On Marriage and Divorce (Part 1)

The Divorce Wave


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In the past few months there has been a few very high profile divorces. Kanye West/Kim Kardashian, Bill Gates/Melinda Gates. It’s not shocking that celebrities get divorced. What’s interesting is why more people aren’t getting divorced like they used to 20, 30, 40 years ago. Divorce was everywhere.

When I was in junior high and high school in the late 90s-00s era the social issues seem so disconnected to the ones today. Think of examples like the debate about teaching intelligent design vs evolution in schools. Does anyone talk about this anymore? Probably not. There was also a conversation (or a panic) about the sanctity of marriage because of the impending legalization of gay marriage. Marriage at that time was 2 decades deep into a high divorce rate. Much different than today.

Divorce was falling from its peak…

Divorce Wave

The US was in the midst of a divorce wave back when I was in junior high and high school. This wave got its start right after 1969, when then Governor Reagan of California signed the nation's first no-fault divorce bill. The new law eliminated the need for couples to fabricate spousal wrongdoing in pursuit of a divorce, essentially allowing one spouse to dissolve a marriage for any reason — or for no reason at all.

In the decade and a half that followed, virtually every state in the Union followed California's lead and enacted a no-fault divorce law of its own. This legal transformation was only one of the more visible signs of the divorce wave: From 1960 to 1980, the divorce rate more than doubled — from 9.2 divorces per 1,000 married women to 22.6 divorces per 1,000 married women. This meant that while less than 20% of couples who married in 1950 ended up divorced, about 50% of couples who married in 1970 did. And approximately half of the children born to married parents in the 1970s saw their parents part, compared to only about 11% of those born in the 1950s.

By the time the 90s and early 00s hit, Divorce was an established part of the culture and society.

Times Magazine from the year 2000

I was a kid who had divorced parents. There was no stigma. It was completely normal. When you come of age in the late 90s you remember a few things: Granola bars, AOL, pizza Lunchables, and most importantly, divorce. The television shows and movies were inundated with stories of people who were divorced. This isn’t anything new. You can look at Hollywood today and see stories and casting choices which responds to trends in society.

However, one thing you do notice from those films above is that these films are all about rich people divorcing. Much like classic romantic comedies where everyone ends up together and is happy and fulfilled, a major source of the appeal of these divorce stories is affluence. The people have big houses, nice cars, nice clothes. It’s almost whimsical.

There is never any real money problems. No one living in a terrible studio apartment eating dinner over the sink crying. There is no tragic suicides that come out of a divorce, which I’ve written about before. That happens in real life, but you won’t see that in the movies. Divorce looks so much more appealing when it’s cultivated from the inside of a walk-in closet as opposed to, I don’t know, waiting in line at the Dollar Store.

People thought this was the start of a new normal From now on 40-50 percent of couples would be divorcing. We went through centuries of low divorce rates and now we will be going through centuries forward of very high divorce rates due to the introduction of no-fault divorce. Right?

That future never happened. Instead, we got something else…

Falling Divorce Rate

The divorce wave ended. It was mostly a trend for boomer generation to marry, divorce, then repeat, caused unusually high rates of marriage breakdown.

The divorce wave ended because less people are getting married these days. Today it’s the middle-class, rich and people with more education who are getting married more frequently and staying married.

The rise in cohabitation for many American couples from poor and less educated backgrounds is also a new trend. Decades ago, these couples would marry (and maybe divorce). Marriage is becoming an elite-ish institution at this point. It costs money to marry, and it costs a lot of money to divorce. About 50 percent of Americans with high school degrees are now married, down from 63 percent in 1990. By comparison, 65 percent of college-educated adults are married, down only 4 percentage points over the same period.

The average ages of marriage were relatively stable until recently. People are now getting established financially before they tie the knot.

This is a common theme to living today. The average age of first time home buyers increased to 33 from 29 two decades ago. The average age of first-time mothers in America is now up from 21 to 26, while for fathers, it’s increased from 27 to 31. This isn’t just within America; women in other developed countries are waiting too with the average first birth happening for new mothers at age 31.

The traditional life is expensive. The modern life is cheap.

If you’re going to get married, if you’re going to buy a home, if you’re going to have kids you’re going to be older than people in even 20,30,40 years ago. And then, if you want one parent to stay home, it’s going to cost a lot as well.

Marriage is Sweet.

But sometimes marriage is hard. Especially when two people have careers. You’ll get in conversations about sacrifice like this. Not fun.

Religion and Marriage

Marriage has recently been used by Religion to achieve certain aims. Take for example, Medieval Western Christianity and early Islam.

Harvard anthropologist Joe Henrich offers one explanation of the origins of this divergence between the values of the rest of the world and the west, and its significance in world history, in his book The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.

By WEIRD, Henrich means “Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.” People with a WEIRD outlook are individualistic, think reductively, and focus on personal attributes and intentions. In contrast, most humans are collectivist, think holistically, and focus on situations and relationships. An American meeting a stranger asks “what do you do?” In other cultures, one is more likely to be asked “who are your people?”

Henrich argues that the strange psychology of Westerners is a function of a historical accident. The strength of the Western Christian Church after the fall of Rome seeded the institutions and orientations that would flower in the modern world.

The central role of the pope in Rome in 600 a.d. illustrates that after the fall of the Empire, the Christian Church remained the singular transnational institution standing. Henrich argues that the “Marriage and Family Program” (MFP) implemented by the Church prevented the emergence of elite extended family lineages which could accumulate power and property. The Western Church enforced strong prohibitions on marriages between close relatives.

These rules limited the potential pool of mates for any aristocrat. And once a noble married, the emphasis on monogamy meant that only legitimate offspring could inherit property.

In the same manner, the rules of marriage in Islam promotes conversion. The spread of Islam in the Near East where Christianity was heavily entrenched can be attributed to a simple asymmetry. If a non Muslim man under the rule of Islam marries a Muslim woman, he needs to convert to Islam –and if either parents of a child happens to be Muslim, the child will be Muslim. Meanwhile, becoming Muslim is irreversible.

Under these two asymmetric rules, one can do simple simulations and see how a small Islamic group occupying Christian (Coptic) Egypt can lead, over the centuries, to the Copts becoming a tiny minority. All one needs is a small rate of interfaith marriages. Likewise, one can see how Judaism doesn’t spread and tends to stay in the minority, as the religion has opposite rules: the mother is required to be Jewish, causing interfaith marriages to leave the community.

Living Alone

Humans are a cultural species. Unlike other animals, we have evolved to rely on learning from others to acquire an immense amount of behavioral information, including motivations, heuristics, and beliefs that are central to our survival and reproduction. This ability to learn from one another is so powerful compared to other species that we alone can accumulate complex bodies of cultural knowledge, related to everything from sophisticated projectile technologies and food processing techniques to new grammatical tools and expanding packages of social norms.

By selectively filtering and recombing the beliefs, practices, techniques, and motivations acquired from others, our species’ learning abilities give rise to cultural evolution. Operating over generations, cultural evolution can generate increasingly sophisticated technologies, complex languages, psychologically potent rituals, effective institutions, and intricate protocols for making tools, houses, weapons and watercraft. This often does happen without anyone understanding how or why practices, beliefs and protocols work, or even that these cultural elements “do” anything. In fact, in some cases, cultural products operate more effectively when people don’t understand why they work.

Marriage represents the keystone institution for most societies and may be the most primeval of human institutions. Pair-bonding is an evolved mating strategy found scattered around the natural world, from penguins, and seahorses to gorillas and gibbons. It permits males and females to team up to rear offspring. In evolutionary terms, there a kind of swap here. Females grant males preferred sexual access and stronger guarantees that her kids are in fact his kids. In return, males invest more time an effort in protecting and sometimes providing for, her and her offspring. By anchoring on these pair-bonding instincts, marriage norms can dramatically expand family networks.

I have recently read that New York is the city with the highest ratio of seats that cater to solo diners compared to the total number of restaurant seats. It’s not an accident.

Is the life where we dine alone, exercise alone, go to concerts alone, live alone the ultimate objective for individualistic societies? The average size of household has been going down with higher income. Not only do richer countries have lower (or negative) population growth rates, but the richer the country the smaller the household size.

The final objective may be to live in a world where each household is composed of one person. Denmark, Norway and Germany are almost there: the average household size is 2.2. Japan offers a vision of a society of ultra-competitiveness combined with loneliness.

The modern life is cheap, the traditional life is expensive. With higher incomes and higher labor participation rates, people who work a job can afford a comfortable life.

We responded to economic incentives by getting married and having children in the past. Being together with others always had an economic angle: expenses were less, on a per capita basis, when shared; we needed children to help us in the old age and spouses to pay our bills. And we are responding to economic incentives today as well. Except, it is completely the reverse now.

Socrates on Marriage

On Not Marrying

Part 2 Next Week: Polygamy, Monogamy, Testosterone and Love