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Marriage Breakdown: Expensive and Divisive

9/11/2007 - 7:00 AM PST

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Report Shows Big Downside to Family Disintegration


By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, SEPT. 11, 2007 (Zenit) - Marriage continues to decline in the United States, bringing with it numerous adverse consequences for individuals, and society in general. This is one of the main conclusions of a recent study.

The National Marriage Report released its annual publication "The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America 2007" this summer. The center is based at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

The authors of the study are two academics well-known for their writings on family and marriage issues: David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. They found that from 1970 to 2005 there was a decline of nearly 50% in the annual number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried adult women.

A significant proportion of this drop was simply due to delaying marriage until an older age. Nevertheless, more people simply don't marry or are unmarried, due to cohabitation and a decrease in the numbers of divorced people to remarry.

The report cites estimates that about a quarter of unmarried women 25-39 are currently living with a partner, and an additional quarter have lived with a partner at some time in the past. As well, over half of all first marriages are now preceded by living together, compared with virtually none 50 years ago.

Cohabitation is more common among those of lower educational and income levels, as well as those who are less religious than their peers.

Myths

The report also rebuts a couple of myths often used by anti-family forces. The first myth is that living together before marriage is useful in order to find out whether the couple can get along, thereby avoiding a bad marriage and an eventual divorce. This is not borne out by the facts, the report observes.

"In fact, a substantial body of evidence indicates that those who live together before marriage are more likely to break up after marriage," the report comments.

The report admits that there are diverse opinions over how the data can be interpreted, but at a minimum the authors conclude: "What can be said for certain is that no evidence has yet been found that those who cohabit before marriage have stronger marriages than those who do not."

The second myth refuted by the report is the affirmation that even though fewer are marrying, those who marry have higher quality marriages. Not so, reply Popenoe and Whitehead, noting that "the best available evidence on the topic" shows a decline over the last 25 years in the number of both men and women who affirm their marriages are "very happy."

Education's role

The report also reveals a growing social divide when it comes to marriage. Among those who have received a university education the institution of marriage has strengthened in the last couple of decades. College-educated women now marry at a higher rate compared with the rest of the population, and they are also less favorably inclined toward divorce than less educated women.

In addition, among those who delay marriage past age 30, college-educated women are the only ones more likely to have children after marriage rather than before.

There is, thus, a growing "marriage gap" in America, notes the report, between those who are well educated and those who are not.

In fact, for those without a university education, "the marriage situation remains gloomy," according to the report. This is due to a combination of a continuing decline in marriage rates and a growing percentage of out-of-wedlock births. By the year 2000, fully 40% of high school drop-out mothers were living without husbands, compared with just 12% of college-graduate mothers, states the report.

Since hitting a high point in the early 1980s, divorce has moderately declined. Overall, the lifetime probability of a first marriage ending in divorce or separation remains between 40% and 50%. The risk of divorce, however, varies quite notably. The chances of divorce are much higher for those who are poor, people who are high-school drop outs, and couples who marry as teenagers. Couples who have a family background of divorce, as well as those who have no religious affiliation, are also more likely to divorce.

Bottom line

In addition to the personal consequences, the breakdown in marriage and family life over the last few decades has had a severe economic impact. A section of the report looks at the economic benefits of marriage for society.

"Married couples create more economic assets on average than do otherwise similar singles or cohabiting couples," argues the report. Married couples live more frugally, as opposed to two adults living as singles, and they also save and invest more for the future. Men also tend to become more economically productive ...

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