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Evangelicals Divorce More Often Than "Godless" Europeans? Exploring America's Strange Relationship With Marriage

Why do Americans have such contradictory impulses when it comes to wedlock?

The Marriage-Go-Round, an analysis of the state of matrimony and partnering in the U.S., owes some small part of its success to timing. It arrived in bookstores amid a string of high-profile marital meltdowns, i.e. Jon and Kate, Mark Sanford, John Edwards, et al. None of which has been a bad thing for author Andrew Cherlin, whose book recently won prominent mentions in Time, Newsweek and The Atlantic .

Lost in the commentaries and essays about marital crisis, however, are some of the surprising findings to emerge from The Marriage-Go-Round , such as this one, for example: Americans prize marriage more highly than do people in other wealthy countries, and they consider it the hallmark of a successful life. Yet they divorce at higher rates, just as they re-partner in higher numbers, causing turnover that may be highly destabilizing for children. The statistic Cherlin likes to cite is that a child in the U.S. has a greater chance of seeing his married parents break up than a child of unmarried parents in Sweden.

Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins who has studied families, poverty and marriage for 30 years, gently pries loose the tangled reasons for Americans' sometimes contradictory impulses when it comes to wedlock. In a recent interview, he explained his book's key findings, and he also discussed controversial federal policies to promote marriage, the ways that Evangelicals tolerate and may even unknowingly enable divorce, and the quest for gay marriage in the U.S. vs. in Western Europe.

AD: When you hear about famous people's marriages collapsing, as we have been in recent months, are you reminded of any of your own research findings?

AC: It reminds me once again of how close to the surface our feelings about marriage and family are. At first I was surprised at all the events that happened soon after my book was published. Then I realized that events like these are always happening, that I don't think this is an unusual period. We continually have these battles over what marriage and family mean in America.

AD: Your book suggests that marriage and divorce developed differently in the U.S. than in other parts of the industrialized world. Can you give an example of what influenced that phenomenon?

AC: Divorce law has always been a bit more lenient here than in other countries, and I think the differences in the law reflect fundamental differences and attitudes. I think Americans have been more likely to accept divorce and adjust to it than have been people in other wealthy countries. I say that because, for example, in Britain and France, divorce was not possible until the 19th century, but it had been going on for 200 years here. We don't praise divorce, we don't like it, but we tolerate it more than do people in other countries, and we are more likely to accept it when unhappy couples do it. I think Americans have two conflicting values in their heads: one is the high value placed on marriage and other is high value placed on personal choice and individualism. The high value on marriage encourages us to find a partner and marry. The high value on personal choice encourages us to end the marriage if we're not personally satisfied. At which point, we find someone else to marry or at least live with.

AD: Is there less divorce and re-partnering in Europe?

AC: The U.S. has higher divorce rates even than supposedly avant-garde countries such as Sweden. One statistic is that American children living with married partners have a higher risk of seeing their parents break up than do Swedish children living with unmarried partners.

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