The Striking Contradiction of a Sociologist Under the Spell of Feminism

The Marriage-Go-Round:
The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today
  • Andrew J. Cherlin
  • Knopf, 2009; 271 pages, $25.95

Andrew Cherlin is one of the nation’s most prominent family researchers—author of influential scholarly books and articles, professor at Johns Hopkins, one time president of the Population Association of America, and advisor to the National Institute of Health. In his new book, the social scientist ventures beyond data sets and policy prescriptions into the arena of history and American exceptionalism—with decidedly mixed results.

Marriage-Go-Round grew out of the author’s observation of a striking contradiction in American cultural life. On the one hand, Americans are idealists when it comes to marriage. While residents of Western European countries increasingly describe marriage as “an outdated institution,” Americans continue to cite it as one of their highest aspirations in life. Americans marry at a higher rate than almost anywhere in the Western world, and they do so at a younger age. Elsewhere homosexuals have demanded civil unions that would give them the same legal benefits as married couples; in the United States some of them demand all of that—and even the trappings of a wedding. Like most Americans, they want to get “married.”

Paradoxically, though, Americans since the 1970s have not been very successful at marriage, or for that matter, any sort of permanent union. The U.S. has an out-of-wedlock birthrate that, while lower than Sweden, France, and Britain, is completely at odds with its citizens’ stated marital preferences. By age 30, one third of American women have become lone mothers; half of those achieved that status by age 25, considerably younger than Europeans who have children on their own. By an impressive margin, we have both the highest divorce rate in the world and the shortest waiting period to dissolve a union. After divorce, Americans are more likely to “re-partner”—either through marriage or cohabitation—and to do so even less successfully than the first time around. Cherlin notes that 10 percent of Americans have three or more live-in partners by age 35. The number is miniscule everywhere else except Sweden, which is still only 4.5 percent. This is what the author means by “go-round;” American children are more likely to see parents and step-parents, boyfriends and girlfriends come and go and, as a result, experience more emotional problems, school failure, pre-marital pregnancy, and single parenthood themselves.

Cherlin’s analysis of the causes of the go-round will come as no revelation to those familiar with the literature of American exceptionalism. Americans, he says, are seeped in an ethos of individualism. As perhaps the truest descendents of the Enlightenment and more than their fellow early revolutionaries in France and England, they have always waved the banner of personal freedom. Go-west-young-man wanderlust is in the same spirit as the country’s historically liberal divorce laws; both reflect Americans’ fondness for autonomy and mobility. Cherlin also cites the late-twentieth century evolution from the old fashioned and more civic minded “utilitarian individualism” into what the authors of the landmark Habits of the Heart famously called “expressive individualism.” By making self-development and personal satisfaction the goal of intimate relationships, expressive individualism had a devastatingly corrosive effect on marriage with its institutionalized roles and its inevitable demand for self-sacrifice.

Other institutions in American life added to marriage’s woes. Cherlin shows how judicial decisions of the latter half of the twentieth century echoed and reinforced the nation’s turn towards expressive individualism. By removing the legal distinction between married and unmarried parents and by advancing no-fault divorce, American courts and legislatures embraced individual rights over family coherence. Paradoxical as it might seem, American churches also turned on marriage—or at least sat idly by while the institution started to hemorrhage. It’s become something of a cliché that Americans are exceptional in their religiosity. As Cherlin shows, the cliché is somewhat misleading. The country’s dominant Protestantism has always had a more emotional, personal cast than more ritualistic, Catholic Europe. With the decline of mainline churches and the rise of evangelicalism in the later twentieth century, the penchant for self-expression only increased. Today, Cherlin observes, evangelical churches, which tend to be rather blasé about divorce, are more enablers than enemies of marital breakdown.

Cherlin is surely correct about all of this; marriage suffered a thousand cuts from cultural changes, from divorce-friendly churches, and liberalized family law. But he neglects to mention the significant role played by his own profession in the marriage meltdown. Through court amicus briefs, policy recommendations, background phone calls with journalists and the like, sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists helped to fuel the decline of stable family life.

In fact, even as Cherlin acknowledges the great damage done to children as a result of family instability, his book demonstrates the academic biases that have helped to bring this on. His history is infused with the notion that the historical American embrace of marriage—“simply put, marriage matters more here, and it always has”—was both puritanical and deeply hostile to women. In contrast to the British and French, Americans were unusually “belligerent” about “the primacy of the monogamous, life long marriage, with the husband as its head,” or what he sometimes calls “Christian marriage.” Legitimacy laws, the doctrine of coverture—a husband’s full legal charge of the family—the fight against polygamy, and conflicts over birth control: all of these suggest to him that (religious) Americans were patriarchal in a way that (enlightened) Europeans were not.

But this narrative is tone deaf to both the hidebound nature of the ancien régime as well as to the radical aspirations of the American experiment. Yes, Americans adopted the principle of coverture, though they were following European—specifically English—common law. Yes, Americans fussed over marriage. The reasons were twofold. First, the founders were inventing a polity from scratch; that they ponder the conditions their new country should create for raising future generations was inevitable and necessary. Contra Cherlin, they consciously tried to leave behind the old world model with its authoritarian fathers and arranged unions and to design a more democratic arrangement that would reflect their ideals of self-government. As the historian Jay Fleigelman has observed, the consensual, affectionate marital union prized by Americans (e.g., John and Abigail) was in keeping with the revolutionary ethos. This wasn’t just talk. During his travels here in the early-nineteenth century, Tocqueville was struck by “species of equality [that] prevails around the domestic hearth.”

As a multi-cultural society, America was also faced with the task of creating cultural coherence among competing ideals, a struggle unknown in old, mono-cultural European countries. It is true that the founders mistrusted “multiple marriage” which was widely practiced outside of Europe. They believed it promulgated precisely the sort of inequality and corruption they wanted to transcend. No doubt, many Americans had less rational reasons when Congress had its standoff with Utah in the mid-nineteenth century. For Cherlin, however, the Utah episode represents America’s “longest-running morality play.” Americans saw polygamy as “an affront to Christian marriage,” he writes. But European countries—which the author fails to concede were also staunchly monogamous and Christian—never had to bother with polygamy one way or another. With today’s high levels of Muslim immigration in Europe, however, what in Cherlin’s worldview should not happen may well become a reality: a post-Christian “morality play.”

Cherlin’s allegiance to familiar feminist nostrums does not simply make for dubious history. It betrays a lack of curiosity about the human predicament to which marriage has been the universal answer. Among other social goods, marriage has been the means of clarifying the ambiguity of paternity and of insuring each child a father. For these reasons, many undeveloped and all developed societies had legitimacy laws making a woman’s husband the presumed father of her children. Indeed, the founders must have recognized that these laws had been successful abroad: in the early-eighteenth century only about 2 or 3 percent of births in Europe were to unmarried women. Although the numbers began to rise as industrialization brought larger populations to cities, they remained a tiny fraction of the nearly 40 percent of U.S. births to unwed mothers today. Such fundamentals are entirely lost on Cherlin who believes legitimacy laws were another sign of the subjugation of American women; a man’s “control could be threatened if another man claimed to be a child’s father,” he observes.

These criticisms of Marriage-Go-Round are not simply matters of obscure scholarly dispute. Cherlin’s policy conclusions are an extension of both his distaste for marriage “moralism” and his thin grasp of marriage as a social institution. To give children more stability, he argues, Americans should tone down our marriage promotion policies and instead encourage people to “slow down” in taking on new partners. Public policies might, for instance, give single mothers public money so they’ll be less inclined to take a new boyfriend or marry an unsuitable husband just to increase their income. One can only sigh. Reviving more generous welfare payments and telling parents and prospective parents to slow down will do nothing to increase the number of children growing up with their fathers. Unsurprisingly, though Cherlin has a lot to say about “relationships,” he has almost nothing to say about fathers.

Cherlin is right that Americans now see marriage as a “private relationship centered on the needs of adults for love and companionship.” But as he also observes, they believe nonetheless that marriage should be permanent and that children are better off growing up with their married mothers and fathers. Americans may not be doing a very good job of living up to these aspirations, but marriage—not “slow down”—is still the only term for the enduring, stable unions they have.

Mrs. Hymowitz, a contributing editor of City Journal, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her most recent book is Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age (Ivan Dee, 2006).