A More Perfect Union

This New York Times article on divorce, which blog friend Zach Wendling linked to earlier this week, is worth another look. It confirms what I’ve heard anecdotally in the past couple of years: that the declension narrative about divorce (that divorces are on the rise) we’ve been hearing in the mainstream culture, and from family values advocates, is incorrect. A few key paragraphs:

THE great myth about divorce is that marital breakup is an increasing threat to American families, with each generation finding their marriages less stable than those of their parents. […]

The story of ever-increasing divorce is a powerful narrative. It is also wrong. In fact, the divorce rate has been falling continuously over the past quarter-century, and is now at its lowest level since 1970. While marriage rates are also declining, those marriages that do occur are increasingly more stable. For instance, marriages that began in the 1990s were more likely to celebrate a 10th anniversary than those that started in the 1980s, which, in turn, were also more likely to last than marriages that began back in the 1970s. […]

Why has the great divorce myth persisted so powerfully? Reporting on our families is a lot like reporting on the economy: statistical tales of woe provide the foundation for reform proposals. The only difference is that conservatives use these data to make the case for greater government intervention in the marriage market, while liberals use them to promote deregulation of marriage.

But a useful family policy should instead be based on facts. The facts are that divorce is down, and today’s marriages are more stable than they have been in decades. Perhaps it is worth stocking up on silver anniversary cards after all.

This reminded me of a piece I wrote for ITA nearly a year ago. In it, I accused Christian family values advocates of committing a minor sin by holding up the 1950s as a great time for traditional family values, when in fact the era was a rather exceptional era of family cohesion in response to external pressures, as argued by historian Elaine Tyler May and others. The point is, as the article above mentions, conservative family values advocates have a vested interest in promoting the 1950s as a great time for families, and in the declension narrative of divorce, for political reasons. Of course, liberals need marriages to be in trouble as well, so they can push a whole different set of reforms.

Then you have the baby boomers, who need the 1950s to be so traditional so that they can continue to imagine the 1960s as the most important time in the history of the planet. 🙂


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