Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson and Albert Arnold Gore Jr. met at a prep school prom in 1964, when she was sixteen and he was a year older. They began dating steadily, and married soon after she finished college. They have been together ever since. By most measures theirs has been a conventional family. She took his name and stayed at home to raise four children, always adapting to the demands of his career. (In the 1980s, she launched a campaign against what she called “porn rock” music, which got her lots of headlines but had no evident effect.) After the 2000 election, the Gores essentially dropped from public view. It now appears that they were devoting much of their time to writing a long and amply documented book on the state of family life in today’s America.
They have chosen a sensitive subject, sensitive not least because it can prompt judgments about how millions of people are conducting their lives. Moreover, ideology almost always intrudes on any discussion of the family. Ideas and issues tend to divide along right-wing vs. liberal lines, largely reflecting the preemption by conservatives of the phrase “family values.” The conservative position has been elaborated in books by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (The Divorce Culture), Wendy Shalit (A Return to Modesty), Maggie Gallagher (The Abolition of Marriage), and Dana Mack (The Assault on Parenthood), most of which have been reviewed in these pages.1 Since the general perspective of such writers is well known, its precepts can be briefly summarized. First, all children should be born to parents who are married, and the parents should stay wed until one of them dies. Single persons should abstain from sex, and marriage must be confined to heterosexual partnerships. Today, few conservatives object to contraception, and many allow latitude for women taking jobs. (Indeed, they insist that single mothers work, rather than stay on the welfare rolls.) They are troubled by sex even among older unmarried adults, and even if they are faithfully living together in informal arrangements. One worry is that sex in the movies and television will embolden teenagers to have sex and bear children they can’t look after properly.
The liberal position is less sharply drawn, but on the whole, it is less inclined to censure the kinds of conduct that conservatives find distressing. One reason is that the numbers of people under scrutiny are no longer small. For example, one third of all women now becoming mothers are not married, and a large majority of them are having their babies by choice. While we no longer have precise figures, an informed estimate is that at least a quarter of Americans who have married have already been divorced, and the proportion is likely to be considerably higher among the coming generation. Moreover, given the later age of marriage—and the considerable numbers who forego it altogether—most single people are sexually active, and they are starting earlier. Liberals tend to feel that these are new realities, and not much can be done to change them. They also see nothing wrong with homosexual partnerships, and many support the idea of recognizing them as marriages.
But liberals are also ambivalent about much of what they see. They often find themselves uneasy about the rise in out-of-wedlock births, especially when the mothers are young. At the same time, they are reluctant to criticize these women, and instead point to conditions that influence their decisions. Similarly, they know that all too many divorces inflict suffering on children. Yet here too they are disinclined to call the parents selfish, perhaps because some of them are their friends. (And in this tactfulness, of course, they are joined by many conservatives.)
All this is by way of setting the stage for the Gores, since they are trying to present their own distinctive version of “family values.” Just two years ago, they sought to become the nation’s first family, and there are signs that they are not averse to trying again. As with Earth in the Balance, his 1992 environmental manifesto, Joined at the Heart can be read as part of a platform that the Gores will be advocating in one form or another, proposing a different approach in the “family values” debate.
Unlike many laments over the deterioration of domestic ties, Joined at the Heart is relentlessly upbeat. Instead of deploring the ubiquity of divorce and part-time parenthood, the Gores applaud the “explosion of new family forms and novel solutions to age-old problems.” And instead of invoking traditional models, they have chosen a range of permutations and combinations that exemplify the new kinds of relationships. So we meet Mitch and Cindy, Pat and Todd, Josh and John, and Minh and Thanh, people they’ve talked to, and whose households, we are told, suggest the different kinds of family life that lie ahead. Indeed, the book opens with a visit to Susan and Dick and Dee and Caitlin, whose six children from serial marriages have coalesced in a “seamless, loving, blended family.” Apart from two newlyweds, a gay couple, and some immigrants, almost everyone cited in the book has divorced and remarried at least once. This, the Gores suggest, is becoming the norm, and they ask their readers to be open to new ideas about what can constitute a family.
To be sure, it would be inaccurate to say that the Gores are “pro-divorce.” No one is. Rather, people differ about what circumstances, if any, justify ending a marriage. But while the Gores cite several sides in this debate, their general position is that marital breakups deserve understanding rather than reproof or disapproval. Not only have most of the actual men and women they describe been divorced, some more than once, but all of them, we are told, have picked up the pieces and moved on in salutary ways. So it is not surprising that they quote Mavis Hetherington, a University of Virginia psychologist, who likes to point to people whose lives “were really enhanced after divorce.”2 However, even she admits that only one in four divorced women would make this claim. One wonders why the Gores didn’t talk with any of the other three whose lives didn’t improve or may have gotten worse. They also cite a study which found that “fifty percent of divorced adults were still angry at their ex-mates ten years later.” But signs of such rancor are nowhere in their book.
The Census Bureau estimates that half of current marriages will end in divorce. This figure, however, is not as dire as it may first appear, because divorces take two very different forms: those in which the couple has children and the rest where only the two adults are involved. Not only should these two types be considered separately; it would even help if they had different names. The most recent numbers we have go back to 1990, when national statistics were last collated. In that year, children were present in 53 percent of all divorces, and something close to that proportion probably could be found today. The other 47 percent, where children aren’t involved, might simply be called “dissolutions,” to convey that whatever their pain or disappointment, only adults have to bear the burden.3
When couples with children divorce, it is almost always a decision that the adults make by themselves. Hardly ever are the youngsters consulted, let alone allowed a veto. So it is the parents (one or both) who initiate the action because they feel they would be happier living apart or with someone else. This needs emphasis because only in a small fraction of divorces can it honestly be attested that continuing the marriage will be harmful to the children. True, we often hear that youngsters are unsettled by arguments and other signs of tension. Yet most learn to accept such situations as part of an imperfect world. Of course, it is frightful for them if their father assaults their mother; she should leave for their sake as well as her own. Even so, there are not many cases where one parent so degrades the children that a marriage should be ended principally in order to benefit them. Indeed, most youngsters want their parents to stick it out. The Gores cite a study of divorces that found that “while sixty percent of the adults involved said they had been in favor of it, only ten percent of the children were.”
However, they prefer to rely again on the views of Mavis Hetherington. “Most children of divorced families turn out to be no different than those who grew up in married families,” they write, echoing her opinion. But there is much evidence that this isn’t the case. Youngsters who live with divorced mothers almost always descend to a lower living standard. It may be said that money isn’t everything, although that view is largely held by those who have it. But it is questionable to contend that children who saw their mothers and fathers break apart end up with as happy a life as those whose parents stayed together. We know that the children of divorced parents themselves are more likely to get divorced; and boys from broken homes don’t perform as well at school, even when they are middle-class. Of course, there’s no scientific way to prove that youthful Americans taken together are unhappier, now that divorce is touching more of them. (At least they can be aware that more of their classmates are having the same experience.) Still, what won’t go away is the figure the Gores cite: nine out of ten affected youngsters wish it hadn’t happened.
However, the Gores are right in sensing that more people than ever want to end their marriages, or ultimately will. The best and most comprehensive research into these attitudes was conducted by Paul R. Amato and Alan Booth, who stayed in touch with a large sample of men and women over a twelve-year period.4 (Their book is not cited in Joined at the Heart.) During that time, many of them got divorced, and they were questioned about their decision to do so. The study’s primary finding was that “people are leaving marriages at lower thresholds of unhappiness now than in the past.” Between a quarter and 30 percent cited physical abuse, frequent quarrels, or even having serious disagreements with their partner as causes for divorce. The rest had less urgent reasons. While it may be too much to describe most of the divorces now taking place as “convenience,” we do know that in other times and places couples continued together even though their life together had lost what vitality it had.
Joined at the Heart repeats an often-heard report that in recent years the divorce rate has been declining. Unfortunately, this is another instance where the statistics do not tell the entire story. The rate most usually used compares the number of divorces in a year to the total population. During the last half-century, the lowest rate was 2.1 per 1,000 in 1958, and it reached a high of 5.3 per 1,000 in 1981. In 2001, the rate was 4.0 per 1,000 people, which at first glance seems a notable decline from twenty years earlier.
This decline is owing first of all to the fact that fewer people are get-ting married, so there are fewer potential candidates for divorce. In the decades from 1980 to 2000, while the population as a whole was growing by 28.4 percent, the number of those who were married rose by only 14.7 percent. The most striking drop in marriages has been among younger people; and they are the ones whose unions have always been most prone to divorce. In 1970, for example, when weddings occurred earlier, in fully half of the divorces, the wife was in her twenties or even younger. In most of those cases, the partners simply weren’t ready for so important a step as marriage. At that time, also, about one bride in six was pregnant at the wedding, which is not always the best way to begin a lifelong union. Today, it is much easier to end unwanted pregnancies—indeed, most are ended—so there are fewer rushed marriages.
By 2000, women in their twenties or younger made up only 6.9 percent of those getting divorces. What has really reduced the official rate is that broken relationships taken to a court are the only ones recorded in the statistics. What used to be early licensed marriages are now being replaced by young people living together. True, some of the arrangements are preludes to weddings. Among married women surveyed by the Department of Health and Human Services, 36.8 percent said they had lived with their husbands before marrying.5 Still, taken together, most “cohabitations”—the term sociologists use—don’t last very long. A study by Larry Bumpass and Hsien-Hen Lu found that half of such relationships lasted less than a year; and only one in ten of the couples were together five years later.6 (Here the United States differs from many European countries, where unmarried couples tend to stay together as long as their married counterparts.)
The Gores’ sampling of different relationships has some curious omissions. For example, they do not introduce us to any families headed by single mothers. Yet such families now account for more than a fifth—21.9 percent—of all households with children, over double the proportion of a generation ago. Some of those women will find husbands, but such marriages also have a high failure rate. Moreover, in 43.3 percent of the homes headed by single mothers, the woman was never married, a figure five times higher than it was thirty years ago. And in 1970, as Table A shows, teenagers accounted for half of nonmarital births, but their share is now much lower. The rise in single motherhood is largely accounted for by older women, who are more likely to have thought through the consequences of their decision. Yet the Gores avoid discussion of people who have had infants out of wedlock, even though today one of every three babies is born to unwed parents. So while their book asks us to move beyond outdated conventions, all save two of the children they cite have wedded mothers and fathers. (Those two are the boys being raised by John and Josh.)
Another unanticipated change has been an increase in families where only the father is present. These homes now make up 5.7 percent of all those with children, almost five times the ratio for 1970. If we look at this trend another way, fathers now make up 20.1 percent of all single parents. It would have been useful had the Gores visited such families, because we know much less about them than those headed by women. Among the parents who leave their children, we now find more women than in the past, whether because they want to pursue a new life or because of addictions or mental problems. As it turns out, not all the fathers are wholly on their own. Many have a woman residing with them, so they are not literally single; or their girlfriends live elsewhere but are around much of the time. (A 2000 Census study found that solo dads are 71.7 percent more likely to have such companions than single moms.) Also, they are better able to pay the children’s bills. The median income for custodial fathers is $34,465, compared with $21,667 for mothers, which includes support payments.
Of course, there are divorced fathers who obtain joint custody and are intensely involved in their children’s lives. But the factual record is that most are, at best, an ephemeral presence. They aren’t around regularly to help with school assignments, deal with problems in early stages, or get to know their children’s friends. Their being together usually consists of weekend outings, meals at restaurants, and evenings watching videos. If the Gores found several amiable “blended families,” where original fathers are always on hand, they are in fact exceptional. Only one child in six averages a weekly visit with a divorced father, and only one in four sees him once a month. With the others, contact has tapered off, and almost half have not been physically with their biological father for over a year. A decade later, upward of two thirds have essentially lost contact with him. Indeed, a finding of Mavis Hetherington, not mentioned by the Gores, was that by the time such children reach fifteen, their fathers on average live four hundred miles away, or an eight-hundred-mile round-trip.
The Gores say that their “definition of family relies less on structure and more on subjective experience.” At first glance, this may seem a reasonable position, if only because “structure” has a rigid ring. But it is not just conservatives who believe that societies need formal arrangements. Thus if we want the “subjective” quality of compassion to be present when justice is administered, we also look for structured rules to ensure that all are treated fairly. In the same vein, families that start out with recorded marriages are, for the most part, sending the message that they expect them to last. To give greater emphasis to “subjective experience,” as the Gores propose, assumes that people are astute enough to devise alternatives to legal marriage that will give them what they want. We can agree that being—and staying—married puts constraints on personal freedom. Yet thus far looser arrangements have generally ended up leaving those who choose them even more dissatisfied.
However, the Gores are cheered by a survey in which three quarters of those interviewed defined a family as a “group of people who love and care about each other, regardless of blood relation or marital status.”7 True, we often use the word metaphorically. Members of a college fraternity, the sisters in a convent, and a company of firefighters may tell you that they are a family. And single individuals develop circles of friends that can serve as surrogate families, as was the case with the foursomes in Seinfeld and Sex and the City. And we can agree that conventional families based on genetic ties and marriage have their share of frustration and unhappiness. But this leaves unanswered how groups of adults, not connected by blood or marriage, would go about raising assortments of children, and how those youngsters fare under such plans. As we have noted, improvising new milieus is more easily imagined than achieved. I am not saying that communal child-rearing cannot work. But before getting carried away by what people say in surveys, we need more information about how such arrangements have functioned in societies similar to ours.
Still, the Gores like to cite polls. They found another where a sample of young women were asked to make a hypothetical choice between “a husband who could make a good living” and one prepared to “communicate about his deepest feelings.” They report, with undisguised approval, that 80 percent would prefer the second kind of man. Of course, this isn’t really a choice, since many men today end up making a good-enough living. What we are hearing young women say is that they want a type of man who is in fact quite rare. The point is not that most men are laconic. On the contrary, many hold forth about a variety of subjects with little encouragement, but not about what women regard as “deepest feelings.” Most men are reluctant to reveal what they fear are their weaknesses; nor do they care to dwell on their defeats. It’s almost as if admitting them will make them even more vulnerable. This is especially so in this country, where the competition never stops, and one may not only be passed on the ladder but fall off it altogether. Nor is it clear that women are advancing their own best interests by looking for men who will dwell on their “deepest feelings,” if only because they may end up having to act as their substitute mothers. There is a ready alternative: many women, including those who are happily married, have girlfriends with whom they can exchange confidences, and they rely on them.
While the Gores say much about “new family forms,” they barely mention that relative to the population, the US now has fewer families of any kind than at any time in living memory. The basic census measure is the “household,” which consists of all the physical “units,” or places, in which people live, including those inhabited by a single person. Thus in 1970, of some 63.6 million households, 80.4 percent were recorded as “families,” or groups related by blood or marriage. By 2000, of the 105.5 million households, family units had declined to 68.1 percent of the total. The remainder—almost a third—are men and women living by themselves or with an unrelated housemate. The numbers of such people have increased for three principal reasons: more widows are living longer; the divorced population has expanded, as have the numbers of gay men and women; and more young people are postponing marriage long enough to set up their own apartments. As a result, people are spending less of their lives in family settings, which has both obvious and subtle effects on the texture of our society. Perhaps this large and growing group belongs in another book; still, its increasing size suggests that it at least deserves discussion.
What we do know is that women now spend fewer years as wives than men do as husbands. This is especially evident among those who succeed in careers. Table B, derived from a 2000 Census study, shows the marital status of persons earning over $100,000. As can be seen, considerably more of the men have intact marriages, while the women are almost four times more likely to be formerly married, and twice as apt not to have married at all. There are probably several explanations for this. One is that men are made uneasy by successful women, and so look for potential mates they find less threatening. Another is that these women have set exacting standards, and are not finding many men who meet them. Or perhaps they just haven’t found the time or occasions to meet possible partners.
The Gores have read widely, as shown by their 401 footnotes and a bibliography containing 233 citations. Yet despite all their homework, they have a tendency to rely on material taken at several removes from the original sources. For example, at one point, they say that “research collected” by the Stepfamily Association of America projects that “two-thirds of all women will spend some time in a stepfamily.” As it happens, the research was first reported in Demography, a highly respected journal. There the text read that “about two-fifths of all women…are likely to spend some time in a stepfamily.”8 Apart from changing “likely” to “will,” turning two fifths (40 percent) into two thirds (67 percent) wholly misconstrues the original finding.
Relying on a “fact sheet” from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Gores say that “researchers estimate that the total number of children nationwide living with at least one gay parent ranges from 6 million to 14 million.” In this case, the sheet doesn’t provide a source. Still, we know from the 2000 Census that there are some 72 million children under eighteen. This means the ACLU is claiming that between one in twelve (8.5 percent) and one in five (20 percent) of them lives with a gay parent. Even the lower ratio is too high to be credible, if only because a very small proportion of gay adults have children in their homes. In view of the ideological conflicts over the Gores’ subject, and the tendency of groups to skew statistics to their goals, they should have rechecked some of the factual claims they cite.
The Gores subtitle their book “The Transformation of the American Family.” They evidently believe that we would be well advised to accept the “explosion of new family forms,” rather than deplore deviations from an outmoded model calling for lifetime marriage and parenthood. In their view, we cannot expect Americans to revert to so restrictive a pattern. We are creatures of a new era, and not the kind of beings our grandparents were. It should be made clearer, however, that conservatives haven’t given up hope. In May of 2002, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives rallied around a “family promotion” act, to be supported by $100 million in federal funds and an equal amount from the states. This money will be devoted to “premarital education and marriage skills training,” “divorce reduction programs,” “marriage mentoring programs,” along with “advertising campaigns on the value of marriage.” When it comes to the last of these, Madison Avenue will doubtless rise to the challenge. (The Senate will be asked to consider the bill in the coming session.)
Southern and Sunbelt states have most of the highest divorce rates, which has been embarrassing for a region that prides itself on its piety. As a response, legislatures in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Arizona have created a voluntary “covenant” form of marriage, which they hope will be widely embraced. Couples sign a contract, which calls for counseling if they are in difficulty; this is supposed to make them aware that they are entering a lifetime commitment. While divorce would still be permitted for signers of the covenant, they cannot cite no-fault reasons like incompatibility or fading affections. Rather, the marital pledge will be binding, with exceptions only for adultery, felony convictions, and physical or sexual abuse. During the first two years the Louisiana law was in effect, couples requesting this contract made up 3 percent of all license applicants.
Family issues may have entered politics; but since divorce became relatively easy to obtain, there hasn’t been much evidence that the private plights can be resolved by public policies. Decisions to get married or divorced or become a parent are only marginally affected by official incentives or deterrents. Back in 1964, the young Labor Department official Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a report called The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Black households, he said, were trapped in a “tangle of pathology.” To highlight this claim, he reported that “nearly one-quarter of Negro births are now illegitimate.” At that time, black out-of-wedlock births came to 23.6 percent of their race’s total. By 2001, that ratio had risen to 68.3 percent, despite Great Society and later programs aimed at bringing black Americans into the national mainstream. The figures for 2001 also show that white out-of-wedlock births now account for 22.5 percent of the white total, which is about where the black rate stood when it was said to be pathological. So again we hear there is “a case for national action,” but this time with emphasis on covenants and counseling, supported by thirty-second TV spots promoting the merits of matrimony and postnuptial parenthood. Such exhortations don’t deal with the deeper realities of American family life today; neither does the selective optimism of the Gores.
MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE: THE FACT GAP
Figures for marriages are first assembled at the county level. The states then add up those numbers and send them to the National Center for Health Statistics. So we know exactly how many marriages are performed each year. (There were 2,328,443 in 2001.) However, we lack the same data for divorces, because five states—Texas, California, Colorado, Indiana, and Louisiana—refuse to release their figures. This makes it impossible to compute reliable divorce rates for the nation as a whole.
Until 1990, the states sent in huge amounts of information on both marriages and divorces, such as the ages of the parties, their educational status, and whether it was a first or subsequent time. For divorces, we were told how long the couple had been married, which spouse filed the petition, and if there were children involved. However, these and other statistics are no longer collected or reported. As a result, we don’t even know the ages of brides at their weddings, how many divorced men and women remarry, and the number of youngsters who are affected when parents part. Since the only detailed information we have is now a dozen years old, much of the commentary on the state of marriage and the causes of divorce is based on conjectures that can’t even be checked.
December 5, 2002
E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (Norton, 2002). ↩
See Pamela Paul, The Starter Marriage (Villard, 2002), for signs that the parties in early childless divorces recuperate quite quickly. ↩
Paul R. Amato and Alan Booth, A Generation at Risk: Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval (Harvard University Press, 1997). ↩
Fertility, Family Planning, and Women’s Health (National Center for Health Statistics, 1997). ↩
Larry Bumpass and Hsien-Hen Liu, “Trends in Cohabitation and Implications for Children’s Family Contexts in the United States,” Population Studies (March 2000). ↩
As it happens, the response quoted by the Gores differs from the one originally appearing in a survey of American family values that Mark Mellman and Edward Lazarus conducted for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1989. ↩
Larry L. Bumpass, R. Kelly Raley, and James A. Sweet, “The Changing Character of Stepfamilies,” Demography (August 1995). ↩