September 2009

Amy DePaul


An Interview with Andrew Cherlin

The Marriage-Go-Round, an analysis of the state of matrimony and partnering in the U.S., owes some small part of its success to timing. It arrived in bookstores amid a string of high-profile marital meltdowns, i.e. Jon and Kate, Mark Sanford, John Edwards, et al. None of which has been a bad thing for author Andrew Cherlin, whose book recently won prominent mentions in Time, Newsweek and The Atlantic.

Lost in the commentaries and essays about marital crisis, however, are some of the surprising findings to emerge from The Marriage-Go-Round, such as this one, for example: Americans prize marriage more highly than do people in other wealthy countries, and they consider it the hallmark of a successful life. Yet they divorce at higher rates, just as they re-partner in higher numbers, causing turnover that may be highly destabilizing for children. The statistic Cherlin likes to cite is that a child in the U.S. has a greater chance of seeing his married parents break up than a child of unmarried parents in Sweden.

Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins who has studied families, poverty and marriage for 30 years, gently pries loose the tangled reasons for Americans' sometimes contradictory impulses when it comes to wedlock. In a recent interview, he explained his book's key findings, and he also discussed controversial federal policies to promote marriage, the ways that Evangelicals tolerate and may even unknowingly enable divorce, and the quest for gay marriage in the U.S. vs. in Western Europe.

When you hear about famous people's marriages collapsing, as we have been in recent months, are you reminded of any of your own research findings?

It reminds me once again of how close to the surface our feelings about marriage and family are. At first I was surprised at all the events that happened soon after my book was published. Then I realized that events like these are always happening, that I don't think this is an unusual period. We continually have these battles over what marriage and family mean in America.

Your book suggests that marriage and divorce developed differently in the U.S. than in other parts of the industrialized world. Can you give an example of what influenced that phenomenon?

Divorce law has always been a bit more lenient here than in other countries, and I think the differences in the law reflect fundamental differences and attitudes. I think Americans have been more likely to accept divorce and adjust to it than have been people in other wealthy countries. I say that because, for example, in Britain and France, divorce was not possible until the 19th century, but it had been going on for 200 years here. We don't praise divorce, we don't like it, but we tolerate it more than do people in other countries, and we are more likely to accept it when unhappy couples do it. I think Americans have two conflicting values in their heads: one is the high value placed on marriage and other is high value placed on personal choice and individualism. The high value on marriage encourages us to find a partner and marry. The high value on personal choice encourages us to end the marriage if we're not personally satisfied. At which point, we find someone else to marry or at least live with.

Is there less divorce and re-partnering in Europe?

The U.S. has higher divorce rates even than supposedly avant-garde countries such as Sweden. One statistic is that American children living with married partners have a higher risk of seeing their parents break up than do Swedish children living with unmarried partners.

Do we also marry more?

Our marriage rate is on the high end. We also have more short-term cohabiting relationships. Our living-together relationships last less long than do relationships in other countries, whether married or unmarried. The rise of cohabitation has contributed to the marriage-go-round because people start and end cohabiting relationships easily and often. Most people live with a partner before they remarry.

And the effect on kids?

There are several studies now of what it means for kids to see multiple parents and partners move out of their homes and how kids cope with instability. They tend to show that the more movement there is in the household, the more difficulties kids have in behavior problems. Now, we can't be sure there's a direct cause and effect, but it looks like instability raises the risk of kids having problems.

Are there differences according to economic or educational status?

It's true that there's less turnover among college-educated Americans. But the most turnover occurs not among the poor but among the high-school-educated, the people we used to think of as blue collar. I think that's because blue-collar Americans are still shooting for a house with a white picket fence. They're still inclined to marry but they will also live with a partner and increasingly have a child with a partner even if they're not ready to marry, so blue-collar Americans have lots of cohabiting relationships like poor Americans and more marriages as wealthy people do.

Maybe the question is why Europeans don't partner up more.

Europeans take more time getting into a new partnership. American kids with split-up families are more likely to see new partner in their home than in Europe. Not only do we partner up faster, we re-partner up faster.

Is this due to early marriages here in the U.S.?

No, we marry pretty late but people are living together pretty early in their 20s. First relationships are likely to be cohabiting.

An op-ed in the Washington Post urged women to marry at a young age, lest they lose their chance, and then you wrote a response questioning the piece. What made you disagree?

It's hard to sell the case for early marriage. The main reason it doesn't hold is that people married early so they could have lots of children, so kids could help out on the farm. In post-industrial society, we don't need to have lots of children, and we know how expensive it is to raise one or two, so there's less reason to marry early. I have nothing against early marriage, but I don't think we're going to return to it on a larger scale.

Back on your marriage findings. What are some of the unique views Americans have of marriage?

Marriage has become a luxury good, almost a status symbol in the U.S. It's no longer necessary to be married, so why are people doing it? Because it is the first-class way to live your personal life. People want to show their friends and family they've made it. Marriage is the end of the quest, the top of the mountain, a capstone. Marriage used to be the first step into adulthood and now it's often the last. So people are postponing marriage while doing things only married people used to do: living together, starting a career, having children. In the 1950s people married first and THEN started adulthood. Now we don't marry until we've completed young adulthood.

So people think you have to complete certain steps to be married, but not to live together?

People definitely think a man must have a steady job in order for a couple to marry, but not necessarily to cohabit. What's happening is there's a lower bar for living together than there is for marriage. People who are with a partner they like but aren't sure they will marry are more likely to live with that partner. Living together has become the relationship of choice for couples who feel they might want to marry, but don't feel ready now. That's a big change from the past.

Let me change topics a bit here: Your book discusses divorce and Evangelicals. What's the relationship?

Evangelicals are quite willing to accept divorce among their co-religionists and minister to it in their churches. In some ways they're more open than are the mainline Protestant churches. So Evangelical Protestants are not as anti-divorce as people think. They don't spend nearly as much energy combating divorce as they do combating same sex marriage or abortion. Even among Evangelical Protestants there is a lot of divorce. Americans who are very religious divorce less than the rest of us. But they divorce more than godless Europeans.

Could the Evangelical position stem from the belief in a personal relationship with God?

I am arguing that people see their relationship with God in personal terms, and many churches stress the individual benefits of worshiping God, which gets people thinking about themselves. Evangelical religion is about the self, even more so than mainline Protestantism. If you go to a megachurch you hear about how to help yourself get a better life which gets you thinking of how you could be happier. It could lead a person to leave a spouse.

In your comparisons with Europe, what did you learn about gay marriage?

The battle over same sex marriage is much fiercer here than in other wealthy countries. In Britain and France, there are national civil unions, but not as much clamor for same sex marriage. The reason is marriage is more important here than other countries. Gay and lesbian activists in Europe are saying, 'Why do we want to buy into this oppressive institution?' Marriage matters more here and it's a bigger symbol of personal success, leading a first-class personal life. But Europeans are more traditional when it comes to gay parenting? The big issue in Europe is not marriage, it's children. They've been worried for centuries about whether they can field a big enough army to defend themselves against their neighbors. It's because of this concern over population growth that European countries regulate fertility more than we do. On the positive side, the French give generous family allowances to mothers whether they're married or not and don't seem to care as much. The issue is to allow them to have children. On the negative side, they restrict nontraditional families from having children. They don't give same sex partners the same access to reproductive technology that we do and in some cases prohibit same sex couples from adopting.

Europeans can't understand why we have so many rules and battles about marriage. We live in a country that has always welcomed immigrants to solve our population problems. If our population growth slows, we open the gates a little wider. We are separated from our enemies by an ocean, and we're more accepting of immigrants. So, we don't feel we have to push American women to have children as much as European countries do.

What do you think about federal policies started under the Bush Administration to promote marriage, especially to the poor?

There's a place for narrow, targeted pro-marriage policy. If a young couple wants to get married or has just married and wants to stay married, we should help them if they ask for it. The government is testing some marriage enrichment programs where a young couple might go to a class. I'm not sure those classes can be effective but we'll know that soon, based on studies. What are less effective are public education campaigns to convince people marriage is a good thing when it's aimed at the poor. I think most poor people know that marriage is a good thing; they just can't see their way to doing it. Many poor people haven't seen a lot of successful marriages. Many others would like to marry if they had a steady income. Marriage is still highly valued among the poor.

You've often mentioned the billboards you see in Baltimore that say "Marriage works." Is there a better message?

These billboards promoting marriage do not, in my opinion, do much good. I think that in addition to supporting marriage we should support stable care arrangements for kids. A child in a single-parent family might be better off if the mother remained single than if she quickly partnered up and ended that relationship once again. I'm not in favor of billboards, but if I were, billboards would say, 'Slow down, take your time,' especially for people who already had a child or two. Should single parents be encouraged not to expose their kids to their dating lives? That's what I did when I was divorced for 10 years. Better for parents not to introduce kids to their casual dating relationships. A parent should be very cautious about introducing a new romantic partner into the home.

This summer two authors cited your work in high-profile magazines. Both were using your book to make their arguments, but one was arguing in favor of marriage and the other against. Is that a strange experience?

When I see myself in the middle of these arguments, I think I might be doing something right. I like writing the kind of book that both sides of an argument can find something useful in. And I found you don't have to give up your views to cite my book whether you're conservative or liberal. [Social conservative] Brad Wilcox reviewed my book in the Wall Street Journal. He has invited me to his university because he is intrigued by my criticism of Evangelicals. Our bottom lines are different: he wants marriage to be nearly universal and for there to be less divorce, but other than my conclusion, which he thinks is weak, he likes the book. I have been pleased and surprised with how much both sides have been citing this book.

With all the public discussion of marriage and, as we talked about earlier, so many publicized incidents of marriage breakdown, are we possibly on the verge of something new?

This is a period when a lot of people seem upset about infidelity and divorce. Mark Sanford, Kate and Jon -- the reaction to all of this has been shock and sadness. Will that have a long-lasting effect? I wouldn't count on it. However, we could see a modest move back in the other direction. The divorce rate has been going down for the college-educated. A sustained series of events like this summer could strengthen the faction which argues for more stable marriage.