Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Divorce Doesn't Make One a Failure

Divorce doesn’t make one a failure

Washington Post

While I’m away, readers give the advice
On failure, shame and selfhood:

A letter-writer who was first in the family to divorce, saying, “I feel like a failure,” struck a chord with me. My favorite quote (and philosophy) is from “The Wizard of Oz”:

Dorothy: “Oh – you’re a very bad man!”

Wizard: “Oh, no, my dear. I – I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad Wizard.”

Everything is relative. Everyone is usually a success at being what he is – and often fails miserably at being what he’s not, from students at the wrong college with the wrong major to gay men trying to fit into a straight lifestyle.

As for being the first to divorce, I wonder how many weren’t, but wanted to be – and should have been.

– Arizona

On a kiss that’s just a kiss:

Our first kiss was chaste, but I was very aware that I wasn’t enjoying it. I just let it happen, feeling strangely disengaged.

He was a good man and I thought I was being kind, even generous.

Subconsciously, I think I felt that way on my wedding day, too.

Thirty years and four children later, I am much wiser. I thought I was being selfless, but I was robbing him.

I am still with that good man, that good, deserving man who, because of my “generosity,” will never know what it is to feel loved by a woman truly attracted to him.

I ultimately did find myself feeling a profound connection with another man. I didn’t act on it, but it made me realize for the first time what I might have had with someone else. I felt a real sense of loss, even more for my husband than for myself.

We should all take our time in relationships and give ourselves permission to feel what we feel without judgment. We owe it not just to ourselves, but to those who believe we might be right for them.

– Anonymous (E.)

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Divorce Rates Are Falling - But Marriage Is Still on the Rocks

Divorce Rates Are Falling—But Marriage Is Still on the Rocks

Studio shot of bride and groom figurines
Antonio M. Rosario—Getty Images
Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She is the author of four books, including Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age and Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Is Turning Men Into Boys.

Hand-wringing is an appropriate response to the state of marriage today.

Tuesday’s New York Times’s Upshot section featured an article by Claire Cain Miller entitled “The Divorce Surge is Over, but the Myth Lives On.” The piece got a good deal of attention, but Miller manages to reinforce some myths of her own.
That’s not to say the piece is wrong in its basic facts. The divorce surge is over. (Or most people believe it is: this paper offers an alternate take.) In truth, the rise in divorce has been over for 20 years. Divorce rates peaked in the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan was president and the Internet was only a mite in the eye of wierdos hanging out in California garages. In fact, this “news” may well be older than many of its readers who were probably not even been born when divorce rates were already on the downswing.

It’s also the case that people remain strangely attached to the idea that half of all marriages end in divorce despite numerous stories over the years showing otherwise. Miller links to one of those stories—from 2005, that is, nine years ago. I myself published a book that took stock of the trends in 2006. Family scholars have talked about the turn-around in divorce rates repeatedly. Yet the myth lives on. If you want proof of that, check out the media reaction to the Times piece: a “fascinating story” in the words of the Clarion Ledger; “surprisingly optimistic numbers,” marveled the Huffintgton Post.

So why has this particular myth been so difficult to extract from the hive mind? Why are people so (ahem) wedded to an idea that is not only untrue but has been for almost a generation? Two reasons. The first will no doubt sound clich├ęd: Hollywood. In la-la land divorce is about as common as Botox. When beautiful, famous people split up, fan magazines, entertainment networks, and social media sites spring into action, making sure we see albums of photos of crying, stoic, rehabbed, and then newly partnered, actors and actresses claiming they’ve never been happier. Social psychologists refer to a cognitive bias they call the “availability heuristic.” Striking events—plane crashes, Ebola cases, the Kardashians—make the weird seem more commonplace than it is precisely because the brain is so impressed by it. Of course, the availability heuristic gets some help from the television shows and movies these same famous people write, star in, and produce about marital crackups that often bear a striking resemblance to their own.

The second reason the myth lives on is not only more troubling but exemplified by the Times article that seeks to dismantle it. The younger generation, whether they know divorce is declining or not, believes that marriage is on the rocks. From their vantage point, they’re right. While fewer American adults have been divorcing over the past decades, a growing number of people in their own cohort have grown up apart from one parent, almost always their fathers.

How can divorce be declining but at the same time more children growing up with single parents? Because—and this is the story that Miller underplays—so many parents never marry in the first place. A little history is in order here: When divorce rates skyrocketed in the 1970s, American were not simply suddenly looking at their spouses and deciding en masse that they couldn’t take it anymore. They were reacting to a changing understanding about what marriage meant. Instead of an arrangement largely centered around providing for and rearing the next generation, it was becoming an adult-centric union based on love and shared happiness, which as an upper middle class grew in size, became closely linked to granite countered kitchens, European and spa vacations, and weddings with 200 guests.

One big reason that divorce rates began to fall after 1980 was that people, almost always those with less education and less income for the required accouterments of marriage, took the logic of the divorce revolution and ran with it. If marriage and childbearing were no longer tightly linked but rather discreet—even unrelated—life events, and if they were not earning enough to enjoy the middle class status objects enjoyed by their more educated peers, then why marry at all? Why not just have kids without getting married? While college educated women continued to demand a ring before they became mothers, the percentage of poor women having kids outside of marriage was already on the rise; now working class women, many of them temporarily cohabiting with their child’s father, also bypassed the chapel on the way to the maternity ward. In his forthcoming book Labor’s Loves Lost, Andrew Cherlin quotes one young unmarried father this way: “You need way better reasons than having a kid to get married.”

By missing this larger picture, Miller ends up adding single parents—who after all have a null chance of divorce—to good news numbers about marital stability. Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles from the Population Center at the University of Minnesota try to take into account the new reality in a recent paper. Their findings are sobering: “because cohabitation makes up a rapidly growing percentage of all unions,” they write, it has “an increasing impact on overall union instability.” And by accepting that marriage and children are unrelated, she can ignore the biggest problem with this rising instability. Experts have shown us in a virtual library of research papers that the children of single parents are at greater risk of everything from poverty to school failure to imprisonment. Their large numbers will almost surely help perpetuate inequality, poverty, and immobility.

“Despite hand-wringing about the institution of marriage, marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time,” Miller writes. As it happens, hand-wringing is an appropriate response to the state of marriage today.

That is, for anyone concerned about inequality and America’s lower income children.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The 50% Divorce Rate Stat is a Myth, so Why Won't it Die?

Danielle TellerPhysician and researcherAstro TellerHead of Google X

The divorce rate in America is rising. Do you think that statement is true? If you do, you’re not alone. As Claire Cain Miller recently pointed out in an article for The New York Times, we hear about the rising divorce rate in the news all of the time. This is curious, because as it happens, the divorce rate isn’t rising.

By most measures, the divorce rate in America has been declining since around 1980. You’d think that something as simple as counting the number of American marriages that end in divorce would not require the qualifier “by most measures,” but it turns out that there is no universally accepted method for doing the counting. For instance, the widely quoted 50% divorce rate in the US probably came from a best-guess prediction that has yet to come true, or from a shortcut method of comparing the number of divorces and marriages in the same year. This is not considered to be an accurate method for assessing the divorce rate because it does not compare equivalent groups. In 1980, for example, older couples may have been divorcing at a high rate because of the introduction of no-fault divorce laws, while younger couples might have been putting off marriage because more women were pursuing careers. Even if the number of marriages that year were twice the number of divorces, that is not the same thing as saying that half of all marriages end in divorce. As for the prediction model, Dr. Rose M. Kreider, a demographer in the Fertility and Family Statistics Branch of the Census Bureau, told the New York Times in 2005, “At this point, unless there’s some kind of turnaround, I wouldn’t expect any cohort to reach fifty percent, since none already has.”
Even if everyone could agree on the best way to calculate the divorce rate, complete demographic data about marriage and divorce are unfortunately no longer available for analysis. In 1996, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) stopped collecting yearly statistics on marriage and divorce due to budgetary considerations, and some states, such as California, do not report divorce rates. The Census Bureau can provide estimates based on questionnaire data, but this relies on self-report, and people are reluctant to provide information about marital status. The quality of data available for analysis is therefore weaker now than it has been in past years.

Despite the paucity of good data and arguments over statistical calculations, most social scientists and demographers would agree that divorce rates are declining or stable, that a 50% divorce rate has not yet come to pass, and that young couples today are so far on a course to have fewer divorces than their parents’ generation. Why, then, do we keep hearing about rising divorce rates in America?
One of the reasons is that a rising divorce rate fits the world view and agenda of some segments of our society, whereas a falling divorce rate doesn’t fit as neatly into anyone’s agenda. If you self-identify as conservative, you may have had a negative reaction to this article so far, because it seems to be saying, “High divorce rates are no big deal, and reports of the marriage crisis in America are overblown.” On the other hand, if you consider yourself to be liberal, you may be thinking, “Some couples need to get divorced. Should that be half the number of couples who are divorcing now or twice that number? I don’t know.” In other words, people who see divorce as a social scourge want to emphasize how dire the situation has become in America, and people who see divorce as a necessary evil don’t worry too much about the divorce rate.
This dynamic plays out in the popular press, where much of the news about marriage and divorce is derived from the National Marriage Project, founded at Rutgers University in 1997 and now based at the University of Virginia. A core mission of this organization is to “identify strategies to increase marital quality and stability.” In support of its mission, the National Marriage Project creates a sense of crisis around marriage and divorce rates and promotes marriage as a solution to a range of social problems (pdf).

According to Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, the media have become hooked on publications from the National Marriage Project as a quick and cheap sources of easily digested print. This would not be a problem if media outlets disclosed the biases of their source, but as noted in our book Sacred Cows, that doesn’t usually happen. For instance, between 2009 and 2012, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, USA Today and the New York Times all published articles originating from a report by the National Marriage Project claiming that the economic recession was saving marriages.

The evidence provided was that divorce rates fell between 2007 and 2008 after rising from 2005 levels. We have graphed the crude national divorce rate, or the number of divorces per 1000 members of the US population, for those years. Note that this measure of the divorce rate, like all measures, is flawed. Because it uses the total population as the base, it includes children and unmarried adults, which confuses interpretation; a lower divorce rate could result from a baby boom, or more pertinent to the current situation in the US, a lower marriage rate. The other problem is that several states have discontinued reporting divorces, and missing state numbers could distort the overall national profile.
Bearing in mind these limitations, our chart does indeed demonstrate that the divorce rate declined after the great recession began in 2007. However, when taken in context of overall trends and year-to-year variability, this change in divorce rate does not seem significant enough to warrant multiple stories in major national newspapers
(California, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota and Oregon have data missing from some of the years in the chart.)

Based upon rather odd logic, the director of the National Marriage Project, W. Bradford Wilcox, stated that thrift and meals at home were the cause of recession-strengthened marriages. It may well be that fewer people divorce during economic recessions; the data on that subject are murky and conflicting. However, a one-year blip in the divorce rate should not be used as evidence that the divorce rate is rising any more than a subsequent blip should be used as evidence that economic hardship makes marriages stronger.

Promoting marriage is not a bad goal. Most people would like to be happily married. It is also completely reasonable to worry about so many American marriages ending in divorce. No matter what the circumstances, divorce is painful for families and communities. The problem is that social and political agendas have muddied the water so much that we can’t have reasonable discussions based on rational facts. We are all being misled, not just about the trajectory of divorce rates in America, but about every aspect of our lives that powerful special interest groups care to manipulate. In the words of sportscaster Vin Scully, statistics get used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.

In an ideal world, we could rely on a free press to present unbiased information in a thoughtful and measured fashion. We don’t live in that ideal world, but perhaps we can start by requesting improved transparency and disclosure by popular media about the biases of its sources. To that end, here is our disclosure: This article represents the opinions of two left-leaning egghead authors of a book about society’s attitudes surrounding marriage and divorce. Our goal is to promote rational discussion about marriage and family life in our country. Unfortunately, we can’t provide a single definitive statistical analysis of divorce, because none exists. But hopefully we have helped to clear up a small, persistent misapprehension: The divorce rate in America isn’t as high as 50%, and at least for the moment, it isn’t rising.

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