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Divorced Because the Neighbors Did It
no family is an island, and by facilitating the divorces of unhappy couples we almost certainly changed the way that happier couples — or couples who had considered themselves happy, at least — thought about their marriages, and the possibility of ending them. ([…] liberalization of divorce laws coincided with an appreciable decline in the percentage of men and women describing their unions as “very happy.”) There’s no escaping peer effects: If your friends or neighbors or relatives get divorced, you’re more likely to get divorced — even if it’s only on the margins — no matter what kind of shape your marriage is in.
No escaping? I have my own anecdotal evidence that ’80s divorces happened “because everyone was doing it.” But I just can’t be persuaded on the strength of one (intriguing) study that a significant percentage of husbands and wifes won’t react to the divorces of others with a greater resolve to stay married. Your read would make a person worry that everyone will succumb, as if to a plague of zombies. Possibly divorce is more like Ebola — very intimate contact with divorce might spike the likelihood of your own divorce, but less intimate contact might more likely scare that likelihood away.Published in General
I wish I could be as optimistic as you. Obviously there is some escaping peer effects and some of what you describe must happen every once in a while.
I do know anecdotally of some people who are determined to “make their marriage work” (leaving aside problems with that phrase) because they’ve seen the consequences of divorce, and I would include myself in that group; but I know an (at least) equal number of people who are determined to never get married for that same reason, which is hardly progress.
I think the numbers belie your optimistic assumption. I guess, like Deng on the French Revolution, we could say it’s too early to draw consequences from the sexual revolution. But divorce does seem to go unabated, and the peer effect is quite compelling as one among many factors.
The broken windows theory of marriage, if you will.
Aha, but that’s it exactly, Pascal: should we really be expecting many more unmarried couplings (and births), rather than more divorce? Is more divorce a generational thing? How does divorce impact couples living together but unmarried? Confronted with next-door divorce, I can imagine unmarried and married couples vowing to double down on each of their respective arrangements. Tocqueville imagined a future in which everyone was either atheist or Catholic. Indeed, he thought this might be what democratic life destined. I wonder if the roots of this vision — inaccurate as it may be — map in some way onto a future divide between people still married and people never married at all, with the whole messy middle wiped away…
I’ve known a few couples who lived together and claimed marriage was completely unnecessary for years, before finally marrying for reasons never explained. I think people eventually realize that marriage is an inherently public act… that they care how others perceive their relationships.
There are so many reasons people can choose to remain unmarried, though. One friend of mine was raised by a divorced mother. Since she turned out so well, she told me, marriage obviously isn’t necessary for a healthy, happy family. Another friend was raped as a child and later abandoned abruptly by a fiancee, so is unwilling to trust in people and long committments.
Tocqueville might have been right, to a degree. As I believe First Things reported at some point, the current trend among American religions is that the more liberal churches are withering while the more conservative ones are agreeing ever more with Church doctrine. But I don’t expect Baptists and Catholics will be worshiping together anytime soon.
Smokers tend to hang with smokers. Sports fans tend to hang with sports fans. Those who have a less-than-stalwart devotion to the institution of marriage might tend to hang with same. “Groupings” of divorce do not necessarily demonstrate causation.