The big picture: marriage itself continues to evolve, with a big push from economics

by on August 30, 2011  •  In Marriage, Social science

Following is the transcript from a PBS News Hour segment on "the new geography of marriage;" video here. Both experts being interviewed, who come from quite different political vantage points, agree that divorce rates are driven in significant measure by economics, a pattern that gets reflected geographically in state-by-state comparisons. There is also a broader societal shift in marriage norms, which both different-sex and same-sex couples share.

Extrapolating from these data, one prediction is that we will see significantly higher divorce rates among same-sex couples who are struggling financially (which will be mapped as those who tend to live in the South and West, where the average income is lower) than we will see in same-sex couples who are more economically secure. 

[RAY SUAREZ] Among the newly-released studies is a first-of-its-kind Census Bureau analysis of marriage and divorce rates by region. The report, published last week, found that the South and West had the highest rates of divorce, while the Northeast ranked the lowest of the four regions. 

At the same time, the number of unmarried Americans has reached a historic high, as the census also found that 30 percent of Americans have never been married, the largest percentage in the past 60 years. And yet another census snapshot released by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that same-sex couples have dispersed from urban enclaves to other parts of the country. 

Joining us now to look at what all this may mean for the institution of marriage and its role in American life are David Blankenhorn, founder of the Institute for American Values, and Elaine Tyler May, professor of American studies and history at the University of Minnesota. 

David Blankenhorn, are we in the midst of a redefinition of American marriage, why people get married, when they do it in their lives, even where they do it and what they think it's for? 

DAVID BLANKENHORN, Institute for American Values: Yes. 
I think the shift in broad terms is toward — for marriage as an institution to marriage as a private relationship, an option for a private relationship. You know, in our parents and grandparents' generation, when you got married you were joining an institution that had authority, told you the rules. You were supposed to act in accord with its procedures. Now the shift is toward private ordering. Each individual couple defines the relationship for themselves. One way to think about it is, in an earlier day, the marriage vow defined the couple. And now it's really the couple defining the marriage vow… 

RAY SUAREZ: Professor May, you have been writing about marriage for decades. Do you buy that definition, couples, rather than submitting themselves to established ideas, shaping marriage for themselves? 

ELAINE TYLER MAY, University of Minnesota: Well, I don't think it's that new, really, that couples have been shaping the institution of marriage. I think what's different is that people don't need to marry anymore for the same reasons that they did in the past, and that there have always been changes in the patterns of marriage demography for the last 100 years or so, and longer ago than that. 

…[W]hat we see today is a very different kind of pattern… But we have to think about all the changes that have happened in the society…, women being able to work at jobs that they used to have no access to…. I think what we're seeing now is …people are marrying because they want that sense of commitment, they want that sense of citizenship that marriage confers, and they want to express themselves as part of a couple that is committed to each other by love. 

RAY SUAREZ: David Blankenhorn, when you look at these statistics, unprecedented numbers of people, well, in recent history reaching 30, 40 and 50 without ever having been married, not divorced, but without ever, ever having been married, large numbers of people choosing to have children inside unions that they make outside of marriage. Are you saying that we're in a new place, or do you accept Professor May's idea that — just sort of taking a snapshot for an institution that's always changing? 

DAVID BLANKENHORN: Well, the institution is always changing. That's true. But we are in the middle of a definable long-term shift away from the authority of the institution. The most fundamental sign of this, I think, in terms of social meaning is that, several generations ago, a majority of Americans said that, if you're having trouble in your marriage, you should stay together for the sake of the children. 

And now a majority of Americans say that you shouldn't do that; that's a bad idea. So, another — a related issue is the, really, breaking of the link between marriage and childbearing. It used to be that you would never — you know, having a child outside of marriage was frowned on by society. You really wanted to avoid that.

Now it's perfectly acceptable among many Americans. So [in] this shift away from the institutional authority of marriage…, I think the profoundest consequences have to do with the living arrangements of children, but it has to do also with just a new way that we're thinking about what it means to be married. 

RAY SUAREZ: Professor May, a lot of the new data has to do with where things are happening, gay couples moving outside of enclaves to suburban collar counties, the marriage statistics coming in from the South and West showing persistently higher rates of divorce than in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic. Talk a little bit about what you see when you look at a map of America. 

ELAINE TYLER MAY: Well, I think what we see is what we have always seen. And that is that, when people are in economic distress, they're much more likely to face marital tensions and much more likely to divorce. And we have large numbers of people in poverty and in stressful economic situations in the South and the West, more so than in the Northeast. And I think that explains a lot of what we're seeing here. 

I think what we have to watch out for is the notion of cause and effect. And you often hear that, when people have marriages that fall apart, that is a cause of poverty. Well, it is for women and children, for sure, because they have a harder time supporting themselves, but the fact is that it's poverty itself and economic stress that causes divorce in the first place. 

And that's why I think we're seeing more of it in these areas where there are greater concentrations of people who are struggling. Now, as far as gay couples are concerned, I think it's clear that, as the country has become more gay-friendly all over, that gay people have felt that it was OK to live wherever they wanted to and be accepted… 

RAY SUAREZ: Let me go back to David Blankenhorn for a response. What do you see happening geographically with American marriage, both in divorce and gay households? 

DAVID BLANKENHORN: I agree with what Professor May says. I would add to the issue of more poverty in the high divorce states, you also have younger people, people with lower levels of education and higher rates of geographical mobility. And all of those factors, plus low-income, correlates with more family instability. 

…[A]nd I agree on the issue of the sort of mainstreaming, you know, the acceptance of gay and lesbian people, gay and lesbian relationships, and the sort of breaking up of the enclaves. Gay and lesbian people now can live anywhere they want to live. And I think that's what we're seeing in these numbers.



One Response to The big picture: marriage itself continues to evolve, with a big push from economics

  1. Jay August 31, 2011 at 8:55 AM

    It is a scandal that the interviewer did not point out David Blankenhorn’s role in passing and then defending in court Proposition 8. I wouldn’t trust a word he said about anything, but especially about gay couples or marriage. One thing that the Prop 8 trial demonstrated conclusively is that David Blankenhorn is no expert. See “Confessions of a Blog Addict. Or Why I Love to Hate and” at, especially the section entitled “The Sad Case of David Blankenhorn.” Here is the url: link to

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