Hearts divided

February 14, 2005|By Andrew J. Cherlin

VALENTINE'S DAY will undoubtedly bring the usual paeans to love and marriage that warm commentators' hearts. But although Americans are into love, they are surprisingly ambivalent about marriage. And that ambivalence is on display in, of all places, Arkansas.

Tonight, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and his wife will convert their marriage to a "covenant marriage" in front of an arena full of couples in North Little Rock. Spouses who choose Arkansas's covenant marriage option must agree to limit the grounds for a quick divorce to transgressions such as infidelity or abuse and to seek counseling before the divorce is granted. If they wish to divorce for other reasons, they must live apart for two years. Covenant marriage is also available in Arizona and Louisiana, and many other state legislatures are considering it.

At first glance, covenant marriage seems to be a growing, marriage-strengthening trend. But the most astonishing thing about it is how few couples are choosing it. In Arkansas, out of the 100,000 or so marriages that have begun since it was introduced in 2001, about 600 couples have chosen it - less than 1 percent.

The story is the same elsewhere. In Louisiana, which pioneered the covenant marriage option in 1997, less than 2 percent of all newlyweds have chosen it. Advocates for covenant marriage claim that many couples are unaware of it and that the laws have been poorly implemented. Even so, the numbers are far lower than anyone expected.

Initially, it was thought that many newlyweds would choose covenant marriage because they would be embarrassed to admit that they doubted their commitment would last a lifetime. Moreover, covenant marriage seems consistent with public opinion. In the 2002 General Social Survey, a random sample of American adults, 51 percent said that divorce should be more difficult to obtain, compared with only 27 percent who said it should be easier to obtain.

Why, then, have so many newlyweds turned down the opportunity to restrict their own ability to divorce?

The answer lies in the competing values that many Americans hold. Just as the word marriage taps a reservoir of positive sentiment in America, so does the phrase individual freedom. Indeed, what makes the United States distinctive in the world is our combination of traditional values about family life and modern values about self-expression and personal growth.

You can find developed countries with traditional values about family life, such as Italy, where few children are born outside of marriage and few people live together without marrying; and you can find countries with modern values, such as Sweden, where marriage and cohabitation are virtually indistinguishable. But only in the United States do you find large helpings of both.

Consequently, Americans are conflicted about life-long marriage: They value the stability and security of marriage, but they tend to believe that individuals who are unhappy with their marriages should be allowed to end them. In fact, the United States has some of the highest levels of both marriage and divorce of any developed nation.

Governor Huckabee is promoting covenant marriage in part because he knows that Arkansas has the second-highest divorce rate of the 46 states for which data are available. It may seem incongruous that a state in the Bible Belt has so much divorce, but seven of the top 10 states are in the South, and the other three (including Nevada, the perennial leader) are in the West.

All 10 are red states, which suggests that having a socially conservative electorate does not insulate a state from high divorce. It turns out that conservative Protestants, who are clustered in the South, have slightly higher divorce rates than Catholics, who are not. People in high-divorce-rate states also tend to have less education and to marry earlier - both risk factors for divorce.

When sociologist Alan Wolfe of Boston College conducted interviews to see whether Americans could be divided into "traditionalists" and "modernists" in their beliefs about family life, he concluded that they could not. Rather, he found that many people displayed both beliefs.

"The divisions over the family do not take place between camps of people," he concluded. "Instead, they take place within most individuals."

The failure of covenant marriage to catch on shows those internal divisions. While Americans may prefer to make divorce more difficult for others, they are reluctant to make it more difficult for themselves.

Andrew J. Cherlin is the Griswold professor of public policy in the sociology department at the Johns Hopkins University.

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