Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Marriage Go Round" of Coupling/Marrying/Splitting Up

Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin's new book, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today, focuses on the high rate of couple and family turnover in the U.S. Though the book's focus is on Americans' high rates of marriage, divorce, and re-partnering, Cherlin also addresses how the transition to adulthood in contemporary America may be linked with marital dynamics.

An illustrative statistic Cherlin cites is the percentage of women in different countries who have "three or more live-in partners (married or cohabiting) by age thirty-five" (p. 19). In the U.S., it's 10%, whereas in other English-speaking nations (those in Europe, as well as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), none was higher than 4.5%.

Early on, Cherlin states that, "The journey from adolescence to adulthood, so clear at mid [20th] century, is now a long slog filled with choices... We have gone from a lockstep pattern of getting married young, then having children, and for the most part staying married, to a bewildering set of alternatives..." (pp. 7-8).

Cherlin theorizes that contemporary trends in American marital/coupling behavior derive from two salient motivations in this country -- the desire to marry and the quest for "expressive individualism" (p. 9). The latter, which Cherlin identifies as a twentieth-century phenomenon, involves individuals' concerns with lifelong personal growth, which could propel some people to leave their marriages if they consider them psychologically and emotionally stagnant. The idea of constructing one's life to express and reflect one's personal values, of course, is a central facet of the concept of emerging adulthood.

The book's remaining analysis of young-adulthood transitions largely occurs through the lens of social class. Notes Cherlin, "What we are seeing is the emergence of two different ways of shooting the rapids of the transition to adulthood -- the process of completing one's education, developing a career, having children, and finding a lasting, intimate partnership. Among the college-educated, we see a more orderly, predictable sequence of events, one that has fewer changes of partners" (p. 167).

Among the college-educated, Cherlin states, a typical sequence is followed. These individuals will oftentimes finish school, take jobs, work for several years, get married (often after a period of cohabitation), then have children. In contrast, "[t]he strategy that many young adults in the bottom third of the educational distribution, and some in the middle third, use is to have children earlier, sometimes in a cohabiting relationship, sometimes as a lone parent... The marriages that do form among the less-educated are precarious. Over the past two or three decades, the divorce rate has fallen for women with college educations while remaining steady or rising for women without college degrees" (pp. 167-168).

Questions of cause and effect in family studies are always salient, because relevant processes are often difficult or impossible to manipulate experimentally (e.g., the effect of having children on marital satisfaction). Cherlin's book also delves into causality issues, which I summarize on my correlation-causality blog.

Yet another valuable aspect of the book is its discussion of family policy. This content will be helpful each time I teach Family Law and Public Policy. In short, although I purchased the book myself, I've found The Marriage-Go-Round to be a gift that keeps on giving!

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