Andrew Cherlin’s The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today is the third book I have consulted to learn more about the collapse of the traditional marriage, family, and gender roles in the United States.
Cherlin is a demographer and sociologist at John Hopkins University. The Marriage-Go-Round tackles the issue from more of a social science and international comparative perspective than Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History or Marilyn Yalom’s A History of The Wife.
There were no real surprises in this book. Coontz, Yalom, and Cherlin all seem to agree on the general timeline of marriage/family breakdown: until the 1960s, ideas and behaviors which are now commonplace in the United States and the West were taboo, illegal, or both. The only significant difference between the US and other Western countries is that Americans are more religious and marriage has always had greater prestige here. Otherwise, all Western countries have followed a similar trajectory toward the same destination, even if they started from different points.
According to Cherlin, Americans can’t be sorted into traditionalist and liberal camps. Instead, the vast majority of Americans simultaneously believe in two cultural models, the traditional view of marriage, which we have inherited from Christianity, and individualism and its doctrine of self fulfillment, which we have inherited from modern liberalism. Depending upon our whims, Americans shift from one model to the other, as the mood strikes. In such a way, a deeply conservative and religious state like Arkansas can have the second highest divorce rate in the United States.
More than anything else, The Marriage-Go-Round is about the turbulence that has been introduced into American family life since the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Americans get divorced more, but also get married more. We have more sexual partners. We have more cohabiting relationships. Increasingly, young Americans don’t even bother with the old rituals of dating and forming long term relationships, and just use smartphone apps like Tinder to “swipe right” and find hook ups.
In one memorable passage, Cherlin described how marriage has been transformed into a “capstone” in America, as opposed to the “foundation” of adult life that it used to be. American women want increasingly lavish wedding ceremonies and honeymoons to display the status of being married. It has become a way that women announce to their peers that they have finally “made it” or “arrived” as an adult. The wedding ceremony and status of being married is becoming more important than married life itself. These days getting married is like acquiring a Boy Scout merit badge.
American family life has become like a carousel or merry-go-round of fragile relationships, broken homes, and new partners coming into and out of the household at blinding historical speed. This unprecedented instability within the American family seems to be having a negative effect on children. Cherlin doesn’t put much stock into a return a traditional values. Instead, he only counsels Americans to “slow down” and think about the consequences before starting new relationships with cohabiting partners, especially single parents who have young children.
I thought The Marriage-Go-Round was another worthwhile read, but Cherlin raises too many serious questions about the instability of marriage and family life while being too timid to question the reigning cultural orthodoxy in the West, most likely because he wouldn’t have been able to find a publisher.
Here are some interesting statistics from the book:
1.) Median age at first marriage for women: United States, 25
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 31, 32, and 33, respectively.
2.) Percent ever married by age 40 for women: United States, 84
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 70, 59, and 68, respectively.
3.) Percentage of marriages ending in separation or divorce within five years of marriage: United States, 23
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 11, 12, and 8, respectively.
4.) Percentage of cohabiting relationship disrupted after five years: United States, 55
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 37, 32, and 29, respectively. By international standards, Americans aren’t very good at marriage or cohabitation.
5.) Percentage of children who experience the dissolution of their parents’ intimate partnership (married or cohabiting) by age fifteen: United States, 40
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 30, 29, and 33, respectively. Interestingly, the number for New Zealand is 42. Kiwis with children are even worse at marriage and cohabitation than Americans.
6.) Percentage of children seeing a new partner enter their home within three years of a parental disruption (from either a marriage or cohabiting relationship: United States, 47
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 32, 29, and 23, respectively. In Norway, it is 41.
7.) Percent who have spent time as a lone parent by age thirty: United States, 33
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 15, 12, and 14, respectively.
8.) Percentage of children born to lone parents who have experienced a new parental partner entering the home by age three: United States, 37
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 29, 32, and 13, respectively.
9.) Percentage of women who had experienced more three or more coresidential partnerships by age thirty-five, for all women over the age of thirty-five at the time of FFS interviews: United States, 9.5
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 4.5, 2.9, and 1.3, respectively.
10.) Percentage of children experiencing exactly two maternal coresidential partnerships by age 15 for all children over age fifteen at the time of FFS interviews: United States, 21.4
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 15.8, 13.5, and 8.2, respectively.
11.) Percentage of marriages ending in separation or divorce in fifteen years: Non-Religious Americans, 54; Religious Americans, 39; Swedes, 28; West Germans, 27; French, 30.
12.) Percentage of unions begun as cohabitations that end in separation within fifteen years (whether or not the couple married in the intervening time): Non-Religious Americans, 76; Religious Americans, 68; Swedes, 56; West Germans, 51; French, 48.