Rather than a conservative turn toward family values, I think this represents an improving quality of marriages. When marriage is voluntary – when people really choose to get married instead of simply marching into it under pressure to conform – one hopes they would be making better choices, and the data support that. Further, as marriage has become more rare, it has also become more select. Despite more than a decade of futile marriage promotion efforts by the federal government, marriage is still moving up the income scale. The people getting married today are more privileged than they used to be: more highly educated (both partners), and more stably situated. All that bodes well for the survival of their marriages, but doesn’t help the people left out of the institution. If less divorce just means only perfect couples are getting married, that’s merely another indicator of rising inequality.
Putting this trend back in that long term context, we should also ask whether falling divorce rates – which run counter to the common assumption that everything modern in family life is about the destruction of the nuclear family – are always a good thing. Most people getting married would like to think they’ll stay together for the long haul. But what is the right amount of divorce for a society to have? It seems like an odd question, but divorce really isn’t like crime or child abuse. You want some divorces, because otherwise it means people are stuck in bad marriages. If you have no divorce that means even abusive marriages can’t break up. If you have a moderate amount, it means pretty bad marriages can break up but people don’t treat it lightly. And if you have tons of divorce it means people are just dropping each other willy-nilly. When you put it that way, moderate sounds best. No one has been able to put numbers to those levels, but it’s still good to ask. Even as we shouldn’t assume families are always falling apart more than they used to, we should consider the pros and cons of divorce, rather than insisting more is always worse.
Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes the blog Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.