Tuesday, August 14, 2012

(Opinion) Marriage Decline is Happening Now. Two Excellent Books Discuss the Reasons

It is no secret that the institution of marriage is on the decline today, but the causes and factors involved in this trend are less straightforward. However, two excellent books, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today (Knopf 2009) written by Andrew Cherlin, and Don’t Say I Do! Why Women Should Stay Single (New Horizon Press, 2012) written by Orna Gadish go some way in addressing marriage and its apparent decline

Both books provide insight into the transformations and conflicts in modern society that have brought about record numbers of divorce, such as different life expectations between the generations, everlasting gender gaps, social and cultural indicators, and pervasive individualism in America (Cherlin), and throughout the western world (Gadish). However, despite the outwardly similarity of positions with regard to marriage decline and marriage obsolescence in society and culture taken by both authors—these books sharply diverge in their conclusions about marriage.

While critical of the institution of marriage, Andrew Cherlin still seems to have faith in it citing studies detailing the negative effects of divorce. For Cherlin the pervasive individualism of modern culture has made people judge marriage not based on level of commitment but rather on the level of happiness. This can explain the record growth of divorce, as modern couples are less tolerant of unhappiness, and thus, lack the "spirit of compromise" required for successful marriages. However, according to Cherlin, despite the record levels of divorce, people in the U.S. are still likely to get married or re-marry, thus leading to "a marriage go round."

Orna Gadish, author of Don’t Say I Do!, comes to a different conclusion altogether based on the same facts, as she accents viable modern options and opportunities in relationships and alternative family settings that have become part of consensus today. Such prevalent alternatives in modern society were neglected by Cherlin in the Marriage Go Round (published in 2009), for Cherlin is evidently leaning toward the old-fashioned agreement of matrimony, and that in stark contradiction to modern and western social trends.

While the difference in outlook might be ideological, I believe that the timing of release of both of the books, Don't Say I Do! (in 2012) and the Marriage Go Round (in 2009) could have also played a role. Don’t Say I Do! clearly propagates a postmodern vision, and unlike the Marriage Go Round focuses on single, unmarried, and divorced women of the global and digital age, in U.S., Europe, Israel, and the western world, while Cherlin documents merely the status in America.

Gadish, unlike Cherlin, looks at the decline of marriage and assesses the alternatives advantageous to women within her focus groups that included, among others, married women, unhappily married women, unmarried women, divorced women, and single women. Gadish’s work is a decidedly more ideological read, yet that fails to take away anything from the intellectual rigour and the uplifting voice  in her argumentation, discussion and  overall analysis of marriage decline as an international phenomenon (Gadish) rather than a local U.S. trend (Cherlin).

As a women herself, Gadish is more likely to embrace a female perspective than the traditional white-male one, and rightly addresses a blind spot in Cherlin's analysis. Whereas both authors point to a greater individual freedom as a factor to be considered in marriage demise, Gadish pin points the growth in the freedom of choice for women as a potential indicator for its happening. According to Gadish such freedom  of choice is a positive cultural change embraced by women throughout the western world, where women are realizing their true potentials in fulfilling careers, and through actively opting out of marriage and remaining single, unmarried and divorced.

According to Gadish, women do not have to get married today, as there are alternatives that may make them equally "settled down" or contented, such as living together with a partner (cohabitation) or living together apart (LTA) arrangements. The postmodern vision of Don’t Say I Do! further punctuates the difference between the two works, as Cherlin seeks to assess what is going wrong with marriage, while Gadish, on the other hand, outwardly endorses the decline of marriage in favour of growth of women’s rights to choose their individual paths, their personal goals in love life and relationships, motherhood, family and career matters, as well as their contentment and self-actualization.

For Gadish, there are no benefits to be had in stepping onto the "marriage go round" as women stand to experience costly legal hassles, custody battles, financial loss, and overall, heartache and resentment in entering multiple marriages ending in divorce, which are bound to make such women sceptical of their chances of achievement of happiness or success to least the least.

In sum, while a well written, researched and argued book, apparently the Marriage Go Round is a limited work, for it describes trends, but makes no real judgements as to what they mean for modern women and indeed men. On the other hand, Don’t Say I Do! may be more political in its stance on the decline of marriage, however it provides what the Marriage Go Round is missing, a reference to modern life outside the U.S., freedom of choice for women, and a real sense of perspective. 

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