Different Kinds of Famlies

The NYT is running a series profiling the lives of New Yorkers. Today’s story was of some interest as it reflects the rapidly changing demographic that is the ‘family’ in the US today.

The article is not particularly well-written, in my opinion, but the first page or so offers at least a picture of how a non-nuclear family is working. It highlights the need to figure out new ways to measure and count households and individuals and couples and families. In addition, we have all of these extra relationships to examine. I’d certainly think that your relationship with your non-romantic (ever), gay father of your child is going to affect your decision making, and probably differently than would your relationship with your romantic partner/father of your child.

On not getting divorced

Divorce, we all know, is traumatic. Even if we are the lucky few who managed to watch our parents lovingly stay together our entire lives, we realize that we are the lucky few. Children of the 70s and 80s are all too familiar with divorce. We consoled our friends through it, we had dinner at friends’ houses in tense, uncomfortable situations and we likely see divorce as the norm. Perhaps people aren’t meant to stay together forever.

There is a lot of research that says that children of divorce have worse outcomes than children of parents who stay together. The causal link is tenuous, at best, which was the primary motivation for one chapter of my thesis. Surely, we know that couples who decide to get divorced are different than those who stay together, but that doesn’t mean all couples that stay together are the same, and it doesn’t mean they are happy or that they shouldn’t get divorced. In short, we have all this information about how divorce affects children, but in reality, we know that it isn’t likely the mere act of divorce that might hurt children, but rather how parents’ behavior and decision-making change when they’re thinking about divorce and moving toward divorce, even if they never get there.

While presenting this paper, as I’m sure other scholars of divorce and children have experienced, I’ve been asked, several times, whether the policy implication is that people shouldn’t get divorced. Should we be spending more money on marriage promotion or free couples’ counseling or something to encourage couples to stay together, for the good of the children? I think that my goal, in some ways, was precisely the opposite. Not that we should encourage divorce, but rather that concentrating too much on divorce as being bad for kids ignores everything that happens leading up to a divorce, it ignores the fighting and bargaining and trauma that results when parents are unhappy, regardless of whether they get divorced. It may be even that we’ve vilified divorce so much that parents who likely should get divorced, don’t.

The New York Times today offers some evidence of a backlash of sorts against divorce. They cite a marriage study that shows that those same children of the 70s and 80s, my generation and those a bit older than me, are less likely to get divorced than our parents. While the divorce rate hovers around 50% for the population, the rate for recent college-grads within 10 years of marriage is closer to 10%. Despite the fact that we’re not seeing these people through the whole of their marriages and lives yet, that’s a big difference. It should be noted, however, that fewer women my age are getting married at all. The same study showed that women aged 25-29 were much less likely to have ever been married, in fact, half of all women in that age range had never married. So, we’re dealing with a smaller base, here as well. It might be that the marriages that are occurring are just better marriages, as other people are waiting.

Regardless of how exactly the numbers play out, the Times used these stats, and anecdotes and books, to show that divorce has become almost taboo among some segments of society. The article tells horror stories of storybook wives and mothers being outcast from the social spheres once they decided to divorce, a decidedly different take on divorce than the feminist, liberating, now-you’re-free state that they say ruled earlier generations.

Though it’s easy to toss out theories of social pressure in middle age as bunk, there is evidence that social networks (and I mean communities, not facebook) can have a profound effect on the decision to divorce. One recent paper found that having a friend or family who divorces makes you much more likely to divorce. Contrary to how this may sound, it doesn’t appear that divorce is actually contagious, like the measles. Rather, it is likely that seeing someone else get divorced changes perceived costs and benefits of divorce. If a friend goes through a divorce, you may see how hard it is on her and her family, but you also see the benefits later on of her new situation. And if she has already done it, you benefit from not being the only one.

In communities where divorce is looked down upon–be it for religious reasons, or ‘for the kids’, the costs for divorce likely remain very high, even if you know someone who has done it. It is precisely situations like these where economics trips up. In modeling divorce or investments in children, we control for what we can, but knowledge of a community’s stigma about divorce likely remains unknown. In the case where such a stigma is correlated with race or income, we might ascribe effects to race or income where they don’t belong.