The evolution of marriage

Mark Oppenheimer has a semi-profile of Dan Savage, semi-critique of modern marriage in the NYTimes Magazine this weekend. Savages suggests that as we begin to expand the definition of marriage to include gay couples (as NY did last week and RI sort of did yesterday), we might also want to decrease our expectations around fidelity.

Interesting quote:

“In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women ‘the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,’ we extended to men the confines women had always endured. ‘And it’s been a disaster for marriage.’ ”

Savage argues that before feminist movements sought marriage equality, men ran around with concubines and mistresses and it was mostly accepted. While this is a rather sweeping generalization, it is interesting to think about what would have happened if marriage had become more egalitarian in the sense that women were allowed to pall around, as opposed to men now being held to higher standards.

My interest in the subject is less on the benefits of nonmonogamy, and more on how a culture of “working through” cheating would affect divorce rates and children.

A number of papers in economics have recently tried to tease out the effect of divorce on children, but the trend, as Savage suggests, is towards advocating stability over monogamy. It’s not that he’s saying nonmonogamy for all, necessarily, just “the cultural expectation should be if there’s infidelity, the marriage is more important than fidelity.” When most of these papers talk about stability, they often refer to the mother having more than one partner or the father moving in and out of the picture multiple times, but the divorce brings a lot of trauma regardless of whether the parents ever remarry. The negative affects appear to be amplified when you add in new boyfriends and step-parents.

My research, however, shows that some of the negative effects may be in place whether or not the couple ever divorces. A lot of the economic reasoning behind the findings suggests that people are forward-looking and adjust their behavior (particularly investment in children) in anticipation of divorce. So, if we create a culture whereby sticking it out is the norm, we essentially raise the costs of divorce by increasing public admonition or shunning by peers or some other means. We could think about retreating from no-fault and unilateral divorce laws, but let’s say we don’t want to return to those dark ages, either.

We raise the costs of divorce and if we succeed, we keep more marriages intact. But if negative effects are in place before, or even in the absence of, divorce, and can be attributed to something other than anticipation of divorce, then we don’t really solve the problem of hurting kids. We maintain stability, in some sense, as a parent or parent’s lover isn’t walking in and out constantly, but kids aren’t stupid. Especially older children will likely notice something is amiss, behavior will change and we’ll still likely see negative effects. Will they be measureable? Will they be significant enough to observe? Perhaps not on average, but I don’t think asking parents to stay together, unhappy, solves the problem.

The other large problem with raising the costs of divorce is differentiating between socially acceptable causes for divorce and not socially acceptable causes. If we say that one-night stands should be overlooked, what about a weekend fling? Or a two-week fling? Or a month-long tete-a-tete? Where do we draw the line? Savage realizes the Schwarzeneggers, for instance, were doomed, but what’s in the middle? And the intersection of cheating and intimate partner violence is much larger than I think Savage realizes. Infidelity is often a tool of abuse and while a culture that overlooks a fling might seem a big leap from a culture that overlooks a slap or controlling money or a broken arm, I think we’re far enough down that road already.

To his credit, Savage advocates each couple figuring the process out for themselves. Monogamy, he says, still works for some couples even if it doesn’t work for all. Keeping it together for the kids may seem like a noble goal, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all goal, and the associated negative externalities could be large.

On not getting divorced

Divorce, we all know, is traumatic. Even if we are the lucky few who managed to watch our parents lovingly stay together our entire lives, we realize that we are the lucky few. Children of the 70s and 80s are all too familiar with divorce. We consoled our friends through it, we had dinner at friends’ houses in tense, uncomfortable situations and we likely see divorce as the norm. Perhaps people aren’t meant to stay together forever.

There is a lot of research that says that children of divorce have worse outcomes than children of parents who stay together. The causal link is tenuous, at best, which was the primary motivation for one chapter of my thesis. Surely, we know that couples who decide to get divorced are different than those who stay together, but that doesn’t mean all couples that stay together are the same, and it doesn’t mean they are happy or that they shouldn’t get divorced. In short, we have all this information about how divorce affects children, but in reality, we know that it isn’t likely the mere act of divorce that might hurt children, but rather how parents’ behavior and decision-making change when they’re thinking about divorce and moving toward divorce, even if they never get there.

While presenting this paper, as I’m sure other scholars of divorce and children have experienced, I’ve been asked, several times, whether the policy implication is that people shouldn’t get divorced. Should we be spending more money on marriage promotion or free couples’ counseling or something to encourage couples to stay together, for the good of the children? I think that my goal, in some ways, was precisely the opposite. Not that we should encourage divorce, but rather that concentrating too much on divorce as being bad for kids ignores everything that happens leading up to a divorce, it ignores the fighting and bargaining and trauma that results when parents are unhappy, regardless of whether they get divorced. It may be even that we’ve vilified divorce so much that parents who likely should get divorced, don’t.

The New York Times today offers some evidence of a backlash of sorts against divorce. They cite a marriage study that shows that those same children of the 70s and 80s, my generation and those a bit older than me, are less likely to get divorced than our parents. While the divorce rate hovers around 50% for the population, the rate for recent college-grads within 10 years of marriage is closer to 10%. Despite the fact that we’re not seeing these people through the whole of their marriages and lives yet, that’s a big difference. It should be noted, however, that fewer women my age are getting married at all. The same study showed that women aged 25-29 were much less likely to have ever been married, in fact, half of all women in that age range had never married. So, we’re dealing with a smaller base, here as well. It might be that the marriages that are occurring are just better marriages, as other people are waiting.

Regardless of how exactly the numbers play out, the Times used these stats, and anecdotes and books, to show that divorce has become almost taboo among some segments of society. The article tells horror stories of storybook wives and mothers being outcast from the social spheres once they decided to divorce, a decidedly different take on divorce than the feminist, liberating, now-you’re-free state that they say ruled earlier generations.

Though it’s easy to toss out theories of social pressure in middle age as bunk, there is evidence that social networks (and I mean communities, not facebook) can have a profound effect on the decision to divorce. One recent paper found that having a friend or family who divorces makes you much more likely to divorce. Contrary to how this may sound, it doesn’t appear that divorce is actually contagious, like the measles. Rather, it is likely that seeing someone else get divorced changes perceived costs and benefits of divorce. If a friend goes through a divorce, you may see how hard it is on her and her family, but you also see the benefits later on of her new situation. And if she has already done it, you benefit from not being the only one.

In communities where divorce is looked down upon–be it for religious reasons, or ‘for the kids’, the costs for divorce likely remain very high, even if you know someone who has done it. It is precisely situations like these where economics trips up. In modeling divorce or investments in children, we control for what we can, but knowledge of a community’s stigma about divorce likely remains unknown. In the case where such a stigma is correlated with race or income, we might ascribe effects to race or income where they don’t belong.