HBO is coming out with a new series–DIVORCE–that will run Sunday night at 10 pm (premiering October 9) depicting a couple aiming for divorce, and then realizing that it’s not as easy as they think. Here’s how they describe it:
After more than a decade of marriage and two children, Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) has suddenly begun to reassess her life and her strained relationship with her husband Robert (Thomas Haden Church). But she soon discovers that making a clean break and a fresh start is harder than she thought. The story of a very, very long divorce, the show follows Frances and Robert as they grapple with the fallout from their failing marriage, not just for themselves, but also for their children and friends, ranging from awkward public encounters to difficult private therapy sessions.
I haven’t seen the show, but I do think it’s at least encouraging that they’re showing that divorce isn’t straightforward–and that perhaps we should pause and think again.
I remember when the movie Knocked Up with Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen came out in 2007. I cheered that a completely secular movie had the theme it did: A single woman finds herself pregnant from a one-night stand–and she doesn’t get an abortion. In fact, she only considers it for about 3 minutes of the movie. It was a sign that our culture was thinking differently about abortion, because it wasn’t remotely a faith-based movie (it was actually rather crude). But even a movie made just for the wider culture said, “it’s normal for women to want to keep their babies, and to be horrified at the thought of abortion.”
That’s a big shift. I hope, perhaps, that this is a sign of the way our culture may be changing when it comes to divorce. From the information HBO sent me, it looks like that could be true. I’ve always been of the opinion that every divorce is a tragedy, even though some divorces are necessary.
And yet I also think that our perception of the decline in marriage is premature and the triumph of the divorce mentality is overblown. Marriage is actually doing far better than our media commonly portrays–in some circles. But it is also doing worse in others than Christians often admit. So I thought today I’d share 10 trends about divorce that are worth knowing. Some are hopeful, some are sobering. All are important. And I hope the media listen!
1. The divorce rate has been on a downward trajectory.
While divorce rates skyrocketed in the 1970s and 1980s, they’ve been falling ever since. In fact, Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economist, has found that those who married in the 2000s have the lowest rates of divorce. If current trends continue, he estimates that more than 2/3 of marriages will last.
2. The divorce rate is far lower than we think.
Shaunti Feldhahn has found the same thing in her in-depth look at the census research in her book, The Good News About Marriage. That whole “50% divorce rate” meme that we’ve been hearing for decades is a myth. The divorce rate never was 50%; that figure is based on an estimate, which looked at the divorce rates of the 1970s and 1980s and asked, “if it continues at this rate, what will it be?” But it didn’t continue. And so she places the divorce rate at closer to 28%–and about 15-25% lower for Christians.
The takeaway? The vast majority of marriages still make it.
3. Young people still want a marriage for life
In a new Cardus Family research study from Canada, 72% of millennials still believe that marriage is a positive ideal for life.
4. Marriage is still people’s greatest source of joy in this life.
Shaunti also found that the vast majority people said that marriage brought them joy–and in fact it was their greatest source of joy. If this is so, then if the media wants to relate better to people, perhaps it should portray more happy marriages!
5. Marriage brings major benefits to our mental and physical health, and to our kids.
Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s massive study on marriage found that marriage brought higher incomes, more happiness, fewer cases of mental illness, and greater personal and sexual satisfaction. And when people stay married, children are far more likely to do well in school and make good personal decisions, and far less likely to be abused or killed!
6. Children do better when parents stay together, even if that marriage is not necessarily a happy one.
Judith Wallerstein’s groundbreaking 25-year study found that children fare better if their parents stay married than if they get a divorce, unless that marriage is also a high conflict one. If parents are simply unhappy, children are better off in a stable home. Maybe HBO has read that study and is going to show that “staying together for the sake of the kids” does have some merit, if it’s just that parents have grown apart!
That’s the good (or at least interesting) news. Now for the sobering news:
7. Fewer people are choosing to marry.
While the majority still value marriage, and while marriages are getting more successful, the simple truth is that fewer people are choosing to marry. For the first time ever, in 2014 the majority of American adults were now single.
8. Marriage is rapidly becoming a middle class and upper class choice.
Charles Murray has done groundbreaking research in finding that the marriage rates of the upper classes and lower classes were diverging hugely. In the 1960s they were basically the same. By 2010, 83% of upper class 30-49 were married, compared with just 48% of lower class adults. And because married people are able to pass on their cultural money and education easier to their kids, their kids will also tend to marry. The thing that is most dividing the classes, then, is marriage, not money. And it becomes much harder to move up the class ladder since fewer people get married. It’s actually scary!
9. More people are choosing to cohabitate.
As fewer people marry, more just “live together”. But the problem is that when you choose to test a relationship, it ends up much more likely to fail than if you decide to choose a life partner and then commit. And children born to cohabiting parents don’t do as well as children born to married parents, says W. Bradford Wilcox of the Marriage Project.
10. Divorce is one of the biggest causes of lack of savings in one’s retirement.
Twice as many women as men live in poverty at retirement, and divorce is one of the largest causes of that. Divorce negatively impacts a woman’s savings and income far more than it does a man’s, on average, which has repercussions even into the senior years.
All in all? Researchers have repeatedly shown that marriage brings huge benefits, and divorce brings huge costs. Sometimes, as I’ve said, divorce is necessary. But we should never take divorce cavalierly.
Charles Murray has found that the “marriage is just a choice” mentality that started in the 1960s has largely been pushed by our cultural elites–our university professors, our media, our politicians. And yet, upper class people (those very elites) are still largely marrying and staying married. It is the lower classes that are not, and they are really suffering for it.
And so Murray ends his books urging that same cultural elite to “preach what you practice.” Start telling people that marriage is a cultural good, and it is worth it! I totally believe that.
And I hope that perhaps HBO’s new DIVORCE series may do that, by showing a couple finding that divorce isn’t as easy as they thought. We shall see, but I do hope that, for everyone’s sake, elites will start to preach what they practice and stop making it seem like just “following your heart” is the best ideal, when it so obviously is not.
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