Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Will This Marriage Last? - Is Divorce a Cultural Thing?

From Po:

Would you say we have "a culture of divorce"?

Meaning, somehow divorce gets into the culture and then becomes a culturally acceptable decision such that divorce becomes a likelier option from then on?

There's no doubt a lot of truth to it, but it's tempting to see this "culture of divorce" and to miss other factors also driving people apart.

For instance, consider this. Why would it be that in the United States, divorce happens more in the south than in the north, and more in the west than the east?

One theory is cultural. The state to the farthwest west and farthest south is California. Californians practically invented divorce culture with their "no fault" laws. So the culture has spread eastward and northward from there, on the wings of movies and television.

But the sociologists don't see it that way.

Families have continued to move to the south and to the west over the last thirty years. Towards open land and sunshine and retirement centers, away from the rust belt and high energy costs. When a family moves, it often abandons its support network and extended family. That can be lonely. It can cause stress. It can trigger change in a spouse, who finds a new life in a new land. And when the couple verges on breakup, the support network is not there to push the couple back together.

So as the populations of California and Florida and Arizona and Georgia have exploded, the divorce rate has ticked higher.

Q. Is that same factor responsible for why your odds of divorce are higher if you are a city mouse, rather than a country mouse?

People in urban centers get divorced more. It could be cultural - outside the cities, people just might frown more on divorce. And it could also be temptation - there's lots more of it in cities. More random people to run into, more interactions, more chances that one of those people will tempt you away from marriage. But it's also possible that people in cities often live without the same degree of support network. In a city, you could go all day running errands, and never bump into anyone you know by name.

Now lets consider race. Race has both a cultural element and an economic element. The people with the lowest odds of divorce - out of all the factors we've studied - are Asian Americans. A typical Asian couple in America has a 77% chance of being together on their 15th wedding anniversary, and almost all of those will stay married after that. That's a 20% improvement over the average.

A full 32 percentage points behind Asians are African Americans. Now this one is really tricky. Is it cultural, or is it that so many African-Americans have other risk factors - such as living in poverty, being less educated, getting married younger, and being more likely to have had children prior to marriage? One team of sociologists attempted to sift the data and determine whether it was these risk factors, or whether it was cultural. They concluded that these risk factors accounted for no more than half of the increase in divorce. The other half must be something else - i.e., cultural.

But Ashley and I weren't happy with this study. It seemed to control more for the socio than the economic. And one statistic really jumped out at us, from the landmark 2002 study that is every sociologist's baseline. Here it is:
  • 69% - the odds a white woman will still be married to her husband 15 years later, if they earn $50K or more as a family
  • 72% - the odds a black woman will still be married to her husband 15 years later, if they earn $50K or more as a family
In other words, moderately well-off African Americans divorce slightly less than their white counterparts.

Thus, poverty and its posse of stressors must be the main factor behind the appearance that African Americans divorce more.

Lastly, consider home-ownership. Couples that own homes divorce less than couples who rent - even when the statistics are controlled for income. This is true even though homeowning couples aren't any happier with their marriage than couples who rent.

There's two elements to this. First, owning a home is a roadblock to divorce, because houses are complicated to split in two. Often the couple has to sell the house, since neither spouse can buy the other out.

But the second element is the one the sociologists believe really matters. Owning a home means a couple has a neighborhood, and very likely ties to a community. They're more likely to have long-standing friends and a church and a school where they know all the teachers by name. There's a commitment to a place implied in owning a home. There's a permanence to their life that also governs their marriage.

So you could easily look at all this data and make the wrong conclusion: "Marry a homeowning Asian in Maine."

But that's not really the point. If you look at it carefully, you see that income and culture do matter, but your support network probably matters even more. So before you move your family out to Phoenix for a new job and some sunshine, think twice. And if you are a young couple in a big city, don't fail to build a permanent network of friends. Join a community. Get to know people's names. And stick with them.


Anonymous K.G. Schneider said...

One angle I'd like you to consider or discuss is the role of a faith community in keeping a family glued together. If a family moves to Phoenix, does it make a difference if they join a church, temple, or mosque? Based on what you're saying, I'd say yes. Full disclosure: my partner is a UCC pastor and I'm a church-goer myself.

8:52 PM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

Hi, K:

Thanks for the post!

As a matter of fact, I've got one more paper I want to read before I get there, but I'm going to tackle religion's impact on marital stability over the weekend.

That's a tad narrower than the family as a whole, but I think it's a start. (And, fyi, both Po and I really want to work on religion and family in other contexts as well.)

8:56 AM  
Blogger 'noods said...

I think that the connection between community and marriage is definately strong. Like you mentioned, divorce tends to be frowned upon in a community setting that may also include extended families, pushing unhappy couples to remain together for that pressure alone.

12:54 PM  

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