Brad Wilcox on Andrew Cherlin’s new book
Americans love the institution of marriage — and they like to do it over and over again, as the joke goes. This rise of contingent commitment in the U.S. has been the focus of family research for decades, and Andrew Cherlin is one of the leaders in the field when it comes to describing the changing trend.
Here’s an excerpt from Prof. Wilcox’s review:
How did the U.S. reach this state of affairs — in which marriage is almost universally desired and yet more fragile than ever before, with almost half of all first marriages ending in divorce court and a series of hybrid family forms adding confusion and instability to children’s lives? Mr. Cherlin points to competing “models” or ideas of marriage. On the one hand, he notes, most Americans believe that marriage is the best social institution for bearing and rearing children and that marriage should be grounded in a permanent, faithful and loving relationship. On the other hand, 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. When a marriage becomes unsatisfying, difficult or burdensome, according to this model, it can be dissolved — it even should be dissolved.
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 does not help that Americans in recent years have come to see marriage as a symbol more than a covenant — as a kind of “capstone” signaling that they have arrived at a certain position in the world, with a good job, a good résumé and now, it is hoped, a soulmate who will make them happy. Meanwhile, poor and working-class adults — especially men — lack the cushioning financial assets of their privileged counterparts, so they are even less likely to get married or stay married.
It’s a fascinating book — and very readable. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the changing relationship landscape.
PLUS: Watch this space for more: This weekend I’ll be at the Council on Contemporary Families conference in Chicago — along with both Andrew Cherlin and Brad Wilcox.
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