Divorce Is So Out Of StyleS

Divorce is down among affluent and educated adults, and The Times implies it's because that demographic is so obsessed with being perfect and together that they refuse to admit failure. Oh really?

The story, which was published in the Styles section, has elements that are both persuasive and incomplete. Let's start with persuasive!

There are the numbers showing that though divorce has been on the decline for decades, that's particularly true for the college-educated:

According to a 2010 study by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, only 11 percent of college-educated Americans divorce within the first 10 years today, compared with almost 37 percent for the rest of the population.

...[A]mong college-educated couples who married in the mid-1990s, the likelihood of divorcing in the first 10 years of marriage fell 27 percent compared with college-educated couples who married in the 1970s.

So let's be clear, and the story is pretty upfront about this: when the Styles section refers to "this cross section of American families," they mean educated, liberal, upper-middle-class-ish people, many though not all white, who buy things from their advertisers (or would like to), and who live in the same neighborhoods or went to college with their editors and writers. And they mean parents, and apparently all of these parents — at least the ones quoted in the piece — are women, as an editor at the New York Observer, Foster Kamer, pointed out. (All of the men quoted in the piece are in their professional capacity as professors or authors).

This is the demographic that is most likely to write the "divorce memoir" that is mentioned several times throughout the piece, and the one for whom divorce might entail personal destabilization and economic sacrifices, but not render them destitute. The greatest cost that's suggested in the piece is that people might think you failed at the perfect bobo life, which is apparently now synonymous with an intact marriage and at least one child.

Says Stephanie Dolgoff, who is separated, "In the 1970s, when a woman got divorced, she was seen as taking back her life in that Me Decade way. Nowadays, it's not seen as liberating to divorce. It's scary." And former Redbook editor in chief Stacy Morrison: "The notion of divorce has become one of failure again. It used to be, ‘You're free, rock on!' Now it's, ‘You couldn't make it work, you failed.'"

(Still, despite these social consequences, the divorced mothers in the piece are also apparently are having a wild and crazy time doing yoga and dating.)

Oddly, the piece underplays a major set of reasons why divorce might be so rare in this cohort: They chose marriage, and they chose it later. There is at least the acknowledgment that women are more economically independent now, as opposed to earlier generations: "Many of these marriages in the '70s were fundamentally unequal. With the women's movements, they learned that there were alternatives, and that made divorce kind of a liberation."

But it isn't just that these marriages are based on at least an ideal of partnership; it's that they're chosen among a set of family options that exist on an acceptable spectrum and have been normalized (including the ones invisible in the piece, i.e., anything not strictly heterosexual). Marriage may be more socially acceptable, but it's not obligatory. And this group of people is likelier to choose that option later in life, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data, which in turn has an impact on the divorce rate:

A state's education levels, for example, tend to be associated with the median age at marriage and the multiple-marriage patterns of its residents. In states with high shares of college-educated adults, men and women marry at older ages, a finding supported by other research indicating that highly educated individuals marry later in life. In states with low shares of college-educated adults, adults are more likely than average to marry three or more times. In states with low income levels, men are more likely than average to have been married three or more times.... There was a strong correlation, however, between young age at first marriage for women and a high divorce rate for women within the previous 12 months.

Of course, even under those optimal conditions — the comforts of class and education, the relative lack of social coercion and gender inequality — people change, people hurt each other, shit happens. It's crucial, of course, not to make that any harder with the stigma of "failure," however present that is, since those comforts were earned in part by the ruptures and chaos and liberation that came before.

How Divorce Lost Its Cachet [NYT]