NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 14, 2009

With approximately 90 percent of Americans marrying over the course of their lifetimes, the United States has the highest marriage rate of any Western country.  But there is a darker side to this exceptionalism, as Andrew J. Cherlin notes in "The Marriage-Go-Round," his incisive portrait of marriage in America.  Virtually no other nation in the West compares with the United States when it comes to divorce, short-term co-habitation and single parenthood. 

The biggest problem with this aspect of American family life is that children often don't do well when parents and partners are whirling in and out of their lives, says Cherlin:

  • Children have difficulty adapting to changes in their routines or to step- parents who are not comfortable acting as authority figures or to nonresidential parents who see children only intermittently.
  • Such a mix of hybrid forms is part of the reason that family instability is linked to higher rates of teen sex, teen pregnancy, teen drunkenness, truancy and behavioral problems in school.
  • By contrast, "stable, low-conflict families with two biological or adoptive parents provide better environments for children than other living arrangements."

How did the United States reach this state?  Cherlin points to competing "models" of marriage:

  • On one hand, most Americans believe that marriage is the best social institution for bearing and rearing children and that marriage should be grounded in a a permanent, faithful and loving relationship.
  • On the other, Americans celebrate individualism more than people in other Western societies and so believe that they are entitled to make choices that maximize their personal happiness.

Such contradictory impulses push the vast majority of Americans into marriage and then push a large minority out again when their dreams of marital bliss go unrealized.  It doesn't help that Americans have come to see marriage as a symbol more than a covenant, adds Cherlin.

Source: W. Bradford Wilcox, "To Have, to Hold, For a While," Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2009; based upon: Andrew J. Cherlin, "The Marriage-Go-Round," Knopf, 2009.

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