seem odd. Yet six of the ten states with the highest divorce rates are in the South, and the other four are in the West. George W. Bush carried all ten states in the 2004 presidential election, which suggests that having a socially conservative electorate does not insulate a state from divorce. It is true that people who are religious are less likely to divorce, but religious Americans still have high divorce rates by international standards. Moreover, people in high-divorce states tend to have less education, to marry earlier, and not to be Catholic—all of which are risk factors for divorce. That’s why Arkansas stands out: it has one of the lowest percentages of high school graduates and of Catholics, and one of the lowest median ages at marriage, of any state.

Both marriage and divorce contribute to the larger picture of a country in which people partner, unpartner, and repartner faster than do people in any other Western nation. They form cohabiting relationships easily, but they end them after a shorter time than people in other nations. They tend to marry at younger ages. After a divorce, they tend to find a new partner more quickly. In other words, having several partnerships is more common in the United States not just because people exit intimate partnerships faster but also because they enter them faster and after a breakup reenter them faster. We know these facts from the work of demographers using the Fertility and Family Surveys, a remarkable set of surveys conducted between 1989 and 1997 in European countries, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States (as well as from other surveys in Great Britain and Australia, two countries that were not included). In each nation researchers asked a large, random sample of individuals comparable questions about their marriages, divorces, and cohabiting relationships.

Why, you might ask, did researchers go to the expense and trouble of carrying out these surveys throughout Western Europe and overseas English-speaking countries? The answer is that enormous changes have occurred in family life not only in the United States but also throughout the Western world in the past half century (and in much of the rest of the world, too, for that matter). People everywhere are concerned about the future of the family as they know it. In the Scandinavian countries and in France, cohabitation is even more common than in the United States, and a large proportion of all births occur to cohabiting couples—more than half of first births in Sweden. Divorce rates have increased, too, although not to the height seen in the United States. But what drives European concern is not the decline of marriage but rather the decline in births. It’s hard for Americans to understand this concern because we don’t share it. American women have enough children to maintain the size of our population, even ignoring immigration. In many European countries, in contrast, women are having fewer births. Countries such as France and Germany have long been concerned with keeping their populations up so that they can field armies large enough to defend themselves. More recently, they have been concerned about having enough working-age adults to care for their growing elderly populations.

In the United States, however, the concern is about marriage, and the Fertility and Family Surveys have much to say about it. To compare, say, current divorce rates across countries, ideally we would interview a sample of people who get married this year in each country, follow them for the next several decades, and see how many become divorced. But no mere mortal has the time to wait that long. Instead, demographers use the “life table” method, so called because one of its first uses was to estimate how long people would live so that insurance companies could determine how much to charge them for life insurance policies. It can be used to estimate the expected “survival” time of marriages, cohabiting relationships, or periods of singlehood. Its estimates will be inaccurate if conditions change greatly in the future. Essentially, the life table answers this question: if conditions stay the same as they have been recently, how long would we expect a marriage, a cohabiting relationship, or a spell of being single to last?

The American Difference

Here are some comparisons that can be made between women in the United States (the American survey did not include men) and in other Western nations in the mid-1990s, when most of the surveys were conducted:

· Americans marry and cohabit for the first time sooner than people in most other Western nations. Half of all first marriages occurred by age twenty-five in the United States, compared to age twenty-nine in Italy, thirty in France, thirty-one in Sweden, and thirty-two in the former West Germany. In part, ages of marriage are older in Europe because in some countries more young adults cohabit prior to marrying. Yet even if we consider the age at which half of all first partnerships of either kind (marital or cohabiting) occur, American women were relatively young: age twenty-two, compared to twenty-one in Sweden, age twenty-three in France, twenty-six in West Germany, and twenty-eight in Italy.

· A higher proportion of Americans marry at some point in their lives than in most other Western nations: 84 percent of American women are predicted to marry by age forty. In contrast, the forecast drops to 70 percent in Sweden and 68 percent in France. (For technical reasons, all of these forecasts are likely to be somewhat lower than the actual percentages who will ever marry.) If we consider both marital and cohabiting relationships, however, over 90 percent of women in nearly all countries will eventually begin an intimate partnership.

So Americans begin to have partners at a relatively young age, whereas many Europeans wait longer. And Americans turn those partnerships into marriages—or marry without living together beforehand—much more quickly. In France and the Nordic countries, in contrast, young adults tend to live with partners for several years before marrying, if they marry at all. In some southern European countries, such as Spain and Italy, living together prior to marrying is less common, and many young adults live with their parents well into their twenties before marrying. Other English-speaking countries are more similar to the United States, but people there still marry at somewhat older ages and are less likely to ever marry over their lifetimes.

· Marriages and cohabiting relationships in the United States are far more fragile than elsewhere. After only five years, mor...

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