Hand-wringing is an appropriate response to the state of marriage today.
Tuesday’s New York Times’s Upshot section featured an article by Claire Cain Miller entitled “The Divorce Surge is Over, but the Myth Lives On.” The piece got a good deal of attention, but Miller manages to reinforce some myths of her own.
That’s not to say the piece is wrong in its basic facts. The divorce surge is over. (Or most people believe it is: this paper offers an alternate take.) In truth, the rise in divorce has been over for 20 years. Divorce rates peaked in the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan was president and the Internet was only a mite in the eye of wierdos hanging out in California garages. In fact, this “news” may well be older than many of its readers who were probably not even been born when divorce rates were already on the downswing.
It’s also the case that people remain strangely attached to the idea that half of all marriages end in divorce despite numerous stories over the years showing otherwise. Miller links to one of those stories—from 2005, that is, nine years ago. I myself published a book that took stock of the trends in 2006. Family scholars have talked about the turn-around in divorce rates repeatedly. Yet the myth lives on. If you want proof of that, check out the media reaction to the Times piece: a “fascinating story” in the words of the Clarion Ledger; “surprisingly optimistic numbers,” marveled the Huffintgton Post.
So why has this particular myth been so difficult to extract from the hive mind? Why are people so (ahem) wedded to an idea that is not only untrue but has been for almost a generation? Two reasons. The first will no doubt sound clichéd: Hollywood. In la-la land divorce is about as common as Botox. When beautiful, famous people split up, fan magazines, entertainment networks, and social media sites spring into action, making sure we see albums of photos of crying, stoic, rehabbed, and then newly partnered, actors and actresses claiming they’ve never been happier. Social psychologists refer to a cognitive bias they call the “availability heuristic.” Striking events—plane crashes, Ebola cases, the Kardashians—make the weird seem more commonplace than it is precisely because the brain is so impressed by it. Of course, the availability heuristic gets some help from the television shows and movies these same famous people write, star in, and produce about marital crackups that often bear a striking resemblance to their own.
The second reason the myth lives on is not only more troubling but exemplified by the Times article that seeks to dismantle it. The younger generation, whether they know divorce is declining or not, believes that marriage is on the rocks. From their vantage point, they’re right. While fewer American adults have been divorcing over the past decades, a growing number of people in their own cohort have grown up apart from one parent, almost always their fathers.
How can divorce be declining but at the same time more children growing up with single parents? Because—and this is the story that Miller underplays—so many parents never marry in the first place. A little history is in order here: When divorce rates skyrocketed in the 1970s, American were not simply suddenly looking at their spouses and deciding en masse that they couldn’t take it anymore. They were reacting to a changing understanding about what marriage meant. Instead of an arrangement largely centered around providing for and rearing the next generation, it was becoming an adult-centric union based on love and shared happiness, which as an upper middle class grew in size, became closely linked to granite countered kitchens, European and spa vacations, and weddings with 200 guests.
One big reason that divorce rates began to fall after 1980 was that people, almost always those with less education and less income for the required accouterments of marriage, took the logic of the divorce revolution and ran with it. If marriage and childbearing were no longer tightly linked but rather discreet—even unrelated—life events, and if they were not earning enough to enjoy the middle class status objects enjoyed by their more educated peers, then why marry at all? Why not just have kids without getting married? While college educated women continued to demand a ring before they became mothers, the percentage of poor women having kids outside of marriage was already on the rise; now working class women, many of them temporarily cohabiting with their child’s father, also bypassed the chapel on the way to the maternity ward. In his forthcoming book Labor’s Loves Lost, Andrew Cherlin quotes one young unmarried father this way: “You need way better reasons than having a kid to get married.”
By missing this larger picture, Miller ends up adding single parents—who after all have a null chance of divorce—to good news numbers about marital stability. Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles from the Population Center at the University of Minnesota try to take into account the new reality in a recent paper. Their findings are sobering: “because cohabitation makes up a rapidly growing percentage of all unions,” they write, it has “an increasing impact on overall union instability.” And by accepting that marriage and children are unrelated, she can ignore the biggest problem with this rising instability. Experts have shown us in a virtual library of research papers that the children of single parents are at greater risk of everything from poverty to school failure to imprisonment. Their large numbers will almost surely help perpetuate inequality, poverty, and immobility.
“Despite hand-wringing about the institution of marriage, marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time,” Miller writes. As it happens, hand-wringing is an appropriate response to the state of marriage today.
That is, for anyone concerned about inequality and America’s lower income children.
TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email email@example.com.