I’m sure most of our readership is sufficiently well-informed to have not fallen prey to the “half of marriages end in divorce” and “divorce is on the rise” myths that have been so persistent (I’ve taken to asking some of my classes about this, I’ve yet to encounter a student who doesn’t believe both these things to be true), but this article presents the story of our declining divorce rate with one of the best visualizations of the data to present it I’ve seen.
Obviously, one reason the myth persists is that is serves the purposes of social conservatives, and they promote it. First, in their search for a reason to deny marriage rights to same sex couples, they largely settled on “marriage is a fragile institution in crisis, and worked to make it immune from new evidence. Second, though, and more importantly I suspect, it demonstrates rather clearly that to the extent that they were narrowly correct about a relationship between feminist advances and rising divorce rates, more recent trends show that those same advances are a big part of the story of the subsequent decline in divorce. Marriage was an institution that served men, and imposed extremely high exit costs on women. When those exit costs declined, men were less able to trap women in marriages that weren’t working for them, and they left in large numbers. Now, marriages are more likely to constructed in such a way that women get something closer to as much value out of them as men do, so divorce goes down. Feminism made marriage stronger, by creating the conditions under which women are more likely be in a position to marry, and construct their marriage, on their own terms.