Divorce down, marriage down, telling a full story

Recent sociological work highlights how looking past the initial findings – divorce rates are down in America – reveals a more complicated reality:

In the past 10 years, the percentage of American marriages that end in divorce has fallen, and in a new paper, the University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen quantified the drop-off: Between 2008 and 2016, the divorce rate declined by 18 percent overall…

The point he was making was that people with college degrees are now more likely to get married than those who have no more than a high-school education. And the key to understanding the declining divorce rate, Cherlin says, is that it is “going down some for everybody,” but “the decline has been steepest for the college graduates.”

The reason that’s the case is that college graduates tend to wait longer to get married as they focus on their career. And they tend to have the financial independence to postpone marriage until they’re more confident it will work. This has translated to lower rates of divorce: “If you’re older, you’re more mature … you probably have a better job, and those things make it less likely that you’ll get into arguments with your spouse,” Cherlin says…

Chen connects this trend to the decline of well-paying jobs for those without college degrees, which, he argues, makes it harder to form more stable relationships. Indeed, Cohen writes in his paper that marriage is “an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality.” The state of it today is both a reflection of the opportunities unlocked by a college degree and a force that, by allowing couples to pool their incomes, itself widens economic gaps.

It would be interesting to see how many of those who might celebrate the finding that divorce rates are going down also discuss the reasons linked to financial stability, education levels, and inequality.

Take more conservative Christian churches as a possible example. Evangelical Protestants are often proudly in favor of marriage (between a man and a woman). They work hard to provide programs for families as well as classes and sermons about marriage and family life. They would generally be opposed to divorce or at least view it as less than ideal. But, having conversations about how marriage is less attainable for some Americans or the evolving idea that one needs to be financially independent before marrying might be less common. How often do topics of social class and inequality come up from the front in many congregations? Or, discussions could turn to why Americans do not make correct individual choices rather than focusing on social pressures and structures (financial independence, it is more acceptable to cohabit) that influence all Americans (including conservative Christians). Ultimately, the findings may not be that good for evangelicals: divorce is down because Americans are getting married less and cohabiting more. If they want to encourage more marriage, they would have to respond to these larger social forces at work.

Marriage among education equals most common but more women marrying down educationally than men

A new sociological study highlights a large social shift regarding marriage and education over recent decades:

The study, in the August issue of the American Sociological Review, looks at marriages formed between 1950 and 2004. It finds that marriages between educational equals have remained most common, but that when there is a difference, women are increasingly likely to have the educational edge.

In about half of marriages begun in the early 2000s, spouses had roughly equal educations. In nearly 30%, the wife had more and in about 20%, the husband had more — a reversal of the pattern seen in the 1950s through at least the late 1970s.

In those earlier eras, marriages in which wives were more educated were less likely to last. Researchers have theorized that was partly because less-educated men felt threatened by their wives’ successes. It’s also possible that those couples were especially non-traditional types more prone to divorce for all sorts of reasons.

But such couples married since the 1990s have had no higher divorce rates than other couples, the new study shows. They may even be less likely to divorce than couples in which men are more educated. The data is not clear on that point, researchers say.

Still a clear preference for equal education levels but a shift from men marrying down to women marrying down. From a supply and demand standpoint, this makes sense given the gains of women in education in recent decades.

While the numbers tell us something, it would also be interesting to see people’s perceptions about this. If women have more education than marrying, does this still come with more social pressures or expectations compared to the reverse?

Sorting out the statistics about Christians and divorce

BeliefNet.com has a useful summary of a recent discussion that includes sociologists: do Christians divorce as frequently as other Americans?

1. Data from The Barna Group suggests that born-again Christians divorce at a similar rate as the general population. This seems to be tied to Barna’s particular definitions:

Barna’s statistics are tied to its highly specific — and controversial — definitions of born-again Christians and evangelicals.

For instance, Barna labels Christians “born-again” if they have made a personal commitment to Jesus and believe they will go to heaven because they have accepted him as their savior.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, are those who fit the born-again definition but also meet seven other conditions, including sharing their beliefs with non-Christians and agreeing that the Bible is completely accurate.

With these stricter definitions, Barna can claim that Christians and other divorce at similar rates.

2. Several sociologists, including Bradley Wright and Brad Wilcox, suggest there is a different story regarding Christians and divorce. Wright, for example, looked at General Social Survey data and found that higher rates of church attendance were related to lower rates of divorce:

Wright combed through the General Social Survey, a vast demographic study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, and found that Christians, like adherents of other religions, have a divorce rate of about 42 percent. The rate among religiously unaffiliated Americans is 50 percent.

When Wright examined the statistics on evangelicals, he found worship attendance has a big influence on the numbers. Six in 10 evangelicals who never attend had been divorced or separated, compared to just 38 percent of weekly attendees.

Wilcox came to some similar conclusions based on another data source:

“You do hear, both in Christian and non-Christian circles, that Christians are no different from anyone else when it comes to divorce and that is not true if you are focusing on Christians who are regular church attendees,” he said.

Wilcox’s analysis of the National Survey of Families and Households has found that Americans who attend religious services several times a month were about 35 percent less likely to divorce than those with no religious affiliation.

Nominal conservative Protestants, on the other hand, were 20 percent more likely to divorce than the religiously unaffiliated.

If Wright and Wilcox are correct, it is less about whether one calls themselves a Christian or meets a theological definition of being a Christian and more about the Christian actions that they undertake. If we take church attendance as some measure of spiritual commitment or beliefs, then it appears that going to church more is tied to getting divorced less.

Another part of this debate seems to be about how to define people as Evangelicals. Barna has a particular method as do others. One standard in the field of sociology of religion is to use RELTRAD, which accounts for both “doctrine and historical changes in religious groups.”

(I explained Wright’s argument in class recently and was asked if we could take Wright’s claims about church attendance as a causal argument: does going to church lead to less divorce? Or is it that people who divorce less feel more comfortable about going to church while those who are already divorced feel less comfortable in church and therefore go less? I’m guessing someone has answered this question.)

Whether Facebook increases the number of divorces

You might have seen certain figures bandied about how often Facebook is cited in divorce cases: this story says, “Two-thirds of the lawyers surveyed said that Facebook was the “primary source” of evidence in divorce proceedings.” But is it fair to then say that Facebook is a primary driver of divorce proceedings? Carl Bialik says the numbers are more complicated than many news stories would lead you to believe:

Some lawyers do say that they see Facebook playing a bigger role in divorce these days, that doesn’t mean the site destroys marriages…

“Correlation is not causation,” Thomas Bradbury, professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in an email. “Divorce has been around for a long time, long before these sorts of possibilities were present; the newly available information does add a new flavor to relationship maintenance and dissolution, but I don’t think it changes the basic processes that underlie change and deterioration in relationships.”…

These issues are symptoms of a larger issue in divorce research: “It’s very hard to separate out the causes” of divorce, says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and divorce researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

“To do this kind of research requires a huge amount of persistence,” said George Levinger, professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Massachusetts.

Part of the reason is that it is hard to pinpoint a single reason or even a set of reasons for any marital split…

Some researchers have asked divorcees why they divorced, and gotten conflicting results from men and women. Others have looked for factors that predict whether couples divorce. “There are many social, cultural, and behavioral predictors of divorce,” W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, wrote in an email.

Other academics examine couples’ behavior, seeking clues that might predict marital dissolution.

It sounds like this a more complicated methodological issue that still needs to be worked out by researchers: how exactly can one identify the primary cause or causes of divorce? Just because Facebook is mentioned as contributing to a divorce does not mean that it causes the divorce. As you might expect, Facebook itself says this argument is silly:

A spokesperson for Facebook said: “It’s ridiculous to suggest that Facebook leads to divorce. Whether you’re breaking up or just getting together, Facebook is just a way to communicate, like letters, phone calls and emails. Facebook doesn’t cause divorces, people do.”

It is no surprise that lawyers would want to use Facebook data for a divorce case (or other types of cases such as fraud – one example here). Facebook is often fairly public information and people often post on there without thinking about the potential consequences of sharing such information. It would be interesting to hear more about how this data from Facebook is presented in court and the reactions to it from both judges and the participants in the case.

But I wonder if these sorts of figures and ideas about Facebook and divorce have gained notoriety because they may fit some larger narratives about privacy and information sharing on Facebook as well as voyeurism on the Internet. These figures from lawyers could be presented as evidence that people lead dual lives, one in the offline world and another one in the real world. Whether this is actually the case doesn’t matter as much; what does is that the hot company of recent years, Facebook, can be linked to negative behavior.

Defending the actions of “not quite adults”

In recent years, there has been a lot of research and conversation about the actions of 20-something adults who have moved back home in greater numbers and are waiting longer to marry and pursue careers. Are these 20-somethings lazy, prudent, or are they simply responding to a tougher world? While much of this conversation is negative, a sociologist talks about why he would defend the choices of these “not quite adults”:

Q: How do young people today compare with the past?

A: As we evaluate young people today, it’s like we’ve got the wrong benchmark. That kind of quick start to adulthood that so many generations have in their heads — all that grows out of the postwar period. (But) that’s the anomaly. It was a time when people were quick to leave home. They were also quick to marry. Why? It’s because economic opportunities were ample and social conventions really encouraged it. It was expected and also possible. But if you look further back, you’d see that a lot of the patterns today — with young people in a period of semi-autonomy— was also true of the decades before World War II.

Q: What worries you most about the future?

A: There’s so many negative portrayals of young people, and there are so many worries about why young people are taking their time. My bigger worry is we don’t want to push kids out of the gate before they’re ready. A quick marriage is clearly more likely to end in divorce and involve kids. That’s not good. Quick parenting? It makes it difficult to attain your education and to work full time and build skills and experiences that would help you over the long haul. That’s not good. A quick departure from home means you have fewer resources to invest in your future. Early departures from home are much more likely to result in poverty. That’s not good.

Q: Back to the main idea here. Why is it that today’s young adults have such a bad rap?

A: Maybe it’s just that each generation comes of age in its own time and what is true of one can’t easily be applied to the next. It seems like a timeless theme in history that older generations look down and think the younger one screwed up. What really matters and what we hope to show in this book is just how different the world is they’re trying to navigate, and it’s not just about personal choices. It’s about these big forces that have changed the very landscape of life. We have to not just point fingers at young people but also look at the things they’re doing right and see what we can learn from them.

An interesting perspective as this sociologist argues that this is really a debate about cultural perceptions and values. Within the American context, this idea of autonomy that arose after World War II is particularly interesting. It contributed to these ideas about leaving the house and quickly starting an adult life as well as led many to move to suburbs where they felt they could control more of their own destinies.

This leads to a broader question. What leads to better social outcomes for those in their twenties: to stay at home longer and take advantage of existing social networks or to strike out on their own at an earlier age? This researcher suggests several ways these actions improve the life changes of 20-somethings in several ways: lowers divorce rates, limits the likelihood of living in poverty, and increases the opportunity that those in this group can obtain a worthwhile education.  But I haven’t seen any research looks at data that would allow us compare people who follow these two different routes.

Facebook makes divorce cases easier

Facebook doesn’t just connect friends – it also apparently makes divorce cases easier for many lawyers. According to the Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers:

81 percent of its members have used or faced evidence plucked from Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networking sites, including YouTube and LinkedIn, over the last five years.

The article contains some interesting examples of participants saying one thing in court or to lawyers and then displaying something completely different in the online realm. It is a reminder that the online world is hardly private.