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Journal Issue: Children and Divorce Volume 4 Number 1 Spring/Summer 1994

History and Current Status of Divorce in the United States
Frank F. Furstenberg

Explaining Changing Marriage Patterns

Much recent scholarly activity has been devoted to accounting for the declining strength of the marriage institution. The centrality of marriage and the nuclear family in the middle part of the twentieth century makes it especially puzzling to explain what appears to be the rapid erosion of a high cultural commitment to lifelong monogamy.9,36 As we have already seen, the view that change came suddenly and only recently is certainly spurious. Many of the elements that were undermining the particular model of marriage prevalent in the 1950s have been evident for some time.

An explanation does not point to a single source of change. A configuration of many changes, some long-standing and others more recent, have shifted the balance of individual interests away from forming permanent unions to more fluid and flexible arrangements. The most important of these was undoubtedly the breakdown of the gender-based division of labor that led men to invest in work and women to specialize in domestic activity.37

In the United States these changes occurred in a culture that has long trumpeted the virtues of individual choice and, more recently, personal freedom and self-actualization.38 Little wonder that Americans lead other nations in the divorce revolution.39 Our ideology of individualism may have helped to grease the main engine of change, the movement of women into the labor force which subverted the model of marriage as an exchange of goods and services between men and women.

Other simultaneous developments may have hastened the breakdown of the nuclear family. The sexual revolution in no small measure made marriage seem less attractive. As premarital sex with decreased risk of pregnancy became more accessible in the 1960s, the lure of early marriage lessened. The spread of birth control to unmarried youth and the availability of abortion played a part, but the growing visibility of sex that occurred in the post-Kinsey era was probably as influential as the availability of methods of fertility control in changing sexual practices.

Finally, the shift of public opinion favoring more liberal divorce laws may have fed the process of change.9 Clearly, the laws were a response to a growing demand for divorce.40 Increases in marital disruption preceded the legal changes or even the opinion favoring changes.41 However, the laws, in turn, consolidated opinion institutionalizing alternative marriage forms, replacing the permanent monogamy with conjugal succession and, of late, even more conditional arrangements.

Apart from the development of new norms, marital instability promotes more instability as individuals become more wary about the prospects of permanency. They prepare for the contingency of being alone by spending time alone, and they hedge their bets by entering temporary partnerships.42 As they do, they develop more resources for independence and a greater commitment to living alone unless they are highly contented in unions. Thus, the standards for what constitutes a gratifying relationship may have been rising to higher levels, some would say to unrealistically higher levels. Whether this is true or not, most Americans, perhaps women especially, are now less willing than they once were to settle for “good enough” marriages because they have the option of seeking more gratifying relationships or of living alone in the event that such relationships prove elusive.43