Andrew Cherlin's "The Marriage-Go-Round" is a careful and well-researched sociological study examining how Americans keep shuffling partners. Why do we seem to marry, divorce, and re-marry with such frequency? The merry-go-round metaphor is apt -- "frequent marriage, frequent divorce, more short-term cohabiting relationships ... Americans step on and off the carousel of intimate partnerships" he writes. He examines how attitudes towards marriage have changed drastically since the 1950s: "That people could skip from one live-in relationship to another, not because their partners were abusive or unfaithful but merely because that's what they wanted, would have horrified many people."
I had not realized the 1950s generation was somewhat atypical of longer term trends. The husband-breadwinner wife-at-home combination of marrying early, having many children, with a fairly stable home life was a result of pent-up demand for families created during the Depression and World War II years. It produced an unprecedented baby boom generation of which both the author and myself are members.
Mr. Cherlin's plausible conclusion is that two sets of conflicting values are at play -- one valuing commitment, another valuing personal choice. "... this distinctive pattern of multiple partnerships is related to the central place in America culture of both marriage and a kind of individualism that emphasizes self-expression and personal growth." And I think he's basically right.
He examines historical patterns, legal considerations such as divorce laws, gender relations, the impact of religion. He contrasts patterns in the United States with Western Europe, particularly Britain and France. He writes: "...the United States has one of the highest levels of both marriage and divorce of any Western nation, and these rates appear to have been higher than in most other Western countries since the early days of the nation." The disappearance of factory jobs in America had a negative impact for the marriage prospects of men without college educations. Birth control had huge ramifications, allowing people to cohabit in long term sexual relationships without fear of pregnancy. Of particular concern, in his view, is how the turnover of partners affects children emotionally, and he's sees greater incidences of behavior problems as children try to adjust to step-parents moving in and out of the house.
His solution, like his analysis, is careful and studied. "Slow down", he writes, advising couples to be more careful before jettisoning their relationship as well as starting new ones. And this seems reasonable. Generally, the author thinks like a market researcher, a demographer, a numbers guy, and this has its strengths (reasonable and well-argued conclusions) as well as weaknesses (somewhat dry writing style). There isn't much emphasis on the whole aspect of dating. It's like seeing romance as a product of statistical crosstabulations. I was surprised, however, that he omitted the subject of how television and media images have impacted marriage and divorce. If churchgoers attend church for perhaps an hour a week, but watch several hours of television each day, then wouldn't media exposure be a logical and important variable to study? Never before in history have people been exposed to such powerful images of idealized lifestyles, of beautiful models both male and female. What impact has this had upon dating and mating? I think it's astonishing how Americans seem to be closer to celebrities on television rather than spouses or real neighbors next door, and the whole issue of vicarious involvement with media images is, in my view, an important variable which he should have considered.
Overall, an important, well-researched and thought-provoking look at the changing institution of marriage.
Thomas W. Sulcer
Author of "The Second Constitution of the United States"
(free on web; google title + Sulcer)