Divorce Rates Down: Can We Thank No-Fault Divorce?

According to recently-compiled data from the 2010 Census, divorce rates in the U.S. are on the decline.

There has been a great deal of speculation as to what has caused this. “Family values” types will probably take the news of lower divorce rates as good news. And, hopefully, they’ll continue to see it as good news even if it turns out that many so-called “liberal” practices (cohabitation, no-fault divorce, same-sex marriage, etc.) might actually have played a role in lowering the divorce rate in the U.S.

One of the major factors cited is that couples are now getting married slightly later in life (many waiting until they’re in their late 20s or early 30s), and are therefore in a much better position to make an intelligent decision on something as big as marriage. This seems logical, considering that Americans seem to be spending more and more time in school before entering the “real world” – with graduate school (which usually doesn’t finish until a student is in their mid-20s, at least) becoming more and more common.

This means that many people are somewhat delayed in starting their professional lives, which is when most people get married. Furthermore, many couples begin living together for months or years before they get married. This is largely due to the fact that the moral stigma surrounding unmarried cohabitation has all but evaporated. Furthermore, with cost of living increasing constantly, economic realities sometimes force couples into living together.

This has the positive result of couples figuring out before they get married if they’ll actually be able to live with one another for a long period of time, and allows them to get used to a domestic life gradually instead of being plunged into it.

Finally, the somewhat sluggish economy of the last decade has made it more economically rational, in some cases, to stay married.

However, what if no-fault divorce, and changing attitudes toward marriage, have played a role in lowering the divorce rate? Many social conservatives have complained that no-fault divorce has trivialized marriage, and caused people to rush into it, knowing that it will be very easy to get divorced if things don’t work out.

However, I would argue that the “family values” crowd has actually idealized, maybe even fetishized, marriage to the point that some young couples go into a marriage believing that it’s the only way to save a foundering relationship.

Perhaps, however, no-fault divorce has not “trivialized” marriage, so much as knocked it off its pedestal, leading to couples to take a more matter-of-fact approach when making this very important life decision. After all, just as we don’t want people going into a marriage under the impression that it is meaningless, which the family values crowd fears could happen.

But, at the same time, we don’t want people going into marriage thinking that it’s a magical thing that can rescue a failing relationship, or that it’s the only way a relationship can succeed. This can just as easily lead to disillusionment, resentment, and (possibly) infidelity and divorce.

Perhaps the government, and politicians, could do what more Americans already seem to be doing: treating marriage as an important decision that can be made in a rational, objective manner, neither trivializing the decision nor idealizing it. Instead of using marriage as a political football, maybe they should recognize it for what it is: a very person decision carrying both pros and cons, and an option that is suitable for some people, but not for others.

While I doubt it will happen any time soon, I’ve long suspected that it might be a good idea for the government to get out of the “marriage” business altogether, and instead grant only civil unions. These unions would afford all the same legal benefits and obligation as marriage, but would drop the religious connotations, as well as the pomp and circumstance, surrounding the institution of marriage. They should be available to same-sex couples as well as opposite-sex couples.

This would leave individuals free to publicly display their commitment to one another in any way they see fit. For example, if a couple wanted a traditional religious wedding, with all of the trappings, they would be free to have one, to go along with their state-recognized civil union (which, again, would be identical to marriage for all practical purposes). Churches would (and should) be free to perform whatever wedding ceremonies they like, and have the same freedom to refuse to perform weddings they don’t approve of. So, if a church doesn’t approve of same-sex marriage, they would be under absolutely no obligation to perform them. There are many churches that do not oppose same-sex marriage, so all couples should have plenty of options.

As I said, I don’t expect this to happen any time soon. However, I do believe that it’s high time that we, as a country, have a serious conversation about what role the government should play in the institution of marriage.

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