Affluent, well-educated Americans are enjoying increasingly stable, strong marriages, even as marital happiness is plummeting and the chances of divorce are rising among middle Americans. These are among the startling findings of "When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America," a new study released by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and New York's Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.
The study, edited by W. Bradford Wilcox, brings together the latest findings from "The State Of Our Unions," an annual report produced jointly by the two organizations which monitors the health of "marriage and family life" in the U.S., with a focus on determining the ways "children, race, class, immigration, ethnicity, religion and poverty" shape marriage today. The results--culled from three nationally-representative surveys conducted between 1972 to 2008--paint a bleak picture for most American families. Perhaps the most alarming finding is the tangible shift in key markers of marriage stability among middle Americans, whom the study defines as the 58 percent of the adult population with high school, but not college degrees.
The study found that these adults are more likely to divorce now than they once were. Indeed, middle Americans have a 37 percent chance of divorce or separation within 10 years of first marriage, compared to 36 percent in the 1970s. By contrast, highly educated Americans (those holding a bachelor's degree or higher) are less likely to divorce than before: they have a mere 11 percent chance that their marriages will dissolve--a drop from 15 percent in the '70s. The least educated segment of the population, defined by the study as anyone who doesn't have a high school degree, were also less likely to split from their partners than they were previously, though at 36 percent, the chances of their marriages ending are almost identical to that of Middle Americans.
When it comes to marital satisfaction, the statistics were also alarming: 57 percent of middle Americans reported they were 'very happy' in their marriages, down from 68 percent in the 1970s. Again, the numbers are closer to the lowest socio-economic segment of the population than the highest--52 percent believe themselves to be in happy unions. The highly-educated remained just as satisfied with their marriages as they had been previously--69 percent consider themselves to be happily married.
The study also looked at the segments of the population who believe "Marriage Has Not Worked Out For Most People They Know," and found that 43 percent of moderately-educated and 53 percent of the least-educated people believed this to be true, while only 17 percent of highly-educated people think so.
The study argues that, while moderately-educated people traditionally mimicked the behavior of the upper class, they are now in the midst of a "historic reversal" insofar as they are mirroring the attitudes and actions of the lower class. So what's to blame? According to the study, these new statistics reflect a shift in values, both marriage-related and otherwise. The study measured those values by a diverse set of beliefs, from religious attendance to birth control usage to the number of sex partners they'd had in their lifetime.
The data sparked the conclusion that "the United States is devolving into a separate-and-unequal family regime, where the highly educated and the affluent enjoy strong and stable households and everyone else is consigned to increasingly unstable, unhappy, and unworkable ones."
"The State of Our Unions" attributes the change to an overriding shift in values. Once the most socially conservative part of the country, middle America now appears to be becoming more socially permissive and less marriage-minded. For example, whereas 76 percent of adolescents in highly educated households would be embarrassed to get someone pregnant, only 61 percent of moderately educated people felt the same way, and only 48 percent of the least educated believe that is so. Furthermore, while 81 percent of 14-year-old girls in highly educated households lived with their mother and their father (a number that has jumped by a percentage point since the 1970s), 58 percent did so in middle America--a whopping 16 percent drop from the 74 percent who reported they lived with both parents in the 1970s.
While the most affluent sector of society has held onto marriage as a defining social unit, the study found that the rest of the country is suffering, at least in part because they are having trouble doing so. Marriage--"an institution to which all could once aspire," has become "a private playground of those blessed with abundance."
So why sound the alarm bells over these findings? Because when marriage is at risk, so, too, the study argues, is the very foundation of our society: "Marriage is a core social institution, one that helps to ensure the economic, social and emotional welfare of countless children, women, and men in this nation."