Feminism, Cohabitation And How Marriage Was Brought Back From The Brink

CREDIT: Screenshot, NBC

This marriage has *everything.*

Marriage is dead, long live marriage: despite the oft-cited statistic that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, the divorce rate has been dropping since its peak, which came in 1979-1981. Of couples that wed in the 1990s, 70 percent are still hitched. Couples who married in the 2000s have even lower divorce rates—though, to be fair, they’ve had less time to split up—and, as Claire Cain Miller writes in The Upshot, “If current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce.”

That bit of intel comes from Justin Wolfers’s data. Wolfers, an economist at the University of Michigan, talked with me by phone about how it is all these newer knots aren’t coming untied. I proposed a semi-founded thesis: though marriage is, almost by definition, a “traditional” institution, it’s marriages that adopt progressive attitudes, in keeping with our relatively progressive times, that can make it in the long haul.

Wolfers wanted to start with some context. “I think the institution of marriage is completely changed,” he said. “So, traditional marriage made sense for the period in which it was popular: it was an appropriate adaptation for a world in which it made sense for mom to stay home and dad to go to work. Some of those reasons were purely technological: domestic life was complicated, and there were real returns to specialization.” Nowadays, with our newfangled washing machines (really!), our TJs for clothing and food (T.J. Maxx and Trader Joe’s, respectively), even our cleaning supplies (as Wolfers said, “Mom used to vacuum, and now we have a roomba“) domestic chores are so simple that just about anyone could do them. Even a man! “Traditional marriage was worth it for both parties because having those separate roles means both parties were better off together than they were apart,” Wolfers said.

Traditional marriage doesn't look too shabby.

A perfectly normal example of a traditional marriage.


But some of the most seismic changes were progressive in nature; namely, women’s equality. “One of the most important [factors] is reduced discrimination against women,” he said. “In the old days, when there was a lot more discrimination against women and explicitly against married women. When you had to choose who would go to work, you’d never choose the woman, because she’d make a lower wage.” Good thing we don’t have that problem anymore!

Anyway, “The other progressive institutions that are certainly important: women getting access to the pill; access to abortion, meaning my partner’s career is a much better bet, because she won’t be interrupted by an unwanted or unexpected pregnancy; the increasing education of women. All those have meant the traditional model of marriage wasn’t delivering many benefits for people.”

“One prediction from what I said is: marriage is going to die,” said Wolfers. A person could look at all that data and determine the whole kit and caboodle of the thing is obsolete. “But what’s happened instead is that it’s become a fundamentally different institution. It’s about shared purpose and shared goals, rather than about shared productivity.”

What does that mean for the divorce rate? To simplify things: your grandparents, who met, wed, and lived under the old model of marriage probably stayed together forever. There was no bait-and-switch: marriage was exactly what they signed up for. It’s that middle generation—couples who got married before spousal work became “market mediated transactions” (e.g. a trip to the grocery store, throw the load of clothes in the dryer) and before the women’s rights movement—that divorced at the highest rates.

“Think about my mother’s generation,” said Wolfers. “My mother grew up thinking she’d live in the same sort of world as my grandmother, so she looked for the right partner for that world. She looked for someone with whom she could specialize in different roles. The world changed. My mother had a lot more opportunities than she ever anticipated. And the family on the whole, they didn’t see the point of having a domestic specialist anymore. So suddenly she’s partnered with the wrong guy for the world she lives in. So think about what the implications for the divorce rate is going to be. People will realize they’re in the wrong marriage, and divorce rates will rise. The next generation will marry the right person for the time in which they live and the divorce rate will drop.”

Which is exactly what happened. The Pinterest-y pictures on your Facebook feed don’t lie: your friends are getting married, albeit later in life (more on that in a bit) and will be posting #TBT pictures of their wedding for as long as they both shall live. There are two main reasons people, aside from those mentioned above, that tend to grab onto when explain why modern marriages are less likely to end in divorce: the rising age of first marriage, and the increased acceptance and popularity of cohabitation before marriage.

According to Wolfers, only the former is a really solid data point. “I do think the rising age of marriage is a very powerful part of why the divorce rate is declining,” he said. “Just for introspection: how well did you know yourself at age 21? Think about how much better you know yourself at age 31. It seems to me that the rising age of first marriage will continue to be associated with lower rates of divorce.” Why, then, is there still so much apparent pressure to be partnered off and “have it all,” even if we know waiting to wed is a smarter call? Aside from the obvious—biology, babies—there’s the “purely microeconomic” reason: “If everyone else in your circle of friends is going to be paired off by age 28, if you hit 29, all the good ones are going to be taken.” The economic term for this arms race, emotional or otherwise, is “a search externality.” Definitely bring it up at your next dinner party if you want to stress out some singles.

As for cohabitation, that’s a slipperier statistic. “If what you’re interested in is the number of divorces, then cohabitation is a good thing. It’s much easier to separate before you get married. The truth is that social science knows very little about cohabitation. But if there’s a bunch of people who cohabitate and break-up before they got married, that’s not a number in the reduction of breakups, just in the number of divorces… Social conservatives are worried about some decline in social mores and norms, which could easily be very important: moving from a world where you’re expected to only sleep with one person your whole life to a very new world. I think the cohabitation story is somewhat more complicated than just saying: this is definitely good.”

Cohabitation, marrying later in life: it worked for Liz and Criss!

Cohabitation and a later age marriage: it worked for Liz and Criss!


There is demographic divide to consider when discussing lower divorce rates: the wealthier and the well-educated are experiencing high marriage rates and low divorce rates, whereas in poor and undereducated populations, the opposite is true. “There are two sets of answers here,” said Wolfers. “One is, the modern model of marriage, which is based on ‘how do we spend all this time and money that we have together?’, is one that offers a lot to those who have time and money. Marriage today is not about getting food prepared in the most efficient way; it’s, ‘who do you want to see a movie with?’ So I do think it seems reasonable to believe that the modern model does seem more attractive to those with time and money.

“The second is how different groups have reacted to the way the world has changed. And there are much more traditional gender roles among working class marriages. The same forces that are preventing the construction worker who got laid off from becoming a home health care aide, where there’s plenty of jobs, are also probably preventing him from adapting to new family lives, where men and women can form a life together.”

In that case, Wolfers said, women have even less of an incentive to stay in a marriage. “When you go into very poor neighborhoods, very poor men are doing very badly. So one of the stories you see are, working class women are saying, ‘Why do I need one more mouth to feed?’… They could still make it a good deal by making it about the man being really good about doing the dishes every night, [but] they’re not adapting that way.”

If the data is so obvious, though, why is that narrative—“50 percent of marriages end in divorce, the American family is falling apart!”—so sticky? What’s so compelling about the doomsday story?

“With any social change, there are winners and losers,” said Wolfers. “There are obviously some groups who don’t like it… Marriage has adapted as the world has changed. So when someone says they want traditional marriage, does that mean they want traditional marriage in a modern society or do they want traditional marriage in a traditional society? I don’t think it makes any sense to mourn the changing nature of marriage given the world that we’re in. Given the opportunities that women face, of course they want a life beyond the home.”

So that contingent mourning the “decline” of marriage isn’t about modern marriage at all; they’re just using marriage as a proxy for something else? The decline of a time in which women stayed home and men did their Don Draper thing? “I think that’s right,” said Wolfers. “Marriage has adapted to the changing world, so in some cases, what they don’t like is the fact that the world changed.”

“The other thing related to your thesis of progressive values is, I think a lot of this explains the push for gay marriage,” Wolfers said. “It’s quite notable that gay and lesbian community did not push marriage rights for many decades. That’s because it was an institution that didn’t offer them much… But if you think of marriage today as the soulmate model, and shared interests and passions with equals, that’s very much a model that you can imagine would be attractive to gays and lesbians. So the shifting nature of marriage explains why gays have only recently spent political capital going after equal marriage rights… and that explains why my straight friends are not at all threatened by the idea of gay marriage. It’s not a threat to marriage as they understand it; it’s just an extension of it. The changing nature of straight marriage set the table for the demand and widespread acceptance of gay marriage.”