Does the recent trend signal a long-term change or is it merely a hiccup ?
While divorce rates remain high in both the United States and United Kingdom, recent data point to a decline over the past decade in the frequency of divorce, especially among college-educated couples. Experts can’t seem to agree on the causes. If you search the internet to read about the trend, you’ll find a number of explanations, including speculation that it all might be accidental. Some of the given reasons will make at least intuitive sense to readers of The Good Men Project. Here are five:
1.) Men have become more serious about commitment
While this article from the Daily Mail implies that the failure of most marriages in the UK is the fault of the male, it also states that men are “…improving at keeping their wives happy.” Perhaps contemporary men have become wary of this assumption that the wellness of the marriage should depend wholly on the happiness of one partner. It seems they’re weighing the decision to get married much more carefully than they have in the past, taking time to settle on a like-minded partner. This leads to men who enter marriages with fewer jitters and a stronger belief in their long term commitment.
2.) The model of marriage has changed
Couples no longer enter marriage assuming that the wife and husband will play traditional roles, and so they look for different skills in a partner. Prior to and during the sexual revolution, women sought men with workforce “market skills” while men sought women with home-making skills. These skills did not translate well to the modern marriage. Now couples enter marriage feeling comfortable with the idea that both partners will work on some level while they also maintain the home, and both partners search for traits appropriate for this model. Apparently, we’re getting better at choosing partners and remain much more flexible about how we exist in married life.
3.) Couples are waiting longer to marry
As young people remain skeptical of the institution, they approach it later, often after finishing their studies, sometimes even after living with their partner for a few years to try things out and reaching some level of financial security. Another factor in this trend is that more jobs are requiring college degrees; college is also taking longer to finish. Women now actually outnumber men in college.
When both partners delay the move, for whatever reason, we can guess they enter marriage with greater maturity. In the college scene, men should have to grow in maturity if they want to compete for stable long-term partners even when women outnumber them.
4.) Couples skip marriage altogether
Cohabitation is on the rise, and so couples who might have contributed to the statistic have fallen out of the pool.
The reasons for cohabitation are curious. When both partners have the capacity to work and earn a decent salary, they’ll often perceive marriage as nothing more than a custom, often a useless one. Especially in the UK, where access to health care is less of a problem than in the US, rising numbers of young people see no need to get married. There is risk when those couples split, as many of them do; they are not protected by the same laws as married people. Still, this reality does not keep many couples from perceiving cohabitation as a better arrangement, even if they want children.
5.) Economic downturn
Divorce is expensive. Some argue that the drop in divorce rates simply shows that people have been waiting to recover from the recession before divorcing, and divorce lawyers report seeing a spike in business in the last year or two as access to credit finally increased. An editorial in Slate from early 2012 predicted a boom in divorce rates and, in terms of how it might affect the overall economy, applauded it.
Paradoxically, the downtrend may be an aberration caused by economic collapse. Of course, in the US, divorce rates are much lower among college educated couples than the rest of the population, and the most common reason for divorce, in the UK and US, is still money. In our times, some stressed couples were obviously only weathering bad times before they could afford the cost of divorce.
All these interesting notes aside, it is still troubling to look at contemporary discourse about marriage and find so many loaded assumptions, especially the one that a happy marriage depends exclusively on a happy wife, that wives should depend on husbands for happiness, and that husbands’ decisions should be based mostly on what makes the wife happy, even if that means personal dissatisfaction. These assumptions beg important questions. How many people are miserable in marriage but avoid divorce simply out of feelings of apathy, even depression, and just can’t be bothered to go through the steps, the perceived social embarrassments, etcetera?
Even if a regressing divorce rate is merely a temporary aberration linked to the stagnant economy, we should applaud the signs that young people are approaching the decision to marry with more care. Perhaps if we could make a permanent shift in our social consciousness to regard marriage not as an inevitable step for someone before their 30th birthday—and shame of you if you haven’t found a spouse by then!—we could save many people much grief. If the social pressure to get married is waning, this can only lead to more patient, practical and intelligent decisions, including the one not to get married in the first place if you don’t really want to.
Photo by dark4