Polling over the years shows that Americans have started to chill out about all manner of things related to sex and family life. Gallup polling shows rising public acceptance for premarital sex, birth control, abortion, and single motherhood. But an analysis by Vox of data from the National Survey of Family Growth released on Thursday shows, that while Americans are theoretically OK with divorce, they are increasingly judgmental of people's reasons for getting divorced. In a very short period of time, there's been a precipitous decline in approval of leaving your spouse on the grounds of incompatibility.
Survey respondents were presented with this statement and asked if they agree or disagree: "Divorce is usually the best solution when a couple can’t seem to work out their marriage problems."
"In 2002, 46.7 percent of women and 44.3 percent of men agreed with this statement," Sarah Kliff and Soo Oh write. "But in the most recent survey, conducted from 2011 to 2013, those figures fell to 38 and 39.9 percent, respectively."
That's a pretty big shift, especially when you consider that, on most other personal issues like this, Americans are becoming increasingly understanding that life is complicated and doesn't always fit into neat little boxes. For instance, the same survey found a dramatic uptick in the acceptance of single motherhood.
Kliff and Oh theorize, however, that it's just this increasing liberalism that is perversely leading to the jump in judgmental attitudes on this one narrow issue of divorce. People, women especially, have more freedom to delay marriage, date around, live without marriage, or even be a single parent. We can be pickier about who we marry. We can spend a lot more time getting to know them. Therefore, if it doesn't work out, people are more likely to assume you didn't perform due diligence.
"[Marriage is] held out as the gold standard, something we should aspire to, something you shouldn't do unless you're sure it will work," sociologist Andrew Cherlin told Vox.
To be clear, this survey does not show that people think divorce is inherently wrong. No doubt many of the respondents would agree that it's OK to divorce if there's abuse or even infidelity. Instead, the survey seems to be recording an increasing sense that there's an obligation to "work" on your relationship. And if working doesn't work, there's a faith that all you need to do is work harder. Divorce is increasingly seen as a moral failing, the result of an unwillingness to work and work and work on your relationship, even well past the point that you're working on anything that has intrinsic value worth saving.
As Susan Gregory Thomas wrote in her 2011 memoir "In Spite of Anything," this fetishistic belief that no incompatibility cannot be worked through got its grips into many members of Generation X, especially of the college-educated crowd. (Vox's analysis shows the same thing.) She convinced herself that avoiding divorce was simply a matter of willpower and that "No marital scenario would ever become so bleak or hopeless as to compel me" to actually throw in the towel. Much to her consternation, however, she found her marriage falling apart, even though she had done everything you're supposed to do to prevent that, including marrying later and living with her husband for years before tying the knot.
The notion that marriages should be fought for sounds great on paper, it really does. Anyone who has ever made a relationship last more than a few months knows that compromise and effort are required, that there's no such thing as two people who are so perfect for each other that they never have conflict.
That said, it's a real shame to see this uptick of pressure on people to make it work, no matter what. After all, romantic relationships should, above all other things, be about making you happy. It's one thing to work on problems in a relationship if there's a solid hope, at the end of the day, that you'll be happy once you get to the other side. But this pressure to "work" on a relationship where you've fallen out of love and there's no real chance of getting it back is just inhumane. No one should feel pressure to be in a relationship that they don't want, full stop. Not even if they signed some piece of paper tying them to another person.
The brutal fact of the matter is that the pressure to hold relationships together still falls disproportionately on women, which means that these increasingly judgmental attitudes about divorce are going to hurt women more than men. It's a shame to see that, as far as society has come in granting women more right to say no to sex and dates and relationships, we are coming down harder on those who say no after years of marriage. No-fault divorce shouldn't just be the law of the land, but our social expectation. No one needs to justify themselves if they decide that working on it just isn't going to work out for them.