Divorce Rates, Marriage Rates, and the Problematic Persistence of Traditional Marital Roles
Posted: 1 Jun 2000
Recent legal developments have revived the debate over the impact of no-fault divorce laws on divorce rates. The irony is that this debate occurs in the midst of a twenty-year decline in American divorce rates that is the most sustained decline since the government began collecting such data in 1860. Perhaps of greater concern should be the accompanying decline in American marriage rates, which over this same time period has been dramatic. Today, children living with only one parent are nearly as likely to have parents who never married, as they are to have parents who divorced.
Part I of this paper briefly revisits the debate over divorce rates. It reviews earlier studies showing the law's limited impact on divorce rates, notes that work on this question must take account of regional variations in divorce rates unrelated to the law, and presents new data suggesting that these regional variations arise in part from regional differences in population mobility. It also argues that cultural factors, such as changes in women's employment, are more important than the law in explaining divorce trends.
The rising ratio of women's earnings to men's has also been identified as a factor contributing to declining marriage rates. But the theoretical explanations for this connection assume a persistence in traditional gender roles in marriage. Part II, the main body of the paper, finds that both employment data and attitude surveys, domestic and international, in fact reveal a perhaps surprising persistence in this preference, thus supporting the inference that that improvement in women's relative economic position may be one factor contributing to declining marriage rates, at least in the short term. Apart from its implication for marriage rates, the persistence of gender roles independently suggests that traditional divorce law remedies for financially dependent spouses will retain their importance. Finally, the possibility of a long-term decline in marriage rates, for whatever reason, suggests that the law's treatment of nonmarital relationships will become increasingly important, and the likelihood that heterosexual cohabiting relationships will conform to traditional gender patterns suggests that financial remedies will be equally important at their dissolution.
JEL Classification: J12, J16
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation