We all know that divorce is common in modern society. Did you know that it is far more common in the United States than in other countries? Sociologist Andrew Cherlin has written about this phenomenon  in The Marriage Go Round . He describes contemporary American marriage as “optional, fragile, and at odds with expressive individualism.”

I picked up this book because I thought it might yield insights into the problem of the reluctant male. It seems like women I have interviewed or talked to about this project, as well as other sources of research, such as the book about egg-freezing, feel that one reason many women are having children later is that they have trouble finding men who are willing to commit to marriage. I wondered if there was evidence to support that.

Cherlin tells a history of marriage in the United States, from 1650-1900, when women were essentially their husband’s property, to the first half of the twentieth century, characterized by what he calls the “companionate marriage.” Husband and wife were expected to love each other and also to get ahead by pulling in tandem and possibly subverting their personal desires to those of the family team. After providing this historical perspective, he spends quite a bit of time dissecting our current era, which he describes as being typified by “the individualized marriage and the expressive divorce.”

Now we have, he writes, “a society in which marriage is still valued, but an unhappy married couple is almost expected to divorce. It’s a society in which cohabitating couples are expected to marry if they are happy and to break up if they are not. In short, it’s a society where there’s a great deal of turnover in people’s intimate relationships.”

His idea is that we have two competing ideals. On the on hand, marriage holds a kind of prestige in society. It’s a sign to others that you have got your act together, personally and probably professionally too. On the other hand, individual self-development is more or less mandated. People feel like they are failing themselves if they don’t reach their full potential, whether that’s expressed in accomplishments, creative expression, running a marathon, or whatever. Hence the emotional tug-of-war one feels when faced with a promising but new relationship and a job offer in another city.

I never thought of it this, but his ideas make a lot of sense to me, and I think they help explain a lot.

You might think this has to do with religion, but Cherlin finds little evidence for this.  He also debunks the notion that American are just restless at heart, ever ready to bolt for the frontier.

Although in my mind, the question was framed as men being either favorably or unfavorably disposed toward marriage, Cherlin does not look at it from that perspective. Instead, he presents the idea that men’s falling economic fortunes – as result of globalization and automation, among other factors – leave more men in a precarious financial position. As a feminist, I find it depressing that women still rate men’s earning potential so highly in their criteria for choosing a mate. I know Cherlin is not the only one to make this observation, though, and his ideas are based on other researchers’ work as well as his own.  Also, journalist Hannah Rosin has explored this in “The End of Men”.

We may also have choice fatigue. Unless you live in an unusually conservative corner of the United States, pretty much all choices are possible: Have children in partnership without getting married. Get married without having children. Be a single parent. A desire to choose the right, authentic, satisfying path can leave one stuck in indecision – a common theme among women we’ve interviewed.

The contradictions described in this book are hard to navigate, but recognizing these two opposing forces is helpful. Cherlin does not give much advice – Marriage Go Round is sociology, not self-help – except to say that Americans should slow down when it comes to relationships. That advice may be hard to follow for women who are being told that their chances of having children are dwindling by the minute. Yet, it you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you already know that this is not as bad as we’ve been made to believe.

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