Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Marriage-Go-Round

Hat tip to Justin Wolfers for the pointer to an interview with Andrew Cherlin, whose book The Marriage-Go-Roundis now available. The book explores the fact that Americans marry more often than folks in other countries, creating a lot of upheaval in family life. From what I can tell, Cherlin's focus is not so much on whether people should be married or not, but for us to think about the impact that merry-go-round relationships can have on society and particularly kids:
Marriage is important. But “get married” should not be our sole message to Americans. We should spend less time promoting marriage and more time supporting stable caregiving in children’s lives. The two are not the same. Let me explain: I agree that it makes sense to help young unmarried couples who have just had a child together get married if that is their goal. But it makes less sense to encourage a single mother to remarry because she probably won’t marry the father of her children—who she has already broken up with—but rather some other man.We know that the new stepfamily that would be formed would not improve the lives of children. And if that family breaks up, the children would be forced to adjust to yet another change in their households. So I urge us to supplement the “get married”message with another message: “slow down.” See the traffic light of singlehood as yellow rather than green. Don’t rush into having children with a boyfriend/girlfriend or a partner you’ve recently started living with. If you are already single and raising children, choose your next live-in partner or spouse carefully. Introduce your partner gradually to your kids; and don’t try to make him an instant parent.
There are other parts of the interview that sound decidely matrimaniacal (for example, he talks about marriage being "a symbol of personal achievement") but I was fascinated by some of the stats comparing the U.S. to Europe, and his discussion of the conflict between the value Americans put on marriage and the value we put on individualism:
...only in the United States do you find both. So we marry in large numbers—we have a higher marriage rate than most countries. But we evaluate our marriages according to how personally fulfilling we find them. And if we find them lacking, we are more likely to end them. Then, because it’s so important to be partnered, we move in with someone else, and the cycle starts all over again.

Also, we start and end cohabiting relationships at an even higher rate. If you are living with someone outside of marriage, and you are personally unhappy, you are supposed to end the relationship. Our cohabiting relationships are shorter than in any other country. It’s not as though some Americans value marriage and others value individualism. Rather, we carry both ideals in our heads and switch between them without even realizing it.
This rings true for me, especially as I struggle with reconciling my independence with my new relationship. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

He does make good points, but as you said, he gets matrimaniacal (I'm judging here just from the excerpt you posted), which I think would actually make it hard for me to even read the book. So kudos to you QuirkyEconomist for reading it and reviewing it for us! = )

Anonymous said...

I'll have to read the book, but those excepts ring true for me - probably explains why I feel like I would be equally happy living on my own as living with a house of friends. Or that double feeling when someone random compliments me on the street - happy that they noticed and annoyed that their comment meant something to me. Makes perfect sense, but I'll have to read the book to be sure. Thanks for the warning

Clever Elsie said...

I agree with both his theory about the underpinnings of the marriage-go-round and the deleterious effect it has on children and our culture in general. That's why my own philosophy favors extreme caution when entering relationships but profound patience and tolerance once committed. I think repeatedly building and severing intimate bonds can erode one's emotional health and is far, far more harmful than remaining single (which really isn't harmful at all). Research supports that, too, since people who have always been single fare better on a number of measures of well-being than those who have divorced (see Singled Out by Bella DePaulo).

To me, this implies that what we should promote is not marriage but discernment in partner selection. The single state should be seen as the default and encouraged unless and until we find an appropriate life partner. Break-ups and divorces can do so much damage that we should only make those commitments after very careful consideration, I believe, because once we've made them, we should try to stick to them for our own emotional health as well as for our partners'.

Since I haven't read the book, I'm not sure if the author is himself upholding the glorification of marriage as "a symbol of personal achievement" or just commenting on how our society views it, which would probably be an accurate description. If he's supporting this view himself, then shame on him because he's contributing to the problem! Relationships should always be about attaining companionship, never status. Until we stop equating marriage with status, people will continue to marry for the wrong reasons.