Equilibration of attitudes toward divorce

By Razib Khan | July 31, 2012 8:05 am

One thing that people occasionally mention in the comments on this weblog is that it seems futile to be “conservative” because the arrow of history goes in one direction. Even many conservatives, including myself, have fallen into this assumption. But upon a closer inspection of history I think we need to be careful about this, as the truth can sometimes confound our coarse models. For example, I strongly suspect that when it comes to love and marriage the realized element of individual liberty has not had a monotonic trajectory over human history. More plainly, free choice declined over the past 10,000 years, and has reemerged in the past few centuries. Whether this is liberal or conservative is less relevant than that it shows that attitudes, beliefs, and practices, do not always change in magnitude in one direction, only at different rates. More recently, sexual mores in the West shifted to a more puritanical direction between 1750 and 1900, only to switch back to a more relaxed attitude over the 20th century (with a punctuated shift in the 1960s).

And these sorts of trends are evident even over a shorter time scale. So it may be with attitudes toward divorce. One could argue (I probably would) that “liberal” attitudes toward divorce in the 1970s was a correction from an unsustainable equilibrium leading up to the 1960s. But over the past few decades it does look as if college educated whites have had second thoughts about the “arrow of history.” At the very least they are now more likely to stand athwart history and yell “stop.”

Below are results limited to non-Hispanic whites with college educations. Note especially the change in those with “No religions.” They seem clearly to have had enough.

Attitudes toward divorce laws:

1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s
Born before 1946 Easier 35 19 18 15
More Difficult 40 52 54 50
Stay Same 25 28 28 35
Born 1946-1964 Easier 43 22 20 18
More Difficult 31 48 50 47
Stay Same 26 31 30 35
Born after 1965 Easier * * 16 17
More Difficult * * 53 52
Stay Same * * 32 31
Liberals Easier 49 27 26 26
More Difficult 26 40 35 32
Stay Same 26 33 39 42
Moderates Easier 36 23 19 17
More Difficult 33 51 51 47
Stay Same 30 27 30 36
Conservatives Easier 26 16 14 9
More Difficult 52 57 65 65
Stay Same 21 27 21 26
Protestant Easier 32 18 14 11
More Difficult 42 56 60 58
Stay Same 26 26 26 31
Catholic Easier 29 19 18 15
More Difficult 45 54 55 53
Stay Same 26 27 27 32
No Religion Easier 63 35 32 28
More Difficult 14 18 26 28
Stay Same 22 47 42 44
1986 index income <$20,000 Easier 36 18 20 16
More Difficult 40 56 51 46
Stay Same 24 26 29 38
1986 index income $20,000-$50,000 Easier 37 21 19 16
More Difficult 37 49 54 55
Stay Same 26 30 28 29
1986 index income $50,000> Easier 39 22 20 18
More Difficult 36 47 49 46
Stay Same 25 31 32 36

All results computed from the GSS

  • toto

    Not being an American, I have to ask: did divorce laws change over the same period?

  • Chad

    Thank you Razib, I think this analysis makes a far stronger case. Especially telling are not only the results of the non-religious, but those of liberals and moderates who have also seen strong shifts since the 1970s.

    Also those born after 1965 having strong views particularly makes the point regarding the arrow of history. This is the age group that would have been most affected during their developmental years by the relaxing of divorce laws in the 1970s. The strong views on making divorce more difficult is arguably a direct result of having experienced directly the effects of divorce.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #1, state-by-state. but here is a rough sketch of the adoption of no-fault


    (to be fair, from what i gather the shift toward liberal laws was due in part because people were simply flouting the spirit of the laws, so social forces probably matter more than legal institutions)

  • Brett

    More recently, sexual mores in the West shifted to a more puritanical direction between 1750 and 1900, only to switch back to a more relaxed attitude over the 20th century (with a punctuated shift in the 1960s).

    I think that was the period when breasts became heavily sexualized in the English-speaking countries.

  • http://educationrealist.wordpress.com EducationRealist

    But then the same liberal, educated elite that clearly takes marriage seriously was very much against covenant marriage, which was a big part of the discussion in the 90s but hasn’t been on the radar for a decade or more. While covenant marriage is religiously neutral, it’s associated with Christian evangelicals. Still, many states have tried to introduce covenant marriage as an option and it’s been defeated in all but three states.

    Perhaps the educated elite in Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas are more likely to enter covenant marriages? I find that unlikely, but there should be data one way or the other. It’s only used in 2% of Louisiana marriages (Cite: http://www.bestofneworleans.com/gambit/covenant-marriage-laws-in-louisiana/Content?oid=1252802).

    My sense is that most of us think divorce should be made more difficult unless it’s our marriage ending, in which case the reasons for its demise are excellent and no legal barriers to that demise are tolerable.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #4, yes. i recall reading that some fancy aristocratic parties had women who had a bare breast as part of the outfit.

    My sense is that most of us think divorce should be made more difficult unless it’s our marriage ending, in which case the reasons for its demise are excellent and no legal barriers to that demise are tolerable.

    excellent point! btw, ‘convenant marriage’ strikes as a classic ‘nudge.’ though since it is perceived as social con you wouldn’t put it that way….

  • http://dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    @1. Yes, liberal New York State became the last to abandon a genuinely fault based divorce system just a few years ago (the stalwarts that delayed its adoption were feminist motivated liberals concerned about undermining women’s bargaining power in divorce negotiations allied with conservatives opposed to divorce itself, although a dysfunctional state legislative process played a role as well).

    Divorce laws have dramatically changed since the 1970s. But, whether the changes in those laws were a cause or an effect driven by other changes in society like the growing economic clout of women due to declining gender discrimination in the work force, is an open question.

    In almost every state where no fault was adopted, it has wide support in the practicing bar because parties and judges conspired to make it easier to get a divorce under diluted fault rubrics like “mental cruelty” and given that getting a divorce was fairly easy anyway at that point (divorce rates started rising long before no fault in the longer term view), the focus of “no fault” adoption was more on reducing the extent to which the process itself was harming people involved in it, rather than on altering the divorce rate itself.

    Also, divorce rates are falling for middle class couples from their peak, although certainly not to lows of the late 19th century and early 20th century when divorce first went from being something secured through the legislative branch via a private bill and became something that judges were authorize to grant instead. Divorce rates are currently dramatically diverging by social class which strongly suggests economics as the first order driver of divorce rates.

    The formal barriers to getting a divorce are now almost non-existent, while, in theory, they were daunting in the 1970s although the reality didn’t have the same bite as the statute’s bark. But, there isn’t a lot of interest in simply returning to the old fault system, because as problematic as the divorce status quo may be. Nobody wants to make kids and adults suffer more in the court process once divorce really is inevitable and there is much wider concern for the potential for lack of access to divorce to trigger domestic violence than there used to be.

    The serious debate (rightly) is over whether the kind of people with minor children who had no domestic violence before the divorce and have “good divorces” afterward (who make up a decent share of the total volume of divorces), could have managed to keep their marriages together somehow. The smart players in the debate recognize that to change divorce rates one needs to change incentives and engage in movement politics to change attitudes in society rather than merely adopting new statutes.

    For example, as #5 notes, “covenant marriage” laws have been adopted in some states – very few people sign up for them, even though it would seem to be an attractive bargain, ex ante, for prospective couples about ready to get married and more closely matches the language of traditional marriage vows.

    Too common divorce in “soft conflict” cases is a problem that lots of people acknowledge, but few people have credible solutions to address that don’t cause more problems than they solve. (Few people in the U.S. or Europe, even cultural conservatives, want to go the way of Mali which stoned a couple for adultery last week.)

  • anon.anon

    its always surprising that the arrow of history can be a boomerang. Regency England was pretty liberal, and Victorian England rather prudish. There’s a nice anecdote (I forget the source) of an old lady saying she would now blush to read in private books that as a young girl she read aloud to family and friends… (possibly Fielding or Smollett

    ps i grew up in Ireland where divorce was unknown, but around 1/3rd of couples hated and tormented each other, 1/3rd completely ignored each other, and the remaining 1/3rd were reasonably civil but never showed any verbal or physical affection… bring on divorce

  • http://opines.mythusmage.org Alan Kellogg

    A story some years back noted that a liberal population had a lower divorce rate than a conservative one. The impression I got was that the liberals recognized that divorce was always a option, so they worked harder to keep their marriages together. As far as conservatives were concerned, divorce was beyond the pale, so they let pressure build up until matters reached the breaking point.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #9, a lot of it had to do with marriage rates. in conservative social milieus high early marriage rates led to higher divorce. in contrast, in more liberal milieus people might live together, and then break up, but that doesn’t show up as a divorce.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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