CH 10 Divorce, Remarriage and Blended Families

CH 10 Divorce, Remarriage and Blended Families

 The critically acclaimed film The Squid and the Whale follows a couple’s acrimonious divorce and its effects on their two sons. The performer Miley Cyrus described why she broke up with her fiancé, Liam Hemsworth, at the age of 21, this way: I was so scared of ever being alone, and I think, conquering that fear, this year, was actually bigger than any other transition that I had, this entire year . . .I don’t ever want to have to need someone again, where you feel like, without them, you can’t be yourself. (Effron 2013) Are individualism and marriage the oil and water of modern relationships, unable ever to fully mix together? If people pursue marriage primarily to make themselves happy and then judge the relationship on the basis of their own happiness, then marriage will be unstable, always facing the risk that one partner or the other will feel unfulfilled and turn away. In fact, that may be why divorce has become a prominent feature of the relationship landscape. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. If it means that the relationships that do survive are built on genuine mutual happiness or satisfaction, then the modern family order may be an improvement over the past. But if the experience of divorce, or the threat of divorce, looms large in modern families, then we all live under a cloud of family uncertainty. Individual freedom is a cherished value for most people. But uncertainty comes with risks, especially for children, who are the most vulnerable to the stress of family transitions (Cherlin 2010). This is the central dilemma of divorce that we confront. For the Children’s Sake Of course, there is nothing wrong with loving oneself if that means recognizing and respecting one’s own needs and desires. But how is individual happiness to be balanced against family commitments, including marriage? This is as much a moral question as a practical or psychological one. In the face of such a quandary, 362 Chapter 10: Divorce, Remarriage, and Blended Families many people evoke the principle of making decisions in the best interest of children rather than adults. Some parents try to prevent or delay divorce for the children’s sake—to spare them the disruption, potential financial loss, and even shame of a family breakup. Other parents, however, want a divorce for the children’s sake—to keep them from living under the cloud of constant bickering or to remove them from the care of an irresponsible (or even abusive) spouse. And then there are the children themselves. Their parents’ breakup may be the first time they seriously face the need to evaluate, in moral terms, the behavior of adults. For better or worse, in the words of researcher Carol Smart, divorce “shatters the taken-for-grantedness of family life.” She quotes a 12-year-old girl whose parents divorced: I can remember some arguments and I can remember thinking “Oh my god my parents hate each other” but now I don’t think they hate each other; they are friends. But if you argue in front of your children they will think you hate each other. You need to split up or at least give yourselves some space until you’ve thought about it because that is what is best for them. (Smart 2006:167) Through the unhappy experience of her parents’ conflicted marriage and eventual divorce, this girl learned something about how to apply ethical standards to adult behavior and came to believe that her parents made the right decision. Divorce, perhaps more than most experiences in life, drives home the lesson that there are many sides to every story. Just as there are different angles to the story within a particular family, there also are many ways to see the social phenomenon of divorce. What to some people seems like the liberation of unhappy spouses (and children) from a life unfulfilled—or worse—to others seems like another step down the road toward the collapse of the family as an institution. The long-term increase in divorce and remarriage in American family life raises several questions linked to our three overarching themes in this book. Clearly, the proliferation of different family arrangements contributes to family diversity. Further, the trend in divorce has been to widen social class inequality in family life, as we will see that divorce has become much less common among those with the highest levels of education. Divorce also highlights the social change toward an individual orientation in family life and decision making. You might link all of this to an overall trend toward selfishness on the part of adults, especially in relation to the well-being of children. But the weakening of those bonds—informal or legal rules and obligations that keep people together even when they don’t want to be—might also be a sign of personal liberation and enhanced social freedom. Although there are various ways of assessing U.S. trends in divorce, there is no dispute that divorce is vastly more common today than it was a century ago. Furthermore, the everyday nature of divorce has changed the institution of the family for everyone, even those who never themselves divorce. Children’s lives and relationships are clearly affected when their parents break up; for example, many people whose own parents divorced react by limiting themselves to informal relationships—or by avoiding living with another person altogether—partly out of aversion to the possibility of divorce (Klinenberg 2012). The expanding diversity of family arrangements leads to different kinds of life stories that sociologists seek to understand and explain. In this chapter, we will review some history and recent trends regarding divorce—the who, when, and why of couple breakups. Then we will consider some of the causes and consequences of divorce for women, men, and children. Finally, we will discuss the remarriage and blended family arrangements that follow divorce for most people, which raise a further set of questions and issues for modern families. As in the case of marriage generally, although almost all studies and statistics about divorce relate to heterogamous couples—those with one man and one woman—gay and lesbian divorce and relationship dissolution are a part of the family landscape as well (Rosenfeld 2014). We don’t yet have much systematic information about how and when such breakups occur, but what we do have so far reveals little difference in the patterns for straight versus gay and lesbian couples (Manning, Brown, and Stykes 2016). In most of this chapter I discuss research on couples without regard to their gender. Church and State The history of divorce in Western societies shows the state as an institutional arena, its leaders, laws, and regulations increasingly encroaching on the Christian church’s authority with regard to the family. The family that emerged in the modern era is much more under the control of state authorities than of religious authorities, with deference to religious authority now usually seen as a conscious choice rather than a requirement. But before I tell that story, let me define a few terms. Divorce as a legal event is only part of what concerns social scientists with regard to couple breakups. When marriages end, we refer to it as marital dissolution, the end of a marriage through permanent separation or divorce. We use that term because some couples who separate never get a legal divorce. Separation refers to the formal or informal separation of married spouses into different households. In some cases, this is a legal agreement, and in some states, separation is required before a divorce can be granted. Finally, divorce is the legal dissolution of marriage according to the laws of the state. (In the United States, marriage and divorce are administered by the state level of government, but because that is not the case in other countries, I use the term state to mean whatever government has authority over families.) I should add that researchers sometimes refer to any couple dissolving as “relationship dissolution,” even when they have not been married. Especially when these families include children, the process is closely related to divorce. In this chapter, even though I mostly use the terms marriage and divorce, much of what we discuss is relevant to committed couples whether married or not. Divorce is as old as marriage, although the rules and customs surrounding how marriages end have varied drastically. Most American Indian cultures permitted divorce, and it was more common for them than it was among the European marital dissolution The end of a marriage through permanent separation or divorce. separation The formal or informal separation of married spouses into different households. divorce The legal dissolution of marriage according to the laws of the state. 364 Chapter 10: Divorce, Remarriage, and Blended Families settlers who encountered them (Queen 1985). Likewise, ancient Jewish laws permitted divorce. Divorce was quite common among upper-class couples in the Roman Empire. But by the time of early Christianity, religious authorities introduced strong rules against divorce, with the Bible intoning, “what therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Coontz 2005:86). In practice, however, the Catholic Church did not begin to enforce strict limits on divorce for common people until the eighth century. By the twelfth century, divorce was virtually impossible under Church doctrine. People could separate by mutual agreement (or, more often, one could desert the other), but they couldn’t legitimately remarry unless they were granted an annulment, which was almost unheard of. That history is what makes annulment important to understand. Annulment of marriage is a legal or religious determination that the marriage was never valid. After an annulment, the marriage is treated as if it never occurred. The logical distinction between annulment and divorce is what made it possible historically to prohibit divorce but still let some people (usually powerful men) take spouses. Religious annulment remains an important issue, mostly for Catholics. Under the doctrine of the Catholic Church, remarriage is permitted only if the marriage is annulled by the Church—that is, judged to have been invalid and therefore not binding on the spouses. Although this might seem like a convenient fiction, many Catholics who divorce do seek annulments so they can remarry and remain within the Church. The vast majority of annulment applications are accepted, but to help Americans maintain their ties to the Church, Pope Francis has said he wants to make annulments cheaper, faster, and easier to get (Yardley and Povoledo 2015). As a legal procedure, annulment exists in the United States today but is very rare, occurring only in cases where spouses were not legally permitted to marry when they did (Abrams 2013). As the issue of annulment suggests, the controversy around divorce has always involved the problem of remarriage. Ending a marriage has never been as controversial as remarrying afterward and especially producing “legitimate” children—those whose parents are legally married—in a subsequent marriage. This tension is one source of the historical conflict between religious and state authorities, which long competed for the power to regulate marriage and divorce. This tension exploded in the sixteenth century, when England’s King Henry VIII wanted an annulment so that he could take a new wife. The Roman Catholic pope’s refusal to grant that annulment helped convince Henry to leave Catholicism and form the independent Church of England, with himself as its head. (Unfortunately for his new wife, Anne Boleyn, she bore a daughter and then had a series of miscarriages without giving birth to a living son, so Henry executed annulment of marriage A legal or religious determination that the marriage was never valid. In this letter from 1530, English noblemen demanded that Pope Clement VII annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. More than 80 wax seals are attached below the lords’ signatures. Divorce Rates and Trends 365 her before marrying again a few days later.) Although that split with the Catholic Church did not end the power of religious institutions in the realm of marriage and divorce, by placing family regulation under the control of the state it marked a significant historical step toward separating religious from civil authority over family law in Western societies. Still, as we saw in Chapter 8, despite the separation of church and state enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the conflict persists between some religious and legal rules and customs governing marriage. Recent debates over “marriage rights” have concerned same-sex marriage. But in the late nineteenth century, a similarly heated debate revolved around the right to marry for people who had been divorced. At the time, few Americans believed that the “guilty” party in a divorce should be permitted to remarry, but the accusing spouse—often the victim of abuse or abandonment—was seen more sympathetically. Still, conservatives feared that loosening the laws regarding remarriage would open up society to the rule of “free love,” encouraging people to swap partners casually without regard for the sacredness of marriage (Cott 2000). In one case, a Catholic bishop in Nebraska declared that anyone who attended the wedding of a divorced man would be excommunicated (barred from the Church). Marriage rights advocates defended the principle of divorce and remarriage as a moral choice. As one radical journalist wrote, “It is dishonor to remain in a state of marriage wherein the soul cries out in agony of despair, and the bondage robs life of all its sunshine” (Harris 1906:393). As divorce entered the twentieth century, it occurred with greater and greater frequency, even in the absence of physical abuse or abandonment. Although it remained quite rare by today’s standards, the American public was riveted by the family dramas of celebrities and socialites, especially once the voices of the neglected spouses could be heard in the press (see Changing Culture, “Divorce, American Style”). Divorce Rates and Trends As a family sociologist with an expertise in demography, I have frequently been asked, “What is the divorce rate?” This is really two questions. First, what do we mean by the divorce rate? And second, what is the number itself? I will try to avoid a long, technical answer, but each of these questions deserves a little attention. There is no single definition of “the divorce rate.” To see why, consider a few numbers. In 2015, there were an estimated 1.1 million divorces in the United States. I have to say “estimated” because there is no official count of divorces: five states, including the biggest (California), do not participate in the federal government’s collection of divorce data. So that estimate is calculated from a large survey, the American Community Survey (which, fortunately, provides high-quality data from all states). But what is the meaning of 1 million divorces? From the total number, we can Divorce, American Style From King Henry VIII to Miley Cyrus, the divorces (or breakups) of the rich, famous, and powerful have contributed dramatic storylines to our social history. How we interpret those stories is related to how we see divorce in general as a personal drama and as a social issue. The first celebrity divorce in the United States covered by national media—in this case, newspapers and magazines—involved silent-movie star Charlie Chaplin, renowned for his portrayal of the downtrodden everyman figure known as the Tramp. In 1927, Chaplin’s second wife, Lita Grey, sued him for divorce. Grey was to have been the lead actress in Chaplin’s new movie, The Gold Rush, but the actor/ director, himself the product of divorced parents, hurriedly married her—and replaced her in the cast—when she became pregnant. The young actress was just 16 years old and he was 35 when they crossed the border into Mexico to get married. Because of her age, he feared he could be charged with statutory rape unless they married. It was Chaplin’s second divorce (the first was also from an actress under 18), and it created a national sensation, with charges and countercharges aired in the press, breaking on page 1 of the New York Times on January 11, 1927, with the subheadline, “Film Star’s Wife Makes Sensational Charges of Infidelity and Threats on Her Life.” The divorce settlement that Lita Grey received was itself sensational: at $625,000, it was the largest monetary settlement in the United States at that time. (However, at just $8 million in today’s dollars, it was skimpy compared with the celebrity settlements we’ve grown accustomed to since; and had their marriage not cut short her career, she might have ended up even richer.) Despite the scandal, Chaplin’s career continued on an upward trajectory, and he remains a cultural icon today. Today’s celebrity divorces may feature scandalous accusations, but that’s less common now that such charges are not necessary to gain court approval for a legal divorce. Changing Attitudes A century ago, advocates for women’s equality argued that liberalizing divorce law was essential to women’s equal rights, and most people assumed that divorce promoted equality between the CHANGING CULTURE Charlie Chaplin with Lita Grey during the making of The Gold Rush, which she was to have starred in. Divorce Rates and Trends 367 sexes (Smock 2004). Later critics, concerned about the rising number of single mothers living in poverty, feared that divorce was not just expanding women’s rights but also contributing to the “feminization of poverty,” since few women received anything like the large settlement that Lita Grey received from Chaplin (Klawitter and Garfinkel 1992). Still, feminists consider access to divorce essential for gender equality. Today, acceptance of divorce is widespread but not universal. As of 2016, when asked whether divorce is “morally acceptable” versus “morally wrong,” 72 percent of Americans told the Gallup poll that they thought it was morally acceptable (Gallup 2016). But the pattern of support closely follows divisions between conservative and liberal political views (as you can see in Figure 10.1). The idea that easy access to divorce is weakening families in America and causing harm to children in particular is common among social conservatives (Coontz 1992). Social conservatives tend to combine views in favor of “traditional” family structure with support for traditional religious authority as well. That explains why those who attend religious activities more often are so much more likely to oppose loose divorce laws (Stokes and Ellison 2010). How acceptable—or reasonable—divorce is in response to relationship problems reflects the way people are raised and their cultural attitudes in general. However, people’s attitudes also reflect a practical response to their own experiences and the experiences of those around them. In an interesting example of that social process, a study of one community over time found that divorce tends to appear in clusters of friends, coworkers, and siblings (McDermott, Fowler, and Christakis 2013). And although most people favor nonrestrictive divorce laws and believe that divorce is a morally acceptable solution to serious marital problems, in some liberal communities divorced people experience feelings of failure and find themselves the subject of gossip. That was the experience of the women quoted in a feature story about divorced Brooklyn CHANGING CULTURE Percent of people who say that divorce in the United States “should be more difficult to obtain than it is now.” People with more conservative political views and those who participate in more religious activities have a more negative view of permissive divorce laws. SOURCE: Author’s graph from the General Social Survey data, 2014–2016 (Smith et al. 2017). Political views Religious activities Liberal Moderate Once a month More than once a month Never Less than once a month Conservative 28% 32% 44% 48% 57% 40% 52% Figure 10.1 Attitudes toward divorce 368 Chapter 10: Divorce, Remarriage, and Blended Families produce several different divorce rates, depending on what other information we have (England and Kunz 1975): • Crude divorce rate: 3.9 divorces for every 1,000 people in the country. This simply indicates how common divorce is in the whole country. We can report this if all we know is the number of divorces and the size of the entire population. That is why we use it for long-term trends, going back to years before there was good available data. As Figure 10.2 shows (using a different data source), the crude divorce rate rose from the earliest national estimate almost continuously for most of the twentieth century, until about 1981, from which time it has been falling almost continuously. • Refined divorce rate: 16 divorces for every 1,000 married couples in the country (or 1.6 percent). This tells us how common divorce is among married couples specifically, a figure that can be further broken down into the categories of education, race/ethnicity, number of years married, and number of times married (see the Story Behind the Numbers). • Divorce-marriage ratio: 1 divorce for every 2.2 marriages that year in the country. This directly compares the frequency of divorces to that of new marriages. That ratio means that there are 46 percent as many divorces as marriages—which some people have called the “divorce rate.” When most people ask about the divorce rate, they really are asking what the odds are that a couple who marry today will end up getting divorced. Since that question involves predicting the future, it’s impossible to answer, of course, but that won’t stop us from trying. There are two helpful ways of going about it. First, we can look at the marriage and divorce history of older people today. For example, a study in 2009 showed that, of all the people who got married in the 1950s, about 40 percent were divorced after 50 years. Among the group that married later, at the height of divorce in the late 1970s, mothers (Paul 2011). “I’ve definitely experienced judgment,” said Priscilla Gilman, a writer quoted in the story. “Everyone said: ‘Isn’t there anything more you can do? Your kids need you to be together. They’re so little.’” These cultural skirmishes, occurring in the personal lives of many people as they make their way through a lifetime of family decisions, reflect the unresolved nature of our cultural attitudes toward families. In this case, the competitive attitude toward parenting—which encourages parents to put their children above all else and judges them harshly when they do not (as we saw in Chapter 9)—clashes with the individualist view that marriage must be CHANGING CULTURE self-fulfilling and rewarding (as described in Chapter 8). • Crude divorce rate: 3.9 divorces for every 1,000 people in the country. This simply indicates how common divorce is in the whole country. We can report this if all we know is the number of divorces and the size of the entire population. That is why we use it for long-term trends, going back to years before there was good available data. As Figure 10.2 shows (using a different data source), the crude divorce rate rose from the earliest national estimate almost continuously for most of the twentieth century, until about 1981, from which time it has been falling almost continuously. • Refined divorce rate: 16 divorces for every 1,000 married couples in the country (or 1.6 percent). This tells us how common divorce is among married couples specifically, a figure that can be further broken down into the categories of education, race/ethnicity, number of years married, and number of times married (see the Story Behind the Numbers). • Divorce-marriage ratio: 1 divorce for every 2.2 marriages that year in the country. This directly compares the frequency of divorces to that of new marriages. That ratio means that there are 46 percent as many divorces as marriages—which some people have called the “divorce rate.” When most people ask about the divorce rate, they really are asking what the odds are that a couple who marry today will end up getting divorced. Since that question involves predicting the future, it’s impossible to answer, of course, but that won’t stop us from trying. There are two helpful ways of going about it. First, we can look at the marriage and divorce history of older people today. For example, a study in 2009 showed that, of all the people who got married in the 1950s, about 40 percent were divorced after 50 years. Among the group that married later, at the height of divorce in the late 1970s, mothers (Paul 2011). “I’ve definitely experienced judgment,” said Priscilla Gilman, a writer quoted in the story. “Everyone said: ‘Isn’t there anything more you can do? Your kids need you to be together. They’re so little.’” These cultural skirmishes, occurring in the personal lives of many people as they make their way through a lifetime of family decisions, reflect the unresolved nature of our cultural attitudes toward families. In this case, the competitive attitude toward parenting—which encourages parents to put their children above all else and judges them harshly when they do not (as we saw in Chapter 9)—clashes with the individualist view that marriage must be CHANGING CULTURE self-fulfilling and rewarding (as described in Chapter 8). Divorce Rates and Trends 369 a higher percentage—46 percent—were already divorced after only 30 years of marriage. Although many people believe that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, no cohort of couples has yet (quite) achieved that high of a rate (Kreider and Ellis 2011). Second, we can estimate how many of today’s marriages will end in divorce by calculating what would happen if some recent year (in this case, 2012) happened over and over again—that is, if everyone lived through today’s divorce rates for their entire marriages (Preston 1975). That way of estimating future events predicts that 53 percent of new marriages will eventually end in divorce, with the other 47 percent ending with the eventual death of one of the spouses (Cohen 2016). Using recent history to predict the future is complicated by the aging of the population. It turns out divorce rates have been rising for older people but falling for younger people, and we can’t know what will happen to today’s young people when they become tomorrow’s old people (Kennedy and Ruggles 2014). We will return to divorce at older ages in this chapter’s Trends to Watch. In summary, regardless of which numbers we use, we can safely say that divorce rates are a lot higher than they were 150 years ago, and they peaked around 1980 before starting to decline. But if we want to know what percentage of new marriages will end in divorce, we can only make an educated guess, but it will probably be about half. A consistent rise from 1860 to 1981, except for some major events that disrupted the trend: a dip during the Great Depression, when many people postponed divorce because they couldn’t afford to move out on their own; and a spike after World War II, when many people who had rushed into marriage before the war divorced. SOURCES: Statistical Abstracts; National Vital Statistics of the United States; Jacobson (1959). Note: For 1920–present these are official counts from the National Center for Health Statistics, and they do not exactly match those from the American The Divorce Revolution Let’s return to the years 1960–1980, when there was a dramatic increase in divorce that came to be called the “divorce revolution” (Weitzman 1985). What happened? Many people associate that rise with the liberalization of family law, which started permitting easier, “no-fault” divorces. Under the new laws, which spread across most of the country in the 1970s, couples could get a legal divorce without an accusation of wrongdoing, such as infidelity, abuse, or desertion. More important, in most states, either spouse could unilaterally demand a divorce. In other words, the law took on the reality that marriage was a voluntary arrangement between free individuals. Although not specifically written to privilege women, the new divorce laws were part of a tide of reforms in the legal system, inspired by the feminist movement, aimed at liberating women from traditional discriminatory laws (Strebeigh 2009). Divorce reform was probably the most radical change ever in the law governing families. But did such a dramatic break with the legal past really cause the number of divorces to skyrocket? Yes and no. As Figure 10.2 shows, divorce had been increasing for decades, and the rate was increasing rapidly even before 1970, when the first no-fault divorce law took effect in California. In fact, even prior to 1970, although the law mandated an adversarial divorce process based on finding one spouse at fault, many couples and their lawyers were able to work around the legality to arrange divorces even when no legal breach of the marriage vows had occurred (Cherlin 2010). And yet, there is no doubt that the more liberal legal environment made divorce easier. By studying the trends in different states as they adopted the new laws, researchers have determined that no-fault divorce did in fact lead to a sharp spike in divorces, but only for a short time (Wolfers 2006). After that, the divorce rate returned to a more moderate, long-run upward trend (Schoen and Canudas-Romo 2006). Thus, whether or not changes in the law were directly responsible, the divorce rate climbed for decades and eventually reached levels high enough to have a major impact on family life. By the time the baby boomers reached marriage age, their attitudes toward family commitments and priorities were unique in American history. People born in the late 1950s—during the baby boom—had the highest divorce rate ever recorded. About one-third of them had experienced a divorce as early as age 40 (Kreider and Ellis 2011). The fact that divorce was so common affected the decisions people made about whether to get married, whom to marry, whether and when to have children—and everything in between. By the 1970s, divorce achieved a critical level of momentum, generating ripple effects throughout society. For example, the later age at marriage and the practice of cohabitation, which we discussed in Chapter 8, are related to this reality. People fearful of divorce may postpone or forgo marriage altogether. Finally, the divorce revolution has proved to be multigenerational (Wolfinger 2005). Whether the effects of divorce on children are positive or negative—and as we will see, either outcome is possible—one consequence is that the children Causes of Divorce 373 of divorced parents are substantially more likely to get divorced themselves (Goodwin, Mosher, and Chandra 2010). In the view of some children of baby boomer parents—the so-called Generation X, born between 1965 and 1979—their parents’ divorces were the defining experiences of their generation. “It is a hard truism that every generation is shaped by its war,” wrote Susan Thomas in her memoir In Spite of Everything (2011:xvi). Previous generations were marked by life during World War II or the Vietnam War, for example. But “Generation X’s war,” she believes, “was the ultimate war at home: divorce.” Thomas, who was determined never to put her kids through the same thing she experienced, nevertheless eventually got divorced herself. Causes of Divorce Our sociological perspective is useful for organizing ideas about the causes of divorce. Like other family behavior, divorce is intimate and personal, but also the product of larger social forces. This description of the causes of divorce can’t cover everything, but it provides a framework for thinking about what contributes to couples breaking up (Lyngstad and Jalovaara 2010). In the Story Behind the Numbers we can see some of the larger patterns: divorces are relatively common for people with less education, for African Americans and American Indians, for those earlier in their marriages, and for those who have been married before. Some of that is not surprising given what we have learned earlier. For example, we saw in Chapter 8 that White marriages are reported to be somewhat happier than Black marriages (Broman 2005). And indeed, the higher rate of divorce among Black couples, compared with White and Latino couples, is a long-standing pattern (Bulanda and Brown 2007). But by looking more closely at the various aspects of marriage, we can learn much more about the nature and causes of divorce. The Matching Process When people join into couples, through marriage or cohabitation, the nature of the relationship is affected by the way they come together and by what they each bring to the union. The clearest way to see this is by comparing those who cohabit and those who marry: cohabiting couples break up more than married couples—they’re more likely to eventually split up and more likely to do so quickly. This may be because people get married when their relationships are already better or their commitments stronger. Or getting married may change relationships in ways that make them stronger. For cohabitors who do get married, there are contrasting views on how living together before marriage might affect the chance of the relationship surviving. One perspective is that people who live together first get to know each other 374 Chapter 10: Divorce, Remarriage, and Blended Families better. As a result, they make more informed decisions about marrying and their marriages are stronger. On the other hand, living together outside the bond of marriage might undermine their sense of commitment, making divorce more likely. Cohabitation is a practical question for many people who are considering whether to move in with someone they are planning eventually to marry. However, several problems complicate the goal of resolving it. People who live together before marriage have more liberal family views in general and a more accepting attitude toward divorce in particular. They also tend to have less stable lives—for example, in their work experience and history of moving around the country. So if they get divorced more, it might be as a result of these factors. Moreover, the “relationship clock” has already started for couples that live together before marrying. So comparing couples after, say, five years of marriage might be misleading, since those who lived together already have been in the relationship longer (Lyngstad and Jalovaara 2010). Careful analysis, taking these complications into account, shows that living together with a partner does not affect the chance of divorcing if the couple eventually marry (Manning and Cohen 2012). However, one important distinction is between those who are engaged Almost 40 percent of marriages in which the wife is under age 20 when they marry end in divorce within 10 years, about twice the rate of those who are over age 25 when they first marry. SOURCE: Author calculations from the 2015 American Community Survey. 15–19 20–24 25–29 30–34 35+ 38% 27% 19% 18% 19% Age at first marriage Figure 10.3 Chance of divorce within the first 10 years, by wife’s age at marriage Causes of Divorce 375 when they start cohabiting and those who aren’t. People who move in together when they’re engaged are less likely to get divorced—maybe because their relationship commitment was stronger all along (Goodwin et al. 2010). Another important element of the matching process is the age at which couples marry. People who are older when they first marry are less likely to divorce, and this could help explain falling divorce rates (Rotz 2016). As Figure 10.3 shows, people who marry before age 20 are about twice as likely as people who marry after age 25 to divorce within the first 10 years. Again, this could be because older people make more sensible decisions about marriage or because those who marry later are more mature emotionally, more financially secure, and better educated (Lehrer and Chen 2013). Relationship Dynamics Divorce usually follows unhappiness and conflict within marriage, which is not surprising. But when researchers study marriage dynamics, some other key issues emerge as risk factors for divorce (Bulanda and Brown 2007). Couples are more likely to divorce when they: • describe themselves as unhappy in their marriages; • spend less time alone with each other; • disagree frequently about household tasks, money, time together, sex, and their in-laws; or • have heated arguments, shout at, or hit each other. However, these problematic relationship dynamics have many sources. And other influences within the family work against these risk factors (Kamp Dush and Taylor 2012). For example, religion may be a source of stability, as churchgoing couples are less likely to divorce. But religious disagreement is a source of strife for many couples as well, and couples where the husband and wife have different levels of religious commitment or belief are more likely to divorce (Vaaler, Ellison, and Powers 2009). The most important consideration for many couples is their children, as even those couples who can’t agree about much often share a goal of minimizing their children’s unhappiness in a divorce. In fact, couples with children—especially young children—are less likely to divorce (Lillard and Waite 1993). Ironically, married people with young children also are less happy in their marriages, perhaps making a happiness sacrifice during the early childbearing years on behalf of their long-term commitment to each other and their children (Twenge, Campbell, and Foster 2003). Some difficulties with parents and children, however, clearly contribute to relationship stress and increase the chance of divorce. Infertility problems, children’s health disabilities, and the presence of stepchildren all have been shown to increase the likelihood of divorce (Reichman, Corman, and Noonan 2004; Teachman 2008). However, I should stress here that for each couple who divorce under such circumstances, there are many who do not—and who might actually describe the stress they endured together as an experience that made their family bonds stronger. Employment and Independence If you look carefully at Figure 10.2, you can see that the divorce rate was already increasing in the late nineteenth century. Without knowing how high the rate would eventually get, many people at that time were concerned. And some were already connecting the rise of divorce with the increased liberties of women, who could not even legally vote yet. Writing in 1889, the sociologist Carroll Wright (1889:169) asked, “Would the perfect independence of woman, her perfect equality before the law as a voter, accelerate divorce?” Soberly, he concluded that even if expanding women’s rights did increase the number of divorces, that was a necessary price to pay to preserve the sanctity of marriage—which, he believed, should always and only be freely chosen. By the time of the divorce revolution, it was not women’s voting rights that drew attention, but rather the growing tendency of women to hold their own paying jobs. Surely, thought analysts in the 1970s and 1980s, if more women could support themselves, they would be more likely to get divorces and strike out on their own. After all, the majority of divorces are initiated by women. But surprisingly, the role of women’s economic independence in accelerating the “divorce revolution” remains unclear. That is because independence actually works two ways (Sayer and Bianchi 2000). First, it is true that when women (or men, for that matter) have the economic means to survive on their own, they are more likely to leave unhappy marriages. This has been called the independence effect of women’s employment (Teachman 2010). Careful research—which tracks couples over time—has shown that women with jobs are more likely to seek divorces than they would otherwise, but only if they are dissatisfied with their marriage. There is no evidence that employment increases the tendency of women to leave happy marriages (Sayer et al. 2011). However, it may be that women who are considering divorce get jobs in anticipation of needing to support themselves and their children later on (Oezcan and Breen 2012). Still, the bottom line is that the rise of women’s employment, and the independence it provides, have contributed to the upward trend in divorce. On the other hand, ironically, independence also works to strengthen many marriages (Cooke et al. 2013). Couples in which both spouses have higher education and earn more are actually less likely to divorce. This is called the income effect of employment, because higher income within the couple serves as a source of stability and reduces stress between spouses. In fact, this tendency of high-earning couples to stay together has increased in the last several decades, with a clear gap opening up in the divorce rates between those with Causes of Divorce 377 more education—who divorce relatively rarely—and those with less education, whose marriages are more prone to break up (Martin 2006). In combination, the independence and income effects of employment mean that employed people are freer to leave unhappy marriages, and people with higher incomes are more stable in their marriages—maybe because richer people leave marriages that don’t satisfy them. That’s part of the explanation for the pattern seen in Figure 10.4, which shows happiness levels to be higher for those with more family income. We also see how important employment is in providing stability and reducing relationship stress when we study people who lose their jobs (Hardie and Lucas 2010). Couples in which one member experiences a job loss often have relationship problems as a result and are more likely to divorce. This pattern is especially pronounced when it is the husband who is out of a job. That suggests that it is not just couples’ financial well-being that matters, but also a continued cultural expectation that husbands will provide income for their families (Killewald 2016). However, that norm may be weakening, as it is no longer the case that couples are more likely to divorce when the wife has more education than her husband (Schwartz and Han 2014). There is one final consideration about the place of employment—and unemployment—in understanding divorce. With the severe economic recession. When Is Enough, Enough? In response to a series of sex scandals involving married politicians, the Gallup polling organization asked more than 500 married Americans whether they would forgive their spouse if she or he had a sexual affair with another person. Figure 10.5 shows the breakdown of the responses. In addition, 62 percent told Gallup they would get a divorce if they discovered such an affair— about the same percentage as the no-forgivers. Where to draw that line for divorce is not automatic. It is a product of a person’s attitudes, upbringing, and the wider cultural context. Historian Stephanie Coontz (2007:14) writes, “But for better or worse, people decide what they will and will not put up with in a relationship today on a totally different basis than they used to.” So, what’s a good reason to divorce—or not to divorce? In this exercise, individual students, small groups, or the whole class should ask themselves two sets of questions: 1. How strongly do you feel divorce is or is not morally acceptable? Think about it this way: Is divorce okay . . . a. With kids i. always, if someone wants to ii. sometimes, if the marriage is really not working iii. rarely, in the case of serious problems or betrayal iv. never b. Without kids i. always, if someone wants to ii. sometimes, if the marriage is really not working iii. rarely, in the case of serious problems or betrayal iv. never 2. If divorce is ever okay, which conditions or events would justify a divorce? a. Unhappiness in the marriage b. Couple growing apart, love fading c. Social lives incompatible, friends not getting along d. Poor sex life e. One spouse disrespectful to or unable to get along with extended family WORKSHOP SOURCE: J. Jones (2008). Probably Probably not Definitely Definitely not 10% 23% 26% 38% Figure 10.5 Would you forgive your spouse if you found out s/he was having a sexual affair? Consequences of Divorce 379 that occurred at the end of the 2000s, many people were concerned that divorce rates would increase—which is what we might expect if job loss puts marriages at higher risk of divorce (Amato and Beattie 2011). However, divorce rates continued to fall after the crisis (Cohen 2014b). Why? Future research may provide a definite answer, but I suspect that the recession both caused some divorces and prevented some divorces. Some were caused by the stress and disruption of job loss, especially when people lost their homes as a result. But because divorce is often expensive, other divorces were prevented by the same factors. At minimum, divorce requires legal fees and the costs of one spouse moving out—and it may require selling the family home to split up the proceeds, something that was very difficult during the recession of the late 2000s. So some unhappy couples may have been stuck together by the recession as well. Consequences of Divorce Divorce isn’t the outcome people look forward to when they get married. So we usually think of divorce as a bad outcome. However, once people are in an unhappy marriage, divorce may be a better option than staying married, so we should consider the potential positive as well as negative aspects of the experience. There are also different parties to a divorce to consider—the adults, the children, and anyone else involved. In this section, I will introduce a few ways of looking at the question. f. Irresponsible spouse not carrying own weight in the marriage g. Religious differences irresolvable h. Career situation impossible to resolve for both spouses i. One instance of infidelity j. Repeated infidelity or long-running affair k. Neglecting children or failing to care for them property l. Abuse or violence within the family m. Others? In a group discussion, small group session, or individual writing, compare your answers to the first set of questions—how strongly you feel that divorce is okay or not okay—with your answers to the second set of questions about specific situations that might justify getting a divorce. Compare your responses with those of others. What is the range of differences within the class? What do you think is the source of the differences of opinion? You may want to consider the role of upbringing, family experience, and religious or political views. Adults’ Happiness Divorced people are generally less happy than married people, but that doesn’t mean that divorce caused their unhappiness. Not surprisingly, unhappy people are more likely to get divorced in the first place (Lucas 2005). But at least for a time, the process of divorce increases the odds of those involved experiencing symptoms of depression or unhappiness (Kamp Dush 2013). Still, among those who get divorced, the differences in experience are more important than trying to identify a single common result. For example, a study of several thousand British couples asked a series of questions to measure people’s level of mental stress, such as whether they had recently had trouble with concentration, sleep, making decisions, feeling under strain, feeling helpless or worthless, or feeling depressed. The researchers tracked these couples over time and compared those who divorced or separated with those who didn’t (Gardner and Oswald 2006). As Figure 10.6 shows, two years before a marital dissolution, those headed for a breakup clearly showed a higher level of stress, which rose until the year of the separation or divorce and then fell back down to a lower level than before (although it was still slightly higher than the stress experienced by stably married adults). This suggests that there is at least some benefit to divorcing for these relatively stressed-out people. Stress levels are higher, and rising, before divorce or separation, but then fall back to a level near that of stably married adults. SOURCE: Adapted from Gardner and Oswald (2006). 2 years before 10 Stress level (on a scale of 0−36) 11 12 13 14 15 1 year before Year of divorce or separation 1 year after 2 years after Divorcing or separating Staying married Figure 10.6 Mental stress levels in the years surrounding divorce or separation Consequences of Divorce 381 On the other hand, because divorce is so widely considered a “failure,” many people experience a stigma after they divorce, which makes them less happy. Even though it has become more common, more permissible, and less universally condemned socially, divorced people still often want to keep their divorced status private due to feelings of failure or self-disapproval, and they may fear people are judging them negatively. This actually contributes to the desire many divorced people have to remarry; remarrying removes their “status” as a divorced children. Economic Status Consider a simple divorce scenario, shown in Figure 10.7. In a typical marriedcouple family with two children in 2016, a husband employed full-time earns about $60,000 and a wife about $40,000. That means that the total of $100,000 works out to $25,000 per person. If they divorce and each spouse keeps earning the same amount—and the children live with their mother—then the mother and children will be in a household with $40,000 and three people (or, $13,333 per person) while the father is on his own with $60,000. His per-person income goes up, hers and the children’s goes down. If she doesn’t have (or keep) her full-time job, the scenario will be worse for them. The lower incomes of women and the tendency for them to live with their children after divorce are the reasons courts often order fathers to pay child support after a divorce (Oldham 2008). Unfortunately, this does not close the income gap that opens up after divorce. That is because the poorer people were before their divorce, the less money the parent who lives with the children gets in child support—and the more likely they are not going to receive their child support payments at all (Grall 2016). The divorce revolution, from 1960 to 1980, undoubtedly contributed to what became known as the “feminization of poverty” in the 1980s (Hill 1985). By the end of the 1970s, about 60 percent of all poor families with children were led by single mothers. In fact, these mostly involved women who had never been married, but the dire economic consequences experienced by many divorced women were an important part of the story as well. The breakup of cohabiting couples is also a common situation, and because many cohabiting women are poor to start with, the demise of those relationships is very costly for them as well (Avellar and Smock 2005). However, because most women now have work experience when they’re married, and their education levels have increased, these losses are not as bad as they were in decades past (McKeever and Wolfinger 2001). Financially, it is also helpful that families have fewer children now than they did in decades past (Bengtson, Biblarz, and Roberts 2002). Nevertheless, women are more than twice as likely as men to be below the poverty line (discussed in Chapter 4) in the year after a divorce (see Figure 10.8). This gender disparity in poverty rates remains one of the important features of divorce’s fallout, especially for children. 382 Chapter 10: Divorce, Remarriage, and Blended Families Using typical incomes for married men and women with full-time jobs, this illustration shows the increase in available income for men—and the decrease for women and children—if the children go live with their mother and the spouses’ incomes remain the same. SOURCE: Author’s analysis of data from the March 2016 Current Population Survey. Figure 10.7 Breaking up a household. Children’s Well-Being When Rachelle and Stephen planned their wedding, there were some practical questions to resolve. Both the bride and groom had divorced parents. Rachelle wondered: How do you include one mother in the processional when the other does not want to walk down the aisle, much less alone, and there’s no clear answer for who should escort her? How do you figure out the seating for the ceremony for the mothers, fathers, second wives, stepsiblings and half-siblings so that everyone feels honored but no one is forced to sit next to someone who causes them pain to be near? This is the tip of the iceberg, my friends, and it feels never-ending. Long before they considered marriage, Rachelle wrote, their relationship was marked by their histories of divorce: We dated tentatively. We fell in love tentatively. We talked about moving in together “one day” for over a year before we finally felt comfortable doing so. Every move forward was risking getting hurt bigger, more spectacularly. We had almost no one to model a healthy and happy relationship for us. We didn’t have any way to know that we weren’t doing it completely wrong, doomed to fail miserably at some inevitable future point. (“Planning a Wedding with Divorced Parents” 2011) Rachelle’s experience, which she described anonymously online, shows how, as with any major life event, marital dissolution creates ripples—or waves—that have many effects on children’s lives. In the short run, the stress of a divorce may negatively affect school performance and children’s happiness (Kim 2011). In the long run, the experience can threaten the mental health of its survivors Overall, mothers are about 7 percent more likely to be in poverty than fathers. But among those who divorced in the last year, women are more than twice as likely to be poor. SOURCE: Author’s calculations from the 2015 American Community Survey (Ruggles et al. 2016). Note: Includes parents ages 18–59, living with children. All parents Divorced in 2015 Men Women 15.1% 23.6% 8.3% 10.9% Figure 10.8 Poverty and divorce: percentage in poverty for all parents and for those who divorced in 2015 384 Chapter 10: Divorce, Remarriage, and Blended Families and undermine their relationships with their parents. There is no simple way to generalize about these consequences, however, and researchers recognize that divorce may have positive effects as well (Amato and Anthony 2014). Divorce is an “uncoupling process” rather than a single event—including the time leading up to the legal divorce or separation and the period of adjustment that follows. It is potentially a stressful process for everyone involved, but in different ways (Kelly and Emery 2003). For example, older children may be more aware of the divorce as it is happening, while younger children might not be seriously affected until they move into a new household without one of their parents. For those who are aware of the unhappiness in the marriage, its dissolution may cause immediate feelings of relief. The ambiguity about parents breaking up is even more pronounced when they weren’t married before splitting, which means that there is no definitive moment provided by a legal divorce, and the relationships that follow are less clearly defined (Allen 2007). Sociologist Paul Amato (2010) has divided the potential factors that affect children’s experience of divorce into three categories: stressful aspects of the divorce process, protective factors to help prevent negative effects, and post-divorce outcomes. These aspects of the divorce experience increase stress for those children involved: • Less parental time and energy—or patience—for the normal aspects of parenting, and sometimes less time with parents altogether (Cooper et al. 2009) • Losing contact with one parent for periods of time • Witnessing or being part of conflicts, such as arguing or shouting (especially having to do with the children), which may continue for years after the divorce • Residential moves, job and school transitions, and economic hardship These factors offer protection for children from the negative consequences of divorce: • Coping skills, interpersonal skills, and self-confidence • Economic, educational, or other resources that help families buffer children from stressors • Attentive parenting, diminished conflict, and continued involvement of both parents after the divorce These are common outcomes that children may experience as a result of divorce: • Short-term emotional or behavioral reactions or school problems. • Permanent emotional changes • New roles and identities in the family or social environment We saw in Chapter 9 that many more children are born to unmarried parents than was the case several decades ago. Trying to build or improve the relationships between children and the parents they don’t live with—usually their fathers—has become increasingly important as their numbers have grown (Holt 2016). This is naturally even more challenging when fathers had little to do with the children in the first place (Edin, Tach, and Mincy 2009). But when fathers remain more involved in their children’s lives after divorce, the effects generally are beneficial (Carlson and Magnuson 2011). Children who live with their mothers are better off psychologically, behaviorally, and academically when they remain involved with their fathers (Adamsons and Johnson 2013). Still, the expectations for how, and how much, fathers should remain involved in their children’s lives by spending time together, contributing money, and making important family decisions are often not clear. As we will see, the complications only increase when parents start forming new blended families after a divorce. As the number of children of divorced parents has increased—and as those children have grown up—we have been able to learn more about the consequences of divorce for children. (In fact, I found more than 1,000 published studies about divorce and children.) One of the most important developments in this research has been the discovery that much of what looks like a consequence of divorce is actually related to which parents get divorced in the first place (Amato 2010). The people who divorce are more likely to be relatively poor, unstable or depressed, or unable to manage relationships—and their children simply reflect some of these problems. And some of the negative outcomes seen among children of divorce are also found among the children of parents in unhappy marriages who don’t divorce. Nevertheless, divorce is a major transition for most children (Brown, Stykes, and Manning 2016). And transitions themselves—moving, changing schools and neighborhoods, gaining and losing family members—pose challenges to children’s development. So divorce remains an important milestone in the development of many children and their families (see Changing Law, “Who Gets the Kids?”). Remarriage and Blended Families The story of American marriage is increasingly the story of remarriage. Most people who divorce eventually remarry, and my analysis of the American Community Survey finds that about 40 percent of new marriages involve at least one Who Gets the Kids? If parents weren’t married before they had children, the children almost always live with the mother after the relationship breaks up. In those cases, the father may pay—or be ordered to pay—child support, as long as his paternity is established. If he is unable to pay, he may provide other kinds of support to help care for the kids (Kane, Nelson, and Edin 2015). On the other hand, when parents are married, the law no longer assumes that the children will live with the mother; that’s a matter for the separation or divorce agreement or for the couple and their children to work out informally as they split up. There are no comprehensive national statistics on legal child custody arrangements after divorce. And the legal arrangements might not be an accurate reflection of the messy reality of families’ daily lives in any event. However, it is clear that the great majority of children of divorced parents live primarily with their mothers. The 2015 American Community Survey shows, for example, that 67 percent of children whose parents got divorced in the previous year are now living in single-mother households. Why is this an important sociological issue? Here are three reasons. First, the care and nurturing of children is an important part of gender inequality. Because the parent who has custody of the children provides the bulk of their care, the tendency of children to live with their mothers means that the labor and expense fall mostly to women (Folbre 1994b). Second, disputes over custody arrangements—over contact with the children (visitation rights) and payments of child support in particular—are one of the painful legacies of many divorces that have negative consequences for children and their parents and stepparents. So if the arrangements are not consensual or if they are a source of conflict, then the negative effects of divorce will be amplified. And third, research shows that maintaining good relationships and close contact between separated parents and children can be good for both parents and children (Choi, Palmer, and Pyun 2014). Changing Assumptions Judges in divorce cases—and the state legislatures that make the rules for them to follow—face a complex task of balancing interests. One goal is for children to maintain good relationships with both parents. Another goal is to promote a stable family life for children’s development. This balance is not easily achieved, but it is one reason why many divorces today result in joint custody arrangements, in which children live alternately with both parents, with the mother and father sharing the costs and responsibilities of child rearing (Warshak 2014). Among fathers who do not live with their children, it is difficult to maintain close, supportive parenting relationships. When joint custody is successful, it improves fathers’ involvement with their children, which benefits their development. If, on the other hand, it is assumed that children belong with their mothers, then the economic losses associated with divorce will be more concentrated among women and children, and men who want custody may feel bitter and left out. Partly in realization of these facts, in the last several decades many states have changed their laws from instructing judges to evaluate custody cases based on “the best interests of the child”—which usually meant the mother—to a legal “presumption” that joint custody is the best outcome (Allen and Brinig 2011). More fathers now actively seek custody of their children—and they have higher incomes, which makes a favorable impression on judges—so shared custody and even father-only custody seems more attractive as a solution. As a result, many more divorces are leading to joint custody agreements (Cancian et al. 2014). Still, one recurring pattern in post-divorce disputes relates to the linking of child support with child custody or visitation rights. In an effort to reduce poverty among mothers and children and decrease the number of single-parent families receiving welfare, states and local governments have increased their enforcement of child support orders. This includes restricting visitation rights, garnishing the wages of parents who don’t make payments, suspending their driver’s licenses, and even arresting them for failure to pay. That approach has not been successful with fathers who have low incomes or poor employment prospects (including those who go to prison). As a result, millions of relatively poor fathers owe large debts of child support that they will never be able to repay, placing them in legal jeopardy and undermining relationships with their children and former partners (Pao 2015). Ironically, even as more men have gained custody of their children after divorce, the perception that men’s rights are harmed by these legal arrangements has only increased. This sense of being wronged has led some men to join the “men’s rights” movement (Flood 2012). This situation has also given rise to a new cultural genre—the custody rant. Both men and women have taken to complaining publicly about their ex-spouses and the disputes that followed their divorces. I found one man’s 8-minute “rant” (his term), which included this passage: I don’t feel I should be paying for children, who I’m not seeing—you’re alienating me from their lives, I want to be in their lives—you say I’m not good enough but my money is. . . .I feel my ex-wife tries to punish me. She tries to totally alienate the children from me, yet I have done nothing wrong. . . .I used to love seeing the children all the time. Then all of a sudden it stops. She meets somebody. She gets married. The game now changed. I don’t wanna play the game. I wanna see my kids. You want my child support and I want my visitation. Regardless of the form the rants take, bitter divorces are likely to generate bitter custody disputes. And children’s relationships with their parents—and their family stability—will suffer as a result. spouse who has been married before. The more ex-spouses and children from previous relationships there are when a couple gets married, the more everyone involved has the challenge—or opportunity—of rethinking their family lives (Sweeney 2010). Traditionally, the prefix “step” was added to various family terms to indicate a relationship by marriage rather than by “blood” or adoption. So, for example, a “stepparent” was married to a child’s parent. Over time, as cohabitation and other informal relationships became more common, people also started using the terms to refer to relationships that did not include marriage. As a result, these definitions are a little complicated, but they are necessary nonetheless before we can go much further. Defining Ambiguity First let’s consider the parent-child relationships. A stepparent is the spouse or committed partner of one’s biological or adoptive parent. On the flip side, a stepchild is the child of one’s spouse or committed partner. Thus, step-relations have no biological relationship, but are related by the marriage or similar commitments of adults. Next let’s consider the sibling relationships. Following the logic of “step” as a marital (or marriage-like) connection, a stepsibling (stepbrother or stepsister) is the child (son or daughter) of one’s stepparent. Again, stepsiblings are not biologically related. In contrast, a half-sibling is the biological child of one’s parent and another person. That is, half-siblings share only one biological parent. From the children’s point of view, families often include both stepsiblings and half-siblings—for example, when their mother and stepfather have a new child in addition to the stepsibling that came to the marriage. Unfortunately, these definitions are becoming even more complicated in several ways. First, some stepparents eventually adopt their stepchildren legally. stepparent The spouse or committed partner of one’s biological or adoptive parent. stepchild The child of one’s spouse or committed partner. stepsibling (stepbrother/ stepsister) The child (son/daughter) of one’s stepparent. half-sibling (half-brother/ half-sister) The biological child of one’s parent and another person. my ex-wife tries to punish me. She tries to totally alienate the children from me, yet I have done nothing wrong. . . .I used to love seeing the children all the time. Then all of a sudden it stops. She meets somebody. She gets married. The game now changed. I don’t wanna play the game. I wanna see my kids. You want my child support and I want my visitation. Regardless of the form the rants take, bitter divorces are likely to generate bitter custody disputes. And children’s relationships with their parents—and their family stability—will suffer as a result. CHANGING LAW Remarriage and Blended Families 389 Second, some states have recently created legal definitions of stepparent-child relationships, with rights and obligations attached to them, so that such informal terms may not be legally accurate (Pollet 2010). Finally, although I have included unmarried partners in the definition of stepparents and stepsiblings, without a formal marriage it may not be clear whether such a partner is actually a stepparent. Family members might not agree on whether the partner actually lives in the household (for example, does he still have another apartment?). And they may not agree on the partner’s relationship to or responsibility for the children, which often develops gradually over time (Ganong 2004). Here is one telling example of such confusion. A large survey interviewed adolescents (7th grade through 12th grade) and the biological mothers with whom they lived. The children and their mothers were asked about the other people in the household. In the responses, 2.7 percent of adolescents said that their mother’s partner lived in the household. But almost twice as many mothers—5.2 percent—said that they were living with a partner. In other words, mothers were more likely to say that their boyfriends were actually living in the household (Brown and Manning 2009). Such “cohabiting stepparent families” are just one example of the ambiguity that many people experience in attempting to define and name their family type and its members as people come and go. For our purposes, any family that includes stepparents, stepsiblings, or half-siblings is a blended family (Kreider and Ellis 2011b). The word blended implies that more than one family is mixed together, with at least one outside family member whose relationship is not shared with everyone. By one way of counting them, which I show in Figure 10.11, 13 percent of children now live in blended families (but this is probably an undercount, since the survey I used doesn’t show whether the children living with single parents are full- or half-siblings). As we discussed in Chapter 1, knowing who is and who is not a family member is an important aspect of children’s healthy development. Most important are the parent (or other caregiver) relationships, since these are the adults children need to trust in order to feel safe and secure, especially at the youngest ages. Beyond that, however, it is important for family members to agree on the boundaries of the family, the limits of the intimate family space on the inside, versus the more public social space on the outside. In blended families, the condition of boundary ambiguity occurs when family members do not know or do not agree on who is in the family and what role each person plays (Carroll, Olson, and Buckmiller 2007). This is more complicated the more people who are involved, and the more fluid living arrangements undermine the physical sense of family. Positive outcomes depend on the quality of the relationships as well. For example, teens who have a better relationship with their stepfathers were more likely than those who felt more distant to report feeling a sense of family belonging (King, Boyd, and Thorsen 2015). The attempt to reduce such ambiguity in family relations was an important motivation for those who spent years attempting to achieve legal recognition for same-sex marriage. Because many gay and lesbian couples have children from previous marriages, the inherent ambiguity in their families was exacerbated by uncertain legal status (Carpenter and Gates 2008). When gay and lesbian marriages were not legally recognized, these families faced more difficulty establishing family roles that are clear to people both inside and outside their families. Marriage hasn’t eliminated these unique challenges for same-sex couples, but it has made an important difference in their lives (Baumle and Compton 2017). Interestingly, the rules of appropriate sexual intimacy are related to these boundaries. Almost everyone opposes sex between siblings or half-siblings, a taboo that usually extends to stepsiblings as well. However, when the stepparents are not married, or the children were not raised together, or even when two teenagers are dating before their parents become romantic partners, the informal rules are not clear. The following excerpt is from a young woman, speaking anonymously in an Internet discussion board, attempting to justify having sex with the son of her parent’s unmarried partner. I have slightly edited the text and withheld the web address to protect the user’s identity: I [had sex with] my stepbrother. Well, he’s not really a stepbrother. Well he is, but our parents aren’t married, and I’d only met him like four times. I couldn’t date him or be with him, but it was just the once. . . .Dating your brother or sister or cousin that you share the same DNA with is sick. A stepsibling that you have absolutely no relation to, strange, but not sick. Maybe if you grew up together, but not in this case. In the absence of a clear legal rule or strict social convention, these boundaries are worked out over time in countless conversations such as this. Eventually, perhaps, new rules emerge. By the end of that conversation, the woman was slightly ashamed of what she had done (and mentioned it was under the influence of alcohol), even though others reassured her that it was not “sick” or “wrong.” Modern Family’s diverse family structures mirror those in the United States today: divorce, remarriage, children from previous relationships, same-sex marriage, and adoption are all common reasons our ideas of “family” are changing. Remarriage and Blended Families 391 Who Remarries? The short answer is: most people. America’s high divorce rate—compared with that of the rest of the world—is complemented by a high remarriage rate. Or, as sociologist Andrew Cherlin jokes, “We seem to love marriage so much we do it over and over again.” It may seem funny, but it does reflect the high value Americans place on marriage—although the tendency toward divorce and remarriage suggests that Americans care as much about being married as they do about maintaining marriages. The pattern of remarriage seems to be changing, however, as both cultural attitudes about remarriage and the nation’s demographics shift with the big baby boomer generation moving through its middle-aged years. As you can see in Figure 10.9, the group with the most remarriages is ages 55 to 64. Almost 30 percent of that group has been married more than once. Most of them married for the first time in the late 1970s, and their marriages were the most likely to end in divorce. Thus, this generation—which also introduced the United States to the highest rates of cohabitation—has led the growth of remarriage as well as the growth of divorce. The effect of their family behavior on future generations remains to be seen (see Trend to Watch). The rapid changes evident in this pattern make it difficult to make predictions, but it is likely that two-thirds of those who are divorcing now will eventually remarry (Sweeney 2010). Ironically, if divorce is seen by some people as a stigma, it doesn’t apparently harm their chances of remarriage, at least for the majority of those who want to remarry. It helps that with so many divorced people in the “marriage market,” they often end up marrying each other—maybe because they are willing to accept marriage to a person who has been divorced. While fairly common after divorce, remarriage is much less common after widowhood. That is because divorced people tend to be younger and also because they more actively seek remarriage. In fact, people may choose to initiate a divorce partly based on their perception that they have a good chance of remarriage (Sweeney 2010). For a snapshot of the general pattern in remarriage, Figure 10.10 shows remarriage rates for 2015—that is, the percentage of previously married people in each group who got married again in that year. Overall, almost 3 percent remarried, but the differences between groups are significant. Most prominent, men are almost twice as likely as women to remarry in a given year. Children play a large role in that disparity (Goldscheider and Sassler 2006). Women with children are less likely to remarry; since most divorced mothers live with their children, this suggests that many men seek to avoid marriages with stepchildren. On the other hand, few divorced men live with children, and if they do, it actually increases their chance of remarrying (possibly because it increases their desire to find a new spouse). Figure 10.10 also extends our understanding of the inequalities we have seen in the rates of marriage and divorce. The lower likelihood of remarriage for African Americans is a longstanding pattern (Furstenberg et al. 1983). And now we can see that people with lower levels of education are also less likely to remarry (McNamee and Raley 2011). This has unfortunate consequences for economic inequality. Remarriage can help families recover from the financial losses they suffered in a divorce—especially women with children (Morrison and Ritualo 2000). But those who are having trouble financially are much less likely to remarry successfully. As with first marriages, the dynamics of remarriage are affected by the situation of the couple at the start. For example, most people who remarry today have already lived together with their new spouse (Teachman 2008). Their age, their relationship experience, and, especially, their children all shape the blended families that remarriage creates. Challenges for Blended Families As blended families have become more common, the problems of definition and boundary ambiguity noted earlier have become more prominent. In fact, these issues are a part of the social change underway for families in general, in which growing diversity has created increasing challenges of identity for each generation. The potential benefits of such change, however, include growing freedom for people to choose how to live their family lives—and growing acceptance of the diversity that results. In addition, increased independence for women and the trend toward smaller families make today’s families better prepared to handle challenging transitions than were families in the past (Bengtson et al. 2002). Today’s children are certainly experiencing blended families at higher rates than those in the past. Even though divorce rates have declined since the 1980s, remarriage remains very common, and there are more children living with unmarried parents who cohabit with a partner, who may have children as well. But blended families are not equally common in different groups in the United States. Figure 10.11 shows that Hispanic children most often experience blended families. Even though Latino couples have relatively low divorce rates, they are quite likely to remarry. The opposite is true for African Americans: although they have high divorce rates, relatively few children live in blended families because the remarriage rate is low. From the perspective of broader social change, blended families are ahead of the curve in several respects. For one thing, remarried adults tend to preserve their individual autonomy more than those in first marriages—they are less inclined to give up their career interests for their spouses, for example. That more independent orientation makes sense once you consider that most of them are managing complex sets of relationships with multiple families. Also, they may have learned from their divorce experiences—for better or worse—to protect their independence. For children, that means growing up in a family with parents who are more individually oriented than those in first marriages. Not surprisingly, children of divorced parents seem to be more individualistic than those whose parents remain married (Bengtson et al. 2002). Conflicts within blended families often reflect the problem of overlapping family boundaries. For example, stepparents face the challenge of integrating different parenting strategies, as each biological parent may attempt to preserve SOURCE: Author calculations from the 2016 Current Population Survey. Hispanic White, Black non-Hispanic Asian Total 14.3% 13.5% 12.3% 6.3% 13.3% Figure 10.11 Children living in blended families Trend to Watch: Gray Divorce 395 his or her parenting style. That causes conflict when the two parenting styles differ: Which parent makes (and enforces) the rules for which child? Other common problems include money disputes having to do with the partners’ previous spouses and arguments over how to manage relations with the partners’ extended families (Coleman et al. 2005). Finally, what about intergenerational support in and around blended families? Here, again, the informal rules and customs are being figured out as we go (Curran, McLanahan, and Knab 2003). It may seem clear that a stepfather who marries a child’s mother when the child is young has the same support obligations as any other parent—including, if possible, to pay for the child’s college education. And the child, in turn, might be expected to help care for him when he’s old if that becomes necessary. But does it matter if the stepfather and mother aren’t married but are merely cohabiting partners? What if the stepfather enters the family when the child is 17—or 27? And what about the children from his previous marriage? The law may provide some guidance for the complicated situations and dilemmas posed by blended families, but the legal rules remain tentative and often unclear (Mahoney 2006). Beyond that, the questions remain up in the air—part of the cultural remaking taking place in American families—with no destination in sight. The different approaches people take to working out these issues form a vital part of the family diversity we experience today. Trend to Watch: Gray Divorce The baby boom generation, born in the years 1946–1964, is in the age range 54–72 as of 2018. Besides being so numerous as to skew the whole population upward in age (see Chapter 13), what will be the impact of this generation’s journey through senior citizenship? These are the people who brought us the rise of cohabitation before marriage, then delayed their first marriages until their middle or late 20s, and then ushered in the divorce revolution. So maybe we should not have been startled to learn that this generation is also bringing us a boom in divorce after age 50. Over the two decades leading up to 2010, the divorce rate over age 50 doubled, in what researchers call the “gray divorce revolution” (Brown and Lin 2012). And that was as divorces were becoming less common among younger people. You might think the baby boomers had gotten divorce out of their system over the previous decades, and that is partly true; many of them divorced from their first marriages before age 50. However, today’s divorce-after-50 is likely to be ending a second or third marriage. In fact, half of those over 50 who divorced in 2015 were married two or more times, compared with just one in four of those under 50. Cohabitation, later marriage, divorce, remarriage, and divorce again—that is a marriage life history introduced to modern society by the generation born after World War II. While the previous debates about divorce concerned the well-being of young children whose lives were disrupted by divorce, the conversation about older-age divorce will likely be about pensions and savings, how to arrange caring for older people, and the personal relationships of grown children with their divorced older parents. The question for the future is whether this generation is unique, or whether divorce at older ages will become a more permanent or even increasing feature of the family landscape. It’s too early to say. However, as noted above, divorce has a multigenerational pattern, in which people often emulate the behavior of their parents. If that is the case, we may expect relatively high divorce rates at older ages to persist.

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