Repairing a Broken Home
What About Divorce?
The Marriage ‘Divide’
Professor W. Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, has done extensive research on divorce law and the causes of divorce. Fathers for Good spoke to him about his key findings and suggestions for making more stable marriages.
Fathers for Good: What is the divorce rate today in America?
Wilcox: The divorce rate is in the low 40% range, that is, slightly more than 40% of couples marrying today for the first time will divorce. This is down from a high of about 50% in the late 1970s. But only about 20% of marriages entered into in the early 1960s ended in divorce. So we are still witnessing a markedly higher rate of divorce now than we did 50 years ago.
FFG: Is there a “7-year-itch” or do most marriages that fall apart do so early on?
Wilcox: Actually, there is an 8-year-itch. A majority of divorces take place within the first eight years of marriage. But it is a slim majority. So couples are not out of the marital woods until they make it past 15 years. The vast majority of divorces take place before 15 years of marriage.
FFG: I know a good church-going Catholic couple with three children who divorced after 22 years of marriage when the husband found another woman he eventually married. Is this a common occurrence?
Wilcox: No. Couples who attend church together are markedly less likely to divorce, as are couples who have been married more than 15 years. So this is a rare occurrence. But, especially in our day and age, divorce can hit any demographic group – even regular churchgoers.
FFG: What do you make of the fact that the majority (about 66%) of divorce proceedings are filed by wives? Has this always been the case, even in days when it was tough to get a divorce?
Wilcox: Yes, for most of our nation’s history, women have been more likely to seek a divorce. I think one reason is that men are more likely to engage in egregious behavior like adultery or serious physical abuse. But it is also the case that women are more sensitive to all the ups and downs of a relationship. If they feel like a marriage isn’t sufficiently intimate or fulfilling, or a husband is not sufficiently engaged emotionally in the marriage, women are more likely to seek a divorce.
When that happens, many husbands are shocked. This latter phenomenon seems to be especially common today; women are now leaving marriages because they feel like their husbands are not emotionally in tune with them or are otherwise not meeting their emotional needs.
This reality suggests that husbands need to do more – especially nowadays – to engage their wives on the emotional front. Husbands need to be intentional about keeping the romance alive in their marriages. This means doing things like planning date nights, checking in with your wife around noon to see how she is doing, setting aside daily time for conversation, demonstrating affection in word and deed, and otherwise courting one’s wife on an ongoing basis. This emotional engagement ends up making wives happier, marriages more stable, and improves the whole tenor of family life.
FFG: Many men who were divorced against their will feel betrayed by the divorce laws, the legal proceedings and the child custody system. Are men at a disadvantage in this system – is it tacitly assumed that in some way they are the culprits and that the kids are better off with the mother?
Wilcox: Let me be clear: both men and women are often treated unjustly when it comes to divorce in the United States because the vast majority of states allow for unilateral divorce. That is, in most states one spouse can leave a marriage for any reason. The spouses who do not want a divorce are often devastated by the divorce, in part because they take a serious financial hit from the divorce, in part because they often lose regular custody of their children, and in part because courts rarely take into account – when making determinations about property and especially child custody – the fact that the spouse who is being left behind committed no serious marital wrong.
Still, in terms of sheer numbers, because many more women initiate a divorce than do men, I think more men are treated poorly by the system than women. Moreover, because the default choice of most courts is to grant mothers the bulk of day-to-day custody, this means that the vast majority of divorced men lose regular day-to-day contact with their children. This result seems patently unfair for fathers who have been divorced unwillingly and are not guilty of a serious marital wrong like adultery or abuse. Of course, thousands of men in the U.S. find themselves in this position every year.
FFG: Briefly explain what you call the divorce divide.
Wilcox: In my article in NATIONAL AFFAIRS, I point out that a “divorce divide” is opening up in America. What I mean is that the divorce rate has dropped markedly for college-educated men since 1980 but it has increased for men without college degrees. In recent years, about 17% of college-educated men divorce in the first 10 years of marriage, compared to 36% of men without college degrees. This is a staggering difference.
There are lots of different explanations for this divorce divide. But I think one factor we need to appreciate is an economic one. Real wages have risen for college-educated men since the 1970s but they have fallen for less-educated men. As a consequence, working-class and poor husbands are less attractive to their wives as providers; I also think they are less likely to see themselves as successful husbands because of difficulties finding and keeping jobs with decent salaries.
So economic shifts in our society are eroding the quality and stability of marriage in poor and working-class communities.
FFG: You have outlined simple steps that could be taken in law and policy to help keep families intact and improve the divorce system. Please outline and explain how these would impact men.
Wilcox: Let me mention just three policy solutions that could be helpful to marriage and fathers. My article in NATIONAL AFFAIRS (as well as an article by Ron Haskins in the same issue) will provide more details for readers who are interested in this subject.
First, I think that divorce laws should be reformed so that a majority of any marital property and primary child custody are awarded to the spouse who does not wish to leave a marriage —except in cases where the spouse who wishes to remain in the marriage has engaged in adultery, abuse, abandonment, criminal activity, and the like. This reform has two merits. It would bring the divorce rate down, and it would also inject a measure of justice into the divorce process by seeking to honor the commitment that the spouse who is being divorced unwillingly had made to the marriage.
Second, I would increase the child tax credit from $1,000 to $5,000 and make it fully refundable. This would provide families with more economic resources to cover the considerable costs associated with raising children. This would also to help to reduce the economic strains that can often lead couples to divorce court.
Third, I would support a public campaign on behalf of marriage and fatherhood. I think a large swath of the American public is unaware of the new science showing that children are more likely to thrive in intact, married households, and that fathers play a crucial role in raising children. If more Americans knew how much our kids depend on strong marriages, I think more Americans would treat their marital vows with greater seriousness.
Needless to say, we would all benefit from living in a society where the marriage vow is more likely to bind husband and wife together and to protect any children they bring into this world.
READ MORE: Order Professor Wilcox’s book “Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands.”