It looks and sounds like awesome news—like everything I want for my little boy and everyone else’s kids.
The divorce rate in the United States dropped 18 percent between 2008 and 2016, according to Philip Cohen, a University of Maryland sociology professor who is predicting a long-term decline in the number of divorces in his recently published analysis of U.S. Census Bureau survey data, titled “The Coming Divorce Decline.”
Whoa! Holy shit! An 18-percent improvement is amazing!
But it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel true. Not to me.
And admittedly, I may be one of the least-qualified people to evaluate that fairly.
After all, I’m probably in the top 1% of People Who Hear and Read a High Volume of Crappy Marriage Stories. The anecdotal evidence I have of sad and angry people writing to me is not even close to being statistically relevant. There are few reasons for happily married people to ever read anything I write, or to write with tales of their awesome, healthy relationships.
Even still. I can’t shake the doubt.
That’s because we’re measuring the number of documents filed at our nation’s courthouses rather than measuring the quality of human relationships.
You know how scientists go to great lengths to conduct objective scientific testing, confirm hypotheses, and then publish their work in scientific journals which document several years of research only to have a bunch of know-nothings totally dismiss their findings within five seconds simply because the scientific data inconveniently works against their own beliefs or opinions?
I REALLY don’t want to be like those people. It’s gross.
To be clear, I am NOT challenging Cohen’s divorce rate analysis, so much as I’m challenging the idea that there’s any legitimate correlation between Cohen’s work here, and the ACTUAL health and success rate of marriage and long-term romantic relationships.
Sorry to Piss In Your Cheerios
Everyone who gets offended by my occasional use of bad language should absolutely skip the next paragraph. (Yes mom, even you.)
Remember the scene in “Pulp Fiction” when Mr. Wolf shows up to help the guys dispose of Marvin’s dead body after Vincent accidentally shot him in the face in the back of their car? Several minutes later, Quentin Tarantino’s Jimmie compliments the guys on a clean-up job well done, saying “I can’t believe this is the same car,” to which Mr. Wolf replies with an all-time great movie line that totally applies to this divorce-statistics conversation: “Well, let’s not start sucking each other’s dicks just yet.”
The divorce rate is dropping because fewer people are getting married, and demographically speaking, the people who ARE getting married are the least likely to divorce (people with money and the most education), Cohen said.
And that’s awesome. ANY good news RE: marriage and divorce is welcome.
The problem is that this in NO WAY indicates that anything is actually getting better.
1. Fewer People Are Getting Married
First of all, this data analysis begins in 2008, which coincides with the worst economic crisis in all of our lifetimes. Mathematically speaking, for several years, the MOST amount of people had the LEAST amount of money and financial security in global history. Think that might be a factor in the number of people who decided to postpone marriage (OR divorce, because they couldn’t afford to)?
You know what else happened during that span? A cultural paradigm shift RE: homosexual couples and marriage. I’m only speculating, but I literally know of five—FIVE!—elderly divorced adults with children who ended their heterosexual marriages because they were gay and had been hiding it for years.
People have gone to great lengths to hide who they are. It’s sad that some people are so afraid of what others will think of them that they’ll go to such lengths to conceal something that’s true about them.
Anyway—and again, this is all me theorizing out of my ass and not rooted in legit data science—I think a semi-significant reduction in the future divorces will come simply from gay people not entering straight relationships because of societal or family pressures to do so, only to have it all fall apart later for obvious reasons. Those instances should become much fewer moving forward.
We’re dealing with the two largest generations—by population—in human history. The Baby Boomers (who divorce, remarry, and divorce like they’re leasing new vehicles) and Millennials (who couldn’t find jobs when they graduated from college, had a bunch of student loan debt, and frequently lived with their parents for more years than what had previously been the societal norm.)
The Baby Boomers practically invented divorce as we know it today.
And Millennials—the largest generation in history—perhaps for philosophical reasons, perhaps for logistical ones, are waiting much longer to get married, OR opting not to marry at all.
And if you got married for the first time in the last eight years, you’re still in that 5-10 year window where you may be married, but miserable, OR may still get blindsided by divorce from the undetected slow build that tends to happen behind the scenes until too many straws pile up on top of your pet camel.
Cohen himself acknowledges the rise of unmarried couples who co-habitat and have children, but simply avoid exchanging vows or signing legal documents as a contributing factor to the decline in divorce. “Many poorer and less educated Americans are opting not to get married at all. They’re living together, and often raising kids together, but deciding not to tie the knot. And studies have shown these cohabiting relationships are less stable than they used to be,” wrote Bloomberg’s Ben Steverman, in his recent article about Cohen’s divorce analysis.
So, you see, a lot of this is semantics. How we choose to label things.
Sure, there are fewer divorces. That’s because we’re measuring the number of documents filed at our nation’s courthouses rather than measuring the quality of human relationships.
2. People Still Don’t Get It—We’re Nowhere Close to Fixing What’s Broken
People would still rather be ‘right,’ than to mutually arrive at truth with someone with whom they currently disagree.
People cling for dear life to their beliefs. Everyone on earth was taught a story about life from their earliest moments. And the vast majority of people clutch to those beliefs for dear life because it’s what feels safe to them. It’s what feels ‘right’ or ‘correct’ or ‘normal.’ Religious and political discussions frequently up the stakes, but that’s not even what I’m talking about in the context of long-term romantic relationships.
Boys grew up watching their mothers fold clothes and vacuum rugs and juggle the majority of household tasks like cooking dinner, cleaning bathrooms, handling the majority of baby stuff, being involved in their children’s school, caring for sick kids, etc.
They grew up watching their dads do less of those things.
The only boys who could have ever grown up into men who DIDN’T believe that that family model was The Way it Ought to Be, were the ones from the statistical-outlier families where that’s not how it worked.
MOST boys grew up into men with some pretty hardwired beliefs about gender roles in male-female relationships. Those beliefs inadvertently led those men to behave in certain ways.
And it just so happens that those “certain ways” are statistically proven to negatively affect relationships—namely marriage, which is the only kind we have decent data for.
Men get really defensive about this. Makes sense. I don’t like it either when people tell me I’m messing up and hurting people, when I’m trying hard and believe myself to be someone who doesn’t hurt people.
But it’s true.
It tastes like piss-infected Cheerios. But it’s still true.
We Will All Have a Role to Play
I hope young women will continue to demonstrate stronger, more forceful boundaries while dating, and never tolerate behaviors they recognize to be relationship-killers. Better to end it now, then put yourself, your husband, and your children through divorce 10 years from now.
I hope young men will continue to evolve. Increase their emotional intelligence. Improve their empathy and self-awareness skills. Young men must learn to value their partner’s life experiences as much as their own—EVEN IF those life experiences are radically different than their own.
Maybe white people don’t know what it feels like to be treated a certain way because of their skin color.
Maybe straight people don’t know what it feels like to be rejected by family because of who they love.
Maybe atheists don’t know what it feels like to be a Christian simply trying to do some good in a mad, mad world while seeking strength from a higher power.
Maybe Christians don’t know what it feels like to be a life-long loving and peaceful member of society and the Muslim faith community, only to be treated with fear and hatred by the very people espousing Christian principles and claiming to preach the Gospel.
And JUST MAYBE, every single other person in world history have lived a totally different life than you—in different places, with different conditions and expectations, who were taught different stories from their earliest ages, and who now experience daily life and have beliefs and an emotional makeup totally different from yours.
It’s NOT weird that other people are different than us. It would be weird if they WEREN’T.
Someday, people are going to figure this out. Like an awakening.
And it’s going to be amazing when that happens.
In the meantime, I’d just like to see young people trying their best to STOP accidentally ruining their most important human relationships because they don’t know any better.
I’d like to see children being taught critical life skills that will help them manage their emotional health and human relationships with the same care that we teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic. Because I kind of think our ability to navigate human relationships and have a successful home life is even more important than the things we can learn from school books and classrooms.
Is the divorce problem really improving?
Like most things, I suppose it depends on how you look at it.
Cohen’s work inspired a bunch of conversation about the health of the divorce-attorney business. About Census data that might as well have been about cattle or robots.
But I don’t see numbers.
I see people. Families. Children. Ones that look just like my life when I was accidentally ruining my marriage, and just like my life when my parents were accidentally ruining theirs.
It’s not about accounting.
It’s about a fundamental shift in self-awareness and human behavior.
It’s not about math and money.
It’s about love. For ourselves. For others.
It’s about the courage to choose it.
And then the courage to live it.